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Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

November 1, 2015 12 comments

Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad 1939. French : Le pain by Toufic Youssef Aouad. Translated from the Arabic by Fifi Abou Dib.

Le pain et la liberté. Un homme peut-il s’en passer ? Bread and freedom. Can one live without them?

 

aouad_painOur Book Club choice for October was Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. It’s the English translation of the French title and this novel is not available in English. If you want to read something by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad I can recommend the excellent Death in Beirut.

Before talking about the book, it’s important to know a few historical facts because Bread is set in Lebanon in 1916. I hope I’m getting this right. During WWI the Ottomans ruled Lebanon and had arrived in the area in November 2014. They were established in Aley and Jamal Pasha was the governor at the time. There were upheavals against the Ottomans, from Lebanese and Arabic groups who fought for Lebanon’s independence. The Ottomans hung some of these fighters on May 6th, 1916 in Aley. During summer 1916, Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca started the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. From 1915 to 1918, there was a terrible famine in the Mont-Liban area. 120 000 to 200 000 people died from starvation. The famine was mostly the consequence of the blockade on wheat declared by Jamal Pasha. You can find an article about this here.

Bread is a militant novel written in a poetic style. It’s one of the first Lebanese works of fiction. We’re in Saqiet-el-Misk, where the main source of income came from the immigration to America. Sami Assem is a nationalist militant who fights against the Ottoman occupation. He’s been noticed by the power and he’s now hiding in a cave in the mountains. His lover Zeina brings him food and the last news of the country. But he gets impatient and decides to go out to regroup with other militants. Unfortunately, he kills a deserting soldier on the way and is captured. He’s sent to prison in Aley. The Ottomans make the people believe he and his warden escaped from jail and were killed. Zeina is desperate and decides to take action, even if it means getting closer to an Ottoman governor who fancies her…

It is an extremely interesting novel from an historical point of view. With my French-centric vision, 1916 is the year of the battle of Verdun. Bread showed me a bit of what was happening while the French poilus were in the tranchees. With the famine, people live in survival mode. Black market strives; some sell their house to get get and buy bread, some women sell their body to put food on the table. Some collaborate with the Ottomans, and some join secret groups to fight against the enemy.

The most difficult parts to read were about the famine. One of the characters is a little boy, Tom. He lives with his mother, his grand-father and his harlf-sister Zeina. His mother Warda neglects him and Zeina, his half-sister feels responsible for him.  As mentioned before, at some point, she leaves him behind to join the revolt. He fights to survive and eat and finds himself in the city among beggars. Men patrol in the city to take away the corpses of those who starved. Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad describes an awful scene:

Il y avait là une femme, étendue sur le dos, envahie de poux. Un nourrisson aux yeux énormes pendait à son sein nu. L’un des hommes la poussa du pied et attendit…Tom e mordit les doigts et fit un pas. La tête de la femme était renversée et ses cheveux épars. De sa poitrine émergeait un sein griffé et meurtri que l’enfant pétrissait de ses petites mains et pressait de ses lèvres, puis abandonnait en pleurant. There was a woman, lying on her back, covered with lice. An infant with huge eyes was hanging to her naked breast. One of the men pushed her with his foot and waited…Tom bit his fingers and stepped forward. The woman’s head was tipped back and her hair was sparse. From her bosom jutted out a scratched and battered breast that the infant kneaded with his tiny hands and squeezed with his lips, then gave up and cried.

Terrible scene to read. I can’t imagine what it was to live it.

There’s a lot to think about in this novel. It describes the revolt of the Lebanese and the Arabs and the discussions between Sami Assem and some Arabic fighters already show the differences between them. They are fighting against the same enemy but not for exactly the same reasons. The tensions between Christians and Muslims are already palpable.

From a literary point of view, I think that the characterization of the novel is a little weak. I would have liked to know more about the characters, their motivations, their psychology and their past. The style is very poetic at times, like here when he pictures the advancing Arabic army:

Sur la vaste terre, dans l’immense plaine qui n’a pas de frontière et que la lune recouvrait d’un fabuleux dais d’argent, sous la coupole d’un bleu pur où scintillaient des milliers d’étoiles, une caravane avançait entre ciel et désert. On the vast land, on the immense plain that has no border and that the moon covered with a fabulous silver canopy, under the pure blue dome where thousands of stars sparkled, a caravan moved forward between heaven and desert.

Some other war scenes reminded me of this painting, El Tres de Mayo, by Goya:

Goya

It’s about the war against Napoleon in Spain. The novel is very graphic and gives the reader an overview of the atmosphere at the time.

Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad wrote his novel 25 years after the events. He was born in 1911 and comes from the Mont-Liban area, from a village called Bharsaf. It’s one of the three villages mentioned in his novel with Bikfaya and Saqiet-el-Misk. In his introduction, he says that he remembers seeing the Ottoman soldiers come to his village. He was only three in 1914 and of course he didn’t understand what it meant. This novel is a way to let these events known and remembered. I think that he wanted to show what families had to do for their children and what the martyrs of the independence endured.

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