Novelist Jabbour Douaihy leaves rich literary legacy

Novelist Jabbour Douaihy leaves rich literary legacy
6 min read
Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy died on 23 July at the age of 72, leaving behind a rich literary legacy grounded in the reality of life in Lebanon and in the experiences of those who lived through the country's devastating civil war.

Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy (1949-2021) gifted his readers with the most human of lessons from the Lebanese civil war through his novels. Despite his stories being set against a backdrop of violence and conflict, he always succeeded in extracting what was shared and human, celebrating the values of friendship, love and peace.

Stories woven from Lebanese life

Douaihy's writing is woven from Lebanese life, harmonising all of the strands and complexities of a country constantly on the brink of explosion. He depicts his characters as though they are about to leave, despite their deep connection to the place. When they do manage to leave they can't help but return; unable to leave somewhere that reflects their own fragility and need for somebody to stay, support and fight for it.

Maybe it is the place that has passed its sicknesses on to them, or maybe humans are the ones who change their fanaticisms as they move from place to place. His characters are either returning to Lebanon in search of an old inheritance or bygone days of glory, or they wander between hotels looking for love.

He portrays his characters as wanting deeply to live, but unable to do this in the face of death, theft, crime and sectarian exploitation. Douaihy built his fictional world with delicacy and gentleness, using characters who knew and felt everything happening around them but could not bear to acknowledge it. Then he would unravel their reticence with vivid scenes evoking death, sex and separation.

Despite his stories being set against a backdrop of violence and conflict, he nevertheless succeeded always in extracting what was shared and human, celebrating the values of friendship, love and peace

Themes of identity and fanaticism

His novel Shared Al-Manazel (The Vagrant, 2010) is an allegorical story about the Lebanese civil war. The main character, Nizam, belongs to a different religion than that stated on his ID. Muslim by birth but Christian by baptism, he grows up in the care of a Christian family who showers the Muslim boy with love. When he goes to study in Beirut, his rented apartment is transformed by Douaihy into a laboratory showcasing all the contradictions faced 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 - in this way Douaihy mocks identities. When Nizam loses his ID papers he feels as though he has been liberated from the falseness of affiliations. However, in breaking free of the bonds of identity in the war he seals his fate – death.

For those who remained in Lebanon, Douaihy implies, it was impossible to ensure their survival of the war. Within the unusual situation which he carefully and captivatingly constructs, he portrays a nostalgic vision of Beirut which did not last long before it was engulfed in the furnace of the war. He also points to the human ability to cancel each other out and when Nizam dies, it signals the human susceptibility to yield to hatred and fanaticism.

Family strife against a backdrop of war

In his novel Ain Warda (2002) Douaihy centres the story around a property dispute between a group of Druze families who are fighting over inheritance rights to a house. On a road sign on the path up to the house is written 'Leads Nowhere'. Douaihy uses this 'Nowhere' which the characters are fighting over as the setting in which to introduce Reza – a strange and solitary character.

The King of India [Dar Al Saqi]
Jabbour Douaihy's The King of India tells the story of the ill-fated Zakaria who returns to Lebanon after a long exile [Dar Al Saqi]

What unfolds is an innocent love story that flourishes through mutual readings of books and intermittent phone calls, before disappearing into the all-consuming darkness of the war. The house, 'Nowhere', which signifies Lebanon, is also the scene of electoral conflicts in which the Arabs are used. We see Reza's mother contemplating her son, who has finally fallen in love with an Arab girl, as she contemplates the destruction.

Reza shows how Douaihy uses humans allegorically to reflect the state of place and fate. Douaihy hints more than once that he is writing from experience about places the destruction of which he has an intimate knowledge and which he cannot leave.

As for the war, the most profound scene in this novel is when he shows the characters huddled around the radio, eavesdropping on the phone call of the mother pleading with her son to resist death. In this way war is present in Douaihy's novels, in the anticipation of those watching it approach, in the anxious expectation which eats away at the characters, rendering them submissive to their fates.

In his novel The King of India (2017), the characters' conflict is over a piece of land. Zakaria returns to Lebanon, a country immersed in the feuds which rage between different sects and families, and ends up dead – possibly killed, or perhaps by suicide – Douaihy leaves the readers ignorant as to his exact fate. Douaihy creates charismatic protagonists, which the reader cannot help but love, then kills them, without the love which they attract being able to save them.

In this way war is present in Douaihy's novels, in the anticipation of those watching it approach, in the anxious expectation which eats away at the characters, rendering them submissive to their fates.

Writing grounded in reality and immersed in history

Douaihy used historical fact as a basis for his novels, like the Christian-Christian fighting that broke out immediately after the electoral tensions of 1957, events around which he wrote June Rain (2006) and which he regarded as a warmup to the civil war, which broke out soon afterwards.

However, Douaihy remained a hostage to reality and the endings to his stories reflect this. He simply took events and revealed them using the language of one who had witnessed them bring them into the imaginary fabric of writing. He used simple, unpretentious language without embellishment – his writing is direct and intimate.

Douaihy wrote many novels against the backdrop of the war; considering writing about it to be a form of retaliation. He also considered identity conflict, with its roots in rival groups' distrustful view of one another, as having nourished his writing.

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Within what the owner of The American Quarter (2014) calls "the Museum of Fanaticisms" we see him preoccupied with an attachment to humans in order to extricate them from the desires of groups which push individuals towards their own destruction to continue the violent spiral of death. Douaihy’s novelistic stance positions him ultimately in opposition to the fate these factional groups are preparing for their children.

Jabbour Douaihy had a BA degree in French Literature and a PhD 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 'Horizons' workshop sessions on writing novels out of which several Arab 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 Spirit of the Forest (2001) in French. He won a number of prizes, 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 from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.