As Americans grapple with what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, and fiercely debate the role of weaponry in society, the phrase “a well-regulated militia” echoes off many tongues. The phrase, as (we) North Americans use it, is largely untethered. Occasionally, it may evoke images of white supremacists in a rural wood. But most often, if it recalls any image to the national consciousness, it is of men in boots and buttons marching steadily in the eighteenth-century rain.
But in many national literatures and imaginations, the idea of a militia is much more vividly etched. Non-governmental armies have flourished around the world in the last half-century, nourished by the proliferation of arms manufactured in the US, UK, Russia, and elsewhere. Many of these militias must be ill-regulated, yes. But others are well-organized around principles of sectarian, ethnic, or other forms of violence.
Elias Khoury’s Yalo is one of the broadest in its grasp of this violence. Militias themselves are not central here, as they are in some of Khoury’s other novels, such as White Masks, where the militias have offices and offer pensions. But Yalo is remarkable for its blinding imagery and its wide scope, drawing in a panorama of weapons profiteering, militias, sexual harassment, and government torture, all moving around the titular lone, mentally disturbed gunman.
Images of militias and militia-led violence recur widely in contemporary Lebanese literature, which has largely been unable to tear its gaze from the destruction spawned by the country’s civil war. From Khoury’s White Masks (1981) to Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Story of Zahra (1986) to Hoda Barakat’s The Stone of Laughter (1990) and on and on to books published this year, such as Rabee Jaber’s The Birds of Holiday Inn (2012).
In White Masks (trans. Maia Tabet), the son of the main character, who is dead, runs away from home and joins a militia. Here, the boy’s mother speaks:
And so he was . . . After three long weeks of sorrow and grief and penance, he came back, strutting around in his fatigues with a rifle slung over his shoulder, all puffed up with pride. I caught him one day admiring himself in the mirror, in his high combat boots and his khakis, caressing his rifle! In the beginning, Khalil refused to speak to him, and just sat by the radio, muttering to himself. Then we got used to this new state of affairs – the devil’s curse on us humans, how we get used to anything! Even the death of our sons! Then Ahmad started bringing money home; he’d give some of it to his father, who was on speaking terms with him now, and they would have political discussions.