Review: Michelle Cahillon Abbas El-Zein

Intimate perspectives

The Secret Maker of the World is a collection of stories about exiles, but also about writing as disappearance, writing as an argument with and a postponement of death, writing as a practice of infinite semiosis rather than mere expression. The title story is a letter written by a deaf narrator to her deaf lover, who has mysteriously vanished from her life. The narration fluctuates between first and second person. Action has to be inferred and character is dramatised tangentially. As she tries to find the whereabouts of her lover, the narrator displays the idealism of a fanatic who is both powerlessly seduced and wilfully faithless. She mistakes him for an Iraqi spy about to be publicly hanged when in fact he is the executioner. Her journey becomes a cathartic process, inaugurating new loyalties and belief. She crosses psychological landscapes of memory and trauma, as well as physical terrains controlled by tribal militia. The story charts her symbolic quest and apostasy in locations such as Abu Ghraib, Fallujah and Baghdad. From the orientalised Western perspective on the Arab world, these are familiar media signposts of extremism and terror. They are juxtaposed with, and then dismantled by, her fragile epistle of flawed passion.

The artifice of a double address – the second person ‘you’ can refer to both reader and lover – conflates the act of reading with desire, but the narrator’s tone is treacherously elusive. Fictional elements are subordinated to her voice; the accuracy of the story’s account of events is corrupted by erasure and errors. This is signalled by its elliptical opening. This syntactically incomplete and retrospective passage, a form of semantic wandering, is a radical gesture that leads the reader to become circumspect about the narrator’s purpose: she seems to entangle the disabilities of deafness with her obsession.

As in many of the stories in The Secret Maker of the World, the setting oscillates between present and past – in this case, war-torn Afghanistan, the day after the Rassafa car bomb in December 2005. Within these alternating time frames and states of crisis, the narrator’s subjectivity must respond to the gravity and the repetitions of history. What is beguiling and brilliant about Abbas El-Zein’s use of deafness as a fictional trope in this context is the dreamscape it permits beneath the surface of its apparently silent condition.

In his essay ‘Being Elsewhere: On Longing and Belonging’, El-Zein (who is also deaf in one ear) argues that migration and deafness are both forms of ‘mutilation or amputation’. A deficiency of hearing distorts linguistic and cultural exchanges. Like the migrant, the deaf narrator of ‘The Secret Maker of the World’ has her configurations implicitly called into question. She languishes in her entreaty. She confesses to the personal torture of the psychiatric diagnosis assigned by her physician, Dr Shaab, with all the impulsivity of a hysterical, if gifted, chronicler. Yet her assertions are convincing:

you told me that I must wear my deafness like a badge of honour, the insignia of my noble self, that the deaf have a way with words, are better lovers, can change the world with their angelic nature, angelic because they cannot hear the excruciating noise of hell, of cars and commotions, of the false notes of market sellers and the shrieks of women in distress.

What begins as a tender philosophical sign language shared by the deaf lovers under threat of public scrutiny and political conspiracy leads us to the deepest recesses ‘concealed in the narrow space between your pelvis and the underside of my breasts, for all the vastness of the land between the two rivers and the desert beyond, the northern mountains, and the marshlands in the south’. A clandestine cartography insinuates itself into the text as something that is visceral, yet open to reinscription.

‘The Secret Maker of the World’ is a powerful example of Umberto Eco’s notion of the triple intentionality of fiction, wherein author, narrator and reader are able to assert legitimate yet varied interpretations. The differentiation between author and narrator is enabled by El-Zein’s use of perspective. Most of the stories in The Secret Maker of the World are told, with remarkable technical skill, through a limited third person point of view, rather than by first person or omniscient narration. It is a kind of compromise that reduces authorial control for the character’s benefit. What is being staged is a subtle and complex investigation into the construction of identity from cultural memory, narrative and the process of interpretation.

El-Zein shatters familiar representations of the Arab world, restoring its subjectivity in the intimate perspectives of his stories. Allegiances shift by paradoxical turns. Victim and torturer come to be seen with a commensurable understanding. ‘Fields of Vision’, for example, leads us into the edgy, dangerous, erotic world of a sniper in Beirut, who is stalking a woman he met before the war. We become absorbed by his vulnerability, his opportunism, his endearing mateship with his cousin and go-between, Tony, who supplies him with drugs and forewarns him of an ambush. We understand the futility of his machismo, as he randomly selects civilian targets. The story ends drastically with the narrator being shot down from his rooftop hideout. This explodes the illusory correlations between narration, authorship and temporality, highlighting the process of writing as deferral. The connection is drawn between the psychological afflictions of men and their physical escalations:

Isn’t this how men always fit in with each other, by hiding things from one another, by sawing off bits that stick out, doing violence.

Throughout the story, El-Zein overlays the action with past events, descriptions and passages of interior monologue, so that there is something tangible about the sniper’s abstract obsession with the dark-haired woman that attracts our empathy. The stereotypes of the fanatical male and repressed female are both unveiled. She is not simply a random woman he has chosen to watch, but the beautiful daughter of a client he had visited with his father as an apprentice carpenter before the war. While zooming in on her, surveying her rooms, the sniper fantasises about intimacy rather than a carnal encounter.

El-Zein normalises the sniper’s perversion by removing its stigma, leading the reader into familiar thoughts about domestic desire, fixation, loneliness, loss, uncertainty, elation, repression and shame. And the fact that this takes place in the Middle East in a state of urban warfare suggests other kinds of voyeurism: those implicit in reportage, humanitarian aid, the photography of atrocities, as well as the global phenomenon of surveillance. The reader becomes a secondary voyeur, witnessing the sniper’s masturbation in one of the most affecting erotic scenes I have ever read. (I can hardly bear to mention it.)

Such nuances of meaning are not so much gestural as rhythmic and insistent persuasions. They break down the distancing effect of historical inquiries, policies and polemics, and the dominant vocabularies used to describe the Arab world. By a process of defamiliarisation, El-Zein invites us to reappraise the violent framing of Arab histories, bodies and objects. A dialectical subtext is insinuated, leading to questions such as: Who is perpetuating terror? Who are the victims? Who is a threat to security within the global contexts of the war on terrorism and fundamentalism?

El-Zein’s characters are all exiles of a kind – from the masked Esserman, a mutilated victim of a car bomb, to the disgraced mayor of ‘Red Carpet’, to the boatman who lives in a foxhole and fishes bodies from the Yellow River. Perhaps most elaborately, there is the fictional historical character Yaqut Al Hamoaoui, a geographer abducted from Turkey, who is sold as a slave in Iraq and flees from the Mongol invasion to Damascus. Migration, flying, transition, storytelling and trauma are recurring themes in this book, and in much of the author’s work. Adapting the allegory of hegira, which begins with Mohammed’s flight from Mecca, El-Zein transports his anti-heroes from extreme situations towards sudden or symbolic deaths, or towards the new life of a salvaged self, in which they are required to negotiate processes of memory and interpretation.

Though 9/11 and the Iraq War have fuelled interest in their literary voices, anglophone Arab writers such as El-Zein are far removed from the reductive paradigm of fundamentalist Islam. As Layla Al Maleh explains, these writers are, at a global level, ‘the progeny of cultural espousal, hybridity and diasporic experience’. More than half a million Australians identify as Arab. Yet, as Al Maleh observes, as a group they ‘have, in fact, produced very few writers over the past century, their literature being one of the most recent in the anglophone literary corpus’.

El-Zein enjoyed a cosmopolitan education in Beirut; he has lived in the UK and France, and visited Iraq in 1998 before the demise of Saddam Hussein. His travels have also taken him to parts of the US, Europe and Asia, locations which inform the geographies of these stories. In Sydney, he found himself ‘summarily reduced to a dumb abstraction: a poor man from the Middle East lucky enough to find a better life in Australia’.

In ‘Being Elsewhere’, El-Zein writes of his exodus from Lebanon as a form of death (or mutilation) and recovery:

Migration as rebirth. Migration as a form of freedom. Migration as merit rather than birth. Migration as invigorating self-reflection and cultural enrichment, new bonds and new friends. Words sound hollow when it comes to describing transformations of this kind.

There is, consequently, a braiding of different tropes in his work: the poetic with self-dramatisation, essayistic interjection with travel writing. Moments of absurdity and irony lighten the gravity of his themes. In the satirical story ‘Red Carpet’, for example, the philandering Mayor schemes with apparent hubris to replace his aide, only to discover the insipid Cassis has accepted commissions from lobbyists, and leaked scandalous personal and political information just days before an election. The tables are turned: the powerbroker becomes subject to someone else’s ambition.

In the monologue, ‘Respect’, an Afghani worker addresses a corpse (there is a dark irony in the fact that this becomes apparrent only gradually). He has accidentally killed ‘Mister David’ after a fight on a construction site. As he is escaping to the airport from the scene of the crime, he reveals the abuses that preceeded his downfall. The description of his childhood deprivation speaks for the voiceless subaltern. His raw account of being sold into a third-world labour market by a poverty-stricken family is a disturbing reversal of the cultural amnesia that excludes such stories from history.

You know Mister David, I will tell you something I have never told anyone before. We’ve been through something together, haven’t we? My father one day came to me with faces that even I, only twelve or thirteen years old, knew was carrying grave news, news of the kind that can change your life forever.

The driver’s emotional excesses and his profanities are authentic. There is urgency and suspense. His vernacular speech powerfully legitimises his story, which becomes, in Foucault’s terms, a counter-memory – a form of subjugated knowledge that is subversive because it reactivates and articulates an otherwise foreclosed experience. The narrator has been beset by a series of abuses that have marked out his social status. He suffers relentlessly. He loses a finger while cutting steel bars, has a month’s wages stolen from him, falls from a four-storey scaffold. He is ordered to clean toilets in Riyadh. He toils and sweats in extreme conditions to complete the excavation, only to find his efforts ridiculed by Mr David. All of these events and circumstances lead-up to his fatal assault on the project manager, who comes to represent the forces that have oppressed him. Even as he tries to escape, the fading daylight, the encumbrance of a corpse, and the slim chance that he might catch a flight to reunite with his wife and attend his son’s wedding in Kabul draw attention to the contingency of his speech. It is as if his monologue is a dispute with death.

The vanishing of expression, voice and authorship is integral to El-Zein’s writing. There are arguments being made in The Secret Maker of the World for the aesthetic, ethical and political aspects of the encounter between world and text, though without any kind of polemic. We sympathise with the characters’ flaws and vulnerabilities, but we are never asked to excuse them. El-Zein leads us unobtrusively into back-stories of bureaucratic corruption, economic exploitation and institutional violence. He acquaints us with the mental states of pastoral-care child sex molesters in ‘His Other Cloak’, and with outcasts and duplicitous politicians in ‘Red Carpet’. He invites us to consider what power exerts greater pressure on historical and personal events: entrenched hierarchical privilege or the universal rules that determine our destinies? By which laws should we ultimately abide? How does justice come to be reckoned?

The sniper in ‘Fields of Vision’ keeps his opponents second-guessing and shoots to please:

He likes to look down at Beirut from this height. He is suspicious of the given order of things ─ the procedural, the mechanical and, from such altitude, he can pick out blurred figures, miniature cars, ambiguous voiceless scenes ─ raw material he can shape as he wishes. No power outside himself (and God and nature) will dictate his actions and that is how it should be.

The same impulse is voiced in a different register by Wei Han, the poor boatman of ‘The Yellow River’. Fishing for the missing bodies of those killed and disposed of by the communist regime, the boatman fulfils a spiritual vocation. He is restoring dignity to the memory of his drowned daughter. This way of accepting and transforming destiny is Zen-like, a process of ‘putting the world right’:

Accounts settled. Justice is served like a river that must follow its course no matter what.

’The Yellow River’ is one of the most beautiful stories in the collection. The notions of ebb and flow, sinking and floating, twisting and bruising, yin and yang, are pitched against the brutal forces of history and culture that shape people’s lives. The river remembers in a way that counteracts the tyranny of reductive political thought. It has a ‘charming wisdom  … its own intelligence and lightness’. It talks to the boatman – like his daughter, it is a voice from the dead – so that ‘if he listens hard enough he can grow ears for the water’. And it returns each bloated body to its surface, resisting the strategic forgetting of the totalitarian regime.

Poetically embodied in the river, memory becomes a catalyst for the struggle to liberate history. As Foucault puts it:

Since memory is actually a very important factor in struggle (really, in fact, struggles develop in a kind of conscious moving forward of history) if one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism.

In this sense, the interiority of El-Zein’s fiction reveals the raw and unspeakable violence that is concealed by culture. It exposes the determining relationship and the uneasy dependency that can exist between victim and abuser. Rilke tells us that, as creative processes, memory and forgetting are essential to one another. The stories in The Secret Maker of the World rescue personal histories from oblivion. But it is not merely the truth revealed in memory that matters; it is how these narratives interpolate past into present, and how such stories struggle for official historical status.

Milan Kundera, in conversation with Philip Roth, has described forgetting as a form of silence, a death-in life. He asserts that fiction is an ironic art that always conceals its truth, while in reality ‘evil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise.’ Fiction’s ambivalence can create new possibilities. As Kundera writes in The Art of the Novel (1986):

Irony irritates. Not because it mocks or attacks but because it denies us our certainties by unmasking the world as an ambiguity.

Like Kundera, El-Zein embroiders poetic motifs whose personal and psychological  dimensions are set against the spectacle of history and reductive ideology. Both writers are familiar with the congealments of propaganda. They resist the urge to follow conventions or formulate certainties by distorting chronology and by exploring a psychology of politics. Often in this book, it is angels who are summoned by, and who betray, the protagonists. The insights into the hearts and minds of El-Zein’s exiled characters dismantle the grand narratives of history and culture. The mask worn by the car-bomb survivor in ‘Natural Justice’, for example, evokes the Muslim veil, making the observer feel uneasy:

But then it dawned on me that the mask was not the problem per se. It was the visibility of the eyes, not their absence that bothered me, the way they hovered behind the veil, like a sly creature you knew was watching you from its hideout and which you just couldn’t ignore, no matter how hard you tried.

Masks are also implicated in role-playing, the disguises and exposures of our present-day social and erotic lives, and it is from within this duplicity of signs that the irony of struggle emerges. Like Kundera, El-Zein empowers us to see how the struggle to remember is enacted.

The Secret Maker of the World is among the most skilful collections of short fiction to be published in recent years. It deserves international acclaim. From the minority position of the Lebanese Arab-Australian diaspora, El-Zein gives us the contemporary voices of storyteller and extremist, of hakawati and jihadi, inflected through memory, history and culture. His tropes of subjectivity and lyricism present new ways of seeing beyond the defective visual field of the Western gaze. He invites us to question our notions of justice; to restore our understanding of Arab and abject Others.

Works Cited

Abbas El-Zein, ‘Being Elsewhere: On Longing and Belonging,’ Arab-Australians Today: Citizenship and Belonging, edited by Ghassan Hage (Melbourne University Press, 2002).
Michel Foucault, ‘Film and Popular Memory: Interview with Michel Foucault,’ translated by Martin Jordan, Radical Philosophy, 11 (1975).
Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, translated by Linda Asher (Grove, 1988).
Layla Al Maleh (editor), Arab Voices in Diaspora: Critical Perspectives on Anglophone Arab Literature (Rodopi, 2009).
Philip Roth, ‘An Interview with Milan Kundera,’ New York Times Book Review (30 November 1980).