NATURE

DEADLY ENCOUNTERS

COLIN CAMPBELL May 29 2006
NATURE

DEADLY ENCOUNTERS

COLIN CAMPBELL May 29 2006

HIS IMMIGRANT IS NO SAINT

PROFILE

Rawi Hage’s new novel shatters the noble newcomer stereotype

NOAH RICHLER

There is a lot of wringing of hands, these days, by Canadians wondering what to make of the taxi driver in the front seat. The suspicion is that he is as talented as those he depends on for tips, and the majority of his riders wish there were ways to help—to get the man a proper job, and out of the way of rich kids playing lethal street racing games or thugs who have recently been killing taxi drivers at an alarming rate. Your driver is the engineer who left Iran for Toronto after the war with Iraq 18 years ago, the doctor who left Bosnia-Herzegovina for Calgary after Srebrenica, the enterprising trader from Bangladesh who is desperate for the chance of a better income. Or, if you are in Montreal and looking for a speedy ride up the Main, he just may be Rawi Hage, a Christian who left Lebanon in 1984, aged 20, a couple of years after the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Hage is a photographer and, as of this month, first-time author whose electric novel De Niro’s Game signals a couple of exciting turns in Canadian fiction.

As a first-generation immigrant novelist of Arab origin—Dimitri Nasrallah is another— the presence of Hage reflects the wider phe-

nomenon of Montreal’s utterly changed identity. No longer is Montreal the Jewish city. Muslims, predominantly Arab, now outnumber Jews by more than 11,000. At its worst, this demographic change has resulted in displays of anti-Semitic hatred that Israel’s worst excesses do not excuse—nasty student demonstrations with Islamist banners that equated Ariel Sharon with Hitler and the Star of David with the Nazi swastika, Ahmed Ressam, the torching of the Talmud Torah school library, the discovery this month of locally hosted Farsi websites promoting suicide bombers, and the like. More generally, the influx of peoples from Arab states has been a boon. Montreal is perhaps the most keenly contested of all Canadian cities—anglophones, francophones and now allophones of all kinds staking their loving claim to this most convivial city, in novels, film, art and cuisine.

Although Rawi Hage’s novel does not spend time in Canada—a second one, in gestation, does—De Niro’s Game announces the cultural integration of yet another significant heritage to the country’s complicated panoply of peoples. (To come clean, this writer is one of those Canadians who, possibly out of favour in the current political climate, adamantly believes that our demographic tapestry is entirely manageable, and has the potential to make this country one of the great, modern and sophisticated nations of the

world.) And it does so in a manner that defies the usual, benign, wishful thinking in which fiction’s immigrant characters are by definition saints.

De Niro’s Game, which came to publisher Anansi as an unsolicited manuscript, was written in English. “I’m not sure that I could write a novel in Arabic anymore,” says Hage, who also speaks French. It is a tight, sometimes violent and often upsetting novel with a markedly French existentialist flavour. It follows the twisted lives of Bassam and George, a couple of Beirut youths inevitably involved in contraband scams as they try to get by in a city upended by seven years of civil war. It is 1982, the year the Israelis laid siege to Lebanon’s capital. The militias dominate the city—Muslims and PLO fighters in the west, and Christians and Phalangists to the east. “De Niro’s Game” is the name Bassam and his friends have given to the suicidal routine of Russian roulette that many play—macabre homage to The Deer Hunter, the 1978 movie of the Vietnam War starring Robert De Niro.

“You feel invincible,” said Hage, of life in Beirut, when I spoke to him at a Montreal café. “You feel you just won’t die. Everybody else will, but not you. So you go buy food. You play soccer. You just live. There is always this denial. People trade. People travel. The war becomes normal, and you just live.”

Bombs, said Hage, meant the day off school, though in De Niro’s Game Bassam is in the habit of cocking an ear and listening for the second shell to fall. “The only time that you really feel tense is when the bombs start getting closer,” said Hage. “It was always the second bomb, my father would say. The Syrians would target a certain area and throw one bomb. There would be quiet for a few minutes and a civilian would go and pick up the injured and then they would throw a second bomb in exactly the same place. The civilians start learning about military tactics, little by little, through experience.”

Bassam and George embody the bifurcating destinies that lay before youths in what had famously been the “Paris of the Middle East.” The pair smuggles guns, cigarettes, whatever comes their way, but Bassam does his utmost to avoid the path George takes—

conscription into the Phalangist militia.

“Personally,” said Hage, “my obsession was to leave the country. In a very loose way, there were opposed camps of thinking and always a tension between the two. The people who stayed became nationalistic and completely involved in the military and the war, and there were others who wanted to leave. They were considered cowards or people who were not at all nationalistic—leaving the country, this whole discourse starts.”

Bassam is one of those who wants to leave. He dreams of the movies and Rome, though his flight does not occur immediately. One of the remarkable things that Hage’s novel does is capture the sheer banality—so easily seconded by nationalist forces in the Middle East (or South America or just about anywhere, for that matter)—of unemployed men with nothing to do. Give them a Kalashnikov and a Jeep and a modicum of leadership and be done with it.

“Boredom is a big part of war,” said Hage. “A lot of kids joined the militia out of a sense of powerlessness and financial gain, but there was also something sexy about being part of it. It was attractive to women. In the beginning, they were not so organized. They were just volunteers. But later on, when the Christians decided to collaborate with Israel, then things start to get more defined in a more militaristic, organizational way. You got a uniform, and a lot of kids started joining because eventually they were paid. You could be in the militia as a part-time jobbut once you’re in, you can’t leave. You’re stuck in it. The autobiographical part of the book is that I wanted to leave.”

The promised land of Canada is a mirage in Hage’s book, an illusory promise waved

in front of Bassam, who escapes Lebanon for France in the immediate aftermath of the Phalangist massacres of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila as Israeli soldiers looked on. Bassam arrives in Paris by way of a freighter to Marseilles, and wanders the city streets not knowing what to do with himself or the gun that war has rendered an essential part of his identity, as alienated as Albert Camus’s stranger was. (Hage deftly has Bassam lent a copy of L’Etranger by an Algerian hotel receptionist.) Eventually, Bassam throws the gun into the Seine—though not before, as De Niro had done, contemplating its loaded barrel, and eventually going back to look for it again.

“Violence becomes a tool and a means to acquire things,” said Hage, “and so it’s hard for Bassam because it’s a totally different environment and he cannot use it. Like any im-

migrant, there’s a period of adjustment—and it’s painful. Initially, it’s very disturbing. You’re disoriented, and the adjustment takes time.” Not wanting to give too much away, suffice it to say that the pledge of a Canadian passport is used to lure Bassam. Hage arrived in Canada in 1992, after first living and working in New York City for several years. But, story of the new millennium—Canada, not America, was his destination of first choice.

“New York was a horrible experience,” said Hage. “I barely knew English. Looking back, I’m not even sure how I survived. What was so difficult was that Lebanon was cut off—there were no working telephones and so I wouldn’t hear from my family for months. I could only get news about Lebanon from TV. I was in a nowhere zone. And then I heard that Quebec was accepting Lebanese because they were francophones, that they had some kind of a Lebanese program and wanted us for some reason. This was all community talk, but I applied and was accepted—and, you know, feeling equal to the person next to you, when you come, it’s a feeling of relief. I remember when I got my papers, just walking the streets and feeling secure and safe. This is where I want to be. It’s where I’m legally accepted and that’s a great feeling.” Within the novel, mixed Arab and Jewish bloodlines make a mockery of the region’s

nationalist politics, but the most remarkable contribution Hage’s novel makes is related to our own multicultural idea. Hage obstinately refuses to make Bassam a palatable icon of the immigrant experience, thus offering him some kind of moral rescue. Bassam is unsavoury and stays that way. This is the novel’s other significant turn. Immigration is so much a keystone of Canadian multicultural belief that it approaches the status of the folkloric, if not ideological, and to say anything untoward about immigrants is to be seen to criticize the whole. Not De Niro’s Game. Bassam was, possibly still is, a thug. So Hage’s novel goes up against a long tradition of Canadian novels presenting a panoply of noble, enduring immigrants washed up on these shores and struggling through three generations of strife.

“In a lot of Western literature,” said Hage, “and maybe in Canadian literature too, you cannot portray an immigrant as somebody that’s evil, because the feeling is to do so might contribute to racism. But if you create characters who do only good, who are all oppressed, who were the victims of something and then come here and are saved, then you’re not presenting them as humans, you’re representing them as somebody to pity. I believe you should include the element of evil in every person, because it exists in every per-

son. Once you omit that element of evil, you are no longer presenting a real human being. I didn’t just see Bassam as an immigrant. I saw him as someone who has a dark past, who has been through a war and was involved in it.” M Noah Richter’s A Literary Atlas of Canada is being published in August by McClelland & Stewart.

INTREAL THE JEWISH CITY. MUSLIMS, MAINLY ARAB, NOW OUTNUMBER JEWS.

DIRTY WORDS? CHRISTY’S LIPS ARE SEALED

Christy Wakefield refuses to swear, and in a profanity-laden society it’s made the Illinois student famous. Wakefield dropped four-letter words when she converted to Christianity, and pals referred her to Dr. Phil. He was interested, and she went on TV recently to talk about her clean routine. She’s so clean she refuses to say many non-obscene words that just sound icky, including “sex,” “cockpit” and a brand of snack called “Cheese Nips.”