Award-winning Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy is at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair this year to sign books; Chiara Comito, the blogger behind Editoriaraba, spoke with him about how he writes and why he continues to return to the subject of Lebanon’s civil war:
By Chiara Comito
Douaihy’s latest novel, حي الأميركان (American Neighborhood), is set in a poor neighbourhood of the ancient city of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon.
But, unlike his previous books, the story told here is not about the Lebanese civil war: Hay el-Amerkane is a book about contemporary Lebanon, in a city where religious extremism has dramatically increased in the last years. But it is also the story of a city, Tripoli, where the Lebanese writer Jabbour Douaihy lives.
“I did not plan to write about recent times,” he says. “My starting point was rather a place than a time; and the place was a dodgy neighbourhood in Tripoli, which is very close to the historic part of the town.”
The contrast between these two completely different parts of the city pushed him to dig deeper into the life of this urban district in Tripoli, plagued by “misery, social exclusion of the young and the absence of a valid alternative ideology to jihadism.”
Hay el-Amerkane is not the first book in which the author, born in Zgharta in 1949, has written about northern Lebanon, where “all the different souls of Lebanon meet and fight, one against the other.” June Rain, published in 2008 by Dar al-Nahar (Beirut), and which should be forthcoming in English from Bloomsbury Qatar (trans. Paula Haydar), is set in 1957 in the village of Barqa on Mount Lebanon. It tells the story of a slaughter that takes place during a funeral, and this hideous crime sparks a family feud between two rival Christian clans.
Douaihy dedicated this novel, shortlisted by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008 — he has been shortlisted twice — to his friend Samir Kassir, the renowned Lebanese historian, journalist, and essayist who died in a terrorist attack on a June morning in 2005.
“While I was writing it, I felt that every piece of it was slipping through my fingers and I wondered how to get them back together.”
“June Rain was the most difficult novel I have ever written,” admitted Douaihy. “It is a disjointed book, packed with stories, characters and points of view. While I was writing it, I felt that every piece of it was slipping through my fingers and I wondered how to get them back together. But the more it slipped, the harder I worked to make it more eclectic.”
Unlike June Rain, his following novel, شريد المنازل (Vagrant or Chased Away, translated into French as St. George Looked Away) , published in 2010 by Dar al-Nahar, is set in Beirut. St. George is the city’s patron saint, but in the book “he got distracted” and let a tragedy happen. The main character, Nizam, a boy born to a Sunni poor family but raised by a wealthy Maronite couple, finds himself trapped during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) because of his double identity.
His predicament perfectly embodies Lebanon’s schizophrenia over its seventeen different religious confessions. Despite being widely interpreted as an allegory of a country where the three main public offices are distributed on a sectarian basis, the character of Nizam was inspired by a real person: “He was a distant relative. After his death I randomly happened upon his death notice and realized that they were actually two: one Christian and the other Muslim. And I decided that I would have made a story out of that. It was not an easy theme to explore: the most difficult part was to avoid being ideological.”
“…the theme of the civil war has entrapped Lebanese writers. It is hard to get out of it.”
The Lebanese Civil War has been explored by Lebanese writers almost since the moment it began. Authors such as Hoda Barakat, Elias Khoury (who wrote his masterpiece White Masks in 1981, in the very midst of the war) and Rabee Jaber in their novels have all tried to understand and explore the roots of violence in a war that plunged the country into a bloody nightmare lasting almost fifteen years. Or, as Douaihy puts it: “Just like with the Palestinians, the theme of the civil war has entrapped Lebanese writers. It is hard to get out of it. From a narrative point of view, it can be explored endlessly because it goes along with us, it is a part of us.”
Most of the writers mentioned above chose to narrate the tragedies of the Civil War through an extensive use of paradox, grotesque situations, and tragedy that suddenly turns into farce. “It is our way to survive,” Douaihy explains. “This situation of latent conflict has somehow become our way of life.”
For Douaihy, this way of life is the result of a country that is still coming into being. Or as he puts it: “Lebanon is a country in the process of becoming. Almost every morning.”
An excerpt from the forthcoming June Rain, trans. Paula Haydar