The Denver Post
April 7, 2002By Dylan Foley
Special to The Denver Post
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the traumatized American reading public shied away from literature that addressed terrorism and political violence. As the war on terrorism continues, however, it may be time to explore bombs and the psychology of terrorists in the safest place possible - where the explosives are only ink and paper.
Two debut works of fiction, Viken Berberian's novel, "The Cyclist" and Jonathan Tel's short-story collection, "Arafat's Elephant" examine daily life, violence and atrocities in the Middle East. Both books do so in an artful manner, but take very different directions in their stories of life during wartime.
They mix in much humor to examine the mindset of civilians faced with suicide bombers, terrorists out to kill total strangers and people just getting by. Though these books were written before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, their investigations of the horror of terrorism are extremely relevant now.
"The Cyclist" opens with an unnamed terrorist-in-training languishing in a Beirut hospital bed. He has been seriously injured in a bicycle accident while training to blow up a hotel in downtown Beirut. As he lays paralyzed with a crater-sized hole in his head, he muses about food. "You will never see me salivate over a lentil tureen," he says of the local cuisine. "But I could cause grave bodily harm for a tart tabbouleh."
His fellow terrorists from the ambiguous "Academy" bring him food to help him recover. He and his comrades jokingly refer to the bombing plot as a " shower party," and they call their bomb "the baby."
The protagonist compares the upcoming party with a childhood birthday feast, where he ate carp and candied carrots, to the future carnage in the hotel: "We plan to serve bulbs of dismembered toes; tiny spiny vertebrae. It will be followed by blasted leg of foreign man."
Berberian has crafted a surreal, intriguing novel, which will fixate readers on the bomb in the incompetent terrorist's knapsack. Through Berberian's taut, sensual prose, it is possible to see the world through a terrorist's eyes.
In "Arafat's Elephant," Tel's 17 stories are mostly set in Jerusalem and Israel, where he addresses daily life amid bombs and love in a militarized state. The opening piece involves a suicide bomber about to blow up a bus stop, but who is suddenly interrupted by an elderly American couple who want him to take their picture. The bomb does not go off, but the story twists and turns.
Tel builds intricate, short tales of the people of Israel, both Israeli and Palestinian. He writes electric tales that show what makes people the same, more than what draws them apart. At his best, Tel's writing is very reminiscent of Italo Calvino's tales of the human spirit in post-war Italy.
One of the best examples of Tel's work is a Jerusalem rabbi who finds that he is technically not Jewish. He decides to try forbidden meats and winds up in an Arab market ordering tripe. A Palestinian man, Yasser Arafat's former chef, offers assistance. The rabbi buys ox spleen. The butcher wraps it in newspaper: "The International Herald Tribune, Ahmed informs me. "It is famous for its absorbency.'" The spleen inevitably becomes part of a larger farce.
Both Berberian and Tel have direct experience with terrorism. An Armenian Christian, Berberian grew up in Beirut, and his father was killed by terrorists in 1986.
Tel, who is Jewish, was raised in the United States and lives in Jerusalem.
In Tel's stories, the quality of the work is uneven. Some of his pieces hang on a single gimmick, like the married ambulance driver who flirts with a dead girl's ghost. But Tel writes with a zest for life. In the title story, he writes a lyrical tale of a sultan's cruel and tragic gift of an elephant that becomes a parable for Israel.
In Berberian's novel, the cyclist regains his health and is ready to kill. The writer goes inside the terrorist's head and tells of the senseless bombing of his village that made him ready for outrageous revenge. For the cyclist, his final bicycle ride will have absurdist elements, including a bicycle race. "The Cyclist" and "Arafat's Elephant" present two very different views of the Middle East - one of the terrorists' worldview, and the other how people survive in wartime. Both books go inside the hearts of their characters and probe their souls, and amid the violence of the Middle East, readers can find a small piece of hope for peace.
Dylan Foley is a book reviewer from Brooklyn, N.Y.
(ARAFAT'S ELEPHANT By Jonathan Tel, Counterpoint, 149 pages, $14)
(THE CYCLIST By Viken Berberian, Simon & Schuster, 189 pages, $21)