New fiction portrays Lebanon’s shadows of civil war

9 April 2007

Turning the pages of De Niro’s Game, one is transported to the war-torn streets of Beirut in the midst of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, a tragic reality of flying bombs and bullets. De Niro’s Game is the debut literary work by Montreal author Rawi Hage, who conveys this era of Lebanon’s turbulent history through the experiences of a pair of youths from Beirut, childhood best friends growing to adulthood in the political quagmire of civil war.

De Niro’s Game started as a short-story,” Hage explains at a cafe in Montreal’s Cote-des-Neiges district. “Initially I wanted to write a piece about an incident that I remember of some kids who started playing Russian roulette after watching The Deer Hunter, which screened in Beirut at the beginning of the war in the 1970s. Guns were available everywhere in Beirut so kids starting playing.”

De Niro’s Game is a fast-paced poetic novel detailing historical events and the gritty details of life in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war; from the bombs falling erratically on residential districts, to the dirty economy of armed political factions, to the soaring voice of Lebanese diva Fariuz echoing in Beirut streets and the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Israeli supported right-wing Lebanese militias at the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila.

Through the eyes of the novel’s main characters, Bassam and George, Hage confronts the existential and pragmatic debate surrounding the question facing everyone living through the civil war era in Lebanon: to remain in mortal danger upon familiar ground, or to flee westward toward hostile nations. Expansive contemplations on forced migration from Lebanon’s civil war appear in the first chapters:

Ten thousand bombs had landed, and I was waiting for George. Ten thousand bombs had landed on Beirut, that crowded city, and I was lying on a blue sofa covered with white sheets to protect it from dust and dirty feet.

It is time to leave, I was thinking to myself. My mother’s radio was on. It had been on since the start of the war, a radio with Rayovac batteries that lasted ten thousand years. My mother’s radio was wrapped in a cheap, green plastic cover, with holes in it, smudged with the residue of her cooking fingers and dust that penetrated its knobs, cinched against its edges. Nothing ever stopped those melancholic Fairuz songs that came out of it.

I was not escaping the war; I was running away from Fairuz, the notorious singer.

De Niro’s Game has received broad acclaim in Canada and internationally, nominated for both the Governor General’s Award for fiction, the Giller Prize for literature and winner of the Quebec Writers Federation’s Prize for Fiction. A national best-seller in Canada, De Niro’s Game is a surprise success for a first-time author.

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Rawi Hage

Hage, born in Lebanon, lived through nine years of the civil war in the Achrafieh district of Christian East Beirut, in which the fictional narrative of De Niro’s Game occurs. As a witness to a war that continues to haunt Lebanese politics until today, Hage through fiction offers a biting critique toward the sectarian fighting, foreign intervention and gangster politics which fueled the civil conflict in Lebanon, resulting in over a hundred thousand dead.

“I grew up with Beirut divided,” Hage recounts. “Through this novel I presented a secular element amidst all the sectarian chaos, as I think that Lebanon has maintained an understated, undermined secular element throughout the past 100 years, which is why I presented the main character in the novel as an atheist who doesn’t believe in organized religion.”

Currently Lebanon’s confessional political system enshrines sectarian divisions in the nation’s constitution, a fact which many Lebanese point to as a fundamental cause of the civil strife which still frames political life in the country today.

Dating to Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943, Lebanon’s constitution divides the nation’s 128 parliamentary seats equally between multiple Muslim and Christian religious communities. Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990 with the signing of the Ta’if Accord by warring Lebanese factions, an agreement sponsored by the US, Saudi Arabia and Syria that reinstated constitutional sectarian political divisions.

De Niro’s Game champions secularism,” says Hage, “while illustrating how ugly sectarianism is, and the corruption of organized religion.”

Hage’s novel provides an essential historical context to current political turmoil in Lebanon, a nation which in the past two years has experienced an Israeli invasion, unprecedented internal political strife and a string of bloody assassinations of national political figures.

“I like to think of the novel as a small slice of the collective memory of Lebanon,” explains Hage. “In Lebanon there was no conscious decision from the government to preserve the history of the war, to understand issues that created war in the first place.”

“Quickly the entire downtown area of Beirut, where the major fighting took place was eradicated, no monument built, while the civil war is not in the national school curriculum,” Hage adds. “Authorities in Lebanon are still not dealing with our history.”

“Until now, there has been no governmental project of national reconciliation in Lebanon.”

“I think that some of the only people who are attempting to deal with the history of war in Lebanon are independent artists and writers,” says Hage. “I am one of those artists, who through writing, is trying to come to terms with and understand the history of war because I think that we have to deal with it, as Lebanese, for future generations.”

De Niro’s Game renders, in vivid prose, the deadly 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut, in which over 10,000 Lebanese and Palestinians lost their lives. A historical recount of the aerial attack offered by Hage will strike any current reader as a historical shadow to the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon:

Israeli jets flew over Beirut and bombed houses, hospitals and schools. The radios trumpeted from every window on our street. On the west side, people were fleeing for their lives, and on our east side, in the night, we could see flashes of resistance aiming at the skies. I went to the roof and looked at the west. The landscape was lit up under lightning bolts that fell from Israeli airplanes. There was one consistent line of red that reached to the sky. It never ceased, and I wondered if my uncle was shooting at the gods. And I wondered if cheap whisky bottles would turn into Molotov cocktails in Ali’s hands.
Today, historical realities of war and conflict are not shades of a violent past but the looming crisis of the future, as political tensions are rife in a nation still recovering from the 2006 Israeli attack which resulted in major damage of the national infrastructure and 1,300 dead Lebanese civilians.

“I was extremely upset during the war this summer,” reflects Hage. “It was a different type of war than the one I lived, conducted mainly from the air by a state trying to impose hegemony over the region without regard for the human costs.”

  • Listen to Stefan Christoff interview Rawi Hage for Tadamon! [MP3, 12.7 MB, 13:51]

    Stefan Christoff is an independent journalist based in Montreal and regular contributor to the Electronic Intifada and Electronic Lebanon.

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