Nabil Sulayman, al-Masalla [The Obelisk] (Beirut: Dar al-Haqa’iq, 1980).
Every year in October, the Syrian government and its media celebrate the “victory” of the “October liberation war” (harb tishrin al-tahririyya) of 1973. These occasions invariably stress the military, political and psychological gains of the first days and neglect altogether the losses and partial defeat of the concluding period of the war. At the same time, a remarkable corpus called “literature of October” (adab tishrin), comprising novels, short stories, plays and poems, has developed which generally supports the official tenor by praising the war’s heroism, leadership and the “victory” in more or less propagandistic terms.
One of the very few authors who did not swim with the mainstream is the leftist writer and critic Nabil Sulayman. He has published two novels dealing with the October war and the aftermath: The Obelisk, reviewed here, and Jarmati, or File of the Country That Will Live After the War (Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafa al-Jadida, 1977). In The Obelisk, Sulayman elaborately interweaves the October 1973-May 1974 battles against Israel, a critical assessment of the army as an institution, a panorama of political currents in Syria, and human relationships concerning family, sexuality and friendship. Different periods and aspects are presented from the perspectives of different persons, through the main character, Nabil, who carefully collected all details from documentary and other written sources, interviews with eyewitnesses and from his own experiences during military service in different military camps and at the front.
The author expresses an ambivalent relation toward the war: He affirms the necessity to fight Zionist Israel, but he questions the achievements of traditional warfare and rejects the traditional army because of its repressive, hierarchical structure. Restrictions of human rights, material facilities and human and sexual relationships are contrasted with higher officers’ material enrichment and privileges.
In the figure of Nabil, the author creates a kind of anti-hero. As Nabil gathers and records various anti-militarist currents, he ironically becomes the “first shahid” (martyr) of the war — by hurting his foot while digging a ditch far away from the front. His literary function as the narrator lets him play the role of the reporting spectator, and corresponds on the subjective level with his character, expressing personal impressions and criticisms.
The civilian population welcomes the war with enthusiastic demonstrations. The soldiers and officers, the latter in contrast to the 1967 war, show extraordinary bravery and determination to uphold their humanity. The effective use of war materiel is contrasted with enormous destruction and casualties. The author describes disorganization and inefficacy, misjudgement, dereliction of duty and corruption among officers, and conveys the fear, horror, exhaustion and pains of war. The passages on the war of attrition stress the inhumanity of war and hint that Israeli soldiers might just be instruments, too.
The Arab solidarity manifested in the October war is represented in the novel by the Moroccan, Saudi, Iraqi and Palestinian fighting units. In the story of the Palestinian woman, Marya, the author sheds light on the tragic human dimension of Palestinian history, providing the historical context of the October war. With his comprehensive portrait of this war, Nabil Sulayman successfully transcends the level of gung-ho patriotism. Contemplating the Arab disharmony and dependency on the superpowers that underlies the Palestinian plight, he hints at the necessity of a war of liberation.
Political activity is conveyed through the net of relationships among friends, each embodying a contemporary political current: the Baathist Haroun relies on the army as the only efficient force, and depends on the protection of Col. Daghir, with whom he is killed in an unsuccessful military coup. The Baathist journalist ‘Abd al-Malik performs official duties in the students’ union and the party’s youth organization, al-Shabiba. Zuhayr, a Nasserist, shares the fate of several members of the other Syrian parties which are kept in a limbo of questionable legality; he ends up in prison because of his frank advocacy of cooperation between different Arab parties. Another Nasserist current is represented by Fawzat. Hasan is a partisan of Khalid Bakdash’s official Communist Party, while Mustafa belongs to the opposition Riyad al-Turk group. Arab unity and cooperation are introduced by the figure of the Sudanese Communist, Najwan. The Palestinian left-wing guerrilla organizations are portrayed in the figure of Marya, who is killed while participating in a fida’i operation at the Lebanese-Israeli border. The Islamic fundamentalist current, which would have been traceable in the activities of the Muslim Brothers during the period when The Obelisk was written (1974-1979), has been excluded from this political scenery.
All these characters possess a highly developed political consciousness, and are involved in secret political activity that is threatened by the omnipresent intelligence service. At the same time they are trying to practice social liberty. Growing out of Murshid’s experiences in a Frankfurt commune in the late 1960s, and claiming precedence in Bahrain’s ninth-to-eleventh century Qarmatian state based on equality and common property, the inner circle of friends share an apartment to form a commune with which the others are loosely associated. A married couple with a child, an unmarried couple and several single persons demonstrate the process of social development toward equality of rights and duties for both sexes, social and emotional liberty and progressive education, simultaneously reflecting the prevailing social and working conditions. Some of the characters, as well as the group’s joint detailed study of the situation after the war, have their models in reality.
The obelisk standing in the center of the city symbolizes the center of power. At the end of the novel, the motif reappears in Nabil&rqsuo;s vision of a future, changed by force or by political activity. He and his friends erect and engrave an obelisk of their own to mark a state of political and social freedom. The Arabic word masalla, moreover, has the connotation of a large needle — an instrument to prick with. Nabil Sulayman’s daring critical assessment of the October war and of Syrian sociopolitical aspects represents a high achievement and far outweighs the degree of schematism for which some have reproached him.