Monday, October 05, 2009

nabil saleh's novel 'the curse of ezekiel'

Lebanese novelist recreates Alexander the Great’s siege of Tyre
by Susannah Tarbush

In his new novel “The Curse of Ezekiel,” published by Quartet Books of London, the Lebanese novelist and lawyer Nabil Saleh transports the reader to Alexander the Great’s siege of the Phoenician coastal city of Tyre in 332 BC.

At that time, Tyre was the largest and most prominent Phoenician city-state. Much of its wealth was derived from the purple dye produced from the shell of the Murex sea snail. Today, Tyre – or Sour – is a city on the southern coast of Lebanon, rich in archeological remains.

Alexander’s seven-month siege of Tyre took place in the context of his campaigns against the Persians. Sidon surrendered to Alexander, but its rival neighbor Tyre held out. Tyre was located on an island opposite the abandoned mainland city of Old Tyre, and was defended by high walls. Alexander faced the problem that he had no fleet to call on, while Tyre had ships. Unable to attack by sea he drew up an audacious plan to build a causeway from the mainland.

The Tyrians attacked Alexander’s forces repeatedly during the siege, but were finally overcome. Alexander by now had backing from ships from Cyprus, and from Sidon and other Phoenician cities that had switched allegiance from the Persians.

“The Curse of Ezekiel” is Saleh’s fifth novel to explore Lebanese history. Saleh told Saudi Gazette that one reason for choosing to write about Alexander’s siege is that although it is “a very interesting period, very little has been written on it, even in Lebanon.”
In addition, the Phoenicians have tended to get a “bad press” in Lebanon, but this has now changed. Saleh explains that during the French mandate imposed on Lebanon after the First World War, the French encouraged the idea that Lebanese Christians had Phoenician rather than Arab roots. This was part of the colonizing power’s ploy to divide and rule the population, and to counter ideas of Arab unity. In recent years however there has been a growing appreciation of Lebanon’s Phoenician past.
Saleh sees something “fantastic” in the Phoenicians’ ability to create a kind of commercial empire by founding trading posts and settlements throughout the Mediterranean world. The civilization of the Phoenicians endured for hundreds of years because “they created mutual interests in trade, exchange and barter with the inhabitants of their settlements and trading posts.”
He contrasts this with “an empire that works to enforce its will by force. When there is a one-way interest only, it doesn’t last.”

Saleh has lived since 1977 in London, where he works as a lawyer, arbitrator and writer. His first two books were not novels. “The General Principles of Saudi Arabian and Omani Company Laws (statutes and shari’a)” was published by Namara in 1981. It was followed in 1986 by “Unlawful Gain and Legitimate Profit in Islamic Law: Riba, Gharar and Islamic Banking” (Cambridge University Press, re-published by Graham and Trotman in 1992).
Saleh intended his third book to be another factual work on law, but instead found himself writing his first novel “The Qadi and the Fortune Teller” (Quartet, 1996). The novel takes the form of the diary of a Muslim judge in Ottoman Beirut in 1843. It was re-published in 2008 by American publisher Interlink.
Once Saleh had started writing historical fiction set in Lebanon, there was no stopping him.
His second novel “Outremer” (1999) portrays the Levant in the 13th century, when it was under European control. The action of “Open House” (2001) takes place in Second World War Beirut. “Red Anemone” (Tamyras 2004), set in the city of Byblos in 1935, is based on the legend of Venus and Adonis.
The central character of “The Curse of Ezekiel” is a wealthy young Tyrian, Bomilcar, who leads a pleasure-filled life following the death of his father. He is an insider of the circles around Azemilk, King of Tyre.
When news reaches Tyre that Alexander has defeated the Persian King Darius at the Battle of Issus in southern Anatolia, the city’s elite has to decide how to react, especially given Alexander’s reputation for extracting bloody retribution. A wealthy ship-owner, Chelbes, advocates a simple switch from paying tribute to the Persians to paying it to Alexander, but others oppose such appeasement and are in favor of resistance.
The rivalry between Tyre and Sidon is an axis of the novel. After Alexander subdues Sidon, he allows his general Hephaestion to choose who should be crowned King of Sidon. Hephaestion selects a noble-blooded farmer, Abdalonymus.
Abdalonymus’s daughter Chiboulet is a beautiful young widow with whom Bomilcar falls in love when he meets her at the healing temple of Eshmun near Sidon. Bomilcar rescues Chiboulet from the evil designs of a priest at the temple, but the priest is killed in the struggle and Bomilcar and his new love must flee.
Bomilcar’s mother Inat at first opposes a union between her son and Chiboulet on the grounds that the young woman’s father is a mere farmer. But after Abdalonymus is crowned King of Sidon, he considers Bomilcar an unsuitable suitor for his daughter. It seems that the personal and political pressures on the couple will drive them apart.
Saleh is an unpretentious writer, with an emphasis on the story rather than on literary style, and the novel is lively and entertaining. He recreates a fascinating period of history, and furnishes the narrative with much authentic detail.
He describes how Alexander’s forces built the causeway from stones ripped from the buildings of Old Tyre, and wood from the forests of Mount Libanus. The Tyrians constructed skiffs and attacked the construction workers with arrows and javelins.

The workers were unable to build the causeway right up the walls of Tyre, as there the waters plunge to a depth of 600 feet. To overcome this problem Alexander ordered two siege towers to be taken to the causeway. When completed, they were taller than the city walls, and the range of their artillery had been doubled through the use of springs made of twisted animal tendons.
Saleh is now working on his sixth novel, and has moved beyond Lebanon to Baghdad in the ninth century AD when it was capital of Abbasid Empire under the Caliph Al-Ma’mun.
Al-Ma’mun encouraged scholarship, initiating a drive to translate works of knowledge into Arabic and founding the “Bayt al-Hikma” (House of Wisdom).

Saudi Gazette 25 October 2009

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