One of Mai Ghoussoub's last essays, before her shockingly sudden death in February, was a commentary on the World Press Photo of 2006. Spencer Platt's photograph shows a group of Beirut's beautiful people on a tour of the devastated southern suburbs during the war last summer. Lebanese babes in tight T-shirts and reflective sunglasses survey the scene of destruction from a red convertible. One takes a picture on her mobile. It's a scene that poses the kind of contradictions which fascinated Ghoussoub. "It is when art has to face human suffering and does not isolate tragedy from the ironies of survival that the absurdity of being hits us in the face," she commented.
The impact of war on human behaviour - in all its tragedy and irony - was a formative preoccupation for Ghoussoub, a writer, artist and publisher who witnessed the Lebanese civil war. She distilled her ideas, reflections and experiences in Leaving Beirut, first published in 1998. Saqi - the company that Ghoussoub founded with André Gaspard - has reissued the book as a tribute. It deserves to become a classic - at once a testimony of war, a memoir of exile and a critique of man's inhumanity, it tackles the very darkest of subjects with a compelling lightness of touch.
Leaving Beirut is addressed to a schoolteacher, Madame Nomy, who gave the young Ghoussoub a lesson she never forgot. As a bright schoolgirl of 12, Ghoussoub wrote an essay to impress her teacher in which she described how her friends played a trick on her and left her alone in the woods as darkness fell. The essay ended in a melodramatic vow of revenge: "JUSTICE WOULD BE DONE". Ghoussoub had based her piece on a poem by Victor Hugo, which her teacher loved, and she expected high marks, but instead she got a lecture: revenge, she was told, is the meanest of human emotions. "[Madame Nomy] was trying to help us understand people's complex reactions to survival, and the difficulties of salvaging kindness in the harsh reality of this Middle East where people both live and condemn each other to exile." The lesson serves as the prism through which Ghoussoub interprets the savagery of the Lebanese civil war, and Madame Nomy becomes the moral touchstone of the narrative, to whom every imponderable question is referred.
We are never told the full story of the war, or of Ghoussoub's life, in Leaving Beirut. Each chapter is a fragment in which she attempts to make sense of a fractured past. The book opens with a phone call from a former lover, a military leader in the war, whom she met while working in the clinic of the refugee camp Shatila. (Ghoussoub herself showed extraordinary bravery during the war - she ran a medical centre and lost an eye when rescuing a wounded Palestinian.) The phone call interrupts her new life in Paris, where she views her passionate love affair as a symptom of the insanity of the war and is plagued by the question of what would have become of her if she had remained. "Would my reason have been swept away entirely by this whirlpool of barbarism and savagery?"
It is the barbarism that predominantly occupies Ghoussoub - and her desire to understand what motivates the perpetrators. She circles the central question of revenge and forgiveness, exploring the theme through stories, memories and analysis. It's a personal and political quest to come to terms with the past by exploring what Primo Levi called the "grey area" between persecutors and victims. She tells tales of humiliated nobodies who are transformed by war into feared fighters: the little servant girl Latifa, who becomes the terrifying Umm Ali, and the grocer's son Said, who turns into a ruthless killer. This is a world where "only monsters and saints made sense, and only heroes and martyrs seemed cut out for survival". Ghoussoub contemplates the first Muslim suicide bombers and compares them to Christian medieval martyrs. "[El Cid] lived at a time when the Christian west needed martyrs and the Muslims were relaxed and more inclined to tolerance. Today the roles seem to have been reversed . . . it is the unhappy Muslim world which is uneasy with itself, whose self-confidence is shaky, and whose discourse is packed with heroes, supermen and martyrs." Ghoussoub was writing before 9/11, and her prescience throughout is acute.
In her concern to find a resolution for Lebanon, to reach a just reckoning with the past and therefore a better future, Ghoussoub draws on lessons from the Holocaust, from Argentina's Dirty War, from South Africa, Bosnia and Rwanda. The book reaches a deeply felt conclusion as she isolates the same trends in every instance of atrocity in the 20th century: the desire to forget the past, the game of betrayal and revenge, the unwillingness to take responsibility, the ease with which victims become victimisers, the tendency to turn people into heroes or traitors, the desire to sanctify or demonise. At a time when there is a tendency to view the crisis in the Middle East as somehow unique, Ghoussoub's analysis rightly returns it to the modern history of man's inhumanity. One can only regret that her lucid voice has been so prematurely silenced
Jo Glanville is editor of Index on Censorship