Jabbour Douaihy on ‘The King of India’

Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy has award-winning work in Arabic, as well as in English and French translations. He was recently at the Dubai-based Emirates LitFest, where he spoke about the “Arabic book crisis“; “New politics, old identities“; and led a creative-writing workshop:

By Hend Saeed

At the Emirates LitFest. Photo courtesy: the organizers.

I managed to catch up with Jabbour Douaihy an hour before he left Dubai, after having participated in the Emirates LitFest this March. Between my schedule as moderator, and his as a presenter, we had little time to talk. But I was happy to grab him for a few minutes.

Douaihy is a multi-award-winning novelist who earned his PhD in Comparative Literature from the Sorbonne and now works as a professor of French literature at the Lebanese University in Beirut. In addition to his acclaimed novels, Douaihy’s also published short stories and children’s books.

His Autumn Equinox was translated by Nay Hannawi and won the Arkansas Arabic Translation Award. His June Rain was shortlisted for the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2008 and published in English, in Paula Haydar’s smooth translation, in 2014. His novel The Vagrant was shortlisted for the IPAF 2012; a translation by Stephanie Dujols won the 2013 ‘Prix de la Jeune Litterature Arabe.’

Douaihy’s The American Neighborhood, also translated by Haydar, was longlisted for the IPAF in 2015.

Hend Saeed: Congratulations on your new novel, The King of India! The Raya Agency describes it as: “A detective story set on the background of family and sectarian feuds, The King of India, explores with the right does of irony, the meaning of attachment to the land.” What does it have to do with India?

Jabbour Douaihy:The title doesn’t reflect the contents of the novel. I choose a title at random. There is no India in the novel, and no king. I couldn’t decide on a title, and I was trying to get past a mental block, so I decided to read the novel again, from beginning to end, and to be impulsive in choosing a title.

I decided to use whatever I stumbled upon while reading it, and when I got to the scene where the woman tells her husband: I am leaving, I’ll leave with your daughter, you’re now the king of India.I thought it a fitting title: The King of India.

Choosing a title is not an easy thing. The author either discovers it from the beginning, or else it becomes very difficult to pin down. I’m not the first to use this method of choosing a title; others have done so before me.

HS: What are you reading now?

JD: I am reading a book by Elif Shafak,The Drowning by Hammour Ziada, The Night Post by Hoda Barakat, and a few French books.

HS: What is the story behind your interest in forgeries?

JD:You mean my novel Printed in Beirut?

We lived in wartime Lebanon, and there were forgeries in printing presses. I heard a story from people I knew, about counterfeiter money that was printed at a printing press, and the story stuck with me until I found a chance to write about it.

Printed in Beirut is the story of a printing press that was established a century ago, and it’s also the story of Beirut and its environs through the lens of this printing press, and forgery came as part of it.

HS: What do you think about the culture of Arabic literary prizes?

JD:I think literary prizes are good, although people complain about them everywhere, and we Arabs make drama of them. People might say the person who won doesn’t deserve it.  Of course they don’t deserve it, because they’re one person from a thousand who are good, but they do have something special or different from the others.

We can’t ask more of these prizes, as they depend on a team of people, and a committee, and each among them has their own taste in books. Sometimes they agree, and sometimes have to vote to choose the books.

The selected books might be good or not, and they might reach wide audiences. We can’t attack the prizes because they bring new names to readers. But the prizes also do need to change and develop.

HS: What do you think about the Lebanese’s literary scene. What does it need to develop?

JD:The Lebanese cultural and literary scene needs nourishment from the country. There are cultural and literary activities, and there are publishers, books shops, prizes and people. That is, Lebanon has individual efforts, but these efforts, even if they work all together, they still can’t achieve anything unless they’re supported by a central governmental body, such as what is happening in Dubai. They need a cultural body that has the will to support the literary and cultural scene. It’s already full of individuals, galleries and bookshops, that all work hard to create the Lebanese literary scene.

HS: This is your first time participating in the Emirates LitFest. What do you think of it?

JD:The festival gives the authors a chance to communicate with readers, with students, and with other authors. I’m personally a very private person, and the festival gave me the chance to meet a few authors. There were good number of participants in the workshop, and I liked that the participants were engaged and active, and that the students were keen to participate.

Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She has published a collection of short stories and is also a translator, book reviewer, and an editor for ArabLit and ArabKidLitNow!