De Niro's Game

De Niro's Game

4.3 3
by Rawi Hage

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Childhood best friends Bassam and George have grown to be men in war-ravaged Beirut. Now they must choose between the only two futures available to them: to stay in the devastated city and consolidate power through crime or to go into exile abroad, alienated from the only existence they have ever known.

Told in a distinctive, captivating voice that fuses

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Childhood best friends Bassam and George have grown to be men in war-ravaged Beirut. Now they must choose between the only two futures available to them: to stay in the devastated city and consolidate power through crime or to go into exile abroad, alienated from the only existence they have ever known.

Told in a distinctive, captivating voice that fuses vivid cinematic imagery, a page-turning plot, and exquisite, dark poetry, De Niro's Game is an explosive portrait of life in a war zone and a powerful meditation on what comes after. It won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2008.

Editorial Reviews

Nigel Beale
De Niro's Game,…presents a portrait of two childhood friends living in war-torn Beirut during the early 1980s. Juxtaposing edgy imagery with the repetitive calm of beautiful Arabic poetry, the novel explores the lives of Bassam and George, young men who must choose either to stay in Beirut relying on stealth and violence or live in alienation abroad. Bassam dreams of escaping, and to make money for this he schemes with George to skim proceeds from poker arcades and smuggle bottles of counterfeit whiskey. George, on the other hand, chooses to stay and is forced into military service. He maneuvers his way through the ranks and lives a mad-dog life of sanctioned crime. Hundreds of thousands of bombs fall in this book as the boys maraud and chase women. It's a hallucinatory vision of how war corrupts even friendship. Written in English and calling upon Arabic poetry and French philosophy, De Niro's Game forms an intriguing trilingual hybrid that should cement its appeal worldwide.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

This aggressive, prize-winning Canadian import debut recounts the fate of two childhood friends in war-ravaged Beirut. Narrator Bassam dreams of leaving Beirut, where there is "not enough [money] for cigarettes, a nagging mother, and food," and escaping to Rome, where even the pigeons "look happy and well fed." To fund his escape, he enters into a scheme with his best friend, George, to skim funds from the poker arcade where George works. But George is soon coerced into joining the militia and rises to its top ranks, allowing the friends to indulge in freewheeling lawlessness. Their days of riding the streets of West Beirut "with guns under our bellies, and stolen gas in our tanks, and no particular place to go" gives way to betrayal and violence more ferocious than either self-styled thug had bargained for. Though Bassam does eventually leave, he finds he cannot entirely escape Beirut; only in Paris, where the story plays out its third and final act, does he discover the extent of his friend's treachery. Hage's energetic prose matches the brutality depicted in the novel without overstating the narrative's tragic arc-an impressive first outing for Hage. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Beirut-born Hage, who lived through the nine-year civil war in Lebanon before emigrating to Canada in 1992, here mixes fantasy with descriptions of murder, mayhem, and betrayal in war-torn East Beirut. Sprinkled with Arabic terms and phantasmagoric interludes, the gyrating story may be somewhat demanding for the casual reader. At its heart is narrator Bassam, who explores his relationship with boyhood friend George, nicknamed De Niro on the street. As George is drawn inexorably into the militia, Bassam maintains his independence, finally escaping to France. There he uncovers a web of deception and discovers the true nature of De Niro's role in the civil war. The novel examines the real value of friendship in a wartime East Beirut ruled by Christian militia factions while using its original style to convey the ugly reality of retaliatory violence that led to the massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982. Given its level of artistry and portrayal of the complexities of Lebanon's civil war, this book is recommended for academic libraries.
—Henry Bankhead

Kirkus Reviews
War-wracked Beirut in the days just before the Israeli invasion is the setting for this bitter novel, the author's debut, about the death of friendship and the death of a small nation. Most Americans have probably forgotten the rotten mess engendered by sectarian hatred in Lebanon in the 1980s, but they will quickly recognize the carnage and savagery laid on in this harsh small story-it's just like today's war, and just as awful. Bassam, the narrator, and George, nicknamed De Niro, are two young Christians practicing some not-very-serious crime and trying to get dates in their Christian neighborhood, where the water has largely stopped running and the electricity is fitful. Bassam's father is dead and George's father vanished early on, and the neighborhood men have been sucked into the sectarian militias that are engaged in constant battle for control of the little country where Muslims and Christians used to coexist in commercial harmony. George is the more serious of the two, a little older, a little more thoughtful and a little more mysterious. Bassam, even when the bombs and shells are dropping, has his mind on the possibilities of sex, either with George's sexy aunt Nabila or with Rana, a young neighborhood beauty. As the war continues, so does the disintegration of their old life. Bassam's mother dies, forcing him to lurch painfully into adulthood. And it becomes clear that George has become entangled with the local warlord and will be ever more involved in the bloody civil war. The political and personal situation gets worse when the Israelis invade and George becomes a fatal part of the war's darkest hour. In the book's final third, Bassam flees to Paris with orders from Nabila tofind George's father, a search that will reveal new tragedies. Sad and discouraging for anyone holding out hope for that part of the world.
The Observer (England)
“Canadian author Rawi Hage’s exhilarating debut novel captures a dreamlike, cacophonous Beirut during the Lebanese civil war...Hage’s scattergun prose[’s]... impact lingers long after the last bomb has landed.”
Booklist (starred review)
“East meets West in this stunning first novel yielding a totally fresh perspective on war-torn Beirut.”
Charlotte Observer
“Rawi Hage’s debut novel burns with a white-hot brilliance...”
Washington City Paper
“...a soaring, lyrical triumph...this novel isn’t reportage; it’s troubling and transcendent art.
Bookseller (London)
“Oustanding...this extraordinary novel of two young men surrounded by the violence and tragedy of the Lebanese Civil War hits you in the stomach. Do support it.”
Los Angeles Times
“...the language, restless, enervated, slides from blunt and colorless to the candenced, figuring [the protagonist’s] world’s endless cycle of revolution and despair...Remarkable.”
“It is a viciously intense, poetically raw story, interspersed with moments of dark humor...”
The Guardian (London)
“Hage brilliantly condenses these short, incendiary lives: while the setting is relatively contemporary, the conflict and language are centuries old.”
The International Fiction Review (online)
“Hage is a talented and versatile writer who will certainly raise the threshold of Anglophone Arab-Canadian fiction.”
Daily Telegraph (London)
“...vividly evocative of the chaos of conflict and the moral confusion of young men.
Boston Globe
“...Hollywood noir meets opium dreams in a blasted landscape of war-wasted young lives.”
Village Voice
“’ll find it hard not to think of the fevered dream of Howl.”
Washington Post
“...a hallucinatory vision of how war corrupts even friendship. Written in English and calling upon Arabic poetry and French philosophy, De Niro’s Game forms an intriguing trilingual hybrid that should cement its appeal worldwide.”
"East meets West in this stunning first novel yielding a totally fresh perspective on war-torn Beirut."
The Guardian(London)
"Hage brilliantly condenses these short, incendiary lives: while the setting is relatively contemporary, the conflict and language are centuries old."

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Product Details

House of Anansi Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.97(d)

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TEN THOUSAND BOMBS HAD FALLEN AND I WAS WAITING for death to come and scoop its daily share from a bowl of limbs and blood. I walked down the street under the falling bombs. The streets were empty. I walked above humans hidden in shelters like colonies of rats beneath the soil. I walked past photos of dead young men posted on wooden electric poles, on entrances of buildings, framed in little shrines. Beirut was the calmest city ever in a war.

I walked in the middle of the street as if I owned it. I walked through the calmest city, an empty city that I liked; all cities should be emptied of men and given to dogs.

A bomb fell not far from me. I looked for the smoke, waited for the moaning and screams, but there were none. Maybe the bomb had hit me. Maybe I was dead in the backseat of a car, my blood pouring out little happy fountains and mopped up by a stranger's clothes. My blood drunk by a warlord or some God whose thirst could never be quenched, a petty tribal God, a jealous God celebrating his tribe's carnage and gore, a God who chooses one servant over the other, a lonely, lunatic, imaginary God, poisoned by lead and silver bowls, distracted by divine orgies and arranged marriages, mixing wine and water and sharpening his sword and handing it down to his many goatskin prophets, his castrated saints, and his conspirator eunuchs.

On an old lady's balcony I saw a bird in a cage, a cat crouched beneath it on the ground, and a hungry dog looking for cadavers to sink his purebred teeth into, looking to snatch a soft arm or a tender leg. Human flesh is not forbidden us dogs, those laws apply only to humans, the unshaven poodle said to me. I nodded and agreed, and walked on some more. I heard rifles and more bombs. This time the bombs were heading toward the Muslim side, to inflict wounds and to make more little girls' blood flow. Bombs that leave are louder than the ones that land.

I stood in the middle of the street and rolled a cigarette. I inhaled, exhaled, and the fumes from my mouth grew like a shield. The bombs that came my way ricocheted off it, and bounded and skipped along the sky to faraway planets.

NIGHT CAME, as it always does. George and I decided to go to the mountains. We drove up to Broumana, a high village that had been turned into an expensive refuge for the wealthy. Bars and cafés were everywhere, with round tables and fast waiters. Half-naked, painted women walked the narrow village streets, and militiamen drove past them in their Mercedes with crosses hanging off the mirrors. Loud dancing music flowed out of restaurants. We entered a club, sat at a table, and watched couples dancing, people drinking and not talking. No one has anything to say; don't you know that war spreads silence, cuts tongues, and flattens stones? the drink said to me. George and I both smelled of deodorant, silk shirts, fake watches, and foam shaving cream. George pointed at a woman in a blue dress. That one I want, he said. I ordered two glasses of whisky while he smiled at the woman. She turned her face to her girlfriend, then they both looked back our way and giggled. Let's go, George said to me. He stood up and walked toward the women. While he talked to the woman in the blue dress, I stayed at the table. I paid for the drinks and sipped my whisky and watched everyone. George was moving his hands, and leaning his chest against the woman's shoulders. On the dance floor, women were shaking their hips to Arabic songs. A man with a thick moustache put his hand on my shoulder and said, There is nothing in this world, my friend. Nothing is worth it; enjoy yourself. Tomorrow we might all die. Here, yallah, cheers. We banged our glasses, and he entered the dance floor waving his arms in the air, an empty glass in his hand, a cigarette on his lower lip.

George came back to our table, leaned on me, and whispered, Why didn't you follow me? Her friend is alone, and they asked about you, in French, my love, in French! I got her number. Is that my drink? You should have come. They are rich and they are leaving now. If only we had a car we could have driven them back to my place.

I drank, and George went onto the floor and danced alone. He drank a great deal while he danced. Eventually he came back and called the waiter. He pulled bills from his pocket, paid, and drank some more.

Fuck them all. I will fuck them all.

Who? I asked.

God and all the angels and his kingdom, George said.

He was very drunk by then, delirious and violent. He pulled out his gun and shouted, I will fuck them all. I grabbed his hand, pulled it under the table, aimed the gun to the floor, and whispered to him softly, On your mother's grave, I am asking you . . . me, your brother, me, your brother, who will spill blood for you. Give me the gun.

I kissed his cheek, wrapped my arm around his shoulder, and calmed him down. Then I pulled the gun slowly from his hand and hid it against my belly under my most expensive silk shirt. I tried to make him leave, but he resisted. I begged him again. I showered him with sweet talk, praises, and kisses.

We will fuck them all later, I said. Tomorrow, not to worry, we will fuck their cars, their mirrors, and their round tires. By Allah, Jesus, and his angels, come, let us leave.

We walked outside. George was cursing, pushing people, and shouting on the streets. I have no father, and no mother, and no God, you ya wlad al-sharmuta (sons of bitches). I have money, you whores, to pay you all off! He pulled more bills from his pocket and threw them in the air.

I dragged George off the main street and walked to the side street, where little village shacks had turned into cafés and fancy whorehouses with velvet sofas and pink neon signs. I stopped a young man, who was trotting his way toward the music, and asked him to recommend a place for us to stay. The man pointed me to an inn, and we walked in that direction. I left George outside, leaning on the curb, and walked inside the place. I got a room, took George upstairs, and laid him on the bed. He slept.

It was still dark outside, still noisy. Still the neon lights in that village flickered and called the young. I ignored all that temptation and took George's motorcycle and drove toward the city.

The wind kept me awake. I drove like the wind that kept me awake. I drove faster than the wind that kept me awake. I was escaping time and space, like flying bullets. Death does not come to you when you face it; death is full of treachery, a coward who only notices the feeble and strikes the blind. I was flying on the curved road, sliding down rugged mountains, brushing against car lights, forgotten trees, and wildflowers that closed at night. I was a bow with a silver arrow, a god's spear, a travelling merchant, a night thief. I was flying on a mighty machine that shattered winds and rattled the earth underneath me. I was a king.

A YOUNG KID at a checkpoint pointed an AK-47 at me. Your papers, he said. I gave him my birth certificate, with my age and the place of my birth and my ancestors' births, and the colour of my eyes, and my religion, and a photo of me smiling to the Armenian photographer, looking at his beloved 4 x 5 camera that his father had brought from Russia and carried through the Syrian Desert while the young Turks slaughtered his cousins on doorsteps, and aimed their rifles on high crosses, killed all the goats, and sang glorious modernity chants. Who does the bike belong to? asked the kid.

My friend, I said.

Lift your arms. I did. The kid searched me, and when he touched my gun he put his hand on my throat and grabbed the gun fast. He stepped back and pointed his rifle at me.

Come down off the bike slowly and lie on the floor, he said.

I obeyed. Who is your friend?

George, nicknamed De Niro, I said.

You have a release paper for the gun?


Wait here, the kid said. Stay on the floor and do not move. I will shoot you if you move a toe. He called his superior. A man in his thirties in a black T-shirt, army shoes, moustache, and a beard walked toward me. He held George's gun in his hand like it was his own.

Is this gun stolen? he asked me, waving his flashlight in my face.

No, I said.

What is your name?


Where do you live?


What do you do?

I work at the port.

So you are a thief.

No, I said.

Yeah, you work at the port and steal things, don't you? You are a thief.

We are all thieves in this war, I said.

You are answering back! The man slapped me, then dragged me and pushed me inside his green jeep. He puffed like a hyena as he left, swinging the gun toward the sand on the ground.

THREE HOURS PASSED, and I was still waiting in the back of the jeep. At dawn, when the night was painted with brightness and slowly erased by the early sun, the little militia boy drove the motorcycle away and disappeared into the hills. The checkpoint was dismantled and I was in the back of a moving jeep, feeling the mountain air and my hunger.

The militiaman in front drove like a madman, as if he was rushing a wounded person to a hospital. The jeep jerked and flew in the air, and my body tossed and bumped against the seats. I clung to the metal bar like a monkey clings to a branch. I swung off the bar, and my feet flew like those of a dancing horse. The militiaman drove the wrong way through narrow one-way streets, forcing cars to retreat in fear. He broke off and the wheels shrieked against the asphalt. My hands slipped off the bar and I flew across the back of the jeep. I moaned in pain. The militiaman got out the jeep, pulled out his gun, aimed high, and shot in the air. The cars in his way started to retreat, honking in panic. He stood in the middle of the street, his legs apart, his gun in the air, his shoulders lowered, his head like a row of bricks fixed in one direction. He lowered his arm, waited, lifted his arm again and shot a few more rounds. When the way was clear, he climbed back in the jeep. He cursed all the Christian saints in one concise sentence and drove us up the hill to a military base.

I was marched into an office. A photo of the highest commander, known as Al-Rayess, hung on the wall. I could see a cedar tree and flag behind it.

Sit down. Now, who is the gun for? the militiaman asked. He walked around me. Where did you get it? And who did you steal the bike from?

George, known as De Niro. He is my friend, he works with Abou-Nahra. He owns the gun and the bike. I did not steal anything.

Abou-Nahra, the commander? the militiaman asked.

Yes. I will call Abou-Nahra. And why do you have your friend's gun?

He was drunk. I took it from him.

I will check with Abou-Nahra. If you are lying to me, you're going to rot in a cell, understood? What is your friend's name again?

George. If you tell the commander "De Niro," he will know who you are talking about.

And what is your nickname? Al Pacino?

MY CAPTOR LED ME to an empty room with a foam mattress. I slept, and when I woke up I stared at the concrete walls. The mattress was dotted with cigarettes holes. I pulled a box of cigarettes out of my pocket; it was flattened by the weight of my body. I searched my pocket for matches but couldn't find any. I banged at the door. No one answered. I stuck my ear to the door, but all I heard was a distant radio. I recognized Fairuz lamenting through the corridors.

THE NEXT DAY, De Niro came with an order of release from Abou-Nahra, and I was freed.

George and I drove the motorcycle down the highway. The heat was unbearable. Taxi drivers were waiting in their old Mercedes on the corners of the streets, in the shade of dirty walls. We zoomed through traffic jams. We drove on sidewalks, through alleyways, and in the middle of lanes, across dusty and unpaved roads.

Dust flew onto shop windows, dust landed on silky, exposed thighs; everyone inhaled it, everyone saw through it, dust from the undertaker's shovel, dust of demolition, dust of fallen walls, dust falling from Christian foreheads on a holy Thursday. Dust was friendly and loved us all. Dust was Beirut's companion.

LET'S EAT, I said to George.

Man'oushe or kunafah? he asked.

Kunafah, I said.

We stopped at a store with a screen door and we sat at a round table. The mirror on the wall above us was stained and barely gave off a reflection. The worker behind the counter had a large moustache and wielded several knives. I drank water. George lit a cigarette. A woman with a baby in her arms walked in. The news was on: two were dead, five injured; an Arab diplomat was visiting Beirut; an American diplomat was also visiting Beirut. The moon was round, and the diplomat's flag was on it, and an extraterrestrial sniper was using it for target practice.

We ate our kunafah plates. I watched the baby play and nibble on a plastic gun. I needed a shave and a bath, and we all needed water. I gave back George's gun, under the table. George's cigarette burned in an ashtray; mine was still in George's box. His sad eyes reminded me that his mother was dead, that his father had left, that my father was also dead. I thought about how, after my father's death, my uncle Naeem had visited more often. I had watched him on Sundays, giving money to my mother, and my mother, with her eyes lowered to the floor, took it and shoved it down into her bosom. Naeem took me for long walks, bought me clothes and books. And when I said to him that my father was with God, he said to me that there was no God, that God is man's invention. I finished my plate; George gave me a cigarette. I thought about my mother, how she would cook all day, complain, and ask my uncle for money. My uncle was a communist. One night, he fled to the West Side. The militia came looking for him. They knocked at my mother's door in the middle of the night and asked for Naeem the communist.

I contemplated the flies barred by the store's door, longing to come in. Only dust flew in and out as it pleased. Beirut is an ancient Roman city, I thought. There is a city buried under our feet. The Romans also turned to dust. When I opened the door to leave, the flies rushed in.

GEORGE DROVE ME BACK to my mother's home. And I slept above ancient Rome, dreaming, while the city still breathed dust.

Copyright © 2006 Rawi Hage
All rights reserved
First published in Canada in 2006 by House of Anansi Press Inc.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to: Steerforth Press L.L.C., 25 Lebanon Street Hanover, New Hampshire 03755

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