The Search for Walid Masoud

bahthJabra Ibrahim Jabra’s novel The Search for Walid Masoud (1978), recounts  the complex legacy left behind by Walid: a Palestinian author and political activist who has been living in Baghdad since 1948. At the beginning of the narrative, Dr Jawad Husni, the first narrator, tells us Walid disappreared six months ago, leaving his car on the desert road to Syria. As he is a member of  the resistance against Israel, suspicion arises that he has gone underground, and there are rumours that he has been killed.

Walid leaves behind an enigmatic fragmentary tape recording of garbled utterances, and it is through this that Jabra frames the narration as the transcription and analysis of the tape by each of Masoud’s friends who through their first-person monologues become narrators of their own experiences and their memories of Walid. And as this review puts it:

The memories and speculations of those who presume they knew him, or believe they were loved by him, gradually cohere into a cryptic and fascinating portrayal of a conflicted intellectual idealist who had striven “to be a saint in a world of sin and corruption, an independent theorist in a world of political parties, and undogmatic dogmatist in a world of rigid primness.”

Many of the themes are familiar from Jabra’s earlier novel The Ship  (1970) which deals with similar issues of political commitment and memory. In The Search for Walid Masoud, the importance of memory emerges from the first sentence:

If only there were an elixir for the memory, something that could bring back events in the order they happened, one by one, then turn them into words that would cascade out onto the paper. 

These words we are told belong to Walid Masoud, but they are cited by the narrator, Jawad Husni, who says that Walid used to repeat this thought. Jawad agrees with it: “We are the playthings of memory. It’s summation and its victims.” And given this, he struggles with how to form “intelligble lines” out of the confusion of his memories of Walid.

As Rebecca Carol Johnson notes:

Each of the chapters that follow attempt to “shed light” on Walid Masoud, narrating the until-then absent pieces of a biographical puzzle that threatens never to be complete.

Of course that the idea of order is introduced only serves to highlight the disorder of memories. This is emphazed by the word “Bahth” in the title which means both to search and treatise or thesis. The title then can be translated both as The Search for Walid Masoud and A Study of Walid Masoud.

As Johnson points out

The structure of the novel as a bahth hightlights the extent to which the novel is both a readerly and writerly endeavour. This is reinforced by the fact that the characters are not only semioticians but readers also, just as Walid exists as a physical text in the form of his books…Characters themselves refer to each other in readerly terms…references to hunting, divination, psychoanalysis, detection and ltierary analysis are all present in the text..

At one point, Kazim speaks with his sister Samira, asking “Do you think you know Walid better than I do?…Have you read his book?” And she replies, “Of course…but I didn’t read it as if I were reading a coffee cup or telling fortunes, the way you do.” And yet she goes on to offer her own interpretation: “Walid has been uprooted…and he is trying to find the earth where he will replant his roots. Or he will not be able to think, to write, to do anything.”

The more information Jawad gathers about Walid’s life, the less he discovers that he knows. This is most obviously represented by the tape recording left behind, which is so fragmentary and enigmatic that it is not only difficult to understand but difficult to hear at times – Walid was recording himself while driving and while music (Henry Purcell’s Harpsichord Suite) was playing. Moreover many names are mentioned there that neither Jawad nor Amer, another friend of Walid’s recognises, so Amer suggests they invite all of Walid’s friends and play the tape for them, making it an occasion to remember Walid.

And so the first few chapters, the characters who will return as narrators are gathered:  Dr Tarek Raouf and his wife Samira and his sister Wisal, Ibrahim al Haj Nawfal, Kadem Ismail, Maryam Al Safar (Jawad suspects her of being “Shahd” a woman referred to in the tape that no one recognises), Jinan al Thamer, Ribah Kamal (a Palestinian woman who knew Walid when she was younh) and Ihsan al Basri and his wife Nihad. And they play the tape.

The entire monologue has no full stops, a stream of consciousness narrative set off from the rest of the story. Walid’s words are interwoven with words to the mysterious Shahd, and are confused, although this in itself is part of the reason for recording rather than writing since “the pen will not record all the words that cascade from my mind and lips” (15) and the symbolism of crows, also in The Ship, symbols of alienation, recurrs: Here is another crow, and another crow, whereever I look I don’t see anything but crows (17).

After the tape is played the friends have different reactions, from trying to analyze the tape to feeling wrong for having listened to it, but Wisal is angry, apart from the others, asking what they hope to acheive. She tells Jawad she met Walid’s son Marwan before he died in Lebanon and at the moment, Jawad remembers the words of Shahd on the tape: take me with you and teach me to shoot and asks if she is Shahd, but she refuses to answer.

Following the gathering, Jawad muses about Walid’s sense of belonging to Iraq and his idealism:

“Because he is Palestinian, he could always say that he connects with a society like this and seperates from it without hardship or pain, because his real roots are in other springs which feed him secretely and constantly. But he would not say that a society which was tribal in its core, rural and superstitious, which has not entered the civil state until lately and due to historical factos which invaded  it with the invasion of the English as rulers of a country they exhausted and which exhausted them – he would not say that a society like this after the decline that happened to it for five long decades stood on a stable base of civilization upon equally stable pillars have been built. In the absence of these pillars he would say it was ridiculous to imagine the city and its society as though they were in Europe, after the Renaissance, and after the bourgeous, and after the Industrial revolution. A raw society, scattered, disturbed, lost, heading in all directions, and not heading anywhere: this was how I saw it…and this was how I saw Walid seeing it…but with his stubborn idealism which he only relinquised in his darkest hours, he wanted this society to find itself through thought and freedom and creativity, and these are the words that would repeat themselves through his words more than any others (22).”

Jawad then relates the attacks on Walid for his idealism through the attack by Kazim Ismail on Walid’s book  in the 50s, Kazim having been one of his friends. In this short story, the story of the confrontation between Walid and Kazim is narrated multiple times, a sign of Jawad’s attempt to get to the true narrative, “the matter in all its truth.” The story begins with Walid driving down a dark street, where he sees a man walking in the rain and stops, recognizing Kadem, who he has not seen since he read Kadem’s article attacking his book, Kadem however doesn’t recognise Walid until already in the car, and “he finds himself confronted by his angry friend instead of a kind stranger.”

Rebecca Carol Johnson notes

Kazim’s failure to recognise Walid on the Baghdad street however belies a deeper failure rooted in their recent mutual past. Kazim Ismail’s article had falsely accused Walid of being raised in luxury…”You’ve known me all these years, yet you still know nothing about me…” Walid tells him.

Walid drives past Kazim’s home and tells him that he’s going to Baquba, ignoring his protestations that he’s wet through and freezing and wants to go home. After Walid speaks about the reality of his childhood, that he grew up poor, and that he unlike Kazim felt the bite of hunger and cold, he suddenly stops and pushes Kazim out of the door, muttering something about “the real meaning of cold” before driving away. Jawad’s short story ends here, but he tells us this was not what actually happened – in fact Walid regrets his actions and returns minutes later, but in the darkness and rain Kazim again does not recognise Walid or his car.

Rebecca Carol Johnson points out:

What Dr. Jawad narrates in this encounter turns out to be a complete epistomological failure – not only does Kazim fail to recognise the car as it returns, after he belatedly recognises Walid to be the driver of the car he misjudges his intentions in returning and runs away from his outstretched arms.

 

Kazim writes another article, this one praising the book, and Jawad realises that he had gone to the edge and looked over and seen not Walid but himself in his criticism of aristocratic leanings.

In a conversation with Ibrahim, Jawad comments, “The sociological perspective destroys imagination. They teach you for ten years to see the human as a social construction, and in the end you are unable to see the individual, as a person whose originality and authenticity stems from his mind, from his brain cells.”

The third chapter is narrated by Issa Nasser, the man Jinan had said knew Walid in his childhood, and it begins with the death of Masoud Farhan, Walid’s father:

One by one…our men leave and don’t return. And our youth are all scattered, each one in a country, searching for their bread in the cities and deserts, and their parents, needy and miserable, die here alone…like Masoud our friend, he has three boys and not one of them is here for his burial. (46)

Issa the narrator of this chapter recalls what Masoud used to say:

Is there anything left we have not seen? You are still young, Issa and you read books like Walid, our time is past. So what are you young men going to do? (47)

Issa was a child during the Safarbalek and remembers that (47)

They used to talk about an English general who when entering Jerusalem got off his horse and walked on foot in respect of the holy land. Little did they know what disasters his entrance into that holy land would bring with it. (47)

Issa recalls Masoud Farhan’s wedding – his name literally means Happy Glad – and Issa thinks: “I wonder if they sing these days with that overwhelming joy?”

Issa recalls the day when Masoud’s cart and horse, his source of income, which he used to drive people to the city, are sold and replaced by a car:

Everytime my mind goes back to the 20s and I remember how that man who used to love his horses became a driver…I see the point at which time changed…and the day his brother Saeed Farhan came and convinced him to go with him to Columbia, we thought he would get rich in America and bring his family along later, and take us all to the land of wealth with him.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, his wife takes in sewing and his children start working, and Walid, the brightest, is sent to Milan to a monastry for his education. Masoud comes back and buys an old car and continues driving people to Jerusalem. Later he gets a job in the city and they move there. Walid comes back from Milan having broken off his monastry education and starts writing articles and stories – and joining in the resistance.

The children scatter, Walid going to Baghdad, his brother to Columbia and another in Deir Zour, and not one of them is able to make it back in time for their father’s burial, to which, to bring the chapter full circle, Issa returns.

Issa says:

The disaster of the Palestinian is not just exile from his place of birth but the forced difficulties in moving from country to country…there is not one Arab goverment that does not talk about unity as it erects a thousand barriers between itself and another Arab country. (56)

The fourth chapter is entitled “Walid Masoud remembers the Hermits in a Distant Cave.” This returns to an incident Issa mentions in passing, in which Walid and a couple of his friends disappear from the monastry for a few days and go to a cave and when they are found say they have been praying.

The fifth chapter is narrated by Dr Tarek, “contemplating Capricorn.” Dr Tarek is the psychologist who treats Reem, Walid’s wife, who six or seven years after their marriage has a nervous breakdown from which she never fully recovers. Dr Tarek begins by saying Walid was born under the sign of Capricorn and that he himself recongised in himself the characteristics of those born in Capricorn – a calmness which is deceptive, masking the violence which often drove them to commit suicide.

That, Tarek says, is a a true picture, if a little caricaturish, of Walid. Tarek believes that he commited suicide. He cites a letter from Walid which Tarek finds in the possesion of Jinan, which Tariq calls a “revealing psychological document.” But there are several porblems: the envelope is missing so the name of the addressee is unknown, and the letter doesn’t name who it addresses, but starts right away without mentioning names.

Tariq doesn’t believe the letter was written to Jinan though he pretends to believe it – instead he thinks it was written for her friend Maryam, who had been a patient of Tarek’s and had at one time left behind her notebook in which she talks about Walid and their relationship.

The pages of Maryam’s notebook contained incoherent incomplete sentences, symbols and long passages that sometimes led to no specific conclusion. The single letters symbolized, most probably, the names of men, though some might have referred to women too. It wasn’t difficult for me to conclude that M referred to Masoud – Walid Masoud.

Tarek himself becomes involved with Maryam, although things are broken off between them when she invites him to her home one night at 3 am and he thinks he hears Walid’s voice asking “Has Tarek arrived?”  He then learns from his wife that Jinan is also in love Walid, and when he meets Maryam she tells him he should ask Wisal, his sister, if he wants to know more.

“Walid passed like a migrating bird and as he was passing, he was shot by an unknown hunter, and perhaps the hunter himself doesn’t know what bird he shot…if I am right that Walid killed himself, perhaps it was to rid himself of all these complexities that had begun to wind around his soul like ropes…he had readied the weapon for the hunter inside himself, and given him the opportunity time and time again.”

The sixth chapter is “Walid Masoud Writes the First Pages of his Autobiography.” He writes about his struggles with life, symbolized in the earthquake of 1927 which happened when he was six, which some interpret as the beginning of the end of the world. Later when he hears talk of the Aqsa Mosque and Hebron and the thuwar (revolutionaries) he imagines the world is in the throes of another earthquake, and from the rubble a new changed world emerges.

When Walid asks his father if he is among the thuwar, his father laughs as he grooms the horse he calls “Walid’s horse” and repeats the idea that it is now the time of the young:

“I was always a revolutionary, from the days of the Safar barlek, but my time is past. And now it is your time – yours and your comrades. This is the will of God.”

And I wished I could mount the horse and and gallop off with him into a world no one knew anything about, not even my father, and with me all the boys of the village. And they had suddenly become men, masked with their scaves…raising swords in the face of the world.”

The chapter deals with “the will of God” and violence, from a childhood memory of Easter, children playing and gambling with their colored eggs, and Walid, having won all the eggs, gets hit with a rock, to a more philosophical dialogue with a friend about Jesus who didn’t use the weapons of killing and yet changed the world, until the Roman empire consumed Christianity and co-opted it, putting the Messiah in the place of Caeser, making him an eternal Caeser in whose name they rule – and turning people into slaves again.

His friend retorts: “Are these words spoken by someone studying at a monastry?” And this is the moment Walid decides to leave the monastry and goes to work in a bank in Rome.

The next chapter is narrated by Maryam. She begins by talking about Amer and his place in Baghdad.

Baghdad, with all its history, has known everything the world’s civilisations have known. And Amer, if he was not borrowed from Paris or London, is borrowed from the past of his own city, his city which was more than a thousand years ago the civilization of the world…there was someone then in whose rooms could be heard the best poetry, the best music, the best argumentation, there were places that brought together angels and devils, believers and disbelievers, the obedient and the rebellious, as long as all of them were characterized by wit or intelligence or eloquence. (100)

He refuses to look to the past, to the history of his nation. He sees the whole of history as beginning with his grandfather fighting the Ottomans at the end of the last century…and then the British occupation of Iraq, when his father emerges as a nationalist fighter, who felt that each battle he won against the rulers, by entering prison or house arrest, brought the country closer to a day of liberation he dreamed of, and the dream did not materialize. And Amer feels, as he nears 40, that he has been cut off even from his recent history, with a suddenness he doesn’t want to explain, and it has joined the older histories which have become like large rooms full of heaps he is afraid to look at: he locks the rooms and places the keys in a mental drawer that is deep and full of keys of every kind and size….Amer lives for his present, for his present only. (100)

She recounts discussions between Amer, Walid and Ibrahim about politics and Marxism and changing the world, which Amer claims to have no interest in. Amer discounts their talk about the backwardness of their society:

All civilizations are here!…in the sounds of the flute and harpsichord, in the Iraqi maqam, in the paintings of Jawad Salim and Faiq Hasan on the walls…is it not wonderful that we can taste all of this at one time, all gathered from Sumeria, from Florence, from Mamun’s Baghdad, from the age of shuttles on the moon and on mars? Leave everything else behind you, forget it. Backwardness cannot be cured, it must be stepped over.” (103)

Maryam thinks, cynically: of course it was easy for Amer to “step over” or imagine he stepped over backwardness, with money not an issue, with his construction buisness in Kuwait and Bahrain raining down money on him.

She interrupts herself: “Why when I want to talk about Walid do I talk about Amer instead of him?…are they two faces to one coin?”

She goes to Lebanon when Amer is there only to find he has left to London with his family for three weeks, during which Walid is staying at his house in Beirut. With Walid, she escapes her husband Hisham’s jealousy and boring regularity, and Amer’s obsession with modernity and technology, into a bohemian cultural world of artists and poets and writers. When Walid has to go to Jerusalem, she surprises him by going with him and when she returns to Baghdad she divorces Hisham and her obsession with Walid grows, until she attempts to manage it by getting on with her life, going to study for her masters in England.

The next chapter is narrated by Walid, a dark chapter which begins on a rainy day as he recounts an operation he was part of after his brother is killed, which involved disguising himself as a British soldier and driving a van filled with dynamite through various militarized areas in the winter of 1948.

Augustine of Carthage, what would you say if you knew? My unarmed people being killed, being uprooted, being destroyed, limbs scattered through the valleys and mountains of the world. Rain, rain, rain, rain. Let me kill and die. The walls fall and the screams rise and the rain falls…I sorrowed for my murdered brother, and my murdered family, and my friends and my nation, and even for the one who was killed at that moment, and those who will be killed…

He then recounts his arrest, twenty years later, in Bethlehem (122-123) and the thoughts that go through his mind as he sits in the military vehicle:

Who are these invaders who have no faces? I know them and I don’t know them, I have seen them in the histories which fill my mind. They come, they destroy, they kill, then they crumble and fall….we drive up to Bab el Khalil, and the stones of the walls…under the beating of the rain, under the boots of the invading soldiers, don’t smile, don’t cry, wait. (123)

He recounts his interrogation and torture, being asked about his relationship to the Fateh organization, about fleeing to Baghdad, about living in the Gulf, in Beirut, and about the people he knows in the resistance movement, until finally, he is released.

The next chapter is called “Wisal Reveals her Cards”  where Wisal relates first her own memories of Walid and then her meeting with his son Marwan in Beirut to give him a letter from his father.

In one of the most revealing passages of the novel, Walid talks about words and about Hamlet saying “words, words, words” and others thinking he means the emptiness of words by this, but that is only so for those who have no ability with words, for parrots.

Shakespeare is the brother of Mutanabi, Walid says, and they are both Gods of words. Hamlet is screaming in the face of the parrots of the world: Words! Words! Words! The greatest gift God gave man…Words are everything. And in the end, nothing remains except words. And if no words remain, nothing remains (134).

When she gets to the camps in Beirut, she asks Marwan to teach her how to shoot and he replies “as soon as you decide.” She tries to give him money, which he refuses – and she comments “stubborn, like your father,” and asks him if he knows what she is to Walid.

Marwan asks her to help his father, who has struggled all his life and doesn’t know how to rest, still insisting on joining them in their operations and training as though he was still young and not a man of fifty. When Marwan tells him “If you want to commit suicide, find another way,” Walid argues with him, they have a fight, and they are still not talking when he leaves for Baghdad.

Wisal asks why he chooses for himself what he won’t allow his father to do, and Marwan explains that his role in fighting should be over, he takes care of funding and organization and that should be enough.

The next chapter is called “Marwan Walid enters Um Ain with his comrades” in which Marwan narrates an operation which Walid is a part of and which ends with Marwan’s death.

The chapter after that is narrated by Ibrahim Nawfal, and relates his experiences with the artist Sausan and her friend Maryam. He remembers:

How many times I walked with protesters in London, not really caring what they were demonstrating about. They were against something in the system, and I was against everything in the system.  So I add my yells to their yells. But in London they don’t yell as we did in our protests in Baghdad in the past. If the fdayeen would accept me, I would be with them whenever they hijacked a plane. But they say I am too old! And they don’t believe that in June 1968 when I was in Paris…I joined the students in their mad, huge protests… (171)

He goes on, addressing Walid, echoing that chapter of the hermits and their prayers for food from God, for a Jesus of bread and fish:

You are a storm in my mind, and your voice is carried in my voice, as I ask questions of the kind you know: What man, when his son asks him for bread, gives him stone? Or asks him for a fish, so he gives him a snake? We asked for the bread and the fish, so they gave us a stone and a snake. And you were angry at last, despite all your love and steadfastness, something happened that broke the camel’s back. From 67 to 70 to 71, when Marwan offered his youthful blood a sacrifice for your cause. (172)

Sawsan gives her painting of Walid Masoud to Ibrahim, begun years ago but completed only after his disappearance (173).

The friends gather in the study where Ibrahim hangs the painting, and discuss Walid and his books. Maryam refers to The Well, his autobiography of his childhood,  saying she couldn’t decide if it was fiction and biogrpahy. (Jabra’s own autobiography is called The First Well.) Jawad’s wife adds “God have mercy on him” when she talks about Walid, and the others are shocked she assumes he is dead and the discussion about his fate starts again. They discuss whether Walid was special because he was Palestinian, and because of his background or because of his personality, and conclude they don’t know enough about his life (175). Ibrahim for the first time speaks of his own theory, that Walid was kidnapped by the enemy or by traitors and killed when he resisted (176).

He recounts how he imagined it happening, how Walid pretended to go along with the kidnappers but then managed to get the door open and jumped out, or reached over and pushed the kidnapper at his side out. Jawad interrupts, asking if he is repeating the story of Kazim and Walid – and at this point we remember that early on it was revealed that Kazim and Tarek had been the last two people to see Walid alive, they had met coincidentally on the same road.

Another guest laughs, exlaiming “What a wonderful detective story!”

Maryam stands up and looks over Ibrahim’s library. They discuss the dilemma of the Arab intellectual, either imbibing Western culture and seperated from his own country and society or if he emerses himself in Arab religious traditional education, the product of an idealistic Salafism also removed from society and the land (178). Maryam concludes:

“The result of this logic is that culture (thaqafaa) is to be cut off from country and society. That is, it is a kind of betrayal. That is, your books, Ibrahim Haj Nawfal, thinker, critic, rebel, are nothing more than a plague of betrayals.”

I cried: Let’s burn them then! I raised my glass. “And let us drink to a coming time of burning, when the educated (muthaqafeen) become the only nationalists” (178).

Amer, the only one who is not a writer among them, sees it as his duty to warn them:

“You are butting your heads with the Gods of Ignorance, and one day they will burn your books, and maybe burn you too on the piles of those books. But I will avoid all that. I only work. Work constantly…I build government buildings, parliament buildings – fake or not, I don’t care…But you, God help you, will be the new unbelievers! And like all unbelievers, you will be chased and made homeless and burned, and your pockets will be as empty as your bellies. Martyrs of civilization, as Walid used to say? No doubt, I don’t deny it. But what use is a martyr to himself, when he has been denied what he wished for? Ha ha ha!” (179).

The final chapter returns to Dr Jawad Husni:

The trees are dark and crowded, twisted around each other and the search/study (bahth) is difficult through them. We barely force our way to another part of this crowded world until we realise… that our way is leading us to be lost…is it a jungle of innocence and deceit, faith and trickery, action and inaction, killed and killed – “the enemy is before and the sea is behind you.” (183)

The quote is from Tarek bin Ziyad, in his reported speech when he urged his troops to enter Andalus saying { البحر من ورائكم و العدو من أمامكم وليس لكم والله الا الصدق والصبر }.

…But what is important is that in the end I should put some of this into words….if I was a musician it would have been easier, but I have no tool but words.

Ibrahim marries Sawsan, having been rejected by Maryam, and the couple go off on their honeymoon. Ibrahim says, what if I bump into Walid? Jawad drives Maryam back after they have seen off the newly weds, and with Fairouz singing in the background, Jawad comments “back to the grind” and Maryam muses about how wonderful it would be to find an amazing moment in your life and stop there, and Jawad asks her if she knows the story of Hallaj and music. When she says no, he recounts it:

One of the followers of Hallaj heard the sound of the nay from far away so he asked his teacher, “What is that sound?”  Hallaj answered: “It is the sound of the devil mourning the destruction of the world that he wishes he could save. And the devil mourns,” Hallaj said “Because everything fades, and he wants life to return to everything past…but immortality is only for God.”

Maryam returns, “Then Jawad, consider me a daughter of the devil, mourning a world I cannot save and trying to return life to it every day. Like this recording, pushing a button returns life to the melodies.”

Kazim hears about Ibrahim’s speculation regarding him and Tarek and their involvement in Walid’s disappearance, and the friends stop speaking. Jawad hears that Kazim will marry Jinan, and wonders what Walid would say.

Wisal contacts Jawad and wants to speak to him alone, and her first words are “Walid is alive.” When he asks, she explains that he is in occupied territories using another name, maybe in a disguise. When Jawad asks how she knows this, and why he didn’t send word, she ignores him and says she wants to join him, even if he is living in a cave. She explains he had done the same thing when he was young – the hermits story – and he had done it again. Jawad moves from pitying to incredulous to, to his astonishment, being swayed by her desperate persuasion.  She has decided to go and join him, and she leaves and doesn’t return, leaving with Jawad a notebook she makes him promise not to open “for a long time” and he receives her letters about her joining the resistance.

As Johnson notes:

By the end of the novel the reader (and indeed all of the readers present in the text) witness the complete breakdown of the epistemological model that characterizes the search itself, and with it the intellectual crisis that this breakdown prompts. Ibrahim…”critic and thinker” will decide to give up writing, Wisal will disappear, and Dr Jawad will end entierely defeated by the search and renounce even the possibility of the search for knowledge itself: “Can there ever be a definite conclusion about any event in life, let alone a man’s life as a whole?”

Johnson links this breakdown of the epistemological model to

“the predicament of the intellectual at a particular point in Middle Eastern history: after the failure of the promise of Nasserism to unite the Arab world, and the defeat of the 1967 war…regarded by many to be not only a military defeat but what Albert Hourani calls “a kind of moral judgement” which led to an era of self-criticism…The 1970s, at the end of which Walid Masoud appears, have been characterized as a period of “disillusionment” in literary narrative, distinguished, as sociologist and author Halim Barakat has stated, “by a search for the meanings and causes of the failure of the Arabs to confront the challenges facing them….The 1970s was also a period of disillusionment with the literature of commitment (adab al-iltizam) which had gained momentum during the 1950s and 1960s and displayed a profound optimism in the written word’s ability ot change political realities. After 1967 however the optimism wanred and post 1967 literary narrative reflected…a deep distrust in “the word” and a cynical view of its problematic relationship to reality.”

It might be worth remembering in this context the Syrian writer Zakariya Tamir’s short story “Al Ada” (The enemies 1978), in which as Roger Allen summarizes “the Arabic language is given an award for heroism for downing so many planes and immbilzing so many tanks during the war” (The Arabic Novel, p155).

In the end Johnson  notes, “Walid’s disappearance can be read as a literalization of this final (and perhaps fatal) recognition; in the end Walid exists for us and for his friends only as a rapidly expanding text.” And finally as the novel draws to a close Jawad begins to set his papers in order, to conclude his “bahth” and return to the jungle of trees but what remains with the reader are his thoughts when Wisal speaks to him of her conviction that he is alive:

Why shouldn’t Walid be alive? Why shouldn’t he return a hermit in his cave, a traveler under a strange name, a monk in a monastry…there are a thousand ways for a bird to return to its nest.

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