A guide to POTSDAM
Novel set in Beirut (brotherly love…)
18th February 2015
The Broken Mirrors / Sinalcol by Elias Khoury – novel set in Beirut.
The Broken Mirrors : Sinalcol is a complex and complicated novel set in Beirut. It explores the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to1990 through the eyes of one family. Karim, a doctor, married and living in Montpellier, revisits Beirut as the war draws to a close. He is, as Khoury says, a typical Lebanese – only happy when on a plane… either fleeing from a city which has become too frightening and oppressive, or heading back to a city he cannot live without.
The base story is the relationship between Karim and his ‘twin’ brother, Nasim, who had not fled Lebanon but had stayed in Beirut and prospered during the war years. His ‘twin’ because his father declared them to be such and brought them up as such – even though they were born weeks apart from different mothers. In many ways Karim sees the broken mirror of himself in Nasim – Nasim has not made his money by entirely legitimate means. Nasim has also married a girl who was going to marry Karim… their relationship is confused and murky – an allegory for much of what happens in Beirut, where the truth is often hard to fathom. Nasim and Karim behaved as ‘one person’ in their youth, and in many ways that is what they still are.
The story is told through flashbacks to the height of the civil war. That was when I understood the fighters. It’s funny really. A fighter goes to fight and he’s dying of fear. So, to stop being afraid, he shoots someone. It’s like the merry-go-round the children play on. We learn about the different groups and the intricate interplay between them. About the Christian Phalangists and their Israeli allies, about the Fedayeen guerillas fighting with Palestinians against Israel – and the crossover between the two based on the practicalities of co-existing in one community. Nasim is a Phalangist and Karim fights with the Fedayeen, but that does not stop them leading a ‘normal’ family life. We learn of the massacre by the Phalangists (with Israeli soldiers standing by) at the two Palestine refugee camps, Shatila and Sabra. The Muslims and Arabs seem to have become the Jews of Europe now. Strange how people are put together. Capitalist societies seem to need anti-Semitism to release their inner complexes. The Arabs and Muslims are becoming the Jews of Europe and the Palestinians have become the Jews of the Jews. It’s bewildering.
Beirut comes though the book as a thoroughly confusing and contradictory place, indeed the city is “bewildering”. The months he’d spent in his city had been enough to reveal Beirut’s secret, which was that the city was made up of mirrors, and that the individual was not one but a collection of individuals who had made from their misery mirrors for their souls. An example of this is Sinalcol of the title. Sinalcol is a legendary figure in the civil war with a reputation for great bravery. We are led to believe that he could, or could not be, Kasim himself. We never know for certain – but most likely he is a cracked mirror image of someone Kasim believed he might have been.
There is no doubt that The Broken Mirrors : Sinalcol is a BIG book. It describes extremely well and sensitively the relationship between Nasim and Karim, the battles they have had and the women they have, or have not, shared. But it does this against an authentic historical background of great complexity. Khoury fought with the Fedayeen (before becoming a researcher with the Palestine Liberation Organisation) and clearly knows what he is writing about. He also enlisted the help of Jim Muir, the BBC’s correspondent in Beirut, to ensure the accuracy of recent Lebanese history. There are eighteen pages of glossary at the end of my edition, to keep the reader fully up to speed with all that is going on – it is not an easy book (but it is a very worthwhile one).
A fascinating insight into an extremely significant part of recent Middle East history. Travel fiction at its best.
Tony for the TripFiction team