Amin Malouf’s Les Désorientés: The Unresolved Legacy of the Lebanese Civil War

An insurmountable grudge between friends stands in for the unresolved trauma of political violence in the story of an expatriate visiting his native Lebanon.
Photo credits: Inside Arabia

The title of Amin Malouf’s novel, Les Désorientés (The Disoriented), has a double significance: both “lost,” and “removed” from the East. Both of these definitions apply to the protagonist of the story, Adam, a history professor living in France, who is visiting his native Lebanon for the first time in 25 years.

“I carry in my name the birth of humanity, but I belong to a humanity that is extinguishing itself . . . .  In the long term, all the sons of Adam and Eve are lost children.”

In the journal entry that opens Les Désorientés, Adam addresses the Biblical origins of his name: “I carry in my name the birth of humanity, but I belong to a humanity that is extinguishing itself . . . .  In the long term, all the sons of Adam and Eve are lost children.”

In the Bible, Adam and Eve’s sin is the reason humans are banished from the garden of Eden. Through the title, “The Disoriented,” Malouf links this biblical exile from paradise to the protagonist’s estrangement from his country of origin. The themes of culpability and alienation from a country remain entwined throughout the novel which grapples with the legacy of the Lebanese Civil War.

At the center of Les Désorientés is the rift between Adam and Mourad, Adam’s best friend from university. Unable to accept Mourad’s corrupt behavior during the war, Adam had cut off contact with his old friend shortly after emigrating to France. Curiously, Adam’s return to Lebanon is prompted by Mourad, who asks him to visit him on his deathbed.

Mourad’s corruption began with neighbors’ conflicting claims to a plot of land. Mourad inherited this property dispute from his father and, determined to settle it in his favor, hired a local ruffian to defend his claim to the property. This display of force had destructive consequences. While Adam was shocked by the harm Mourad had caused his neighbors, this incident in itself might not have irrevocably alienated him from Mourad. It was Mourad’s subsequent behavior that Adam could not come to terms with. Immune to legal repercussions, Mourad secured a comfortable government job and went on to plunder the government coffers while the rest of the country was plunged into the chaos of the civil war. Adam could not forgive Mourad for continuing on with his normal life, and even profiting from violence, with no acknowledgment of his wrong-doing.

The Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975-1990, was characterized by conflict among Lebanon’s disparate religious factions. This violence was so widespread that removing all of its perpetrators from political office would have constituted a complete overhaul of Lebanon’s government. To avoid this disruption, the Lebanese government passed a law of general amnesty in 1991 that absolved militants and warlords—including many sitting politicians—of crimes committed during the war.  

Les Désorientés grapples with the consequences of a lack of accountability for violence. This lack of accountability is at the heart of Adam’s inability to forgive Mourad. Adam’s conversations and correspondence with his old friends also shed light on the larger-scale manifestation of this lack of accountability: the way that various sects fail to recognize both the wrongdoing on their side of  conflict and the suffering on the other.

The biblical motif of a fall from grace, or an exile from paradise, provides a framework for understanding the fatal flaws of Lebanese society, as Adam sees them. He presents his childhood and his time at university as a sort of Eden to which he is unable to return because it no longer exists. Factionalism and a failure on all sides to take responsibility for the violence of the preceding decades are at the root of Adam’s rejection of his country.

Adam points out the irony of bearing the first man’s name while foretelling the end of his civilization. Throughout the novel, he insists on the impossibility of his living happily in his native country, but it is only at the end that he fully describes the Eden from which he has been expelled. Near the end of the novel, he recounts his childhood friendship with his older neighbor, Hanum.

Adam’s friendship with Hanum depended on an attitude of tolerance and open borders between neighboring properties, as well as a willingness to forgive perceived incursions. The friendship began with Adam’s curiosity about what lay beyond the wall of his family’s country house. One day, he brought a ladder from home to peer over the wall and found a beautiful woman in her bathrobe, who looked up and caught him watching her. It was unclear at first how she would react: she was stern with Adam and threatened to keep the ladder and ask his parents to come to retrieve it. Met with Adam’s politeness and respect in the face of her reprimands, Hanum warmed up to him, asking him to fetch her some coffee from the kitchen to atone for spying.

As a gesture of forgiveness, Hanum invited Adam to join her in her morning coffee, on the condition that he drink it without sugar as a punishment. She asked him what he was reading and listened patiently to his answer, despite adventure books not being her cup of tea. Because Adam was eager to please her, he quickly began reading books he knew she would find interesting. Adam’s adaptation to his neighbor’s taste in books and coffee was a step toward accommodating “the other,” representative of the way in which openness and flexibility go a long way in smoothing over tensions between neighboring sects. Hanum’s sense of being violated and Adam’s embarrassment could easily have degenerated into animosity. By treating each other with graciousness and respect, Hanum and Adam transformed this moment of potential conflict into the basis for a friendship.

Accommodation, openness and generosity: these characteristics of Adam and Hanum’s friendship provide a window into his idea of a society capable of overcoming sectarian conflict. Equally important is the act of forgiveness that makes their friendship possible. In his career as a historian, Adam lectures that conflicts almost always involve wrongdoing on both sides. Clemency is all the more important in this view because it is required of all parties in a society trying to heal from political trauma.

If forgiveness is a prerequisite for peaceful coexistence, is Adam wrong for refusing to forgive Mourad? One framework for answering this question is the biblical narrative of sin and redemption. Adam evokes this narrative during his visit to a monastery when he asks the monks if they feel, in the face of religious conflict, that God has abandoned them. Although he is ambivalent toward Christianity, the religion he was born into, Adam finds Jesus’ suffering and doubt on the cross to be a uniquely compelling part of the Bible. According to Christian doctrine, forgiveness is accessible for everyone, but only at the high price of Jesus’ agony on the cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who grappled with large-scale violence in his opposition to the Nazis, addressed the question of what forgiveness asks of us. The story of Jesus’ suffering on the cross illustrates that while we can all be forgiven for doing harm to others, there is no way to erase this harm: it is necessary to recognize and atone for it. “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, . . . absolution without personal confession.” 

Holding the perpetrators of violence accountable is the atonement that allows for forgiveness. Collective amnesia as a response to violence is a form of cheap grace: the policy of amnesty seeks to cover up trauma rather than healing it. Les Désorientés suggests that the citizens of Lebanon will remain lost, cut off from connection, as long as the legacy of violence is not addressed.