Beirut39 laureate Rabee Jaber has been a tremendously prolific writer, penning some seventeen novels since 1992. Druze of Belgrade is his second novel to be recognized by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).
Although his work has been translated into French and German — and I have heard U.S. language publishers express interest in his work — I haven’t heard of anyone signing his books for publication in English.
Jaber’s Amreeka was shortlisted for the IPAF in 2010. It begins (trans. William Hutchins):
She prayed that the woman wouldn’t come and draw the mark on her. The female officer wore a police uniform with a strangely shaped white cap. The policeman drew an X on men who were denied entry. The policewoman with the odd cap drew the mark on women. While she prays with her eyes closed, knowing full well the men are staring at her, I would like to record something here about her trip from Batatir to America’s gateway.
Her maternal uncle didn’t believe his ears when she told him. He stared at her and his mouth hung halfway open, revealing his yellow, decay-ridden teeth. People walking past behind her called out loud greetings to the shoemaker. The wooden stall (where her uncle sat beside his young son, who had a box and a shoe-shine kit in front of him) shook whenever a train approached the Bhamdoun Station. At those moments – when the steam engine entered the station raising clouds of dust and sand that covered the whole world – Martha would listen to the whistle from her distant house, which was set among terraces of mulberry trees on a slope that descended to the valleys.
She would carry a basket filled with hardboiled eggs which she took to a woman who sold them to passengers at the station. She would see them stretch their hands from the train windows and watch gleaming coins drop from their fingers. Laughing, they took the shelled eggs, and then the train – like a kettle on a winter fire – would emit two plumes of steam and then a third before the roar reverberated and the black iron beast pulled away.
The Druze of Belgrade is also a historical novel about emigrant Lebanese (and also involves hard-boiled eggs), this time set after the 1860 civil war in Mt. Lebanon. It’s when:
…a number of fighters from the religious Druze community are forced into exile, travelling by sea to the fortress of Belgrade on the boundary of the Ottoman Empire. In exchange for the freedom of a fellow fighter, they take with them a Christian man from Beirut called Hana Yaaqub; an unfortunate egg seller who happens to be sitting at the port. The Druze of Belgrade follows their adventures in the Balkans, as they struggle to stay alive.
Jaber has already published another book since The Druze of Belgrade, the 2011 novel Birds of the Holiday Inn.
From reviewer Salman Zein Eddin:
بهذه الحكاية وهذا الخطاب، جعلنا ربيع جابر نحبس أنفاسنا، ونتبعه في مغامرة جديدة عادت بالمتعة والفائدة.
ان الأسى الذي تحدثه الرواية جرّاء المصائر الفاجعة لدروز بلغراد يخف في نهاية الرواية حين نقرأ أن حنا يعقوب «حضن زوجته وابنته وبكى. شهق وملأ رئتيه بالهواء».
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