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Arab Novellas Reflect Changing Mideast Social Milieu

MAZE OF JUSTICE: DIARY OF A COUNTRY PROSECUTOR by Tawfik al-Hakim, Translated by Abba Eban, Austin: U. of Texas Press,

135 pp., $20 cloth, $9.95 paper

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LITTLE MOUNTAIN by Elias Khoury, Translated by Maia Tabet, Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press,

140 pp., $19.95 cloth, $9.95 paper

IN the Arab world, autobiography and fiction have always gone hand in hand, largely because of the irresistible urge of Arabs to embroider events that they have lived through personally. As the typical Egyptian folktale ends, ``I know, because I was there and I just got back.''

Two autobiographical novellas by prominent Arab men of letters demonstrate how far this genre has traveled in the 40 years separating their publication in Arabic. Tawfik al-Hakim, the late elder statesman of Egyptian drama, wrote ``Maze of Justice'' in the quiescent 1930s, before the upheaval of World War II and Gamal Abdel Nasser's revolution. It reflects an impatience with the way things are, and a certainty that they can only change for the better, beliefs shared by urban sophisticates all over the world.

In contrast, the Lebanese editor and writer Elias Khoury reached maturity just in time to confront the chaos of the 1967 Arab defeat, the influx of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon, and his own country's civil war. He wrote his second book, ``Little Mountain,'' from the perspective of a man whose world has been shattered beyond repair.

Al-Hakim's book, based on his experiences as a junior prosecutor in the Egyptian delta and written as diary entries over 12 days, records the investigation of a peasant's murder. The only unusual aspect of the case, one so remarkable that it jars both the stasis of an ultra-traditional society and the torpor of the world's oldest bureaucracy, involves Rim, the victim's beautiful sister-in-law and quite possibly his murderer.

The serious, detective-like account of the case, however, is interrupted by a constant stream of farcical personality profiles and episodic interludes. Before beginning his murder inquiry, the narrator first must contend with colleagues who cannot stand provincial life and peasants who clog the court with petty crimes of honor that only pile higher the mountains of paperwork each new case generates.

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An administrative officer will enter a village only if he can eat roast pigeon at the mayor's house, and an itinerant judge speeds trials by reducing felonies to misdemeanors in order to shop before catching his train back to the city. A peasant sues his daughter's intended husband for fetching her to their wedding with a camel instead of a car, and a woman is accused of biting the finger of a sheikh during a marriage feast while arguing over the dowry.

The satire of village officialdom has a sharper edge, however, when al-Hakim tallies the injustices dispensed under a colonial penal code. A man is fined for not registering a dog, a woman for washing her clothes in a drainage ditch, and a poor grandfather for taking a small part of his own crop from what has been reserved for his landlord.

We see the long reach of an alien law most vividly when the mayor parades through the streets carrying the village's only telephone, a symbol of power connecting his precarious legitimacy to the authority of distant Cairo.

As if to ridicule the turgid procedures the murder case requires, a village idiot by the name of Sheikh Asfur aids the investigation by reciting nonsense verse that people believe might offer clues to the assailant's identity. When Asfur and Rim both turn up missing, a conspiracy between the two is suspected and a manhunt in the surrounding countryside is launched.

Even at the story's end, the suspense remains unresolved. Asfur turns up alive, Rim's drowned body is found in a canal, and the file is closed ``owing to non-discovery of assailant, etc., etc.'' in order to pass the case on to another office.

As the narrator admits, however, his real reason for giving up the case is that he too has finally tired of the monotony of work in the provinces. Citing the glamour of prosecuting underworld criminals in Chicago, he laments, ``I'm utterly sick of peasants. I want criminals in jackets and trousers.''

Elias Khoury's surrealistic novella ``Little Mountain'' stands at the far side of the intellectual chasm that ripped across the Middle East in the last 20 years. For younger Arabs, the ordered world of their fathers no longer exists. Nowhere is this more true than in Beirut, where the random violence of foreign armies and religious militias make Al Capone's gangsters seem like schoolchildren.

Khoury has a unique position for watching the events that surround the narrative. As a Maronite journalist with strong Palestinian sympathies working in Muslim West Beirut, he embodies all Lebanon's tragic contradictions. The book's five chapters shadow what could be the author's own life, from a boy's flirtation with Arab nationalism, to a youth's engagement with radical politics, and a man's flight to Paris.

The book's experimental style is unlike any Arabic literature currently available in English translation. It is fragmented, circular, repetitious, and full of narrative holes. Its blend of the comic and the grotesque seems the only way to express fully the nightmare of surviving total urban warfare. When the narrator's new car is destroyed by shelling, passersby mourn it more than the woman killed while standing beside it.

The central chapters dealing with the horrors of street-level combat come closest to the absurdity of applying military solutions to Lebanon's problems. In the ruins of a church now used as a bunker, the narrator engages in a philosophical discussion with a priest about the reasons for dying as a soldier. In exasperation, he falls back on the political indoctrination of his youth, concluding, ``We die for the sake of a poster. A color photograph, with colored writing underneath.''

When the narrator finally arrives in Paris for medical attention for his hand, we wonder if his ailment stems from fighting or from writing. His hospital visit coincides with that of the Ramses II mummy, sent from Cairo for antifungal treatment. Passing the Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, he imagines the rotting mummy perched on top and asks himself, if all civilizations really are continuous, then in the end where is the hope?

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