Under my byline

Between dog and wolf

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 7 August 2010


In the morning paper is a news photograph from Kashmir showing two policemen and a young protester. The policemen are restraining the young man from joining the funeral procession of a fellow protester who has died as a result of police firing. The man is shirtless, and the two policemen have placed a hand and a finger, respectively, on his bare chest — in a gesture more officious than threatening — to indicate that he and the others with him must go no further.

It does not look like a scene where violence is about to break out. It looks more like theatre. There is the deliberately nonconfrontational stance of the policemen, the argumentative approach from the sides of other protesters, and, most strikingly, the pose of the young protester himself — he has his chest out, his eyes focused on the nearest policeman yet looking through him, and his arms held slightly away from his sides. On his face you can see… what is it? anger and misery, certainly, but also the clarity of being right and yet being denied. There is, strangely, a great beauty in this scene.

Jean Genet would have understood this at once. Indeed, reading Genet on the Palestinians is what allowed this photo to make sense to me. This French novelist, essayist, playwright, homosexual, petty criminal, visited the Middle East several times between 1970 and 1984. In 1970, already 60 years old, he lived for months with the Palestinian fidayeen in the ‘combat camps’ in Jordan, where they would train and from where the young fighters would cross the border to attack Israel — this was after the Six-Day War in which Israel defeated its neighbours and took even more Arab land. He also spent time in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon.

In September 1982, Genet arrived in Beirut actually during the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. The Israeli army had encircled Beirut and the camps, and then permitted a Lebanese Christian militia to enter the camps to kill and torture the Palestinians. The orgy lasted three days; and on the fourth, a Sunday, Genet was able to enter Shatila and witness the appalling aftermath. In the incomparable essay he wrote afterward, “Four Hours in Shatila”, he goes well beyond what any journalist, or any ordinary novelist, would have been able to say. You have never read anything like this. The essay is brilliant not just as witness and reportage (it is never sentimental), but because Genet looks at all the mutilated bodies and sees through them to the nature of the Palestinian movement itself: a thing of great beauty, a revolution, at risk from itself.

Genet’s early novels from the 1940s — Our Lady of the Flowers, The Thief’s Journal and so on — are full of the characters and environs of his youth; that is, criminals and prisons, hunger and sensuality and rough homosexual experience. He also served in the Foreign Legion, in Syria and North Africa. He had long-term relationships with at least two Arab men. So yes, Genet’s life probably influenced his adherence to the Palestinian fidayeen (and the Black Panthers in America, and others). Yet when he writes of beauty it is not as a lover or aesthete but as an old man: it is that the reality of the Palestinians was so different from the image projected by reporters and Israel, that the sense of openness and acceptance in the combat camps was both natural and vulnerable — “entre chien et loup”, between dog and wolf, as he put it in his last novel, Prisoner of Love, published in 1986, the year he died.

It is novelists, and novelists from the margins at that, who can travel into the heart of darkness and illuminate it. V S Naipaul on India, of course, but also Gabriel García Márquez with News of a Kidnapping, Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra on Iraq and his own country, Truman Capote with In Cold Blood, the British-Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif on the Palestinians, perhaps Franz Kafka… The list is not overlong, but it is glorious. Among Indians, we who have so many areas of darkness, there are scarcely any mobile writers from the margins. We have, instead, Arundhati Roy.

It is Genet’s birth centenary this year. Read him now, and wish for someone as daring.


3 Responses

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  1. NN said, on 27 September 2010 at 1:40 am

    beautifully written, as always, but I wonder about your reading of the unnamed photograph in the beginning of the article. khair, the rest made me wish i could write half as well! and one day, when there are finally no more deadlines to meet, I’ll take that reading list from you …

  2. Rrishi said, on 27 September 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Wish that photograph was online so I could have linked to it. It was at the top of page 3 of the _Indian Express_ on the morning of the same day, 7 Aug, as I recall. I’ll check on the photographer’s name and add that here later (kept a clipping).


    The other thing that isn’t quite fully footnoted in this column is the French phrase, “entre chien et loup”. It’s quite a subtle and interesting phrase, and more useful than I had space to explain. Do look it up.

  3. Rrishi said, on 18 October 2010 at 10:07 pm

    Re the preceding comment, the photographer’s name is Shuaib Masoodi. I still can’t find the photo online, so you’ll have to find it yourself to make your own judgement.

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