‘Heaven is Not with Us’: War Criminals or Victims?

Ahmad Mohsen’s السماء ليست معنا  (Heaven Is Not With Us) asks looks into war, punishment, and healing:

By Hoda Marmar

“The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’

‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis: 9)”

   Crime, by Webster’s definition, is “an act committed in violation of a law prohibiting it, an offense against morality, a sin; crimes are variously punishable by death, imprisonment, or the imposition of certain fines or restrictions.” The word ‘crime’ originates from Old French, which comes from the Latin ‘crimen’ (verdict), based on ‘cernere’ (to judge).

  But when it comes to war crimes in civil wars, what is judged as sinful, and what heroic? Based on which and whose standards are fair judgements made? When Cain’s descendants engage in fratricides, who’s to be punished and how? More importantly, how can society heal in the aftermath?

“الحرب لعبة خاسرة”.

“War is a losing game.”

الحقائق أيضًا روايات.”

“Truths are also novels.”

Many recent Arabic novels tackle war crimes. One of the most haunting is Ahmad Mohsen’s “Al-Sama Laysat Ma’ana السماء ليست معنا” (Heaven Is Not With Us). The novel, published in February 2020, unapologetically gets into the minds of fighters in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), in the 2006 Lebanon War, and in the ongoing war in Syria (2011-present).

“هناك قوانين يريدوننا أن ننصاع لها, أن نتعلّم الانصياع, قبل أن نعرفها حتّى.”

“They want to teach us obedience to societal norms before we even come across them.”

For his setting, Mohsen chooses the Ein el-Remmeneh area, where the Lebanese Civil War saw its first spark.

“الحرب عتبة. صعود من أجل قفزة إلى الموت”.

“War is a stepping stone. A long leap into death.”

When we meet Maroun and Nasser, the two central characters, the former is absorbed in his killings during the Lebanese Civil War, and Nasser is a student at his neighborhood school. He tries to chase Nasser and his classmates, miming shooting them with his bare hands, but they strike back and giggle. The scene is like a prophecy, as Nasser grows up to become a fighter in Syria. It is as if Maroun passed him that cursed torch.

“نشأ حيث المجتمع أهمّ من أفراده وحيث أهله مع بعضهم بعضًا يشكّلون أسطورة, بينما يشكّل الواحد منهم لوحده عود ثقاب في سلّة مهملات. المجتمع سلّة مهملات.”

“He was raised where society was more important than its individuals, where all parents formed a legend, and where each individual was a mere disposable matchstick. A trash-bin society.”

Mohsen digs deeper into each character’s personal history, dissecting the many reasons each ends up picking up arms. Some sought heroism, others revenge. Some went to battle to earn a powerful societal rank; others went for religious, economic, patriotic, patriarchal, oedipal, or political reasons.

“الحرب تيه في الصحراء بلا فائدة”.

“War is an aimless wandering in the desert.”

Maroun and Nasser are separated in Lebanon by sectarian and political sympathies, but they meet again outside Lebanon and end up renouncing the battles into which they were led. Were they victims of their political and religious leaders? Were they matchsticks that were burned to fuel endless human greed? Are they victims of the corrupt Lebanese system that alienates the poor and the marginalized? Were they simply singing their own song, screaming “we exist!” in the face of a world and a God that had forsaken them? Now, what about their victims? 

“الحرب تستدعي الجميع إلى الدائرة. كلّ الذين يبحثون عن فرصة للقول أنّهم يملكون شيئًا في هذا العالم. كلّ الذين تعاملوا مع الحرب كما لو أنّها مجرّد أغنية, يمكنهم إعادتها من البداية عندما تنتهي.”

“War invites everyone to its circle; all those looking for a way to claim their share in this world. And all of those who treated war like a song to be sung can replay it once it’s done.”

 “Al-Sama Laysat Ma’ana السماء ليست معنا” reads like a game of chess, with its warlord kings turning the disposable pawns against each other and overseeing the bloodshed. Ahmad Mohsen invites his readers to play the game and then traps them in it, leading them through many twists and turns until they yearn for solace along with Maroun and Nasser. Through this duo, he links past and present wars, unifying a Lebanese story that has been buried between the lines of biased monochromatic history books that teachers have shoved down the throats of Lebanese youth.

About the author:

Ahmad Mohsen is a Lebanese writer born in 1984. He holds a Bachelor’s in Economics from the Beirut Arab University and a Master’s Degree in the Muslim-Christian Studies from the Saint Joseph University in Beirut. Along with his writings as a journalist and a literary critic, Mohsen contributed literary texts and poems in specialized literary and cultural publications. “Al-Sama Laysat Ma’ana السماء ليست معنا” is his third novel. It was published in 2020, after “Warsaw Qabl Qalil وارسو قبل قليل” (Warsaw a Short Time Ago) which was longlisted in both International Prize for Arab Fiction and Shaykh Zayed Literary Awards in 2016, and “Sani’ El-Al’ab صانع الألعاب” (The Games Maker) which was longlisted in Shaykh Zayed Literary Awards in 2015.

Hoda Marmar has been the administrator of “Bookoholics” Book Club in Beirut since 2012. She strives to spread the love of books. She is a proud Goodreads librarian and book reviewer/critic whose background is in Educational Management and Neurosciences. She is the community and communication manager at the Hachette Antoine publishing house in Beirut.


Click HERE to read more from this author.


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