Berytus: An Underground City

I’m really excited this is finally coming out in English

Berytus: An Underground City, scheduled to be published in English next year, also in Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translation, seems inspired by the archeologists’ discovery of multiple Beiruts beneath the real one. It begins with a self-consciously gothic premise: Jaber is dining one night with friends downtown when they are approached by a man whom he recognizes as a former security guard from the al-Hayat offices, but who now “looks uncertain of his own existence” and begs the novelist to listen to his story. The guard claims to have fallen into a hole while working at the old City Palace cinema, an especially haunted spot in Jaber’s imagination, and to have landed in an underground city that lies beneath the more familiar one. The rest of the novel reads like an exotic travelogue—it includes a romance that seems to have strayed from a work by the turn-of-the-century French novelist Pierre Loti—whose pleasure lies in Jaber’s ingenuity in making this alternate world anthropologically plausible. What do these cave dwellers eat? What do they use for money? How do they procure light? Underground Beirut turns out to be a funhouse version of the actual city: the food is terrible and the inhabitants have forgotten about religion, but both are cities of emigrants with dreams of a better life elsewhere. Here again, Jaber’s fiction seems designed to remind us of the precarious nature of the world we take to be natural and even inevitable. One look into a Phoenician dig pit suggests otherwise.

At one point in Berytus, the security guard-turned-storyteller offers Jaber a riddling summation of the novelist’s own method. “What is it you’re always saying in your books? That whatever happens was written.” “Written,” maktoub: the Arabic involves a pun Jaber is especially fond of. On the surface, the phrase uses a conventional expression for fate, and means that whatever happens was bound to happen. This is precisely what Jaber does not say in his books, of course, though it is easy to see how his interest in historical documentation might lead unwary readers astray. Instead, his fiction makes a more subtle argument: not that whatever happens is fated (maktoub), but that whatever happens is recorded (maktoub) somewhere, and might therefore be rescued from the catastrophe of actual history. It is an especially appealing thought, given Lebanon’s still unreconciled past and conflict-ridden present.”

-Robyn Creswell