Trauma ties - History and culture

The future of trauma theory - Edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant and Robert Eaglestone 2008

Trauma ties
History and culture

Chiasmus and community in Lebanese civil war literature

Nouri Gana


Al-hikāya ghāliban lil-mahzūm wat-tārīkh lil-muntasir

The story belongs usually to the defeated and history to the victor

Elias Khoury

In Refractions of Violence, Martin Jay contends that violence has become a constitutive function of today’s world, structuring and sustaining our ways of existence and of socio-political and transnational intelligibility (Jay 3). Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that contemporary warfare and violence have become ’a permanent condition’, ’the primary organizing principle of society’, and ’the general matrix for all relations of power and techniques of domination’ (Hardt and Negri 12—13). Genocides, exterminations and massacres have become, in Jean-Luc Nancy’s bleak aphorism, ’if not names properly speaking, at least semantemes of modernity’ (Nancy 178). While it may be true that warfare and violence are compelling and foundational forces of our contemporaneity, it is incumbent upon us to discriminate carefully between the structural currency of violence and the historical grievances it produces and of which it is oftentimes the product. The rigorous task of exposing the entangled (foundational, objective, ideological or symbolic) domains of violence in contemporary societies ought not to override or discredit the still necessary critique of the more contingent and concrete forms of violence, and of their particular historical origins or precipitating causes. What is at stake in the very structural banalization of everyday violence is not only the foreclosure of human loss—and therefore the institutionalization of ungrievability, disposability and post-traumatic stress disorders as ineluctable conditions of human existence—but also the attenuation and marginalization of the very notions of justice, political redress and forgiveness, without which no meaningful sense of subjectivity, of community and of transnational solidarity, however precarious these might remain, could be instilled and nurtured in the survivors of extreme violence and in the generations to come, ’their’ descendants and ’ours’, the inheritors of histories of violence, inflicted and incurred.

The particular historical and largely colonial instigators of warfare and violence in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon risk being displaced into ancient structural deficiencies or ethnic and religious exigencies that make the unnecessary, asymmetrical and unjust violence look inevitable, even if unfortunate. When it comes to studying the Arab world and the status-turmoil that continues to define it, analysts have too often given in to the lures of what might be called licensed displacements of the realities of war that serve not only the derealizing aims of actual warfare but also the legitimizing narratives that inaugurate and sustain military violence. What interests me in what follows is the counter-narratives—those that bear witness to the enduring impulse to make sense of war and to expose in the process its concrete traumatic demarcations, calculated structural denominations and profound derealizing effects. As James Tatum puts it, ’the one impulse that has proved as enduring as human beings’ urge to make wars is their need to make sense of them’ (Tatum xi), but this sensemaking impulse, it should be added, can easily slide into an ordering gesture of understanding. Making sense of war involves an engagement with the cruelties of memory and traumatic loss via the consolatory vistas of mourning, memorials, and artistic expression. Sensemaking as a hermeneutic process therefore risks conferring meaning on the meaninglessness of war, neutralizing the discontinuous chaos of the reality of warfare it wants to process, legitimizing the very structural dominion of violence it sets out to denounce.

Because of the increasing institutionalization of warfare and the decline of communitywide mourning practices, the literary (indeed, the aesthetic writ large) has become the most hospitable public space where the performance of memory and mourning takes place. Not surprisingly, if depressingly ironic, entire literary traditions have been facilitated by violence and warfare. This has, obviously, been the case with a good number of modernist and postcolonial national literatures as several new studies on trauma and mourning go to demonstrate.1 While not boasting a comparable number of new studies, especially ones carried out through the theoretical lenses of trauma and mourning studies, this has also been the case with the national literatures of the Arab states, particularly in Algeria, Palestine and, more recently, Iraq, but, above all, in Lebanon, where the civil war (1975—92) has indeed acted as the midwife of post-modern Lebanese literature.2 As Elias Khoury points out, ’In this city [i.e. Beirut] systematically ravaged by civil war, the only space left for memory is literature’ (Khoury 1995: 139).

In what follows, I focus on Khoury’s City Gates, one of the most experimental and abstract novels in post-modern Arabic literature, written in the midst of the Lebanese civil war and first published in 1981.3 I shall examine the ways in which narrative bears witness to, protests against, and ultimately helps us gain empathic access to the devastating effects of war without entirely or necessarily proffering us consolatory reprieve or clear exit strategies. The more the narrative of City Gates clears a space for mourning, the more precarious becomes the search for emotional closure. While the novel comes to a literal full stop at the end of the narrative, it rhetorically resists throughout its formal texture any eventuality of narrative closure. By occluding narrative closure, the novel occludes, at least by implication, any corresponding emotional closure. As such, it exemplifies what might be called a poetics of occlosure in which the narrative unfolds within and through a chiastic oscillation between the announcement of the end and the pronouncement of its recessiveness or foreclosure. As will become clear, this poetics fans out through and across various tropes (particularly chiasmus and metonymy) and experimental narrative techniques ranging from a stylistic obsession with formlessness and fragmentariness to polyphony and, above all, repetition and plotlessness.

The nameless protagonist of Khoury’s City Gates—’a man and a stranger’ (kāna rajulan wa kāna gharīban) (6)—sets out on a journey home, back to the city from which he was exiled, but the lashing athletic elasticity and haunting lyricism of the prose—its economic admixture of excess and inadequacy, of indeterminacy and immanence, of literality and undecidability, of dream and hallucination, of semantic opacity and syntactic play, and of the reality and unreality of the city—combine to leave him (and us) practically stranded at the gates (also of meaning and truth), which, by the end of the novel, are nowhere to be found. In their tormenting hunt for meaning, readers are bound to fall under the shadow of the stranger’s quest for the city, for the city square, for the suitcase and, above all, for the truth (of what happened) to which the stranger wants to bear witness.4

City Gates should be seen first and foremost as an attempt to forge a new language, a new type of writing and a new mode of critique that would not only respond to the licensed displacements of historical violence into structural violence, but also expose the material and immaterial aftereffects of warfare, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. The novel is much less a mimetic representation of war-torn Beirut than an allegory of the traumatic demarcations of the war—not to say a foreboding prolepsis of the Sabra and Shatila massacre that would take place just one year after the novel’s publication. Above all, City Gates charts the enabling contours for the emergence of a new type of subjectivity from within the constraints of extreme vulnerability—the traumas and trials of survival in the aftermath of catastrophe. Through the allegorically performative dramatization of trauma, the novel seeks to institute vulnerability as a condition of subjectivity and to redistribute human ties along trauma ties—ties that the traumatized (and trauma-tied) subject dreads but keeps rediscovering at a relatively removed experiential distance from the originating traumatic event.

In City Gates, chiasmus, metonymy, and repetition are among the tropological tools that Khoury deploys to register and simultaneously loosen up the hold of trauma on the psyche. Stylistically, the novel unfolds like a trauma whose cadence, rhythm and haunting lyricism match only its opacity, recessiveness or intricate evasiveness. The disrupted circular plotline of the story begins with a stranger who returns to an unnamed city, which is, most probably, the scene of the traumatic event:

He was a man and he was a stranger,

He didn’t tell his story to anyone, he didn’t know he was a story to be told. He thought, he used to think, the way we think, and he was like everyone was, but he didn’t tell anyone, because he didn’t know that the things that had happened could be told to anyone.

He was a man and he was a stranger,

He doesn’t remember how his story began, because he was busy with its ending. And when the ending came he found that he didn’t know the ending either, because the ending can’t be known, because the ending is an ending.


It is not for nothing that the style here is somewhat overwrought; it is expressive of the traumatic nature of the story and of the traumatized state of the anonymous protagonist (whose story reads, at least initially, as an unreadable report). Given that City Gates was published in 1981 (and was most probably written after 1977, the year when Little Mountain was published to great critical acclaim), this man and this stranger might easily dramatize the lived experience of a survivor of the 1976 siege and massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar in the suburbs of Beirut. He cannot tell his story partly because he does not know whether it can be framed as such and partly because he does not remember how it began, much less whether it actually reached an end. Because of the unwitting repetitive re-enactments of the traumatic event (on the threshold of experience), the story might never find the ending, at the end of which it could possibly be framed as a story to be told to others. This is the paradox of City Gates: it re-enacts the trauma whose story it wants to tell.

This performative élan does not seem to allow for the establishment of the kind of coherency and form constitutive of a story to be reconstructed through or read for its plot. Instead, a solid void starts building as soon as reading starts. That the stranger cannot tell his story means, in the final analysis, that he cannot frame it into a coherent narrative whose meaning and meaningfulness hinge on the development of a horizon of expectations for future potentialities; for the meaning of an event is, in the words of Ernst van Alphen, ’derived from an anticipation of events to follow’ (Alphen 33). Clearly, from the very outset of the novel the stranger is unable to activate a narrative framework that would make it possible to anticipate coming events. What arises out of the lack of a narrative framework that normally makes possible the anticipation of future events is precisely a narrative (of that) lack. In no small measure, this is the challenge to City Gates (insofar as it seeks to inscribe that lack) and simultaneously this is the challenge of City Gates (insofar as it re-enacts that narrative lack in order to bear witness to it without inadvertently filling it out). Above all, this is our challenge—the challenge of reading the lack at the structural rib of City Gates.

City Gates treads the fine line between the structural and the historical dimensions of mourning, ensuring that the latter does not unwittingly slip into the former—that what we get is more than a structural poetics of narrative mourning. The narrator or storyteller here is not only the survivor of the end of the novel, or the mourner for the loss of the story in Hans-Jost Frey’s sense of the fundamental ’sadness of the novel, whose story can never come to completion because its end is always followed by its narration’ (76), but also the survivor of the traumatic event that the novel presents performatively: the survivor of a history of trauma whose psychic demarcations match only ’the very inaccessibility of its occurrence’ (Caruth 18), and the very lack of a ’narrative framework that makes it possible to anticipate future events’(Alphen 33).

So far my discussion of the chiasmus between repetition and the search for psychoaffective closure and narrative end has relied on the somewhat loose relations I established between the traumatic triad: event, experience, and representation. Given that a traumatic event cannot be experienced during its actual occurrence, it bears reiterating here that repetition is the very experience of the traumatic event for the first time. This implies that living through a traumatic experience occurs only belatedly and through the work of remembering and/or compulsive repeating. Is it possible, however, one might ask, to experience belatedly an event that could not—in the first place—have been experienced when it happened? The impossibility of experiencing a traumatic event while living through it first-hand has more to do with the discursive nature of experience than with the extremity of the event itself. As Ernst van Alphen persuasively argues, the problem here ’is not the nature of the event, nor an intrinsic limitation of representation; rather, it is the split between the living of an event and the available forms of representation with/in which the event can be experienced’ (27). For, an ’experience does not really exist until it can be named and placed in larger categories’ (Kolk and McFarlane 488). To experience here is precisely to dispose of the traumatic in the realm of the discursive; it is to situate oneself at a safe remove or distance from the event. In short, ’experience is the transposition of the event to the realm of the subject. Hence the experience of an event is already a representation of it and not the event itself’ (Alphen 27). City Gates attests to what happens when the traumatic event (here precipitated by the Lebanese civil war) cannot be channelled into experience ’because a distance from it in language or representation was not possible’ (Alphen 27). If experiencing trauma is indissociable from representing it—from discursively locating it in the past and psychically integrating it into one’s own past—how can a failed experience of trauma still be represented? A failed experience implies here that discourse has failed to bring about a timely experience of trauma or that the inextricable relationship between discourse and experience has been unsettled in such a way that, instead of experience, there follows a collapse of experience. City Gates should be seen as an intense dramatization of this collapse of experience in an abandon of repetition.

The politico-ethical wager of City Gates is to delve into the empowering potential of engaging (with) failure; this wager rests not only in its attempt to bear witness to a failed experience of trauma but also in its failure to bear witness to that very failure (without which it cannot impart an accurate sense of the failure it wants to represent). What better way to represent failure than by failing well! City Gates vacillates chiastically between the excess of the traumatic event—its narrative lack or unrepresentability—and the inadequacy of the novel to bring about the experience of the event except in the immanent play of repetition. The failure of the novel as a symbolic form to represent the event (a failure intrinsic to discourse) is inextricably tied to the overwhelming nature of the event (i.e. its unrepresentability and indeterminacy, which is in excess of discourse per se, and pertains rather, pace van Alphen, to the magnitude of the event). There unfolds a chiasmus then between inadequacy and excess, the inadequacy of the symbolic order and the excess of the traumatic event. This is a chiasmus that I find to be the master trope of narrative trauma par excellence. Far from thrusting forward dialectically, this chiasmus proceeds in reversible and oft-criss-crossing movements, reproducing the transformational generative play of repetition, by which the novel starts in medias res and by which rather than toward which it is driven. It is in this chiasmus that the highly experimental and postmodern venture of City Gates must be situated. I have already addressed two aspects of this chiasmus—repetition and the search of narrative/emotional closure—and will now address two final aspects: fragmentariness and the collapse of the narrative voice. My aim here is not to exhaust all the aspects of this chiasmus of inadequacy and excess; rather, it is to be more explicit and specific about how central chiasmus itself, as a trope, is to narrative trauma.

The fragmentariness of City Gates is the most daunting hurdle facing any reader or critic of the novel. What is perhaps more consolatory than revelatory is that the reason why the novel is very fragmentary seems simple: it wants to literalize the failed experience of trauma (i.e. the failure of representation to bring about an experience of the event at the moment of its occurrence). Here is another example:

But … the truth is I didn’t say anything, I wanted to say, but … no now I want to say, now after everything has happened I think that I wanted to say, or that I should’ve said. Now, I want to be there in order to say. But I’m not there, and I don’t say anything.


The man and the stranger here dramatizes the chiastic oscillation between the survival of trauma and the trauma of survival itself, between having lived through and having missed the traumatic, and between being there and not being there (even though still but not quite there). Were it possible to be transported back there to the scene of the traumatic event, it would have been possible to say, to represent and to experience the event at the moment of its occurrence. Above all, it would have been possible to distance oneself from it, but the fact that that did not obtain then precludes the possibility of making it happen now: Khoury’s novel produces the lack of that distance (or would-be-discursive distance), the failure of representation, and the collapse of experience/witnessing the traumatic event at the moment it occurred.

City Gates reads and feels like a parable, a fable, a surreal or fantastic narrative—it proceeds allegorically, looking at the reality of violence awry. In the seven chapters that constitute its thoroughly dreamlike narrative, the man and the stranger meets with surreal creatures, including a thousand-year-old virgin with tiny worms coming out of her insides, who dreamt of making love to a stranger like him (25); a woman made of yogurt (33); a king in a grave of stone (36); a man eating salt and drinking water until he ’transformed into a lump rolling in the middle of the square’ (47); a woman who splits in two (55); foul-smelling animals (80); ’women weeping over bloated corpses reeking of death’ (83). Ultimately, the city to which he longed to return fades away in a cataclysmic fire and storm, and nothing remains of it ’except weeping voices coming from the entrails of the fish and rising to where no one can listen to them’ (97). The events hardly resemble reality or the metonymies associated with reality; rather, they point at and toward reality in a more circuitous, urgent and enduring manner. Like the dizzying seriality of nightmares from which the man and the stranger keeps trying to awake throughout his journey into the ’black hole’ of the traumatic encounter (Kolk), the reality of the war might not be properly apprehended if it cannot be discerned through the eerie and improbable events described in the novel. For one thing, neither can the reality of civil war be walked through first-hand nor can it be witnessed or experienced without recourse to free-wheeling fictional qualifiers or interjections such as ’surreal’, ’preternatural’, ’senseless’, ’absurd’, all of which could be aptly applied to City Gates. For another, the sense of sustained disorientation, formlessness and adventurousness that characterizes City Gates is not at all unwarranted if the novel is to be understood as a fierce representation of the failure of representation and of the collapse of the experience of trauma in the first place.

City Gates strives to stretch the limits of the re-presentable even while it is highly sensitive to its own inadequacy in front of the unpresentable trauma that paradoxically demands and defies representation. In its defamiliarizing and elusive style—simultaneously lyrical and post-elegiac, compelling and unyielding at every turn, elliptical at times and aphoristic or apocalyptic at others—City Gates clearly takes up the challenge of articulating (by means of a sustained and deliberate—even self-indulgent—inarticulacy) that failed experience and that failed representation: the encounter between its protagonist and the traumatic event (that is presumably the catastrophe of the Lebanese civil strife). This commitment to formal experimentation neither exists in a socio-political vacuum nor is it an aesthetic or meta-narrative end in itself; for, the postmodernist tendencies in modern Arabic literature arise out of profoundly presentist concerns: ’In societies in transition’, says Khoury, ’you cannot separate what is political from what is literary … Literature, in our situation must put together two elements: seeing and inventing; it must tell the truth and lie; it must combine the real and the fantastic at the same level and at the same moment’ (Khoury 1993: 131). In its allegorical venture, City Gates offers us a way to relate to the discontinuous chaos of war rather than a documentary and mimetic rendition of war’s diurnal reality.

Having addressed the major formal and stylistic characteristics of the novel, I now want to conclude by addressing the collapse of the narrative voice, in order to stop at the ways in which City Gates presents us—in the final analysis—with the drama of depersonalization as a way of rethinking subjectivity in terms of vulnerability. Vulnerability becomes in turn a potential psychosocial concept for re-envisioning socio-political, communal and human ties (all of which can at any time be invoked or retreated from, particularly in contexts of everyday violence) along trauma ties. The narrative voice meanders jerkily between third and first person narration. The ’man and the stranger’, the anonymous protagonist of the novel, splits—given the acute dissociative disorders from which he suffers and which are associated with PTSD—into the ’man’, the ’stranger’ and the ’storyteller’, imparting thus a heightened sense of an authorless narrative, shading into anonymously and indistinguishably multiperspectival, protean and confusing narrative voices, including that of the frame narrator. First and third person narrative voices are continually fusing and collapsing into each other: ’I said I’ll bend down and I’ll lean over and I’ll go to sleep. The stranger said I’ll bend down and I’ll lean over and I’ll go to sleep’ (19). At times, the first person narrative voice splits in two: ’The woman calls to me, I say to her, I am not me/I know you are not you, but she calls to me’ (38). When the narrative voice finally reasserts its authority, it sounds far less than reassuring: ’And I say, I am the one who says, I am the one who’ (89). The first example shows how the first person narrative voice identifies with the stranger. The second example shows how the first person narrative voice splits itself in two and disidentifies with one part of its own self. In the third example, the first person narrative voice clears any confusion caused by the chiastic vacillation between identification and disidentification and reclaims its authority over the narrative (even though it is clearly an attenuated form of authority). As a rule, however, whenever the narrative voice is the agent of a given action at the moment of trauma, it tends to identify with otherness (as in the first example); inversely, it tends to disidentify with all forms of otherness whenever it is the object of an action (as in the second example where the woman’s call interpellates the first person narrator). It is as if the very subjective ambiguity of the experience of trauma—in which the traumatized subject experiences simultaneities of, or alternations between, deliberate returns to and disembodied returns of the traumatic event—dictates the economy of identification and disidentification here. It is as if the back and forth shifts from the first to the third person narration are expressive of the anonymous narrator’s fantasy of mastery over a situation to which he is submitted. If such is the case, this fantasy of mastery is nothing more than an agentive fallacy. The traumatized subject is, in most cases, the object not the agent of the traumatic event. The protagonist of City Gates is no exception. One need not neglect, however, the role this fantasy of mastery plays not only in the process of experiencing and bearing witness to trauma but also in the formation of a new form of subjectivity.

The fantasy of mastery is first and foremost a symptom of the unmasterable character of trauma. Not only does this fantasy hold open the possibility of experiencing and representing trauma, but it also makes possible the endurance of the traumatized subject in the process of (processing) trauma. At the level of the failed experience of trauma that City Gates performs, this fantasy of mastery transforms and generates other fantasies, particularly the fantasy of storytelling: ’And I, I was speaking, I see and I don’t speak. I said I won’t tell my story to anyone. I don’t know the story, so what’s there to tell?’ (69). It is ironic that the fantasy of storytelling throughout the novel repetitively announces the very foreclosure of storytelling except that the narrative voice had to live through that very foreclosure in order to announce it. It is ultimately through this repetitive announcement of narrative foreclosure that the novel inscribes the catastrophe it failed to represent:

And the storyteller tells what he saw, and the storyteller bears witness to what he witnessed, and the witness dies as the victims die, and the witness knows no more than walls and doors and eyes in which hands burn, and hands that stretch out to smoldering eyes.

And the one who witnessed writes about his eyes, and walks beside the man who walked and doesn’t leave him alone and he will not be except where he found himself.


This is the ending of the preamble, which is a compressed version of the entire narrative, except that it is at once inside and outside its circular structure. The ending of the preamble is a bit different from the ending of the novel, which puts forward a vision of the end in which nothing remains except ’weeping voices coming from the entrails of fish and rising to where no one can listen to them’ (97). While both endings depict an apocalyptic destiny, the ending of the preamble injects a glimmer of hope for a different future provided that bold steps are taken. These do not even remotely amount to a blueprint for action (especially given the constant disorientation and abstractness of City Gates), but they revolve around an eclectic number of keywords that can be extracted from both endings. The first three keywords are explicit: storytelling, witnessing, listening. The other three are implicit; they include the notion of vulnerability (tacit in the description of victims that die and hands that burn), solidarity (latent in the determination not to leave the other man alone), and, finally, subjectivity (which is sufficiently encoded in the references to the conditions of being and selfhood). This is by no means a finite list, much less if it is to be taken, as I do here, to apply to the entirety of the novel. What is important here is to articulate the potential relations between these keywords that the novel itself points toward. I propose to do so by re-examining the fantasy of mastery and the fantasy of storytelling that propel the narrative voice in its self-professed mission: to listen, to tell and to bear witness.

While the fantasy of mastery over trauma may largely be a product of an agentive fallacy, it is nonetheless crucial to the process of coming to terms with a compromised subjectivity. Similarly, while the fantasy of storytelling is continually overridden by the foreclosure of storytelling, it nonetheless imparts a heightened sense of the urgency of the present (al-ḥāḍir) and the pressing need to put forward narrative acts—acts that are never more to be desired than at a time when not even the witness (i.e. the stranger) is (being) spared, as the passage above makes unequivocally evident, the fate of those to whom and for whom he seeks to bear witness. Both fantasies are, in point of fact, gestures of inconsolability, symptomatic not only of the experience of lonely suffering that the stranger lives through—’This has not happened before, it hasn’t happened that everyone and I have not remained except alone’ (90); ’The stranger said he was dying all alone’ (97)—but also of the endurance of his subjectivity in the process. Above all, both fantasies are symptomatic of the ways in which the stranger attempts to redistribute solitary suffering into cultural and public memory, which is, after all, the foundational gesture of City Gates as a whole. This process, I argue, cuts across the private and public, the personal and communal, as well as the subjective and collective.

The fantasy of mastery is precisely the fantasy of bearing witness to one’s own desolate experience of solitary suffering when no secondary and empathic witness can be found. In ’The Most Intimate of Creations: Symptoms as Memorials to One’s Lonely Suffering’, Paul Shabad deftly reveals the symptomatologic workings of witnessing—the logic whereby the symptom becomes the personal device of witnessing suffering. Accentuating the disjunctive temporalities between the occurrence of a traumatic accident and the psychic and affective response to it by the lonely individual who experienced it, Shabad explains how unwitnessed solitary suffering transforms into trauma and how only ’the transformation of experienced suffering into witnessed reality at the moment it occurs inoculates experience against traumatization’ (200). In the absence of another person who can validate our solitary experience of suffering, however, ’we are forced into the awkward, involuted position of bearing witness to our own experience’ (200). Individual consciousness becomes, as such, ’a powerful homegrown overseer’ (198), or, in the words of Paul Russell, whom Shabad cites, ’a camera photographing its own imagery’ (202)—really, a camera ’bearing the responsibility of remembering and testifying to the actuality of one’s suffering’ (201). It is as if the mind itself becomes an autowitnessing machine, or a post-traumatic shock recorder, converting the traumatic event into experienceable material.

In a provocative move that is partly reminiscent of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s concept of encryption in The Shell and the Kernel, Shabad maintains that the conversion of a trauma precipitated by lonely suffering must pass through the intimate and creative path of symptomatology. Symptoms are self-invented ’communicative actions intended to build a lasting monument once and for all for one’s experience of suffering’ (207)—a ’monument that will be remembered and that will testify to the actuality of our own existence’ (197). Shabad calls this also ’a moment in the sun’, blurring thus the materiality of the symptom with its belated temporality (197). The dissolution of the symptoms is dependent upon the engineering of a ’credibly empathic witness’ and ’of bringing the dignity of recognition, sometimes many years later, to a person’s experience of lonely suffering’ (210). As reiterative acts of lonely suffering generated by, or driven chiastically toward the traumatic event, trauma ties not only traumatize the survivor, but also become the animating impetus of communicative acts and optimal fostering ground for the formation of social intelligibility and communal ties. The protagonist of City Gates is estranged from, yet tied to, the anonymous city; his constant comings and goings between the city gates and city square present us with a poetics of relationality that is profoundly exiled and rooted at one and the same time—this is a chiasmus of exilic ties, which might be, in point of fact, at the very basis of an ethico-politics of relationality. As Kai Erikson argues, ’trauma has both centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. It draws one away from the center of group space at the same time drawing one back … estrangement becomes the basis for communality’ (186). Estrangement allows for what Ricoeur calls, in a book of the same title, ’the course of recognition’ (parcours de la reconnaissance) to unfold from ’self-recognition’ to ’mutual recognition’, from ’identity’ to ’otherness’, and along a ’background’ ’dialectic between recognition and misrecognition’ (248—9).

City Gates dramatizes throughout its narrative collapse this course of recognition, which is consistently expressed (in Khoury’s, by now, routine indirectness) as an unremitting sense of estrangement, rootlessness and exile. For instance, the protagonist of the novel is called ’the stranger’ (al-gharīb) and does, indeed, feel ’a stranger in his own city’ (13). No wonder, then, that only toward the end of the narrative does he remember that he came to the city carrying a suitcase and a mirror which he also lost: ’I don’t remember, I don’t. I’m looking for my mirror that got lost and for my things that I lost’ (71). The loss of the mirror (in the Lacanian sense) must have literally retarded the potentiality of misrecognition, but, given that the narrative is refracted through mirrors and through a continually split or splitting narrative voice, the stranger must have already confronted the spectral dimension of his subjectivity. This spectral subjectivity has to do more, though, with the historical magnitude of the warfare and violence than with the structural constitution of subjectivity, of which Lacan speaks in his famous essay on the mirror stage (3—9). What is important to stress is that the stranger’s name (or lack of it) not only suggests that those around him fail to recognize him—and, therefore, recognize, or misrecognize him as a stranger, perhaps, even, less than human—but also, and more important by far, that he is himself alienated from himself and simultaneously from his surroundings. It is in the course of estrangement that a transformational and generative formation of subjectivity and community takes place, since, as Erikson argues, ’drifting away is accompanied by revised views of the world that, in their turn, become the basis for communality’ (198).

Erikson goes on to argue that traumatized people, by virtue of their estrangement and alienation, ’calculate life’s chances differently. They look out at the world through a different lens. And in that sense they can be said to have experienced not only a changed sense of self and a changed way of relating to others but a changed worldview’ (194). The type of recognition that is furnished by estrangement and defamiliarization suspends the existing norms of intelligibility that determine the apportioning of recognition and open them up to the dynamics of empathy and epiphany—what I call empiphany (Signifying Loss 56). It is as if only by becoming totally unrecognizable to oneself and one’s surroundings—only by undergoing, that is, a limit experience, such as trauma—does one aspire to be transformed and, more important, to transform the existing norms of intelligibility that grant and withhold recognition. Indeed, the ending of the preamble I cited above points toward a concept of recognition of empiphanic proportions, one that involves both cognitive insight and empathic reckoning, or, as Rita Felski argues, ’knowledge’ and ’acknowledgement’: ’The former is directed toward the self, the latter toward others, such that the two meanings of the term would seem to be entirely at odds’ (30). It is, however, the bidirectional crosscutting of recognition that becomes obvious in the last passage in the preamble: ’And the one who witnessed writes about his eyes, and walks beside the man who walked and doesn’t leave him alone and he will not be except where he found himself (wa lā yatrukhu wahīdan wa lā yakūn ’illā haythu wajada nafsahu)’ (5; emphasis added). Recognition here cuts across all of the above keywords, particularly subjectivity, vulnerability, and solidarity. Only in solidarity with the vulnerability of the anonymous other—which is the flipside of our own exposure and vulnerability—can we become subjects.

Vulnerability here institutes and points toward a counterintuitive mode of subjectivity—a subjectivity that can no longer afford to harbour any illusions about its implication in and exposure to the vulnerability of the other anonymous man who walks beside. In no small measure, this is also the communal and sociopolitical dimension of vulnerability, whose force City Gates brings to the fore. Rather than reconcile us to its structural over-determination in an age of disaster capitalism, Khoury’s novel puts us on trial before its historical trials. It points at and toward the crucial importance of form and style to any serious rethinking of trauma and politics in tandem. The vulnerability that the anonymous stranger lives through and endures materializes in the paradoxically formless form of the novel. It makes itself known more closely through the chiastic repetitions and insistences of trauma—really, through the intensities of survival in the aftermath of catastrophe. Chiasmus is the figure of traumatic survival and vulnerability. Above all, it is the figure of connectivity between an emurgent (urgent and emergent) sense of post-traumatic subjectivity and an apprehensive revival of community. The figure of chiasmus in the novel ties the stranger to the locus of trauma and simultaneously to the bounds and bonds of community (precisely, the community of traumatized and trauma-tied subjects, at the margins of a perfectible humanity and worldwide community).

The rehearsed approximations of trauma that City Gates stages point toward the urgency of continually reopening history to the story of the man and the stranger and to the stories of his fellow men and strangers. These stories, which for Khoury belong to the defeated ought, one day, to belong to the victors, to the champions of history, in the hope they awaken them to their contingent invulnerability, that is, to their structural and human vulnerability. Until then, however, the task at hand is to continually discriminate between historical (i.e. singular-plural) vulnerabilities and structural vulnerability (i.e. the primary vulnerability that inheres in our thrownness into the world, in the Heideggerian sense, of course). This is a task that I cannot overstress here—it is one of the most enduring preoccupations and lessons of post-modern Arabic literature provided that it is approached for no purely extra-literary motives. Trauma studies specialists may not find in this literature the satisfactions of European literature, and nor should they, but they may very well find in it the future of trauma studies.


1 The modernist studies include in particular Ramazani, Ricciardi, Spargo, Moglen, Flatley; the postcolonial studies include in particular Durrant, Khanna, Gilroy. For a good overview, see Rae.

2 In a lecture titled ’Sociology and the Novelist’, Elias Khoury maintains that ’the Lebanese civil war novel was born with the birth of the war itself and, as such, it evolved into a unique social and literary phenomenon.’

3 I have elsewhere studied film and poetry. See, for instance, ’Reel Violence’ and ’War, Poetry, Mourning’. This essay is a reworked version of ’Formless Form’. For a longer version, see my Signifying Loss.

4 Indeed, in Arabic, suitcase (ḥaqība) could actually be a pun on truth (ḥaqīqa)—both words are after all near-homographs as well as near-homophones.

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