Yalo is the story of the interrogation and tortures of Daniel Habeel Abyad, a young man accused, among other crimes, of raping women and robbing their lovers in a forest on the edge of Beirut. It is during an unpleasant encounter with Shireen that he was caught and interrogated. From the outset, however, it is Daniel’s alter ego. Yalo, who asserts himself as the story’s true protagonist.
Yalo is a nickname for Daniel, was brought up in a fanatic household by his maternal grandfather and mother. A militia member during the Lebanese civil war, Yalo sees the world differently from others. Faced by the interrogator’s implacable demands for confessions, he writes and rewrites (and rewrites) the story of his life, achieving in the process a transition from hapless victim to driven inquisitor of his own history.
First, a little history introduction by Humphrey Davies (the translator):
The protagonists of this novel are Christians who belong to the Syriac (or Syrian) Orthodox Church, who speak a language that is often called Syriac, and regard themselves heirs to the culture and empire of ancient Mesopotamia. Both the terms Syriac and Assyrian are, rejected by some members of the community, many of whom prefer to refer themselves as “Suryoye” (Singular “Suryoyo”).
On the eve of the First World War, Tur Abdin and neighbouring areas of South-eastern Anatolia such as Mardin and Amid (Diyarbakir) constituted as Assyrian heartland. Starting in 1915, The Assyrians of the region were subjected to forced relocations and massacres at the hands of regular and irregular (largely Kurdish) troops of the Ottoman Empire; perhaps 500,000 persons died (the figures are disputed). These events contributed to the creation of an Assyrian diaspora in parts of Arab world such as Lebanon, as well as in Europe (especially Sweden) and North America. The main characters of the novel, who live in Beirut, are connected by a “thread of blood” to Tur Abdin and its environs, and to their ancestral village of Ein Ward.
The first half of the book tested my patience, mainly due to Yalo’s alter ego who drones on and on and repetitively about what happened to him ever since he was a child, his mother’s love affair, his escape into manhood to Paris, his life working as a guard for a rich man, Khawal Michel Salloum and finally falling in love. It is repetitive and an unusual story telling techniques Khoury deployed to allow us to get into the head of an unreliable narrator (I haven’t seen any protagonist more unreliable than Yalo) and trace parts of Yalo’s memories which are either hidden away because of shame, fear, or fear of what the interrogator might think; and memories which are tender, sexual and loving. These memories and thoughts are all meshed up and I experienced somewhat dreamy (or nightmarish) streams of Yalo’s consciousness and what my own thoughts would have been if it were left un-reined. This also means the line between the truth and memory are blurred, and it is left to the reader to make the judgment on how far you will go to believe Yalo. For a fact that the confession is made under duress and brutal interrogation, the line between truth and memory is always blur.
The first half of the book made reading laborious, but hold on to it and the second half you will be rewarded. Thanks to M. Lynx Qualey of Arab Lit encouragement, I held on to the book. By the second half of the book, Yalo confession accounts became clearer and clearer. Like peeling an onion, little details of truth that Yalo had omitted at the start begin to resurfaced, through his subconscious, and then came many light bulb moments when I found out about the truth (that I am more willing to believe) of the chronicle of events that led to Yalo’s capture. I also came to believe that Yalo is not the horrible robber and rapist that we are led to believe on the outset and I finished the book with much regret and sympathy for him.
Despite the terrible pains of the torture, Yalo felt a strange pleasure, and this pleasure was his imagination.
No. he used to imagine these things after the “party”, as they called the torture session, was over. During the party, he would imagine the cell, and then in the cell he’d have his own party. He’d be thrown into the cell, utterly exhausted, and the only means he could find to recover his body and his strength was his imagination, and the reversal of roles. Then he’d recover something of his strength, and the shadows of the hawk’s glance, which spread terror through the bones, would return, and he would put his body back together again, piece by piece. He would rip the pain from its parts and throw it on the bodies of others and see how the agonies would leave the tips of his fingers and toes and take possession of his victims.
Then he would doze.
Yalo’s sleep, after torture, was his revenge. He would make up his dreams as he liked.
War becomes monotonous when it becomes real. The idea of war is seductive and gives you feelings of heroism, but war itself is a tedious and wearisome thing.
The book painted a world which is violent, painful and shocking, yet sensual and beautiful. It contains graphic violence or sexual scenes that may be uncomfortable to read, perhaps one that involves a cat will send readers pleading for Yalo’s relief.
Khoury is known to court controversy with his novels, the strong message that I get was the expose of interrogation procedure that are deployed by cruel polices (which, because of my closeness with Arab culture, I knew this beforehand), not only in Lebanese, in fact commonly used in the interrogation rooms of other Arab countries. Khoury showcased how a society is being ostracised because of their race and language, how war can torn the country and people apart.
The book is not for everybody, but it offers an unusual glimpse and insights into a human soul, and is the most honest and intimate account of a man at the end of the road I have ever read. It is also told in much tenderness and dead-pan humour. The book grows on you, even after you put it down. Humphrey Davies’ translation is fabulous, one that I credit for bringing us such a heart-rending tale of Yalo.
“If Istanbul has Orhan Pamuk, Beirut belongs to Elias Khoury” – Laila Lalami – Los Angeles Times; I couldn’t agree more. I started the book grudgingly, and end it with awe and respect for Khoury as a brilliant writer.
Note : For a second opinion, the only review of the same book I know is from Stu of Winston’s Dad Blog: “this is an engrossing but not an easy read but you reap the rewards of finishing it, a modern Arabic classic”
Paperback. [Maclehose Press, 2010, originally published in Arabic in 2002], [344 pages], [Setting: Beirut, Lebanon], [Library Loot], translated by Humphrey Davies. Finished reading at 3rd October 2010.
About the writer:
Elias Khoury (Arabic: إلياس خوري) (born 12 July 1948, Beirut) is a Lebanese novelist, playwright and critic. He has published ten novels, which have been translated into several foreign languages, as well as several works of literary criticism. He has also written three plays. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of Al-Mulhaq, the weekly cultural supplement of the Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Nahar, and is a prominent public intellectual, a Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. In 1998, he was awarded the Palestinian Prize for Gate of the Sun.
Elias Khoury was born into a middle-class family in the predominantly Christian Ashrafiyye district of Beirut. In 1967, as Lebanese intellectual life was increasingly becoming polarised, with the opposition taking on a radical Arab nationalist and pro-Palestinian hue, Khoury travelled to Jordan where he visited a Palestinian refugee camp and then enlisted in Fatah, the largest resistance organisation in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He left Jordan in 1970 after the Palestinian guerrilla forces in the kingdom were crushed in Black September and travelled to Paris to continue his studies. There he wrote a dissertation on the 1860 civil war in Lebanon. After returning to Lebanon, he became a researcher with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s research centre in Beirut. He took part in the Lebanese civil war that broke out in 1975, and was seriously injured, temporarily losing his eyesight.
From 1975 to 1979 he was editor of Shu’un Filastin (Palestinian affairs), collaborating with Mahmoud Darwish, and from 1981 to 1982 editorial director of Al-Karmel. From 1983 to 1990 he was editorial director of the cultural section of Al-Safir. He has been editor of Al-Mulhaq, the cultural supplement of Al-Nahar, since its reappearance after the end of the civil war.
He has taught in Columbia University, New York, in the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese University, the Lebanese American University and New York University.
Humphrey Davies previous translations include The Yacoubian Buidling by Alaa AlAswany (which sits on my pile), voted Best Translation of 2007 by the Society of Authors, and Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, for which he won the Banipal Prize.
Yalo, first published in 2002 is shorlisted for Best Translated Book Award in 2009.