Elias Khoury’s novel al-Wujuh al-Bayda (1981), translated as White Masks, but literally White Faces, tells a story made up of many voices, all related to each other through one central character, Khalil Ahmad Jaber, and focused on Beirut. The novel is something of a murder mystery, structured through the narrator’s investigation of this death and his interviews with those who knew Jaber, so the narrative follows the strategy of allowing stories to emerge from other stories, building it on the basis of a series of short stories that interweave and connect. As is usual with Khoury’s works, there is an effort to fragment the narrative through several devices, including switching from third person to first, although this works very coherently in this narrative.
The epigraph of the novel is from Al Absheehi’s book Al Mustatref:
And when in the course of his journey through the wilderness, Jesus came upon a decaying skull and beseeched God that it should speak, God gave it to utter thus: “I am Balwan Bin Hafs, king of Yemen, I lived one thousand years, sired one thousand offspring, deflowered one thousand virgins, defeated one thousand armies, and conquered one thousand cities! But all of this was like a dream, and may he who hears my tale not be deceived by the world. And Jesus peace be upon him did so passionately weep that he fainted.
In the prologue, the narrator begins by telling us that he is not telling us a story:
This is no tale. And it may not be of particular interest to readers, as people these days have more important things to do than read stories or listen to tales. And they’re absolutely right. But this story really did happen…so I’m setting out to tell this story, which is really not a story, as the discriminating reader might observe, and which I know might well be of absolutely no interest to anyone. The reader could just refer to the forensic pathologist’s report and dispense with all the attendant detail…every one of us has a story, after all and that’s more than enough. We have no need of other people’s. (9-11)
The first chapter, The Boxer-Martyr, has an introductory note telling us this is the account narrated by Nuha Jaber, the dead man’s wife. She is the mother of the “boxer martyr” Ahmad, who was a boxer before being drawn into politics and “started reading the papers, even though he always said he hated politics. It’s nothing to do with us,” he’d say. “We are just the playthings of foreign powers…kicking us around like a ball! It’s nothing to do with us.” (21)
He joins a milita and dies during the fighting. Nuha then narrates how her husband’s mental state deteriorates as he begins erasing words and names from the family papers and newspaper clippings and taking family pictures and painting the faces white.
He went somewhere and brought…these erasers…all sorts of erasers, little ones and big ones, yellow ones and white ones and gray ones. There were erasers everywhere…what for? 39
Erasing, that’s what he did: at first it was just the pictures…then he began erasing the newsprint. He’d rub out ahmad’s name, first the surname Jaber then the word Khalil, then Ahmad, then the word martyr, and then everything written about him. 40
using a bottle of white nail polish, he painted the face over in white and then cut off the head with scissors. 43
He later abandons the house and roams the streets whitewashing the walls of the city, believign that to become pure again the city must be destroyed effaced, whitewashing, linked now more clearly with the urge to annihilate the present.
Nothing is left here. Everything is disappearing. You are disappearing, I am disappearing the city is disappearing, and the walls are disappearing. Everything is disappearing and becoming white—everything is being effaced 115-16
His room starts smelling of blood and she cannot enter it, even now. “After he died, I threw everything away. I scrubbed the room with soap and water and had it whitewashed. But it still smells, and that frightens me. No I don’t go in now. You can go in if you like but I won’t.”
The next chapter, Perforated Bodies, is narrated by Ali Kalakesh, an architect, who jumps from one subject to another, all related to the rise in crime:
No one is able to control all the crime…its grown into an epidemic, a plague devouring us from within 49
He tells the story of a gruesome murder of an Armenian doctor and his wife, and compares the death of the doctor with Khalil’s death, the now dead man he encountered sitting on the sidewalk by his house like a beggar.
Chapter three, White Walls, continues the narrative after Khalil has abandoned the house. It is narrated by Fatimah Fakhro, a widow, who goes back into her own life to tell a tale of forced marriage, and loss, with her husband Mahmoud killing their son and then himself being killed, an obvious parallel to the deterioration of Khalil in that Mahmoud’s madness is propelled by seeing a man he had just been talking to shot down by a sniper.
As Sami Suwaydan points out, rach of first three chapters built on a pair of killings: “if we consider the murder to have a relationship to the account or story, observation confirms it as the general structure of the text as a whole.”
Fatimah speaks with Khalil and gives him food as he sits on the sidewalk, remembers conversations with Jaber mixing up his own life with his son’s, telling her about his boxing “but I don’t like appearing on tv anymnore, the screen is so smnall and narrow” (113). She describes him as “A frightened, laughing, wandering man with bits of paper dropping out of his pcokets” (138). Since she knows the victim, she is dragged in for an interrogation after his death.
The fourth story. The Dog, is the only one without introductory notes, and tells of the discovery of a corpse in a garbage heap and the autopsy. The first part is narrated by Zayn Alloul, the garbage collector, who begins by speaking of his life and his work, which used to be better, because now they dump all the garbage in one place and burn it, whereas before it was collected and sorted by street children:
nothing gladdened our hearts more than seeing the streets kids jumping up and down in excitement when they sighted the garbage truck. As if it were laden with presents! As soon as we’d emptied the trucks the hills would swarm with them, children of all ages, boys and girls, squatting over the piles of garbage and working quietly without fighting. It was like watching a silent game beign played – hundreds of children on the garbage mountain…sorting trash and making an income, thanks to our work…I’d watch them sometimes play house, perched on top of the garbage hills, they’d visit and take presents to each other, eyeglasses, combs, any little thing, all valuable thigns the rich threw out because they’re godless and ungrateful for their lot. 157
The garbage collectors find the body, after smelling something putrid they think is a dead dog. We then get the story of Dr Bitar the forensic pathologist, who has attached his report.
The next chapter is narrated by Fahd Badreddin, a combatant with the joint forces, whose encounter with Khalil is fleeting. Most of the chapter speaks of the loss of his eye in the fighint. In the introductory notes, we are told he had some kind of problem with his eyes, “very articulate as might be expected of a student of Arabic literature. He says that he cannot read for long and that is why he has suspended his studies.” (176)
After the loss of his eye, Badreddin determines:
I would wear a black patch over my eye like Moshe Dayan did. Then I could go back to being a fighter. I had thought I was finished but no: if moshe dayan could defeat the arabs with one eye, then I too could be a fighter. That’s what I told the doctor. (184)
He is encouraged by Samar, a student at aub film institute, to take part in a film about the war where he’s given a text to read:
My name is Mohammad as-Sayyed. I’m a combatant with the Joint forces of the Palestinian Revolution and the Lebanese National Movement. We are fighting to preserve the independence and unity of an arab Lebanon, for the liberation of Palestine and against the forces of imperialism, Zionism, fascism and reaction! Pause. Behold the crimes of the fascists! Pause. As for the war let me tell you that we are peaceloving people and we make war for the sake of peace. Pause….I was wounded, I lost my eye. Do you know my eye? Pause….I asked the director about the word pause. He told me everytime it occurred the camera would cut to documantry footage of tall al zaatar, the shelling of west Beirut and other battle scenes.191
When he is asked to put more emotion at the end, and to remain still at the end, when they would film him taking ofh his dark glasses, he objects, telling them he’s a fighter not an actor.
While Samar tries to convince him, she warms to her topic about the role of progressive cinema and how cinema can “lend grandeur to events” even death, and he thinks of the stench of death and his friend sameeh who he had to abandon as he was dying. He thinks too of Ibrahim, a university lecturer and a fighter, “I used to think that all academics were just armchair revolutionaries, you know, bespectacled and potbellied, sittign in their offices, full of hot air and flamboyant gesutes. Ibrahim wasn’t like that at all” (214).
In the end though, Ibrahim is disillusioned and switches from progressive to religious views:
“Where have all our revolutionary ideas gone?”
He said he thought that a return to religion was the only solution.
“But but there’s a war out there sir, what should we do?” I asked him
“Nothing, it isn’t our war.”
“Where is our war then?”
“It has yet to start.”
“You mean to say that when this war’s over you expect us to start fighting all over again?…well don’t count on me. This war has just about exhausted us. One war is enough. Sir please no more.” 216
In the end, Badreddin is equally disillusioned: “I put on my dark glasses, then I take them off, and I tell you that the end does not exist. I am the only acot in the world to admit that there is no such things as an end.” (221)
The last chapter, The Posters, is narrated by Nada, the daughter of Jaber, who shares her childhood memories and her conversations with Ahmad about the war, with her conviction that “we’re not fighting a war we’re rushing to our deaths,” going against his own views:
that was true a long time ago, he said…”under the ottomans when father’s uncles all perished in safarbarlek – they died of hunger and squalor, not from the fighting. But all that’s over now, we’re no longer led to our death like sheep to slaughter. We are the masters of our destiniest, we are fashioning our own future. (243)
In the provisional epilogue, the narrator returns to tell us that “the murderer remains unidentified. We have a mystery murderer.” He speculates about suicide and then comments on its rareness:
I don’t know of a single Arab writer who has committed suicide, aside from tayseer subool. Oh they despair all right, their writings are full of ranting and angst but they don’t commit suidice…even though the suicide of a writer might have a huge impact (271).
He is dissappointed to have no results to offer and is driven to philosophize on his role as author. “the author of this story…feels lost and doesn’t know…usually the author knows all the details of the story, especially its ending and offers it slowly and gradually…but in this story, the author doesn’t know…how to satisfy and amuse the reader.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying either. I spent motnsh investigating and reading to try and establish the facts. I must have smoked thousands of cigarettes sittign at my desk….so now dear reader you too may feel as bewildered as I do. 273
Khalil Ahmad Jaber was murdered, and by rights we should be able to come up with a reason for his death. Isn’t that what we were taught?
To each problem there is a solution to each effect a cause….whoverer digs his brothers grave falls into it…when the winds of change are blowing, keep your head down…who dares, wins, etcetera, etcetera et cetera et cet era et cet era e t c e t e r a…my well meing attempt to lighten up has failed even though I was only trying to follow the dictim that says you can find a seed of mirth in every reversal of fortune. When I tried to be daring and change the atmosphere the story got worse. So wehre’s that seed of mirth? 300
He gets sidetracked from this and tells us the story of the Palestinian who was found hanging in the airport restroom after he loses his papers which would allow him to get to Sweden. He compares his death withKanafani’s men in the sun:
Mu’ayn Abbas felt great pain. His pain was different from that of Ghassan Kanafani’s heroes who were left to die from the sun inside the tanker truck. The heroes of men in the sun were a group but Mu’ayn was alone…the heroes in Men in the Sun were symbolic heroes. But Abbas is neither a hero nor a symbol but simply a young man who was killed in the toilet of the airport.
Through this focus on individual death, not collective, the narrator differentiates himself from the collective consciousness of earlier writers.
But in some ways, the collective ethos returns in the suggestion that Khalil continues to live, an Everyman, a sort of hero, trying to whitewash the city, to efface the war and the present, to make everything blank and begin again.
Let us assume that…the coroner is lying, just like the novelist writing this story. If we assume all fo that, then our problem is solved.
Investigating his story, I have had no other aim than to “entertain, please and pass the tiem” to borrow a phrase form Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, our revered storytelling master – the very same one who threw all his books into the river after burning them such was his despair over the human condition
…however what if we assume that Khalil ahmad jabber didn’t die, that he is still alive now, trudging through the streets of Beirut, trying to erase and whitewash the walls? Well, what if we did? (302)