Summer is upon us, and you need something to read while you work on your tan at Sporting. Books, incidentally, are a perfect way to pick up members of the opposite sex because they are a great conversation starter. If someone wants to talk to you, they need only ask “What are you reading?”

Picking up dates is not a problem for Saman Yarid, the protagonist of “The Melhis Report,” a novel by Rabee Jaber. In fact, Saman spends his days juggling different lovers – not that it helps him much. The novel is set in 2005, shortly after the bombing that killed Rafik Hariri. Saman is plagued by both existential crises and panic attacks in uncertain times. He struggles to make sense of what happened. At work in East Beirut, “if anyone ever asked him what he does in this office, he’d say: 'I drink coffee.'”

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Saman lives in an empty mansion in Achrafiyeh – the rest of his family has passed away or fled the country. He is haunted by his sister Josephine, kidnapped during the war. Her words reverberate with the grief of someone who cannot make herself heard. From the afterlife she tells him, “I call you, but you don’t answer. I want to tell you things. I have so many things to tell you.”

Saman’s living sisters plead for him to come join them in Paris and Baltimore in emails and phone calls. But Saman can’t leave; he seems glued to his native city. Jaber tells us that Saman “never once traveled far from Beirut without feeling as if he’d left half of himself behind, as if he were split in two. Half of him moving on the streets of New York or London or Tokyo or Lyon, and the half back in Beirut waiting for the rest of him.”

In Beirut, Saman isn’t so much happy or whole, but he is. Josephine comments, “It’s like your guts are tied to Beirut’s, and you don’t know why.”

The book explores often-absurd efforts to make meaning of life in the city. The title itself is a reference to the report on the assassination that will be issued by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis. Saman tells his sisters that he is awaiting the report to make sense of the assassination. But even he seems to doubt whether the report will in fact reveal the truth. Members of Lebanese Parliament are heard denouncing the supposed ‘serial killer’ planting bombs in Beirut.

Words themselves come under scrutiny: “Words don’t say anything. We say ‘moon,’ but that word isn’t the moon. The moon is a white object swimming in the heights. How could a single word ever grasp it?”

As insufficient as words may be, Jaber rewards his readers with a fast-moving narrative, and a beautifully detailed account of life in Beirut that may make this city’s residents glow with recognition.

He captures tiny details of city life -- Saman even orders manakish from Zaatar wa Zeit (or ‘Oil & Thyme’ in the English translation). Under Jaber’s pen, a thing like going tanning at Sporting Club Beach could be elevated to pure poetry. And that, friends, is what a great book can do.

The book is available in English and in the original Arabic under the title, "Takrir Mehlis."


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