Jabra Ibrahim Jabra : البحث البحث عن وليد مسعودد (In Search of Walid Masoud)
My knowledge of Walid Masoud was profound, not only in terms of time and place, but in terms of the complex human dimension that linked him so subtly with the lives of dozens of men and women. Narrator Dr Jawad Husni had known Walid Masoud for twenty years. Walid was always searching for the balance he had talked about all his life, and had never found. Balance, he used to say, is a rough general term we use. In a world of terror, murder, hunger, and hatred, how can you find your inner psychological balance or whatever you want to call it – without feeling you’re standing on the far fringe of humanity?. He tells us a great deal about the inner psychology of Walid Masoud. The actual details of who Masoud is – and the title clearly refers not only to the search for him when he disappears but much more so to finding out who the real Walid Masoud is – we have to gradually learn over the course of the book.
Jawad receives a phone call one morning from Masoud telling him that he would be leaving, that he did not know when he would be back and asking Jawad to take care of his affairs (as he had done before). I didn’t ask him where he was going, although I suspected it would most probably be Lebanon and then Italy. He’d done that more than once before and been away a long time. (They both live in Baghdad, Jabra having gone there in the 1950s under circumstances explained in the book). However this time he did not return as he had before. His car was found abandoned near Rutba on the road to Syria. He left a tape in the car which he had clearly been recording while driving. He’d recorded many things. The one thing he hadn’t recorded was the one thing everybody was dying to know: where had he gone? Rumours ensued. An unidentified corpse was found which might have been his, It was generally agreed that he was dead.
Jawad listened to the tape and later he will play it to a select group of friends who knew Masoud and we get to learn of its contents. Both we and they are somewhat mystified by the contents. He seems to ramble on about his childhood and, in particular, a girlfriend called Shahd. But who is Shahd? No-one had heard of her. One theory is that she represents every woman or, at least, every woman he had had a relationship with,. (He was a notorious womaniser as we shall find out and as various women will later testify.). Another theory is that she’s the Woman in his life. He kept running away from her and colliding with her on every road he took. We, of course learn the answer much later in the book. (Masoud had a wife,Rima, who had had a nervous breakdown and was in a clinic and they had a son Marsant who had been killed in Palestine. (Walid had visited him in Beirut and had considered taking up arms again but Marsant dissuades him.) Again we get the full details later in the book.
We learn a lot more about Walid. He had been a banker and had done very well but not as well as he might have done. Yet, some disease he suffered from stopped him from going all the way. He was quite content to make do with less than he could actually make, and he wouldn’t follow up the really big deals with all their complex details and ramifications. He also wrote books. His first was called Man and Civilisation. It was criticised by a man he thought was his friend and he takes cruel revenge on the man but then relents. It is only when we come to other narrators, including a narration by Masoud himself that we learn more of him, such as his upbringing, how he spent the war in Italy, planning on becoming a monk (most of the Palestinians we meet in this book are Christian), how he suddenly changed his mind, how he returned to Baghdad, a determined Palestinian, joining the freedom fighters and then the Arab relief forces, before returning to Baghdad to become a banker. During his time in Palestine he is arrested and tortured by the Israelis and then deported. However his views on Palestine remained. What other nation in history has ever known such a long and terrifying period of enmity and fighting? How could any Palestinian manage, in this bitter, arid, painful atmosphere, to think, work, build, or write when he’s had to spend all his time resisting tyrants, tin-pot dictators, and oppressors every way he turns?
We have several narrators, all giving their point of view on Masoud but also telling their own tales and the tales of the others we meet. In particular we get considerable detail of his love life. As mentioned he was a womaniser but it is clear that he was not the only one among his wide circle of friends. Indeed, both sexes seem to be having ever-changing relationships with others of the circle, sometimes relationships with single people, sometimes with married people and Walid certainly did his bit, particularly after his wife was hospitalised. One character suggests Every woman he’s had an affair with has been driven to madness or hysteria.
So we have two questions. Firstly, who was Walid? Was he a womaniser? An intellectual? A banker? A traveller? A Palestinian freedom fighter? A man about town?
Secondly what happened to him? Of course the characters speculate. Was he kidnapped, perhaps by the Israelis, a business rival or even a jealous husband? Was the unidentified body found his?
Jabra gives us a detailed portrait of a somewhat enigmatic man, with views of him by quite a few people, some who agree with the general consensus and others who do not. At the same time we learn a lot about the other characters Walid interacts with, all of whom add to the flavour of this excellent and complex book.
First published in 1978 by Dar ai-Adab
First published in English in 2000 by Syracuse University Press
Translated by Roger Allen and Adnan Haydar