Excerpt: Rabee Jaber’s ‘The Birds of Holiday Inn’

It seems a fairly safe bet that Rabee Jaber’s 2011 novel طيور الهوليداي إن (The Birds of Holiday Inn) will be on the longlist for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF):

Jaber, who won the 2012 IPAF for his Druze of Belgrade and was shortlisted for the 2009 prize for Amreeka, is an almost unbelievably prolific writer. He told IPAF organizers in December of last year: “So far I have published 18 novels, most of which begin after (I have had) a dream or meeting or unexpected discovery.”

I haven’t found an explanation online of the dream or meeting or unexpected discovery that led to The Birds of Holiday Inn,  but he told IPAF organizers, about the 648-page novel:

 I discussed with the publisher the idea of publishing it as two books (each one being the size of “America”) so it wouldn’t be too heavy in the hand of the reader, but in the end we released it as one volume. I think it is the novel I have long dreamed about writing (or reading) about the Lebanese war. It is the story of 17 or 18 families in a building in Beirut, during two years of the war (1975-1976).

You can read an excerpt in English (trans. Ghenwa Hayek) on Banipaland bless them for making it freely available online. (An excerpt from the original is available freely on Al Hayat.) There are a lot of characters introduced in this short excerpt, but each is tenderly and memorably crafted, and one easily pictures the media-shy Jaber at work with his miniature worlds.

These are the sorts of characters one wants to press immediately to one’s chest from sympathy and familiarity. Here, a young woman is being left by her aunt at the home of her long-estranged father, following her mother’s death:

“Seventh floor,” my uncle’s wife said, “I’m not sure which flat it is exactly, but the name’s on the bell, and he knows you’re coming. He won’t be down to carry your bags, we’re here earlier than expected. Do you want help?” she offered, as I wrapped my black scarf around my neck, but her hands didn’t leave the steering wheel nor did she turn the engine off. The cars around us began to honk – we were partially blocking the narrow street. I didn’t know he lived in a place like this. “Trunk’s open.” She gave me an elegant goodbye kiss on my cheek. She smelled of perfume and face cream, “Call us at the weekend, and we’ll come and take you out to a restaurant for lunch. If the roads are open.” I moved quickly to avoid getting wet. I dragged a first, then a second, suitcase out onto the pavement. But as I lifted the last one, the smallest and lightest, from the trunk, my scarf snagged on something. It’s always like this. When I finally extricated myself and stood at last between the two large suitcases, the third slung over my shoulder by its strap, my cheeks were red, my clothes were soaked, and my black corduroy trousers clung heavily and wetly to my skin. She smiled and waved, and I felt embarrassed as I raised my hand.

Two of Jaber’s novels are finally forthcoming from New Directions (thanks to translator Kareem James Abu Zaid), Berytus: An Underground City and The Mehlis Report. It’s a blessing to see them in Abu Zaid’s hands, and to feel him taking his time in crafting the language. Abu Zaid said in a Q&A this summer that those are his two favorite novels, “though I will admit that there are still several novels by Jaber that I have not yet read – he writes them almost quicker than I can read them!”

Read more:

The Book’s GoodReads page

The excerpts in English & Arabic