Memory and Selfhood in Confessions

side by side series of the cover of Confessions

Originally published in Arabic in 2008 and translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid in 2016, Rabee Jaber’s novella Confessions mesmerizes the reader as the narrator divulges the story of his lost identity to the writer. When a boy is kidnapped and killed in the Lebanese Civil War, the narrator’s story goes, his father loses himself to the violence of the war, in turn kidnapping and killing hundreds of people. After shooting out a car from West Beirut, the father sees a little boy still alive and brings him home to his family’s house in East Beirut, where he renames the boy after his deceased son, Maroun, and gets fake identification papers made. The new Maroun’s identity dissolves into that of the family as he is unknowingly brought up by the murderer of his own family until the truth is divulged, many years later, a few weeks before his adoptive father dies. Struggling to recover his sense of self throughout the short book, Maroun is plagued by the feeling of simultaneously knowing and not knowing, by the similarity of remembering and imagining, and by the unsettling capacity for people to change. In an episodic narrative marked by the passage of time only through the narrator’s mother’s progressive sickness and his university exams, Jaber creates a haunting elegy for selfhood from the perspective of a boy who was kidnapped but not killed—given a second life unlike the original Maroun. In the place of death, the narrator of Confessions drowns in a memory composed of strikingly cinematic images that he attempts to piece together in search of a comprehensive identity.

The book opens with a series of successive memories, each one exquisitely crafted around a visual or sensorial experience rather than the substance of a relationship or interaction. “How many times did I see my sisters sitting silently in the living room (the safe room, our refuge in times of shelling) as if they were at a funeral, side-by-side on the long sofa with the green velvet cover, gazing at the enlarged picture of [their deceased brother] on the wall, a black ribbon hanging over the corner of it. How many times did I see my big sister turn, in tears, and watch me enter carrying a sandwich,” Maroun says, bringing the reader into his family home through this repeated image of his memory. Soon after, one of the memories takes us to his father “burning clothes and notebooks in our backyard . . . . how his face clouded over while he pulled things—I didn’t know what they were—out of a deep sackcloth and threw them onto the fire, as the tongues of flame leapt to lick his eyelids and the hair on his head.” These cinematic spurts of memory continue to form the bulk of Confessions, almost never accompanied by explanation or connective tissue beyond Maroun’s or the reader’s sensorial or affective response. While they seem to burst from the page erratically, many in turn reveal a deeper subtext about the war or Maroun’s status as an outsider, despite the fact that he was completely unaware of it at the time. He describes the look with which he often caught his family or community members gazing into his eyes, as if they “wanted to peer into my depths . . . as if I were hiding another body within my own, a body beyond my body.” One such moment comes when the father of his girlfriend rejects him as a match for his daughter, claiming that Maroun has “no idea how much” he knows about his family, and insisting, despite his immense respect for Maroun’s household, that the two of them were not right for each other. Although Jaber never explains this decision and Maroun does not attempt to pursue it further, the reader understands that the father knows Maroun originally comes from an anonymous family in West Beirut, and for this judges him too much of a risk to his daughter.

Maroun offers these sporadic memory images in an attempt to rattle a logical self from their presence in proximity to one another: “Right now I’m gathering up my memories and watching them flow, I’m plunging my hand into the stream and groping for one specific memory, as if looking for a polished stone that sleeps on the riverbed,” he says. “That’s what I’m doing when I speak to you: I’m extracting the memories from the back rooms, I’m taking untrodden paths to try to find myself.” Structured as a long confession that Maroun’s character divulges to Jaber, the novella treads the boundary between memory and comprehension: although the child and adolescent Maroun never knew his identity was falsified, his memories from that time reveal the truth unquestioningly. He meditates on this paradox, questioning how “to distinguish what I remember from what I imagine myself remembering.” These qualifications around the construction of memory reappear consistently, revealing Maroun’s anxiety around his own self-conception. He describes his oldest memory, for example, as “the oldest one that I know belongs to me, a real memory and not someone else’s invention, not my own invention either,” and later says that he is “trying to make a point about memory. Memories are misleading.” Despite this obsessive paranoia about the uncertainty of truth, however, Maroun’s project is to excavate himself from his memory. Traumatized by the knowledge that his conscious life has been lived in an illusion of identity, he cannot help but attempt to force a sense of order onto things in a desperate plea for a revelation about his prior self. Through this compulsive focus on logical order and his failure to extract a conception of the self from these memory images, Jaber comments not only on the traumatic effects of growing up in war, but also the fracturing of the self that radiates from acts of kidnapping and disappearance.

One of Maroun’s main preoccupations in this search is the human capacity for change, particularly that of his father’s and older brother’s. He asks, “does one change with the passage of time? Ilya—my big brother—used to tell me my father changed from one person to another in a single night and day.” This expression haunts Maroun throughout his life, as he thinks that he too “had changed in a single night and day.” He is right to think his change is as sudden as his father’s and Ilya’s, but whereas theirs is from the familiar personas of family members to ruthless kidnappers and killers after the traumatic experience of a child’s death, Maroun’s is the literal change that was forced upon him—the subsumption into East Beirut from West, from a murdered family to that of a murderer, from an unknown identity to that of a boy who was killed. Maroun’s inability to grasp his own positionality across the two sides results in this obsession with the capacity for sudden, unexplained change, underscoring the anxious distrust of those we are taught to trust—even ourselves—that abounds in times of violence and division.

The centrality of the demarcation line bleeds into the way Maroun refers to his father and what this reveals about his identity as someone who unintentionally crossed over. For most of the book, Maroun refers to the man as his father, but after learning the truth of his familial origin, he switches to “the man who carried me from the demarcation line” between the predominantly Muslim West and the predominantly Christian East Beirut. There are only two moments in which Maroun describes knowingly crossing the demarcation line, one of which occurs after he and his schoolmates ask their English teacher who lives behind the line in West Beirut. The teacher responds “beasts and monsters” in English, and so Maroun and his best friend go to a bookstore to look up the words in an English-Arabic dictionary. They later sneak to the demarcation line and are fascinated with trying to imagine who lives in the wrecked buildings along the line, but quickly retreat after coming across the burnt corpse of a woman in the street. While the irony of referring to the inhabitants of West Beirut as “beasts and monsters” at the same time as Maroun’s East Beiruti father is described repeatedly as a “kidnapper and a killer” is emphatically prescient, the significance of this schism becomes much more profound in the context of Maroun’s search for meaning of the self. As someone who unknowingly crossed the demarcation line not just for a day but in having his identity completely replaced by the opposite side, Maroun himself embodies the geographic polarization of Beirut during the war.

Towards the very end of the novella, Maroun admits that he once tried to write down his dreams in the hopes that they might reveal scenes of his life from before he was kidnapped, but he failed. He wrote one dream and “discovered I hadn’t written anything. I’d written some words, but they didn’t recreate the dream for me.” Faced with the impossibility of translating his own dreams and memories onto the page, he turns instead to oral narration. What the reader has deduced by now, however, is that it wasn’t Maroun’s inability to write that prevented him from capturing the essence of his dream and the cognition behind his memories; Jaber here beckons the reader to question how we process traumatic memory and conceive of ourselves in the context of unexpected, life-altering events. Where do we find meaning in a memory fraught with inconsistency and jarring images instead of coherent narrative? Jaber offers one possible answer: Maroun’s oral narrative cogitates in effect. It is the evocation of emotion and the senses that divulges the connective tissue in Maroun’s story rather than the written word. This culminates in the only instance in which his memory reveals something of his prior existence. When his sister’s fiancé brings a pumpkin jam made on Mount Lebanon—a jam that the family had never tasted before—Maroun describes the strange sensation he experienced:

I’ll never forget that evening: as I ate the strange jam, I felt a silent weeping rise from my depths. I was alone in the kitchen, standing at the white sink, and the plate was in the sink. I ate another forkful as the sweet smell (what was that smell?) filled my nose (it filled my head, it filled my heart, I knew that smell, I knew this food, the curious substance melted on my tongue, it melted between my teeth, and a strange dark emotion welled up inside me). I haven’t forgotten how I stood all alone in the kitchen while the light from the lamp fell on the sink’s tiles, illuminating the yellow substance in the glass jar. What was I remembering at that moment?

The sole memory that reveals something about an experience he no doubt had before crossing the demarcation line is born out of sensorial experience and results in pure affective response.

Endlessly attempting to string his memories together in search of a semblance of information about his previous life, Maroun can almost never move beyond the image: “It’s important I tell you the story in an orderly fashion, but I keep getting accosted, distracted. I feel powerless, I feel . . . The images flood in and I’m powerless to stop them.” Commenting on the difficulty of remembering himself, he notes that “it’s like I’m remembering a life someone else has lived,” although he lives the life someone else was meant to. Reminiscent of the common Arabic folk tale opening, “It was or it was not,” similar to the English “once upon a time,” Confessions abounds with these spoken contradictions: “I remember myself and I don’t,” “I’m Maroun. I’m the boy they kidnapped. Didn’t I tell you I wasn’t myself?” Never able to track down any concrete information about his prior identity, Maroun only finds peace when learns to accept his irreconcilable duality and the possibility that a conception of the self may not need to lie in a logically ordered narrative. In this remarkable novella, Jaber merges the cinematic image and affective response to investigate the paradox of memory and imagination, the polarization of the city, and the irretrievably fractured sense of self left behind by the thousands of disappeared civilians during the Lebanese Civil War.

This piece was originally published on November 10, 2020.