NOW & Zahra Hankir

Talking To: Dr. Jabbour Douaihy

Dr. Jabbour Douaihy was born in Zgharta in 1949. He received a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Paris III (New Sorbonne). He is currently a professor of French Literature at the Lebanese University, and has published a series of novels, including a compilation of short stories entitled Death Among Family Sleepiness (1990), Moderation of Autumn (1998), and most recently, June Rain (2006), which reached the final stage of the United Arab Emirates Arab Booker’s Prize. Douaihy has also published a short story in French for children, entitled Spirit of the Jungle  (2001), which was winner of France’s San Akzuberi prize.
NOW Lebanon: Your novel, June Rain, has received much praise. The work tackles one of the trickier aspects of the development of civil conflict in Lebanon: the 1957 rivalry in Zghorta between the Douaihy family and the Franjiehs and Mouawads which led to the Meziara church killing. Why did you choose to address these topics, specifically?

Jabbour Douaihy: As a matter of fact it was [the late journalist] Samir Kassir who gave me the idea of writing a literary novel about the background of the massacre of Meziara, which took place in our area in 1957. And that is precisely why I dedicated the novel to him, knowing that the murderers didn’t allow him to read more than two chapters of this novel; he had asked me to send him every chapter I finished writing. The idea as it crystallized in our discussions is that the Zawiya area in Zghorta underwent a period of civil violence that could easily be considered as a rehearsal for the civil war that stormed Lebanon in 1975. I lived these events at an early age, and I experienced the trauma that you can’t erase, as did a whole generation. All the details are hearsay, as two parties would tell a tale in a completely contradictory fashion and justify it as defense, no more.

The image that each family created of the other, cleansing so that whole families were displaced, the establishment of a real front line and barricades dividing the town, and, last but not least, a fragile reconciliation against the backdrop of the Lebanese political struggle – behind which is an Arab struggle … everything was there. All I had to do was find the plot and create the characters, identify the narrators, and there are plenty. My concern was not to tell the story of domestic violence, but rather the way different social stereotypes interacted with this violence, its effects, and living with it. So it was a narrative for the people, and not a narrative of current affairs.

NOW Lebanon: Themes of the Lebanese civil war often emerge in contemporary Lebanese literature. How do you view this trend?

Douaihy: Where to escape? Just as everybody expects a Palestinian writer not to handle any other subject but his relationship with his homeland, with impossibilities and agony, it is expected of a Lebanese writer to revolve around the themes of the everyday happenings of civil conflict. Still, a lot of novelists try to avoid writing directly about the war, but no one can escape the presence of the civil struggle in the background. The struggle, being on the verge of falling into an abyss, and trying every morning to look out for the possibility to fix some destruction of our public concerns – it became a lifestyle. So this instability haunts our writings in spite of us.

NOW Lebanon:  One of the aims of the Arab Booker Prize is to carry the influence of Arabic literature to the rest of the world, particularly the West. How important do you think this aim is?

Douaihy: In addition to it expressing the cultural characteristics of the United Arab Emirates and specifically Abu Dhabi through the abundance of its cultural activities and institutions, the international award for the Arab novel, or what has come to be known as the Arab Booker Prize, is an important event on the level of literary life in the Arab world.
We lack the example of the Francophone literary life, or that of England and the commonwealth and others; that is, centralized media criticism and evaluation of the literary and intellectual production in general, in the sense that the French reader everywhere, whether in Marseille, Dakar, or Beirut, knows what publications in Molière's language are worth reading today.

The Arab Booker Prize may be a step towards the crystallization of the Arab fiction scene, especially taking into consideration that the Arabic language is witnessing a novel boom that is unprecedented. For example, 131 novels from 18 different Arab countries participated in the Booker Prize, and if publishers were allowed an open list of candidates, the number would have exceeded 300, as one of the organizers said. On the other hand, this award helps expose new works and introduce writers and encourages newcomers to join this literary genre, in addition to the monetary prize which is not to be underestimated.

NOW Lebanon: When you write, do you write with a global audience in mind, or mainly with an Arab audience? Or specifically a Lebanese one?

Douaihy: I don’t know exactly whom I address when I write. At some moments, I think of my friends and their reactions when they read what I read. I think there are those who address a foreign reader or an Arab one, and they don’t use local expressions and mannerisms, aiming instead for generalities which I don’t think are successful. The [depiction of the] character in literary novels is a characteristic that guarantees it will reach all audiences. When I wrote about my town, sometimes using its semi-slang language, I didn’t feel alienated from Man and his common traits.

NOW Lebanon: Can you give us some general comments on the status of Lebanese literature, in the Arab world and/or the rest of the world?

Douaihy: There is no doubt that the Lebanese novel has acquired a status next to that of the Egyptian, which has a rich novel heritage, one that is richer and more varied. Since the Lebanese novel is relatively new, and didn’t prosper until 1975 – despite many successful attempts before that date, they remained fragmented and sporadic. The results of a census that was carried out by the committee of the Booker Prize showed a large number of Lebanese novels and their [high] literary caliber, as more than one member of the judging committee have admitted.

Little by little, the Lebanese novel is forging its way toward translation into other languages, even though it still is a phenomenon at the margin of translated literature. There are Lebanese novelists who are known more than others among the journalistic and academic elite of the Arab world, and here we must mention the bad trade in books that to a large extent obstructs the opening up of Arab literature. Publishers work alone without official attention and the cost and price of books differ widely from one country to another. I hope that Beirut will preserve its current role, or its previous role, despite all the stabs from those who never tire from inflicting them.

NOW Lebanon: Can you please tell us a little about any of your upcoming projects, following your success with June Rain?

Douaihy: I don’t feel like I’m capable of anything other than writing stories, and that’s what I’m trying to do in my attempt to write a new novel, in this renewable pleasure of entering a world and its neighboring personalities.