Looking at the Longlist: The Novel Rabee Jaber Long Dreamed of Writing about Lebanon’s Civil War

It seemed a fairly safe bet that Rabee Jaber’s 2011 novel طيور الهوليداي إن (The Birds of Holiday Inn) would be on the 2013 longlist. And here it is, Jaber’s third time on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) lists.

rabee_jaberWill he Hilary-Mantel it? Who knows. We don’t know yet who the judges are — all we know is that they don’t like too much 3ameya. We do know:

Rabee Jaber was born in 1972 in Beirut and studied physics at the American University there. He has never sought the spotlight — indeed, he has generally sought to escape it — but was dragged into it when he was shortlisted for the IPAF in 2008, for his novel Amreeka, and dragged in further when he won the prize in 2012 for Druze of Belgrade.

Indeed, Jaber can have little time for the spotlight, as 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.”

But Jaber said he doesn’t see himself first as a writer. In a film produced for the 2011 shortlist, Jaber was filmed sitting among his hundreds upon hundreds of books. He said: “I write in Arabic. However, I see myself as more of a reader than a writer, regardless of the fact that I have written 17 or 18 novels. You could write one novel in your life and this could be sufficient. For me, reading, like writing, is almost the only way to mae sure that I exist. And for me to feel psychologically balanced.”

12458103But he didn’t just read after finishing his IPAF-winning Druze of Belgrade. He was busy working on his 648-page Birds of Holiday Inn:

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).

Two of Jaber’s novels are finally forthcoming from New Directions (thanks to translator Kareem James Abu Zaid), The Mehlis Report and The Confessions, which Ahdaf Soueif told The Guardian was one of her favorite reads of 2012.

Excerpts of the novel:

In English & Arabic

9780811220644Q&A with Jaber’s English-language translator, Kareem James Abu Zaid:

On Translating Rabee Jaber, Finally

Interviews with Jaber:

A video interview in the spring of 2011

December 2011, with IPAF organizers

With BBC Extra