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from the July 2018 issue

Through a Glass Brightly: Languages, Politics, and Contemporary Literature from Lebanon

If Lebanon can be said to be a collection of fragments that cohere uneasily, mirroring each other in unexpected ways, Lebanese literature can be called a kaleidoscope. One turn of the wrist this way or the other, and suddenly an entirely new abundance of writers comes into view, a sweeping array of cultures, politics, wars, exiles, religions—and, of course, languages: French, Arabic, even English.

Consider Etel Adnan, now in her nineties, whose 1977 novel Sitt Marie Rose (written in French) was one of the first to describe the devastating Lebanese Civil War that endured for fifteen years between 1975 and 1990. For many, she is the quintessential author and artist of her country—trilingual in her work and in her life. Her background, too, while unusually complicated, is typically full of the layers of nuance that so frequently define the lives of Lebanese. In a recent interview with Bookwitty, she said, shrugging:

People talk a lot about one’s “mother tongue.” Mine was Greek. My mother was from Smyrna; my father was Syrian, but had grown up during the Ottoman Empire; and my parents spoke Turkish together. 

Her father, who was Muslim, attended the military academy in Istanbul with Turkey’s Atatürk; her mother was Catholic.

Politics are the story of our region. At home I lived with two survivors from the shipwreck of the Ottoman Empire. My father was thirty-eight years old, and was an officer when his raison d’être vanished.

(Adnan’s mother, too, was living with loss: the Greek and Armenian neighborhoods of her city, Smyrna, had been utterly destroyed in a fire in 1922.) 

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon came under French Mandate rule until gaining its independence in 1943. Periods of regional and local political instability followed, gaining momentum until the civil war erupted.

Lebanon has played a defining role in Arab literature, and, as the Syrian-born French publisher Farouk Mardam-Bey observes, it has been involved in all of the regional revolutions of the twentieth century. Now in his seventies, he has helped transform the literary landscape in France as the director of the Sindbad imprint of the publishing house Actes Sud, overseeing contemporary Arabic fiction and nonfiction in French translation.

With few exceptions, Mardam-Bey says, Lebanese literature preceding the civil war represented “a friendly place, a land of milk and honey; the Mediterranean …” The war “swept all that away”:

There was a very important evolution in the 1980s and '90s, which, like everywhere else, saw a decline in a politically committed literature. There had been many intellectuals and writers who were politically engaged, but in their writing they became more interested in everyday life. They were no longer afraid to show the most sordid details of daily life, because war reveals these kinds of things.

This civil war generation, as it's called, includes many of Lebanon’s finest contemporary authors, such as Rashid al-Daif, Hanan al-Shaykh, Hoda Barakat and Najwa Barakat, Jabbour Douaihy, and Elias Khoury—all published by Mardam-Bey. He adds that women writers such as al-Shaykh and the two Barakats have authored some of the country’s best books in recent years.

Yasmina Jraissati, who founded the Lebanese literary agency RAYA, affirms that this wartime generation “is still leading the pack.” She, like Mardam-Bey, attributes this dominance to the capacity of that cohort to continuously breathe new life into their work. This issue of Words Without Borders includes an excerpt from Hoda Barakat’s latest novel, Barid al-layl (forthcoming in English as The Night Post), which is built around six letters that are each intercepted by an unrelated person. “It’s extremely modern,” says Jraissati of the novel. “She has a young readership.”

Jabbour Douaihy is also constantly reinventing himself and is in “full bloom,” according to Mardam-Bey. The excerpt in this issue from his novel Charid al-manazel (Chased away) plays with Lebanon’s numerous paradoxes and recounts the story of Nizam, born a Muslim and raised as a Christian.

Of the Lebanese authors writing in Arabic (as do Barakat and Douaihy), another stands out, twenty years younger than the war generation but old enough to have experienced it: Rabee Jaber, a talented, prolific, and reclusive writer (and in addition inaccessible even for professionals such as Mardam-Bey and Jraissati). So far, his impressive literary production in Arabic has met with only a handful of translations into French or English.

Work by the maverick author and poet Charles Chahwan (whom Vice magazine has called “the Arab World’s Answer to Charles Bukowski”) appears in English translation for the first time in this issue as an excerpt from Harb al-shawari‘a (Street wars)—a collection of short stories that was a huge success when it was published in 1991 but is now out of print. The stories depict the lives of rival militiamen during the civil war whose euphoria is driven by violence rather than by political ideology.

But the civil war would have yet another effect on the country’s literature: the actual language in which stories are written. Although Lebanon has always been a country from which people have emigrated, during the civil war forty percent of the total population—which at the time was estimated at around three million—fled the country. Emigrant children were schooled, more often than not, in French or English, which became their main written languages.

In a recent BBC radio documentary, World Book Café: Beirut, various Lebanese authors who write in English gathered at a Beirut bookshop to talk about storytelling. The author Nada Awar Jarrar said she felt that English was more accessible as a language; even if she wished she could express herself as well in Arabic. Some of the writers said they felt freer when writing in English; freer to address subjects such as shame, gender-based violence, or abuse.

The challenge, said Dima Matta, who founded “Cliffhangers,” a public storytelling community in Beirut, is to sound Lebanese in English. Another participant, poet Rewa Zeinati, who founded Sukoon magazine, had remarked in an earlier interview that her primary motivation in developing Sukoon was to help redress what she perceived as an absence of Arab narratives in English. “There weren’t many, or at least enough, platforms out there that sought to publish Arab Anglophone writers; it was mostly Arab literature that was translated into English, or literature by Arab-American writers, which is great, of course, and incredibly important; but what I was missing was what more closely represented me: the Arab story in English, and not only in the American context.”

Hoda Barakat was educated in French but made a conscious decision to write in Arabic and has had a love affair with the language ever since. Arabic was, at first, “a pleasant discovery,” she says, “and afterward it became essential”:

 … As far as the notion of Arabic being a sacred language, for me there is no sacred language; but this was sometimes a discourse held by Francophones who didn’t really know Arabic, and perhaps it wasn’t their fault because they had lived in and learned the French language first, given the colonization. And for others, Arabic was linked to reading and learning the Qur’an. For me, the Qur’an is a book among other books, and I always circle back to reading it because it teaches me Arabic—it helps me to deepen my Arabic language, but it is an exercise in style and doesn’t go beyond that. So there are sacred books, perhaps, but language is not sacred. I use this beautiful language that I continue to admire and discover the way we discover a space, a country, or a landscape, and it never ceases to astonish me.

Lebanon had already played an important role in the revival of the Arabic language since gaining its independence from France, says Mardam-Bey, because of its healthy media industry, which needed a modernized Arabic to write about events that hadn’t been described before in the classical variant of the language. Then there are Lebanese authors who began to write in English while in exile, such as Montreal-based Rawi Hage and the masterful storyteller and San Francisco resident Rabih Alameddine, who chose to write in English because, although he grew up in Lebanon, he was taught “mediocre Arabic.”

Of course, there are authors who write in French. Charif Majdalani’s work was finally translated into English last year, to acclaim, by Edward Gauvin (translator in this issue of Lamia Ziadé’s excerpt from Ô nuit, ô mes yeux): his novel Moving the Palace is now available to English-language readers, though he has long been widely read in France and Lebanon. Majdalani’s relationship to French is similar to that often described by African and North African authors, for whom it no longer belongs just to France: “I don’t write in French,” he says, “I write in my own French. I take the French language and I do what I like with it.”

Sabyl Ghoussoub is a young Lebanese writer who grew up in France. His first novel, written in French and from which we have published an excerpt, is called Le Nez Juif (The Jewish nose). Though Ghoussoub writes in a delightfully irreverent comic style, he is actually examining serious subjects: how his physical attributes provoke simplistic racism or how the Lebanese view their bellicose neighbor to the south and the danger of conflating “Israelis” with “Jews.” But it is also an examination of his search for identity in a world of exile and prejudice.

The artist and author Lamia Ziadé lives in Paris and also writes in French—but she spent her entire childhood in Lebanon during the civil war. After fifteen years working on subjects that were unrelated to the Middle East, she says that now it’s her only subject. Her art and her writing are historical and nostalgic, requiring meticulous research and stemming from a personal need to document a world that has all but disappeared. The excerpt in this issue is from Ô nuit, ô mes yeux (O night, o my eyes), an illustrated novel that describes the history of Lebanese and Egyptian divas throughout the tumultuous mid–twentieth century. 

Finally, we feature work by the writer and illustrator Lena Merhej, whose comics appear in Arabic, French, and English. Merhej is one of the founders of the nonprofit collective Samandal, dedicated to the art of comics. At its founding twelve years ago, its members felt that comics were marginalized in the Middle East, and so they created a platform to tell the region's stories in that medium. Merhej and her colleagues were at the forefront of a movement that went on to inspire other comics collectives in the Arab world, which explore issues such as homosexuality, homophobia, sexual harassment, feminism, poverty, and everyday struggles. She also represents what Yasmina Jraissati believes is a tendency, among the new generation of Lebanese in creative fields, to tell stories via graphic novels, illustration, music, and cinema, thus allowing more flexibility for mixing languages.

Jraissati feels that Lebanon’s younger generation is underrepresented among the literary submissions she receives: she is “still waiting to read the new, emerging generation.” The civil war is no longer the central topic, and she is interested in how younger Lebanese writers see their country. “We have always had an identity crisis, and then the war gave Lebanese literature substance and a certain meaning. But now …”

Farouk Mardam-Bey says his readers are “a little tired of all these war stories.” He, too, is looking for “a new tone,” and has found it in Egypt for now; but he is also waiting for young Lebanese authors to surface.

We are confident they will emerge, and in this issue of Words Without Borders we're pleased to present some evidence of the younger Lebanese sensibility alongside that of their self-renewing elders. We hope that translators, publishers, and readers will continue to seek out the work of still other writers as it comes to light. 

© 2018 by Olivia Snaije and Mitchell Albert. All rights reserved.  

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