TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: “Yalo” is the story of an interrogation, by a nameless officer, of Daniel Habil Abyad, a young man of Assyrian Christian background who is accused, among other crimes, of raping women and robbing their lovers in a pine forest on the edge of Beirut close to the house where he is employed as a guard. From the start, however, it is Yalo, Daniel’s alter ego, who asserts himself as the story’s true protagonist. In part, perhaps, because of his upbringing in a claustrophobic household consisting of his emotionally maimed mother and slightly insane grandfather-a priest, or kohino-a household full of obsessive secrets and rituals, Yalo sees the world differently from others, such as Shireen Raad, a victim whom he obsessively pursues, or Emile, her fiancé, and finds it difficult to understand why they behave as they do, especially with regard to himself. Nevertheless, in his attempts to satisfy the interrogator’s unquenchable thirst for answers, he does make some progress (in his own terms) toward deconstructing the world around him. It is through the experience of torture, however, that he achieves apotheosis and, ultimately, reunification with Daniel.
Here, as in other works, such as his acclaimed Gate of the Sun (English translation London, Harvill-Secker, 2005 and New York, Archipelago Books, 2006), Elias Khoury is uncompromising in forcing the reader to see the world through the refracting lenses of his characters’ singular imaginations. To enter these worlds may call for effort on the part of the reader but the resulting vision is engrossing and often beautiful.
Yalo didn’t understand what was happening.
The young man stood before the investigator and closed his eyes, which is what he always did. He closed his eyes when facing danger, he closed them when he was alone, he closed them when his mother…. On that day too, the morning of December 22, 1993, he closed his eyes involuntarily.
Yalo didn’t understand why everything was white.
He saw the white investigator sitting behind a white table, the sun splintering on the windowpane behind him, his face drowning in the reflected light. All Yalo could see were the haloes of light and a woman walking alone in the streets of the city, laboriously dragging her shadow behind her.
Yalo closed his eyes for a moment, or so he thought. This young man, with his eyebrows that met, his brown oval face, and his slim tall figure, was given to closing his eyes for a moment before opening them and seeing. Here, however, at the police station in Jounieh, he closed his eyes and saw lines intersecting at two lips that moved in what seemed to be a whisper. He looked at his cuffed hands and felt the sun that had erased the investigator’s face beating on his eyes, so he closed them.
The young man stood in front of the investigator at ten in the morning on that cold day and saw a sun splintering on the glass and blazing off the head of the white man, who opened his mouth, which formed questions. Then Yalo closed his eyes.
Yalo didn’t understand why the investigator screamed at him.
He heard a voice screaming at him, “Open your eyes, man!” so he opened them.
The light entered into their depths like blazing skewers, which is how he discovered that he had had his eyes closed for a long time and that he had spent half his life with his eyes closed, and he saw himself like a blind man, and he saw night.
Yalo didn’t understand why she had come, but when he saw her he collapsed onto the chair.
When he entered the room, there wasn’t that young woman who had no name. He entered with stumbling steps because he could not see in the light of the sun that splintered on the glass. He stood inside the whiteness, his hands cuffed, and his body shivering with sweat. He was not afraid, even though the investigator would write in his report that the accused was trembling with fear. But Yalo was not afraid, he was only shuddering from the sweat. The sweat was pouring from every part of him and the strange smelling fluid that came from his pores stained his clothes. Yalo felt as though he were being stripped naked inside his long black overcoat and the smell he smelled was not his own. He discovered that he did not know this man called Daniel, whom they nicknamed Yalo.
The girl who had no name came. Perhaps she had been there in the interrogation room, but he hadn’t seen her when he entered. He saw her and he collapsed onto the chair, his legs betraying him. A slight giddiness took hold of him and he could no longer open his eyes, so he closed them.
The investigator screamed at him, “Open your eyes, man!” so he opened them and saw a phantom that looked like the girl who had no name. She had said that she had no name. Yalo, however, knew everything. He had left her dozing near her naked, dainty body. He had opened her black leather bag and written his name, address, telephone number, everything.
Yalo did not understand why she had said she had no name.
Her breath shuddered, the air around her face seemingly stifling her, and she was unable to speak, but she had managed to say, “I have no name.” Then Yalo bent over her and took her.
There in the hut, at the bottom of the Villa Gardénia that belonged to Ma—tre Michel Salloum, there, when he had asked her name, she had said in a voice full of the airless gaps that stop the lungs, “I have no name. Please, no names.” “Fine,” he said. “My name is Yalo. Don’t forget my name.”
But there she stood, her name beside her, and when the investigator asked her for her name, she didn’t hesitate. “Shireen Raad,” she said. She didn’t tell the investigator, “Please, no names” and she didn’t stretch her hands out in front of her like she did there in the hut where Yalo slept with her after she stretched out her hands and the smell of incense rose from them. He took her hands and closed his eyes with them. Then he started kissing her white wrists and smelled the smell of incense and musk. He smelled the smell of her black hair, buried his face in it, and felt drunk. He told her he was drunk on incense, and she smiled, as though the mask had slipped from her face. Yalo saw her smile through the shadows that the light of the candle made on the wall. It was her first smile on that night of fear.
What was Shireen doing there?
When he opened his eyes after the investigator screamed at him, he saw himself in Ballona. He said to her, “Come,” and she followed him. They left the pinewoods that lie below the church of Saint Niqula and climbed the hill to the villa. The girl fell to the ground, or so it seemed to Yalo, so he bent down to help her. He took her by the hand and they walked and when she fell a second time he bent over her again to carry her but she avoided his hands. She stood up. She grasped the trunk of a pine tree and stood stock still, her panting loud. He gave her his hand and she took it and walked beside him while he listened to the sound of her breathing and that terrified panting.
When they reached the hut, he left her outside the door. He went in and lit a candle and he tried to tidy his scattered clothes and belongings but discovered that the task would need some time so he went out to her again and found she had leant her head against the open door and was making weeping sounds.
“Don’t be scared,” he told her. “Come. You’ll sleep here. I’ll make you a bed on the ground. Don’t be scared.”
She entered hesitantly and stood in the middle of the room as though she were looking for a chair to sit on. Yalo leapt to pull his trousers off the chair and threw them on the end of the bed but she did not sit down. She remained standing, not knowing what to do.
“Would you like to drink tea?” he asked her but instead of answering she stretched out her hands like someone seeking help, and when Yalo took her outstretched hands and saw the fear turning into intersecting rings in her little eyes, he drew back. He said that he was afraid. He would say that he felt fear but at this instant he didn’t know, because he didn’t feel that he felt fear before he wrote the word down. He said the word, then felt it, and then wrote it down. Today, when he remembers her small eyes in the shadows made by the light of the candle, when he sees how the pupils started to contract and turn into intersecting rings, he feels fear, and he says he was afraid of her eyes.
As he drew back, he saw her coming towards him. Her hands were suspended in the air, as though she were asking him to rescue her, or were seeking his help. He approached her, took her hands, closed his eyes with them, and she went quiet. He took her hands and felt a shudder pass through them, as though the lines of fear that pulsed inside them had become like the arteries, which transmit a certain tension throughout the body. He put her hands on his eyes and saw the darkness and felt how her body began to calm down and go quiet, and the smell of incense arose.
“What’s that nice smell?” said Yalo, drawing back. He sat on the chair and covered his face with his hands, as though he were feeling tired. He stayed seated and motionless. The candle swayed, its light shuddering in the breeze that rose from the forest pines and the girl who had no name was standing next to him, recovering the breath that fear had stolen from her when she saw the black shadow coming up to the car parked at the corner of the pine wood, below the Orthodox church.
Why was she wearing her short skirt, and showing her thighs?
The girl sat in front of the investigator in her short red skirt, crossed her legs, and talked as though she was swallowing all the air in the interrogation room.
Yalo had told her not to wear short skirts. “What’s this? No way!” But she didn’t answer him. She looked where he was looking, at her knees, and the wisp of a smile sketched itself on her lips, and she shook her head. In the morning, they went out together. He stopped her a taxi going to Beirut and went back to his hut.
Why did the fiancé agree to play this role? Did he think he was being manly? If he was really manly, thought Yalo, he would have settled things differently. Why hadn’t he contacted him and settled it with him man to man? He could have invited Yalo to the café and there he could have talked to him and said that he loved her too, and suggest that one of them give up his claim, as it was meet that noble men should do, and as the Kohino Afram had done with the tailor Elias El Shami when he found out that his daughter had gone back to her old lover.
Kohino Afram told his grandson the story. At the time, Yalo had understood nothing, but now he understood it all.
At the time, the grandfather had ended the story with manliness and he had told his grandson the story to teach him manliness. “Life is a word that you speak, and which is then carved into the earth,” said the grandfather.
When Gaby found out she went crazy. Yalo asked her about the tailor and the place where his father was, and then she went mad. She went to her father and started shouting insults at him and she dragged him roughly from his room. The Kohino was wearing white pajamas with blue stripes. As his daughter dragged him out by his hands he stumbled as though imploring her, and she ordered him to get out of the house. He swallowed his words and said incomprehensible things and swore by all the saints that his intentions had been honorable and that he had only wanted to explain to his grandson the meaning of keeping one’s word. Then suddenly the Kohino fell to his knees, stretched out his arms as though he was crucifying himself, and began to cry.
The story buried itself deep in Yalo’s memory and was only extinguished here, in front of the white investigator with his snub nose and eyes deep-set in their sockets. The investigator raised his finger in Yalo’s face as though he wanted to say something, and perhaps he did say something, but Yalo was not listening to what he said. Yalo was asking himself the question that was written out in front of him as though he was reading from the school blackboard.
Why hadn’t Emile done the same as Afram?
Afram was brave. He told his grandson that he’d castrated him. “He came all puffed up like a cock and he left crowned with shame. He came in a cock and he left a hen. I did nothing. I just raised the weapon of words in his face. Before the word, my son, man is weak. That is why God the Father could find no name to give His son but the Word. What does God’s Word mean? It means His essence and His truth. Your son is your Word. You are my Word, my son, just as the Son was the Word of the Father.”
Afram sent for Elias El Shami. The tailor thought that the Kohino wanted him to make him a white cassock ahead of his being promoted Head of the Clergy, for he had said to his congregation, “Any day, in a year, in two years, or in three, you’ll be calling me ‘Master.'” The years passed and the Kohino kept waiting, and from the time that his wife died, after that trip to Hims in search of a cure from Saint Ilyan, he said to everyone that this was God’s will. He didn’t shed one tear at his wife’s funeral. He stood receiving condolences and instead of returning the traditional words such as “Your well-being is my compensation” or “May you live,” he uttered just one phrase, “Christ is risen,” expecting the mourners to respond “Truly, He is risen.” The Kohino said that God had been testing his slave, by which he meant the poor woman who had died of cancer, because there is a wisdom of which we slaves are unaware. A catastrophe is a test and God tests his children with catastrophes, and maybe this catastrophe was a special kind of test, as though God had something in mind of which we were ignorant.
Naturally, no one took his words seriously, since God, Great and Glorious, was not so short of options as to make someone like him a shepherd of his pitiful people. Nevertheless, despite the looks of scorn, Kohino Afram continued to dream of being Head of the Clergy. His hair turned white, old age got its claws into him, and he devoted himself to constant prayer while waiting for the moment that would come.
The tailor came. He thought that he would be joking with the Kohino about the business of being Metropolitan, but found himself facing the most difficult examination of his life. The tailor Elias El Shami was about sixty and tried to give an impression of eternal youth, sucking in his belly to make himself look slim and giving broad smiles so that people could see his clean white teeth, for the tailor was one of the earliest of the residents of Beirut’s Museitbeh district to discover the Armenian dentist, Nubar Bokhshijian and instead of putting in false teeth had had a series of bridges made, which were fixed and which gave the impression that his teeth were natural.
The tailor sat in front of the Kohino, as he had asked him to do when he had said, “Come, my son. Sit in front of me.” He bowed his head, which henna had dyed a reddish color, and kissed the hand that resembled the dry branch of a tree. Then he listened to the strangest request, and responded with the strangest answer.
“You love the girl, right?”
The tailor did not understand the question, or pretended not to understand. “What girl, Father?” he said.
“You love Gabrielle, my daughter Gaby, and I know everything.”
The tailor did not know what to say. If he were to deny it, he would make himself look base to this aged Kohino, who could see his only remaining daughter sliding to destruction through her relationship with this man. And if he said yes, he couldn’t imagine what the Kohino would ask of him. As a result, the tailor contented himself with looking at his feet, so that the Kohino could deduce whatever he wished.
“So take her.”
“I’m telling you, take her. What are you waiting for?”
“Take her, my son. I’ll take care of the legal side. I’ll divorce her from her husband because he’s been away ten years. That way you’ll be able to marry her.”
“But I am married.”
“I’ll get you a divorce too.”
“But that’ll be tough, Father. You know how these things take time for the Orthodox.”
“I’ll make you a Syrian. That way I can get you a divorce in 24 hours.”
“Me become a Syrian?”
“Why not? The Syrians aren’t good enough for you?”
“I have every respect for the Syrians, Father, but…”
The Kohino told him to take her, and the tailor bowed his head for a long while before answering,
“Where should I take her to, Father?”
“Take her to your house and live with her as decent married folk. Decent, indecent, it doesn’t really matter, you just have to find a way of taking her. What’s going on now is what’s indecent and it can’t continue.”
The two men fell silent and stayed immersed in silence until Gabrielle interrupted them by entering the parlor with the coffee tray.
“Sit, my daughter,” said the Kohino.
Gabrielle sat, every limb of her body trembling.
“I told him to take you. I told him, ‘If you love her, take her.'”
Then he looked at Elias and asked him, “What is your decision, my son?”
“I don’t know,” answered Elias after he had sipped a little Turkish coffee mixed with orange-blossom water.
“What don’t you know?” said the Kohino.
“I don’t know, Father. No. Take her yourself,” answered Elias in a voice like a rattle that emerged from the depths of his throat.
“What did you say?” asked the Kohino.
“Really, I don’t know what to say.”
“No. Repeat yourself. I didn’t hear well.”
“You said I should take her? Me?”
“I can’t,” said Elias.
“You said I should take her? She’s my daughter! What are you talking about? Get up, you piece of shit! I thought you were a man and you turned out to be a piece of shit. Get up and get away from me, and don’t you ever, ever dare to come anywhere near my daughter, or I’ll smash your head.”
The Kohino would take his small family to the beach to wait for the Spirit, which moves as it wills. At White Sands beach, after night had fallen and the small stars that pierced the clouds over the sea had distributed themselves, the Kohino would bend down over the water and drink. He would walk a little way out into the cold water and rising waves, taking hold of his grandson’s hand with his right hand and his daughter’s hand with his left, and they would move forward into the sea. When the waves reached the child’s waist, the Kohino, mumbling strange prayers in a strange language, would bend over and fill his hands with water and drink. He would give the mother water to drink first, and then her son, and then he himself would drink. After each one of them had drunk three times, they would retire, walking backwards. But when Yalo’s hand slipped out of his grandfather’s, and the child twisted and ran to the beach where he would stand shivering with cold, the Kohino would run after him and drive him back into the water.
“You mustn’t turn your back on the sea, boy! Who turns their back on the Spirit?”
When the three reached the sand-dried beach, the mother would open her bag and take out a big white towel, with which she would dry Yalo after making him take off his pants, and she would give him clean pants, and the boy would turn blue with the cold, the fear, and the salty taste that covered his tongue and filled his guts.
“The water has become sweet to the taste,” the Kohino would say.
“Amen,” the mother would say.
And “Amen,” would say Yalo, waiting for the piece of Turkish delight whose sugary smoothness would blend with the salty coarseness of his tongue.
Gaby would stand on the shore in front of her father and start undoing her bun of hair. She would pull out the pins and place them on a woolen blanket that she had spread on the sand, and she would order Yalo to sit on the blanket while she stood, awaiting the Kohino’s comb.
The Kohino would go to the sea and take a handful of its water in his joined palms and sprinkle it onto his daughter’s hair. Then he would start combing. The long hair flowed down over her shoulders and her back, fell to her waist, and reached her ankles.
On the night of Epiphany, that of the day of the baptism of Christ the Savior, Gabrielle daughter of Afram would unloose her hair and spread it beneath night’s light for the miracle to color. The long hair, which was filled with circles that fell under the Kohino’s comb, would start to turn gold.
Yalo said that his mother’s hair would become gold, that it would dissolve with the water and the comb and would turn golden and shine. The Kohino told his grandson to keep his eyes open, so that he could see how his mother’s hair became charged with gold.
“See the miracle, my boy,” the Kohino would say.
And Yalo saw the miracle and felt the taste of the salty sugar in his throat and from between the Kohino’s lips, edged with his large white beard, saw colors emerge. The Kohino would shake the comb, and the dim light that penetrated the darkness of the shore would trace spots on his hands and eyes, and the comb would rise and fall unceasingly. Yalo the Child would sit on the woolen blanket and enter the miracle of the water and the golden hair.