In Search of Walid Masoud: A Novel


Walid Masoud disappears. A Palestinian intellectual, he has been living in Baghdad since the first Israeli War of 1948. As a member of an organization engaged in the armed struggle against Israel, suspicion arises that he has gone underground as part of a political movement. Masoud leaves behind a lengthy but disconnected tape recording of garbled utterances through which Jabra Ibrahim Jabra artfully crafts the basis for the narration. He transforms the transcription of the tape by each of Masoud's comrades into ...
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Walid Masoud disappears. A Palestinian intellectual, he has been living in Baghdad since the first Israeli War of 1948. As a member of an organization engaged in the armed struggle against Israel, suspicion arises that he has gone underground as part of a political movement. Masoud leaves behind a lengthy but disconnected tape recording of garbled utterances through which Jabra Ibrahim Jabra artfully crafts the basis for the narration. He transforms the transcription of the tape by each of Masoud's comrades into a study of character. Through a series of monologues, each becomes a narrator of his own experience.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this fiercely partisan jigsaw puzzle of a novel, published in 1978 and translated here for the first time, Jabra explores the Arab intellectual's response to the turmoil in the Middle East in the postcolonial era. The novel begins with the disappearance of writer and activist Walid Masoud. When his deserted car is discovered in the desert in Syria, Masoud's friends, rivals and his many lovers are inspired to reminisce about his commitment to his people. A Christian Palestinian educated for the priesthood in Italy in the '30s and '40s, Walid renounces that life to return to Palestine in the mid-1940s. After the Israelis (called "Zionists" by the author) win the 1948 war, establishing Israel and dispossessing thousands of Palestinians who fled their villages, Walid goes to Baghdad and becomes a successful financier. He also pursues a career as a political intellectual through his writing. In the 1967 war, Walid is taken captive by the Israeli Security Service, who torture him, then expel him from Israel. This experience strengthens his loyalty to the fedayeen--the Palestinian guerrilla force--but when his son joins the fedayeen, the son is killed in a clash with Israeli troops. These events are played out against the background of the upper-class intellectual scene in Baghdad. Many affecting passages are narrated by Walid's lovers, like Maryam, a seductive professor and writer. Jabra's characters, like Simone de Beauvoir's set in Paris, or New York intellectuals of the 1950s, thrive on brilliant rationalizations of their own narcissism, while the humanism they affect is doomed to political impotence. Several events represented here are at odds with historical facts, but the author's passion for his homeland is clear. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Set in highly politicized postcolonial Palestine, this book, which concerns the disappearance of fictitious Palestinian intellectual Walid Masoud, reads more like a factual account than a novel. The story begins with Walid's car being discovered in a desert with no sign of him. His friends, colleagues, and critics waste no time in drawing their own conclusions about his sudden vanishing. Walid's life, from Palestinian schoolboy to outspoken community leader, is detailed by those who remember and knew him best. These characterizations give a face to Walid's missing physical presence. Readers don't have to be Palestinian to understand the book, but it helps to have a general background in the history of Palestine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Otherwise, this text by Jabra (The Ship), one of Palestine's premier writers, will lose readers in its intellectual musings, leaving them frustrated and not really caring whether Walid is found or not. Ideal for libraries with a large cultural and political studies section.--Maya Nettles, New York Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
First published in 1978, this intricate Palestinian novel recounts in fragmentary form the complex legacy left behind (along with an enigmatic tape recording discovered after his unexplained disappearance) by the eponymous Walid: a financial expert, author, and political activist in Baghdad during the quarter-century following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The memories and speculations of those who presume they knew him, or believe they were loved by him, gradually cohere into a cryptic and fascinating portrayal of a conflicted intellectual idealist who had striven "to be a saint in a world of sin and corruption, an independent theorist in a world of political parties, and undogmatic dogmatist in a world of rigid primness." Beautifully fashioned, unusual, and richly satisfying.
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Dr. Jawad Husni Inherits a Heavy Legacy

"If only there were an elixir for the memory, something that could bring events back in the order they happened, one by one, then turn them into words that would cascade out onto paper!"

    Perhaps I might, at this point, resort to these words Walid Masoud so often repeated in his last months. However much we fight against it, we remain the playthings of our memories. We are, at one and the same time, their products and their victims. Rightly or wrongly, they obsess us, sweetening the bitterness, deluding us and consuming our souls with sighs. How are we to capture these inverted dreams that both freeze the past and release it—these images scattered, at times, like clouds over the expanses of the mind, like precious diamonds compressed within the folds of the soul?

    When young we're ashamed of slipping back into our memories because present and future are more important, more momentous. But as the years go by, the sense of shame grows less, not because present and future have lost their importance and weight, but because we can only live through most of the experiences they bring by harking back to our old ones, both pleasurable and painful, to those experiences that become, at once, ever more glowing and ever more blurred in the mind. So come now, patience, perseverance, words, help me to shed some light on them, and force them into intelligible lines.

    Intelligible lines, did I say? Each line represents a year, a month, or at least a day; and how can a line like that be intelligiblewhen every word in it is tied to separate strings reaching back into the vast expanses of the self, which are so filled with the pegs of tents pitched and struck down by the hundreds?

    My knowledge of Walid Masoud was profound, not only in terms of time and place, but in terms of the complex human dimension that linked him so subtly with the lives of dozens of men and women. He reacted to those men and women more violently than I did; his relationships with them flared up and cooled off with an instinctive spontaneity, and it was my job to soften the effects of this with what he always called my genius for preventing the clash of opposites, for fusing opposites even, without causing harm to anyone, or at least not to other people. He often accused me of not owing allegiance to anyone, since I was capable of maintaining allegiance to all these people, who would be attracted to a particular person, then repelled by conflicting magnetic forces, whereas I would remain in the middle, with the thin strand between me and each one of them unbroken.

    Then again, this may have been an illusion on my part. Perhaps I was holding the strands of various relationships and friendships in my hand, and though I still held on to the near ends, the far end had slipped off and gotten lost. Still, I behaved as if all the strands were connected, as if each person, in spite of everything, remained loyal to me. I don't deny that I was shocked, from time to time, to find the other person behaving as though he'd never known me or broken bread with me, or as though I'd nursed a grudge against him that he felt he should return. In my experience, there were only a few people like that, most of them probably unimportant anyway; yet, when I discovered this quality in someone I liked, I felt bitterly disappointed, and it left a deep wound inside me. Something like this happened to me once or twice with Walid himself, but I endured the disappointment and the wound in silence till he came back to me with a laugh and embraced me—I forgave him everything, even his tendency to sudden reserve. I used to think up excuses that never occurred even to him, or which he might have rejected. In the last few years, as a wealth of new lines developed around his eyes and mouth, I watched him and worried about him. Twenty years I had known him, with earth turning to gold in his hands; and I saw him reject all that, while his whole being began to show something like fissures in a rock, as though some internal chemical reaction was being reflected in his voice, his words, his eyes.

    Walid was always searching for the balance he had talked about all his life, and had never found. Balance, he used to say, is a rough general term we use. In a world of terror, murder, hunger, and hatred, how can you find your inner psychological balance—or whatever you want to call it—without feeling you're standing on the far fringe of humanity? How can you be humane yet transcend the problems of humanity? This idea of balance was a mirage, of course, alluring but incapable of deceiving for long. Yet, Walid never despaired, or perhaps I refused to believe despair could take hold of him. He used to go through some intense crises; he'd blaspheme, block his ears, declare life was in the grip of evil, and burn in anger for days on end. If he'd gone no further than that, there would have been nothing very remarkable about him. After all, people sit in cafés and say things like that, and they meet in houses and reach the same conclusion—it happens all the time these days. The important thing was that Walid's crises never brought him to that apathy toward life and its ups and downs, that apathy that is just one facet of the unspoken despair most people actually live day after day. That's not to deny, of course, that optimism can be shallow and paltry, too. "Optimism about what, exactly?"

    The fact is that self-examination of this sort never stopped Walid for long. University students may indulge in pessimism and optimism, curse and become enraged, and imagine there's some great alternative they can discover. That's their right, their duty even. But Walid had been through it all many years before, and he was done with it.

    So what was left? Balance. And how could he achieve it? At what point on the shuddering zigzag line could he set it, when his whole world was slippery and shaky, with endless ups and downs that defeated mind and logic alike? At times he used to say that if he'd lived in an earlier age, he might have talked about the possibility of finding balance in art and religion, of finding union with beauty, for example, in the manner of ancient Sufis: unification with beauty by worshiping it. That, he said, was a laughable idea. He'd never even worshiped in a religious sense. Should he burn incense? Or write poems he'd never recite to anyone, to be read at dawn like litanies? Should he embrace a beautiful woman, stroke her flesh lustfully to a climax, and pretend he worshiped her? And after that, what? Yet, after challenging everything so passionately, after battling and pounding his fists and risking everything, he would say that in the end beauty was the most important thing of all, and contemplating beauty was akin to the Sufis' contemplation of the essence of God. Amid the turmoil was a calm voice; in the thick of contradictions, a tangible hidden harmony; and between the poles of attraction and repulsion, a deep still point: the eye of the storm, a rapture no words could define in a world of inanity and hidden fear.

    "When I was young," he said, "and I saw for the first time the way people sometimes speak and then look around worried as if someone has heard them, I was really alarmed. Are we to be afraid of other people knowing what we say? And as the years went by, the furtive, scared looks and the anxious questions were repeated so often they became the normal thing. Terror became part of our lives, and we learned to live with it and get around it as best as we could, so that conspiracy was built into the ordinary way we thought. We think like terrified people, like those trying to avoid the evil in others. And then, under the strain of thinking like this, they expect you to be creative, to scatter pearls of originality and dazzle eyes that have been purblind for generations. I shall seek the eye of the storm and rid myself of all this thinking."

    That's what he told a newspaper in response to a question from an insistent journalist, a few months before he disappeared. And when the journalist persisted with yet another question, he added: "Please don't talk to me about courage. Courage is a purely personal and private matter. Speaking out is a completely foolish thing to do now, and convinces no one. No one even listens. It's like beating a drum among the deaf. The only courage that deserves to be translated into action is challenging death with raised fists and violence, thereby using death itself to trample down death, as in the death of a freedom fighter, for example. But as for all of you, let me tell you: You're all cowards. Beat your cans and drums at the whale if you like, and hope it coughs up the moon from its throat."

    Recently, his tone had become ever more harsh; that much was obvious. I had no doubt about his appetite and lust for life and the future, but I noticed, too, that he'd become more inclined to silence in the face of other people's verbiage, and I started to feel that reaching him, reaching his innermost thoughts and feelings, had become difficult. He was barricading himself behind a concrete wall, as if indulging an addiction to some secret, mysterious drink he refused to share with anyone else.

    Walid telephoned me the morning he disappeared. I was in bed when Hala called me to the phone around six o'clock.

    "What's up?" I asked, still sleepy.

    "Jawad," he said, "I'm going off in my car today."

    "Today?" I asked. "Just like that?"

    "Yes. I wanted to say good-bye. I'm sorry I woke you up so early. It's just that I wanted to be sure I'd catch you before you left for college."

    "When will you be back?"

    "Back? I don't know. Take care of my mail as usual, please. I've told Furat, my housekeeper, to give you my letters. I may be away for a while this time."

    I didn't ask him where he was going, although I suspected it would most probably be Lebanon and then Italy. He'd done that more than once before and been away a long time. Every year he would renew my power of attorney over a number of his affairs, for fear something might happen to delay his return to Baghdad. This time, though, he actually went away and never returned. His disappearance caused quite a commotion, which I hadn't expected. Some people said he'd emigrated to Canada or Australia; others suggested that he'd been murdered, or that he'd gone back secretly to Occupied Palestine. At any rate, he disappeared. During those last six months, managing his affairs tired me out, because I had to answer many of the letters sent to him, quite apart from the hundreds of questions his disappearance left unanswered. He left his car in the middle of the desert highway to Syria, about fifty miles west of Rutba; he left no word about what happened, but because he loved riddles, he left a tape in his car on which he'd recorded many things. The one thing he hadn't recorded was the one thing everybody was dying to know: where had he gone?

    A few weeks later rumors spread that he'd been found murdered in Lebanon; a mutilated corpse no one could identify was found at the foot of Dahr al-Baydar, and some people said it was Walid Masoud's. At that point, I felt he must indeed be dead, and considered my intuition reliable because I'd known him for so long. I saw him in my mind's eye rolling down the rocks in one of the valleys of Lebanon, and I couldn't get him out of my mind for days. Twenty years of friendship fell apart, and I kept searching for the pieces one by one, hoping, by doing this, to find a key to the secret of his disappearance.

    All I had were memories and piles of his papers stuffed into large envelopes, and whenever I opened one of them, time seemed to pour down on me from every direction, till I felt I was choking. Then I'd put the papers back in the envelopes and start breathing freely again.

    A number of Walid's friends were as shocked as I was. Amer Abd al-Hamid, whom I've never seen mention anybody's death or anybody's marriage, as though people's feelings at vital moments simply didn't concern him, used to imagine—or else I did—that he'd never grieve at anyone's death or departure. Yet, even he was really shaken up by Walid's disappearance. He became a recluse for days, refusing to see anyone, and for weeks, he gave up his big dinner parties that had so enriched our social lives.

    Ibrahim al-Hajj Nawfal came by one evening unannounced, his lips trembling with anger; I wasn't sure whether he was going to fly into a temper or burst into tears. He started pounding his fists against the arm of the lounge chair he was sitting in.

    "It's impossible!" he kept saying. "Impossible! This is a trick, Jawad; Walid's been the victim of some horrible deception. Please, let me hear the tape he left in the car."

    But he was in no condition to listen to anything, not even Walid's voice. When Hala brought us two whiskeys, he gulped his down, got up, grabbed the bottle, and then poured himself more than half a glass.

    That evening, Dr. Tariq Raouf telephoned me to ask about the rumors that had started circulating.

    "You know, Jawad," he said, "I may have been the last person to see Walid." I was surprised at this, as I didn't think there was any strong bond of friendship between them.

    "You actually saw him the night before he left?" I asked. "Did you say good-bye to him?"

    "Yes, I did," he replied, his voice sounding strange over the phone. "At Rutba. I was there with Kazim. Didn't Kazim tell you?"

    "I haven't seen him since he came back."

    "Kazim and I were traveling to Greece in my car. We reached Rutba at midnight. Our passports had been checked—you know that huge, dirty hall, like a cross between a customs office and a café. That was where we saw Walid, with his passport in his hand. We greeted him, then said good-bye. He looked lost even then."

    When I turned around to tell Ibrahim what Tariq had said, I saw he'd been straining his ears, listening closely to our conversation.

    "I'm going to see Kazim tomorrow," he said, "and find out the details."

    What details would Ibrahim learn from a friend who saw Walid for two minutes perhaps, as the two of them were getting into their cars; and all this in the middle of a dark night, at a customs station in the desert? A day or two later I met Kazim myself, and we had a long talk about Walid, but we gleaned nothing new about his disappearance.

    I went back to the tape several times, playing it piece by piece and reflecting on every single word. We'd found it in a small red Japanese cassette player, and hadn't paid much attention to it at first. The recorder was lying on the floor of the car, and there was another one installed under the car radio with a music cassette in it that had been played to the end. A small microphone from the red one was tied to the steering wheel, and the record button was depressed, so Walid had clearly been recording as he drove, before whatever happened actually did happen.

    When I played the tape, I found that the first part had recorded the music from the other tape in the car's cassette player. It was Henry Purcell's Harpsichord Suites, which Walid had recently bought and played a lot. Then came Walid's voice, not always very clear because of the music and the sound of the engine in the background. He was recording as he drove, most probably at tremendous speed. But the words followed naturally, intermittent at times, continuous at others. There was no doubt it was Walid's voice.

    The tape surprised me when I first heard it, and hasn't stopped surprising me since. For some reason I can't pin down, I got the impression Walid was out to confuse us all with this "final" tape of his, or maybe he wanted, for the last time, to be frank with all of us, to put his cards on the table, so to speak. Which was the face, and which was the mask? Which one of them had I known for twenty long years that now flew by as though they were just two days? Even if Walid was clearly undergoing some very painful experience, or gripped by a depression that gave a delirious flow to his words, as though they were a kind of defense mechanism he was using to try and save himself, still there were words on the tape that merited serious study. It didn't contain anything that could be described as a defendant's statement, or a "letter to the editor" that someone writes to defend himself against an accusation in a newspaper or a magazine. (In any case, Walid had never done anything like that in his whole life; when someone attacked him, he responded with a silence loaded with contempt.) Walid had chosen to abandon logic, at least on the surface. It's difficult to know precisely what made him record such telling words, on the very day he disappeared.

    More than two months later, Amer passed by one evening and asked me to play the tape. "Does he mention any names?" he asked.

    "A whole bunch of names," I said.

    "People we know? If you don't mind," he went on, "I suggest I invite a number of Walid's friends to my house next Thursday. We'll surprise them all by playing the tape ..."

    "But I don't think you'll find out anything new. Walid doesn't accuse anyone, or expose anyone."

    "Do you think the idea would have crossed my mind if there was any chance of exposing somebody?"

    I wasn't happy about Amer's plan. He has a certain tendency to play malicious tricks on people without showing any sign of the way he's secretly laughing inside.

    "I find Walid's words obscure, desperate, innocent, happy, all at once," he said. "So let's make playing the tape an occasion to talk about a friend we all care about. Anyhow, we'll restrict the group to his closest friends."

    After some hesitation, I agreed. But I didn't give Amer the tape; I told him I'd bring it with me. Later, I sat down to transcribe the tape, exactly as I heard it, an uninterrupted, interlocking flow of words. That way I'd be able to read it and study it in every detail. I'd add it to Walid's other papers and books in case it could help me with the study I'd decided to write about him.


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Table of Contents

1. Dr. Jawad Husni Inherits a Heavy Legacy 1
2. Dr. Jawad Husni Starts the Search, Partly Guided by the
Perspective of Kazim Ismail and Ibrahim al-Hajj Nawfal 25
3. Issa Nasser Witnesses the Death of Masoud Farhan, Having
Known Him for Part of His Life 65
4. Walid Masoud Remembers the Hermits in a Distant Cave 83
5. Dr. Tariq Raouf Contemplates Capricorn 101
6. Walid Masoud Writes the First Pages of His Autobiography 130
7. Maryam al-Saffar Hangs On to a Rock Deep Inside Her 145
8. Walid Masoud Passes Through Rain that Keeps Recurring 180
9. Wisal Raouf Reveals Her Secrets 189
10. Marwan Walid Attacks Umm al-Ayn with His Colleagues 224
11. Ibrahim al-Hajj Nawfal Reveals Secrets Till Dawn 230
12. Dr. Jawad Husni Promises More 276
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