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  • In a State without State:Jean Said Makdisi's Beirut Fragments as a Thought Experiment in Public Sphere Disintegration
  • Robin Truth Goodman (bio)

As a memoir of the Lebanese civil war, Jean Said Makdisi's 1990 Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir is a document that witnesses witnessing. It therefore invites expectations that it will adopt techniques of realism. Beirut Fragments, however, fails in adhering to realist form. I argue here that Makdisi's failure to follow through on such generic conventions parallels a failure of the communicative conventions of the public sphere in a time of war.1 With the slipping of recognizable features of genre, what Makdisi witnesses is a privatization of public sphere functions implicated in the reprivatization of women's work. By "reprivatization" I mean an organization of labor where workers in a postindustrial workforce find themselves in places that resemble or repeat industrialism's domestic sphere but are subject to more direct forms of exploitation—that is, where obstacles of public regulation and oversight can be bypassed or overcome. Often, such work requires or encourages traits traditionally associated with socialization or intimacy that now take the place of public caring functions. [End Page 27] Makdisi's memoir is a fragmented autobiographical tale where public institutions fragment and finally break down, and where these public institutions' former democratic functions and conventions of citizenship—including witnessing and self-narration—are increasingly reprivatized as women's work.

The Lebanese civil war raged for fourteen years and can be said to have destroyed the public institutions through which the state acted.2 "Here and there," as Makdisi remarks of the crossroads lying between West Beirut and East Beirut, "a tattered flag or a pockmarked national emblem hangs lopsided from a balcony where diplomats once hosted leisurely receptions and chatted and smoked over drinks" (75).3 Not only the diplomatic [End Page 28] quarters, but also the national art museum and other buildings that held the symbols of a coherent national community have given way to military checkpoints, garbage heaps, and ruins: "The museum building itself now serves only a military function, while dark rumors circulate as to the fate and whereabouts of the treasures that once lay within" (74).4 As structuring forms of political communication and identification become unrecognizable when the buildings housing national power and national culture get flattened and shredded, the memoir itself falls short on recognizable genre features, coherent thematizations, and legible temporalities. Makdisi shows that the crumbling of systematic references to the public sphere parallels a disintegration of the communicative function of literary convention. This culture of communication at risk finds its most strident formulation in two repeated motifs that disrupt the generic codes for stabilizing meaning: first, the abandonment of a language that would create a bridge of mutual understanding on which a public sphere depends; and secondly, the privatization of women's work, the current institutional form of the industrial division of labor.

Part of how Beirut Fragments narrates the fragmentation of the public sphere is in descriptions of the blocking of roads and open spaces between sites of interaction as these public spaces come to pose countless, possibly fatal threats, driving civilians to hunker down in the concealment of their homes. The sense of outside danger and devastation that forces social life into private enclaves characterizes much Lebanese civil war fiction, expressed as the constant tension between the war on the outside and inside spaces of refuge and separation from it where trauma and alienation unfold. One thinks, for example, of Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun (first published in Arabic in 1998), in which a Palestinian freedom fighter, run into exile in 1948, leaves his family [End Page 29] behind in what is now Israel, to where he is lured back by his memories of desire and home-life; the Lebanese border is where the struggle for nationhood gains material, representative, and political form and, after the Shatila massacre, gets hazed over in helplessness and despair. Also, one might recall the main character in Hanan al-Shaykh's The Story of Zahra (1986), who repeatedly emerges from her domestic seclusion and dodges through the war zone to reach her lover...


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