Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy passed away on July 23 at the age of 72, leaving behind a rich literary legacy rooted in the reality of life in Lebanon and the experiences of those who lived through the country’s devastating civil war.
The Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy (1949-2021) offered his readers the most human lessons of the Lebanese civil war through his novels. Although his stories are set against a background of violence and conflict, he always managed to extract what was shared and human, celebrating the values ââof friendship, love and peace.
Stories woven from Lebanese life
Douaihy’s writing is woven from Lebanese life, harmonizing all the threads and complexities of a country constantly on the verge of explosion. He portrays his characters as if they are about to leave, despite their deep connection to the place. When they manage to leave, they cannot help but come back; unable to leave a place that reflects their own fragility and the need for someone to stay, support and fight for it.
Maybe this is the place that transmitted their diseases to them, or maybe humans are the ones who change their fanaticisms by moving from place to place. Either its characters return to Lebanon in search of an ancient legacy or bygone glory days, or they wander between hotels in search of love.
He portrays his characters as deeply wanting to live, but unable to cope with death, theft, crime and sectarian exploitation. Douaihy constructed his fictional universe with delicacy and gentleness, using characters who knew and felt everything that was going on around them but couldn’t bear to recognize it. Then he would unravel their reluctance with vivid scenes evoking death, sex and separation.
Despite his stories against a background of violence and conflict, he nevertheless always managed to extract what was shared and human, celebrating the values ââof friendship, love and peace.
Themes of identity and fanaticism
His novel Al-Manazel shared (The Vagabond, 2010) is an allegorical story about the Lebanese civil war. The main character, Nizam, belongs to a different religion than the one indicated on his identity card. A Muslim by birth but a Christian by baptism, he grew up in the care of a Christian family who showered the Muslim boy with love. When he leaves to study in Beirut, his rental apartment is transformed by Douaihy into a laboratory showcasing all the contradictions encountered by his generation.
Then war breaks out. Nizam has always worn two chains around his neck: one for his Christian identity and the other for his Muslim roots – so Douaihy does not care about identities. When Nizam loses his identity papers, he feels free from the falsehood of affiliations. However, by freeing himself from ties of identity in war, he seals his fate – death.
For those who remained in Lebanon, suggests Douaihy, it was impossible to ensure their survival from the war. In the unusual situation that he constructs with care and bewitchment, he portrays a nostalgic vision of Beirut that did not last long before being engulfed in the furnace of war. It also emphasizes the human ability to cancel each other out and when Nizam dies it signals the human susceptibility to give in to hatred and fanaticism.
Family conflicts against a backdrop of war
In his novel Ain Warda (2002) Douaihy centers the story around a land dispute between a group of Druze families who are fighting over inheritance rights over a house. On a road sign on the way to the house is written ‘Goes nowhere’. Douaihy uses this âNowhereâ for which the characters argue as a backdrop to present Reza – a strange and lonely character.
What unfolds is an innocent love story that blossoms through mutual book readings and intermittent phone calls, before disappearing into the all-consuming darkness of war. The âNowhereâ house, which means Lebanon, is also the scene of electoral conflicts in which the Arabs are used. We see Reza’s mother gazing at her son, who has finally fallen in love with an Arab girl, as she contemplates the destruction.
Reza shows how Douaihy allegorically uses humans to reflect the state of place and fate. Douaihy lets it be understood more than once that he writes from experience on places with which he has intimate knowledge and which he cannot leave.
As for the war, the deepest scene in this novel is when it shows the characters crowded around the radio, listening to the mother’s phone call begging her son to resist death. Thus war is present in the novels of Douaihy, in the expectation of those who watch it approach, in the anxious expectation that gnaws at the characters, makes them subject to their fate.
In his novel King of the Indies (2017), the conflict between the characters relates to a field. Zakaria returns to Lebanon, a country steeped in feuds raging between different sects and families, and ends up dead – possibly killed, or perhaps by suicide – Douaihy leaves readers unaware of his exact fate. Douaihy creates charismatic protagonists, whom the reader cannot help but love, and then kills them, without the love they attract being able to save them.
Thus war is present in the novels of Douaihy, in the expectation of those who watch it approach, in the anxious expectation that gnaws at the characters, makes them subject to their fate.
Writing anchored in reality and immersed in history
Douaihy used historical facts as the basis for his novels, such as the Christian-Christian battles that erupted immediately after the electoral tensions of 1957, events about which he wrote June rain (2006) and which he saw as a warm-up to the civil war, which broke out shortly thereafter.
However, Douaihy has been held hostage to reality and the endings of his stories reflect that. He simply took events and revealed them using the language of whoever saw them bring them into the imaginary fabric of writing. He used simple, unpretentious, unadorned language – his writing is direct and intimate.
Douaihy wrote many novels against a background of war; consider writing about it as a form of retaliation. He also viewed the conflict of identity, with its roots in the suspicious view of groups rivaling each other, to have fueled his writing.
In what the owner of The American Quarter (2014) calls “the Museum of Fanaticisms” we see it preoccupied with an attachment to humans in order to root them out of the desires of groups that push individuals towards their own destruction to continue the violent spiral of death. Douaihy’s romantic posture ultimately positions him in opposition to the fate that these fractional groups prepare for their children.
Jabbour Douaihy holds a license in French literature and a doctorate in comparative literature. He worked for many years as a professor of French literature at the Lebanese University and translated a large number of French works into Arabic. He also supervised two sessions of âHorizonsâ workshops on writing novels from which several Arabic names have emerged.
Among his works are Death in the Nu’as family (1990), Autumn Equinox (1995), Riya Al Nahr ‘(1998), and Printed in Beirut (2016). He also wrote the children’s story Forest spirit (2001) in French. He has won numerous awards and some of his works have been translated into several languages. His latest novel, Poison in the air was published by Dar al Saqi last June.
This is an edited translation of our Arabic edition. To read the original article, click here.