Najwa Barakat’s Oh, Salaam! is another of the twenty-nine books in the running for the 2015 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Writer Eyad Houssami looks into the novel’s central myths:
By Eyad Houssami
Elias took on the nickname “the Albino” during the civil war. He was scrawny, spoke like a prophet, and used to baptize his victims before torturing them in the bathroom. No one cried when he died, not in a shelling during the war but, we are led to believe, of a heart attack in his sleep, signaling just how perverted these people – us, “his friends,” as the narrator of Najwa Barakat’s 1999 novel Oh, Salaam! casually recalls – became during the war.
His mother Lurice’s hair turned completely white within days after Elias passed; otherwise, grief for the loss of the Albino, of the parents of the title character Salaam, and presumably of the thousands of martyrs and missing of the war continues to remain elusive. People do not mourn death; they never cry. The Albino’s ghost, and the legacy of miracle worker and ferocious warrior Saint Elias born in his name, haunts his mother Lurice and his former militia comrades, their lives stunted in the wake of peace that shattered the meaningful profits of warfare.
The perversion, Barakat’s novel suggests, persists and turns in on itself in the absence of car bombs and shellings. With the advent of peace, political violence becomes, on the one hand, internalized within the body and erupts in epileptic fits of sadomasochism, vengeance, and gore. On the other, through carnivalesque public executions and media spectacles, it undergoes consolidation under an emerging state monopoly, a historical phenomenon that we continue to see today as the age of fossil fuel wars and the hegemonic churn of pixellated feeds, particularly those extracted from the suffering in Syria and Iraq, reach profound heights of absurdity.
The novel unfolds in a debauched and grimy postwar Arab city on the geological fault lines of the Mediterranean. A “new species” of insect-like beggars sift through garbage; rats and cockroaches reign free; and the media heralds the “new type of corpse” that homicide breeds in eras of peace. The government is a quagmire of embezzlement, water and electricity are scarce, and bulldozers raze ancient ruins in a race to finish the reconstruction of the city’s commercial center. The pharmacist, the director of the state sanatorium, the Russian sex worker – everyone is a liar, a swindler. Most of the characters who populate Oh, Salaam! calculate each fragment of speech and gesture to reap the maximum benefit of every social transaction, fueling addictive cycles of ruthless exploitation and bribery.
This is Beirut of course, but Lebanese writer Barakat sets her pulp fiction in a nameless city, a nameless “disgusting” country that pulverizes the weak, where war has plundered families and all but erased history, permanently replacing our very names, rooted in ancient myths, with militia monikers.
She bookends her story with haiku-like dialogues among three clouds passing over the city, irredeemably transformed by war. At first, they come to a halt and gaze down with marvel at the people who “never cry.” In the end, the clouds sense the onset of a terrible earthquake – a nod to the legend of the seven earthquakes that have destroyed Beirut over the ages. The clouds erupt into tears, a celestial mourning as they bid farewell to a city that endures the vicissitudes of history. The trauma of the civil war, the reader is left to conclude, will be erased by yet another imminent cataclysm.
Then what does it matter if we lose sight of where we live and forget who we are if we’re all going to be blown to smithereens or crushed under the rubble of an earthquake? Why should we grieve?
When a shell struck the shelter in which Salaam’s parents were hiding, killing them both, she did not cry for the “two old people” though her brother Najeeb lost his mind and ended up in the state sanatorium. And it was on the day of that shelling, when obsession with the militia trumped grief, that the Albino knew how deeply he loved Salaam. The pair got engaged but were never physically intimate. Although they never married, after the Albino passed away Salaam the spinster began to look after his mother Lurice and took in his dear friend Luqman, the protagonist of Oh, Salaam!
In the first half of her novel, the narrator follows Luqman, first during his morning bowel movement and then as he accompanies Salaam on a Sunday afternoon visit to see her brother in the sanatorium, where Luqman reunites unexpectedly with his former comrade, the sniper Najeeb. Each desperate for the high and exhilaration of power and wealth they once used to feel together as a militia during the war, the trio bands together and establishes a rat extermination company, discovering new outlets for their carnal desires, however megalomaniacal or twisted they may be. Najeeb flips into the role of the mad scientist, debating whether to pursue biological warfare or a chemical extermination of the rats in the city, while former explosives expert and beefcake Luqman plays the field for new clients.
“Of his entire history, he only kept his name,” the narrator says of Luqman. So, when he meets Shireen, fresh off the boat from Paris and working on an archaeological excavation in the city center under reconstruction, Luqman manages to spin a clean autobiography for her and her friends, purged of the blood he spilled as a master bomb engineer and mass murderer. He enters her luminous and luxurious apartment – and subsequently her life – to investigate what is in fact a minor rodent problem. Falling for her head over heels and seeking her hand in marriage to acquire her French nationality and a way out of the swamp he lives in, Luqman fabricates a diagnosis and solution that requires a schema of daily visits to ensure successful extermination.
Barakat hits her stride in rendering the erotic and sensual moments – like the awkward first encounter between Luqman and Shireen – and scenes of romantic intrigue with the same measured tone as she does the many occasions of sexual abuse, incest, and violence. The instances of what Freudian psychology might describe as manifestations of sexual aberration accumulate in the novel; with every subsequent sex scene, the ambiguities of each encounter, “normal” or “perverse,” deepen. Like the characters themselves, we grow accustomed to behaviors that may at first elicit revulsion and come to apprehend intimacy and carnal desire, in all its variations, with more willingness and insight.
The author’s explicit project is to probe the recesses of the unconscious of former militia leaders, from the first moments with Luqman playing with his member and sitting on the toilet seat to Salaam’s incestuous breastfeeding of her brother Saleem. Oh, Salaam! is not a work of subtlety: the narration maneuvers in and out of internal monologues, mostly those that progress in Luqman’s mind. Luqman’s monologues evolve from considerations of his libido to self-critical reflections, weighing the past spoils of war against the promise of a future life in France with Shireen. In the second half of the novel, he develops self-control, reinventing himself after meeting Shireen, his passport to the upper echelons of society, as Salaam and Najeeb descend further into a spiral of chemicals, drugs, and sexual abuse.
An easy and crude device, these internal monologues also allow the narrator to fill her characters with backstory while bypassing the challenges of setting her fiction in a nameless context essentially void of proper nouns and, with the exception of a handful descriptions of food, of any and all cultural references, political sagas, and place names. Aside from an uncomfortable recollection of gang rape, memories mainly emerge, not in conversations, but in conveniently hermetic internal monologues.
But easy and crude are what make Oh, Salaam! a worthwhile, entertaining, and intelligent novel. It shifts from suspense to romance, from melodrama to psychological thriller, with a few confusing and self-defeating twists, and Luke Leafgren’s slick translation captures the range of registers that Barakat deploys. Sometimes it’s outrageous, sometimes it’s cheesy, and sometimes it jolts with horror and flashes with beauty and pathos, just as pulp lit can and ought to do.
The colorful architectures of the novel attest to Barakat’s bold insistence on broaching topics, from the normalization of sexual violence to the questioning of grief and mourning as central to our humanity, among broad audiences. She is a force to be reckoned with in the Arab literary scene. No doubt that when Oh, Salaam! was published in Arabic in 1999, less than a decade after the Taif Agreement extinguished fifteen years of Lebanese civil wars, its brazen investigation of the body as a vessel of war, violence, and sex, evocative of Hanan Al Shaykh’s 1986 novel The Story of Zahra, and its analysis of how a militia community stumbles to awaken in the void of peace in the aftermath of war were charting new ground. Reading Oh, Salaam! today, the first English translation of Barakat’s acclaimed and award-winning work as a novelist, is an occasion to reconsider how to grieve, how to mourn, and to identify and confront, head on, the destructive impulses that humans, predatory as rats as we can be, have the capacity to reinvent.
Eyad Houssami is a writer, editor, and theatre maker, and he is the founder of Masrah Ensemble, a nonprofit theatre company and organization in Lebanon. He is editor of English and Arabic editions of Doomed by Hope: Essays on Arab Theatre (Pluto Press, Dar Al Adab 2012) and author of the Arabic-French play Mama Butterfly, first published in Rusted Radishes (2013), a Beirut literary journal, and recently featured in Asymptote Journal (2015). He has also worked as editor-at-large of Portal 9: Stories and Critical Writing about the City, the first Arabic-English literary and academic journal. The recipient of Rotary, Fulbright, Prince Claus Fund, and Young Arab Theatre Fund grants, he was an artist-in-residence at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in 2013 and at The Saison Foundation (Tokyo) in 2014. Houssami grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, studied theatre at Yale, and has lived in Beirut since 2008.