“How well can we ever know people who have lived through civil wars? How much can we ever really know about the violence and destruction, the losses, the devastation? The overpowering fear they must feel every day? Can we ever really understand how they are transformed, which things change inside them, and which things harden? In the last quarter of one’s life, when death becomes something intensely near and possible, the heart is no longer anything more than a useful pump. Warm blood rushes into our organs only in order to flee once again. There’s no other reason, just flight.”
— Hoda Barakat, Voices of the Lost.
In Voices of the Lost, Hoda Barakat puts in question literature’s ability to construct a coherent narrative, to tell a story, and to capture historical experience. Composed of six letters that never reach their addressees, Barakat’s novel unfolds across broken landscapes and broken selves. Yet the author finds a way to salvage this brokenness and provide it with a refuge in cruelty and hardening – internal processes that alter the human and suppress its needs in order to keep it alive. What is left of those who experienced wars and violence then, is but a “useful pump” that could stop functioning at any moment.
The mechanical state of immunity against pain and madness that Barakat describes so well allowed, especially the Lebanese, to survive despite material devastation and internal collapse. Living in liminal spaces, both in Lebanon and abroad, these war survivors have transformed and hardened, forfeiting their right to the past in order to enter a future that flashes like a messianic sign. In doing so, they managed to contain their brokenness by maintaining the basic function of the machine, pumping and circulating fluids to the various organs. But given the recent events that befell Lebanon and other countries in the region, from political and economic collapse to wars, pandemics, and explosions, the functioning of this machine is once again in jeopardy.
When the Beirut port exploded on August 4, 2020, images of black smoke billowing over the site resembled that of a beast wahsh readying to devour the city, to take it into its belly once and for all. Soon after, demands for retribution emerged and expressed with the slogan: “We will not hold you accountable; we shall get our revenge!” This slogan marked a significant departure from the calls for democracy and transparency that were uttered when the Lebanese took to the street to topple the ruling class starting in October 2019. The call for revenge announced the emergence of a subject who has encountered the beast and can no longer be deceived by the liberal shimmers of government reform. The call for revenge echoed a beastly encounter that brought an end to the post-war era wherein savagery was contained. The call for revenge is thus a call to devour that which had devoured the people and their city, stripping them of their defense mechanisms and survival tools. Like a culminating act in an epic of savagery, the explosion ushered in a new stage of beastliness affecting the human condition and requiring new modes of confrontation. For this, we need to turn to history and language, excavating genealogies and taxonomies of the beast with which we are forced to contend.
In the Arabic language, the derivative w-h-sh offers a productive entry point to reflect on the current state of social and political transformation in Lebanon and in the region. Wahsh which is commonly translated as beast, monster, or savage, emerges from a state of wihsha, a forlornness or beastliness, characterized by the withdrawal of the human (ins). This quality of wihsha is tied to desolate places like sites of ruins or the wilderness, places which enable the process of tawahhush, namely the transformation of the human into wahsh, bringing about wildness, loneliness, beastliness, and savagery. The mutawahhish (one who is wild, beastly, savage) is thus the one who has broken with the human community as the matrix of identity, to become something other, permanently altered. Tawahhush as a becoming and potentiality has been theorized, by thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Achille Mbembe, as that which upends humanist conceptions of community. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, tawahhush designates a literary tradition and a model of confrontation that challenges the human as a social and psychological entity.
Arabic culture has provided us with multiple glimpses into tawahhush as well. From the condition of Majnun, represented in miniatures surrounded by the animals, to that of the sa‘alik (sing. su‘luk, brigand poets) dying of hunger in the wilderness of pre-Islamic Arabia, tawahhush points to a condition and a genre. It is a mix of anger and pain that wants to destroy it all, and in the process, destroy the self. The mutawahhish is often the villain clamoring for revenge, a cannibal wanting to eat those that ate it. As he is expelled from the tribe and pushed into the wilderness, the pre-Islamic poet al-Shanfara swears to take revenge by killing 100 of his kinsmen. His tawahhush is staged in Lamiyyat al-‘Arab (Arabian Ode in L), wherein he becomes gripped by a physical transformation that eventually brings him to the point of disintegration. In the Lamiyyat, the process of tawahhush takes place in the body, in the guts, as the su‘luk’s entrails twist and turn. Hunger, exclusion from the community, and tribal violence frame his tawahhush and vengeful return both as an assassin and as a poet, denouncing the violence and injustice to which he was subjected. Poetry, death, and a new consciousness emerge from this process, ushering in a political and poetic project that strips the human of its heart and its blood, with no possibility of salvation or redemption. A tabula rasa that is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
The Lebanese Civil War, with its violence and forced exile, pushed authors and artists like Hoda Barakat into the spaces of wihsha or beastly wilderness that al-Shanfara also occupied. This literary wihsha emerges from the process of being with oneself, of living in the text, of breaking with the tribe. And as they write and create, these authors and artists are forced to bear this violence and reconcile with the fact that it turned them into refugees abroad, in their own homelands and in their own bodies. In this state of wihsha, writing becomes the stage that conjures the wahsh, and proceeds to slay it over and over again. But it is to no avail. The wahsh holds the mirror to the self as well; it enters it and shapes its consciousness like Gregor Samsa who turned into and started thinking like a giant bug in Frantz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. How do we defeat the beasts and monsters that we have also become?
As the wars and conflicts in the region have intensified, they have turned tawahhush into the default state of being. It is no exaggeration to say that we have entered the stage of tawahhush, which regardless of how manageable it may be, exceeds the violence and cruelty of any bloodthirsty project. The wahsh moved from the outside to the inside to live permanently in the entrails, to haunt them and never let go. This wahsh has also taken hold of our most intimate spaces, entered our beds, and become our lover. It took the shape of tablets and screens that connect us to the image and voice of the other and to a sense of home, so close yet completely unattainable. Like the handmaiden of catastrophe, closures and confinements have exacerbated the carnival of tawahhush, pushing us further into solitary caves and halls of mirrors.
The altered humans that we have become have to confront the wahsh both inside and outside by learning from the sa‘alik and other hardened tricksters. We need to confront the wahsh that has moved from the no-man’s-land of Civil War-era downtown Beirut and other war zones in the region, to live deep inside of us, in our entrails, pushing us and our cities further into the wilderness and beyond the sea. The sa‘alik were experts in this game, performing and tricking the monsters of pre-Islamic Arabia, such as the ghoul. I have called on those authors and artists who were exiled into wihsha, who have long lived with the beast and understood its language, to ask them to expose the beast’s violence and its effects on the body and consciousness. I have summoned them here to confront the wahsh as we can no longer defer, as Shahrazad did, the executioner’s blade at dawn. The contributors that I have called upon are brigand-poets, hackers, and outlaws in their own right. They too have broken with the tribe and denigrated it long ago. They have gone on stage, performed, and confronted beastliness, over and over again, from Beirut and Cairo to Paris and Berlin. They have been invited to give account of the beast, to reveal it through their work, to make it speak its name and avenge us all.
I have turned to Hoda Barakat, asking her to speak her tawahhush once more. In the wilderness of faith and disbelief, she will account for the breaking point of language in its primordial moment of constitution. Hamed Sinno enacts that bodily tawahhush that comes out of his guts, his entrails; that takes hold of his face, his voice; and that makes him unrecognizable as he arrives safely in the unpromised land. Ahmed Naji reports live from the belly of the beast, the factory of wuhush (beasts), narrating the history and analyzing the dreams of the monstrous machine. Iman Mersal retraces the footsteps of al-Tahtawi in Marseilles, seeking to make sense of his fragmentation 200 years later. Al-Tahtawi’s breakdown, that inaugurated Arab modernity, reduced the body to a pile of bones in need of management. Rabih Mroue rummages through these bones and excavates the dead in his own body, now an anonymous tomb. Mroue seeks to expose that absolute erasure when human life loses all bearings. These five contributors conjure up the beast in and through their texts, confront its violence in all its forms.
Hoda Barakat, Voices of the Lost (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), pp. 175-6.
Ibn Manzur, “W-h-sh,” in Lisan al-ʿArab, ed. ʿAli Shirri, 18 vols. (Beirut: Dar Ihyaʾ al-Turath al-ʿArabi, 1988), 15–16; 168–170.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-OEudipe: capitalisme et schizophrénie (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972) and Achille Mbembe, Brutalisme (Paris: Editions la Découverte, 2020).
Tarek El-Ariss, “Return of the Beast: From Pre-Islamic Ode to Contemporary Novel.” Journal of Arabic Literature(2016), 47.1-2: 62-90.
The reference here is to Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 jihadist manifesto Idarat al-Tawahhush (Management of Savagery) that spells out the political strategy of radical Islamist groups.