When the Lebanese civil war officially broke out in 1975, the conflict looked a lot like one of the numerous proxy wars that hitched local animosities to the East-West ideological struggle. Within a year, however, the cart began pulling the horse as ethnic-sectarian struggle preempted secular and Cold War imperatives. For literature, wartime chaos punctured the myth of progress and along with it realist literature predicated on a knowable world. After a half century of serving the Arab cause, realism became an overnight anachronism and from its grip emerged the Lebanese war novel.
The result is a retooled modernist literature that stresses the ideological preconditions for renewal in a new notion of human dignity. Hassan Daoud's 1983 Binayat Mathilde (The House of Mathilde), Hoda Barakat's 1990 Hajar al-dahik (The Stone of Laughter), and Rashid al-Daif's 1995 'Azizi al-sayyid Kawabata (Dear Mr Kawabata) show how violence and coercion infuse the city and humiliate the self during war. Human dignity emerges in these novels only as a longed-for memory or vision of what was or ought to be. In Arabic literature nothing is more redolent of memory and longing than the medieval literary motif of “stopping before the ruins” (wuquf 'ala al-atlal), to remember former people and places. Hilary Kilpatrick's pioneering work has revealed how the motif can be reappropriated to probe “deeper layers of consciousness,” and is “connected with the role of memory in literature today as a device for structuring experience.”
This essay argues that the Lebanese war novel has also quietly incorporated “stopping before the ruins” into a modernist idiom. This is not simply to state that the abandoned campsite has now become the burned-out home and that the ex-lover has become one's family, neighbors or associates. In these novels the ruins motif sets in motion the mental processes that condition the conviction that human life is possessed of innate dignity regardless of how history and war may compromise it. I argue in a final section of this essay that this socio-literary practice corresponds closely to Julia Kristeva's account of psychosexual trauma in her theory of infantile abjection.