Lebanon, particularly Beirut, was torn asunder by the civil war that raged in the country from 1975 to 1990. Both external forces and internal strife contributed to the depredation. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the war is the backdrop and more to Yalo, the most recent work of Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury to appear in the U.S.
Originally published in 2002, Yalo is the story of Daniel Yal'u, a Beirut native in his 20s repeatedly tortured while under arrest for rape and robbery. Going by the nickname that gives the book its title, he becomes almost a metaphor for Beirut as his torturers force him to write his life story. The torture and Yalo's own internal strife produce a kaleidoscopic, at times hallucinatory, tale as his life is torn asunder physically and psychologically.
Yalo, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux, is not for everyone. While undoubtedly accurate (and even somewhat innovative), some of the torture scenes are graphic. More important, the book is not for those who prefer a linear narrative. Yalo's recounting of his life has loops within loops and at times contradictory flashbacks that run into and merge with each other. As Yalo, who tells most of his story in the third person, puts it, "Yalo was confused as to how he should organize his memory. He was confused because things came to him all at once and the images intermingled in his head, times overlapped in his consciousness, as if he were an old man."
The rudiments of Yalo's story are straightforward. Born in 1961, Yalo is raised by his mother and his grandfather, a Christian cleric. Yalo is in his teens when the Civil War breaks out and the family is forced to move from predominantly Muslim West Beirut to predominantly Christian East Beirut. A few years later, he joins "the Lebanese Forces," most likely an Israeli-backed militia, where he serves as "a fighter" for 10 years. In 1989, he and an army buddy steal money and escape to Paris. Yalo's friend abandons him, leaving him penniless and begging in Paris subway stations, where he is unable to speak the language. A Lebanese arms dealer comes across Yalo and brings him back to Lebanon to be a bodyguard for his family near a village outside Beirut. Yalo has an affair with his rescuer's wife and then takes to robbing lovers in parked cars in the surrounding forest, occasionally raping the women. He falls in love with one of his victims, Shirin, and while it is unclear whether she also has an interest in him, she is the reason for his arrest and detention.