I borrowed Les Desorientés by the famous Lebanese Author Amin Maalouf from a friend to understand the cultural elements of Lebanon and the general details of the Lebanese civil war of the 70s (’73-’91). I got very little of the first and hardly anything of the second. What I got was a very intimate account of the emotional struggle of leaving Lebanon during the war, contrasted with that of those who stayed and who had blood on their hands. The book very vaguely describes the facts of the war; the focus is more on how it affected its people, the trauma they endured, and the heavy guilt felt by those who left.
First the title. It carries a few meanings. One that relates to feeling lost, un-anchored and aimless, which is an accurate description of the emotional state of those who left. The other meaning subtly intimates that those who moved away have rejected their oriental origins to settle for their new world order identities. This felt very much like the story of my life, having left for almost two decades to plant roots elsewhere.
The book follows Adam, a historian who left Lebanon at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, and comes back to visit his country of origin for the first time in 25 years. His return was sparked by an old friend’s final wish to visit him before his death. During his return back to his homeland, he rekindles ties with his childhood friends and arranges a reunion to bring them together.
The book leaves me with many mixed feelings, a barrage of emotions. In many ways, Adam was a representation of Lebanon, he left at the dawn of the war, never returned until many years later. It’s almost like Lebanon was trying to delete 30 years of its history when the war was over. The group of friends he was part of was a melting pot of jewish, christian and muslim factions, who got dispersed and followed different paths once the war started.
I learned a lot throughout the book about the difficulties of the war and the imprint it had on people who consciously lived through it. We got snippets of how people living in Lebanon at the time had to manage their lives, how they were glued to the radio to know whether their area was being bombed so they could stay in a distant friend’s home instead that day. The author attempted to evoke some empathy towards those who chose to stay during the war, who had no choice but to be embroiled in the minutia of the conflict.
Some of the most endearing parts were during Adam’s reflections, when he would catch himself having arrogant thoughts or imposing double standards, and would quickly attempt to correct his judgements. I thought the sensibility and the delicateness of these intimate thoughts were very moving.
From a cultural standpoint, he showed very subtly that Lebanese culture lives in the religious identity groups. The way he described his friends from various religious backgrounds differed in their traditions, their cultural beliefs and their behaviours. This sparked my curiosity to better understand these various sub-cultures and also highlight what strings them together into the overall tapestry of the Lebanese identity.
It took me a few weeks of concerted efforts to finish it. It was a struggle at first, the book started off slow and tedious, I fell asleep at various points while reading it. But as you start moving into the story and become more familiar with Adam, the protagonist, the book takes a whole different turn.
Adam’s attempt to reunite his friends at the very end of the book, all from different walks of life and newly found identities, yet related through incurable nostalgia, ended abruptly. The ending felt unresolved, hopeless, as though he was saying that Lebanon, the country and the state of its existence couldn’t survive as it was, it had to die and be reborn in another form. This notion made me feel very sad, and for a while all I could think of was imagining the end of my country.
In the end
While this book wasn’t exactly what I expected, I thought parts of my identity struggles as a Lebanese born into the war were acknowledged; and for that, I felt seen. And while the story was very much unresolved at the end, it opens the reader up to many avenues to resolve it in their own imagination. This was both liberating and unsettling. Should you read it? Yes you should. This is not just the emotive story of Lebanese people, this is a sentimental account of navigating identities on and offshore.
I’ve been writing about Lebanon alot lately, checkout more articles in my Lebanon Chronicles category.
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