Continuing our countdown to the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, ArabLit talked to the brothers co-longlisted for the 2015 prize: Jabbour and Antoine Douaihy. Both have previously been longlisted for the prize:
JD: He is my older brother, and we are not, of course, the Goncourt brothers; we differ in style and his approach is a meditative focus on the inner life, while I tend to write a more social-realist literature. He read my text before it was published and his comments have helped me in many things. Finding our books together on the list for the Arabic Booker is “amazing” (I can’t find the words in Arabic!).
AL: You’ve said that The American Neighborhood is about Tripoli. How do you think focusing on place changes how you structure a novel — vs. a novel that was focused on a character? Why your obsession the construction and re-construction of place?
JD: In fact, I arrived at my novels from entirely different directions. Autumn Equinox, for example, imposed a title on me and I started from there. I mean, I worked on the cycle of time and the seasons via different characters. Location, meanwhile, played a central role in moving me to write Bends in the River, and Eye of the Rose. The two novels revolve around happenings in a cafe above a river and family’s tumble-down house.
June Rain, on the other hand, was chosen for me, after some close friends encouraged me to tell the story of a local bloodbath that happened between families in my hometown, one that was widely reported in the 1950s. The Vagrant was inspired by one of my distant relatives, somebody caught between the different Lebanese sects. It was truly a personal novel for me. This leads us to The American Neighborhood, which began in my mind as a working-class neighborhood too packed for a car to even reach. A neighborhood of steps and packed-in houses made of simple building materials, all facing a stone Crusader fort neglected by time for a thousand years. Yet I also wanted to build on a character from among my acquaintances, somebody obsessed with the ballet and opera from a city with no tradition of that sort of thing. It was a fruitful meeting between the neighborhood and the man of the ballet.
AL: How do you see your literary predecessors?
JD: There is nothing in Lebanon like Naguib Mahfouz to throw its weight on the type of novel being created, so the novel is relatively new, and the French and English languages have a strong presence in schools and universities, which allows a real openness to world literature. I personally studied French literature at university, and had my share of Flaubert and Proust and Celine and others.
AL: How was writing The American Neighborhood different from June Rain or The Vagrant? You’ve said that June Rain was the hardest of your novels to write — do you still feel that?
JD: As I mentioned before, June Rain was the kind of exercise your friends request. The challenge was to narrate without giving away all the details of what happened, so I tried to work around the incident without tearing down the veil on what came to pass. I was before a subject that I was trying to avoid, and that’s exactly what happened — I went to the characters and the voices, the children and the women and the men. I conveyed what could be said from those around the event and let them take their course, particularly since the incident had haunted me from my childhood. I heard about it more times than I can count, from more people than I can count. Finally, I was relieved of having to carry that burden, and the other burdens of my environment and my family which played an essential part in this Christian massacre inside a Church – one that shaped the fate of our town for decades after.
AL: So many books address “terrorism” in some way — how do you manage to say something new, something from a different angle, something that hasn’t been said?
JD: When I began writing The American Neighborhood, I was aware that the slums of Tripoli provide a model of poverty, marginalization, and radical Islam, and it represents possibilities that exist elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world, and even in the suburbs of some European cities, but I was not trying specifically to add to the discussion, and the motivations of the young man who goes to the bombing remained a mystery to me. I tried to understand it in several ways, formulating different scenarios.
AL: Do you think the International Prize for Arabic Fiction has changed the landscape for Arabic novels for the better? In any sense for the worse?
JD: If the intent is to encourage, then proof of its positive influence is the increase in novel-writing in the Arab world, as publishing has perhaps doubled. As with all growth, there are some too-hasty writings, but there’s also a great, diverse, and exciting expression of Arab reality, and as time passes the wheat will be separated from the chaff.
AL: Is there any novel that you’d expected to see on the longlist that wasn’t there?
JD: The Emerald Mountain by Mansoura Ezz Eldin and Moving Your Heart by Hassan Daoud.
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