The Symbolism of Arabs in Space

A. Naji Bakhti’s Between Beirut and the Moon (2020) is an episodic, wryly comic novel about growing up in Beirut in the aftermath of the civil war, with tensions still simmering. The protagonist, Adam, has ambitions of being an astronaut as a child, and when his friends and his parents mock this ambition it becomes a shorthand to refer to the state of Lebanon and the Arab world in general. Towards the end, the protagonist’s father offers his son the following judgement of his astronaut ambitions:

“You don’t want to go to the moon. You never did. You want to run away, that’s all. You want to smash windows and run away and never have to face any consequences.”

The narrative tension coalesces around the disagreements between the protagonist Adam and his journalist father about the future, and always at the forefront is the question is how escape might be possible. The tense central relationship between Adam and his intellectual father is reminiscent of Robin Yassin-Kassab’s Road from Damascus where, as here, the protagonist both resents and aspires to his father’s surety in life, only to discover a much more complicated reality.

As Between Beirut and the Moon jumps often with deliberate disjointedness through scenes of family and school life, we are introduced to Adam’s mother and sister and friends and school and the history of his wider Christian and Muslim family, and also what it feels like to hide in a bathroom during a war, in what feels like an endless cycle of events:

“It was the war of ’67 or ’82 or ’00 or ’06 and Israel and Lebanon were at it again. I, like my father before me and his father before him, were crouched inside the safest room in the house beside my family and hoping that no RPG rocket or bomb would land on my home.”

The novel gives no timelines or glossaries. The reader is expected to understand, or know something of the history of the country. The space references I imagine helps the uninitiated reader get into the novel, as a transparent metaphor for escape. The symbolism of space seems to signify many things in contemporary Arab cultural imaginary, alienation and loss and the possibility of getting out of it all, to be, as Selma Dabbagh’s novel has it Out of It. In Anglophone works, the symbolism of space has been used to represent in-betweenness and confusion, as in Sophia Al-Maria’s memoir The Girl who Fell to Earth, and in Omar Sakr’s The Lost Arabs. In visual projects, there is the sci-fi futurist work of Larissa Sansour, and the rocket project documented in The Lebanese Rocket Society. And of course, there is the satire of alienation in Emile Habibi’s The Pessoptimist,

It was interesting to read that Rawi Hage’s first novel was among Bakhti’s inspirations for his debut novel, as the tone of Between Beirut and the Moon has a similar comic exuberance:

Bakhti first picked up the award-winning De Niro’s Game when he was a student at the American University of Beirut trying to make sense of what had happened, and it greatly resonated with him. Similar to Adam, who just wants to land on the moon, fleeing is the main tension of De Niro’s Game, as announced by Greek philosopher Heraclitus in its epigraph: “How, from a fire that never sinks or sets, would you escape?”

In a way, Bakhti picks up the narrative from where De Niro’s Game leaves off. There are scenes in Bakhti’s novel, such as the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which had a seismic impact on the region but which I have never before seen represented in a novel written in English. And towards the end, there is talk of the Arab Spring, which leads Adam to dramatically change his allegiance from space escapism/ambition to going to Syria, an announcement which sparks the climactic scene of the novel, a farcical scene of the father making weapons of the books in his extensive library and flinging them at his son. In the end however, like the protagonist in Hage’s novel, Adam ends up out of it all, standing on Westminster Bridge watching the fireworks and thinking about his father, and the tentative return at the end seems only to capture both the limits and inevitability of escape.

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