Archive

Archive for the ‘Lebanese Literature’ Category

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.

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, made into a play

March 16, 2014 16 comments

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran (1923)

Gibran_prophete_livreI don’t remember how or when I first heard of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. My copy dates back to 1993; perhaps Amin Maalouf mentioned him in one of his books. Anyway. I had fond memories of that little book of wisdom, so I jumped on the opportunity to see a stage version of this text.

Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was a Lebanese writer, born in a small village in the North of the country. He later moved to Boston with his mother and siblings, moved back to Lebanon to study in Beirut. Then, he spent a couple of years in France before immigrating to New York. He wrote The Prophet in English and it was published in America in 1923. It was immediately a huge success.

The Prophet is a collection of parables. In the introduction, the prophet Almustafa is about to leave the city of Orphalese, where he has spent twelve years in exile. He’s saying goodbye to the place and its people when they question him about life. What does he have to say about love, marriage, self-knowledge, children, pain…? In twenty-six chapters, Almustafa will answer the questions. It’s a bit written like the New Testament, a bit like poetical philosophy and I suspect a bit in the Arabic literature tradition. (I wouldn’t know that since I haven’t read any, just heard about the importance of its poetry in novels by Maalouf, Mahfouz or more recently Awwad) Gibran’s text is a mix of Eastern and Western culture, of poetry and philosophy. Each chapter is one to three pages long and tackles with a different question. It explores life from a human point of view and gives advice to live your life more peacefully. Personally, I like his vision of marriage, children, giving, joy and sorrow or teaching. I want to share with you the part on Reason and Passion, it will be a long quote but it gives you an idea of the atmosphere of the book and the tone of the text:

AND the priestess spoke again and said: Speak to us of Reason and Passion.

And he answered, saying:

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.

Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.

But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

YOUR reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.

If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.

For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.

Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;

And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.

I WOULD have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house.

Surely you would not honour one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.

AMONG the hills, when you sit in the cool shade of the white poplars, sharing the peace and serenity of distant fields and meadows – then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason.”

And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, and thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky, – then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion.”

And since you are a breath in God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.

I won’t tell more about the book as The Prophet is a highly personal text for the reader. It resonates differently according to who you are and what your life has been. I believe that everyone can find something good for them to meditate. If it’s a personal journey for the reader, it must have been a personal one for the author too. I’d love to ask Gibran why he wrote something so oriental and personal in English and not in Arabic. It’s his native tongue, he studied in that language (and in French) while English is his third language. Few authors choose to write in another language than their mother tongue. Sure, writing in English helped being published but was that all?

Gibran_prophete_pieceThe Prophet was made into a play by Noredine Marouf. I saw it in a tiny theatre in Paris, the Guichet Montparnasse. Imagine: there’s room for fifty spectators, seated on five rows of benches. The stage is minuscule. We were nine spectators and it was the premiere. The actor and director Noredine Marouf was a few meters away from us, I’m sure he could see every move we made on those benches. He stayed after the show was finished and chatted with us. He said he was nervous for the premiere and we gathered he wasn’t happy with his performance. He’d been working on the text for ten months but it didn’t take away the anxiousness of the premiere. He explained that he chose to work on this text because Gibran’s words speak to him and because he wanted to play something that would make the audience think. He wanted to bring more than entertainment and to leave us with thoughts to ponder when we went home. We were nine people in the audience and one of us was Lebanese. She pointed out that Gibran’s village was really a tiny village and that it was incredible that he moved out of there to live in cities like Paris and New York, especially at his time. Nordine Marouf confessed that working on Gibran’s text had been trying, that he had ached physically while learning the text, as Gibran’s words sank in. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the preparation of the play. He said that with powerful texts as this one, at first, the actor carries the text on their shoulders and after a while, the text carries them. Noredine Marouf is French of Algerian origin; his parents are from Oran. Like Gibran, like Maalouf, his personal history is made of the fruitful meeting of Eastern and Western cultures.

So yes, it’s true, the acting wasn’t perfect. But being there, nine people on benches in a tiny theatre and discussing the play and its preparation with the director and actor was a treat. If you have the chance, go and see Noredine Marouf tell Khalil Gibran. He will be there until April 27th. These theatres must survive and as Gibran points out in the chapter about Bying and Selling:

AND if there come the singers and the dancers and the flute players, – buy of their gifts also.

For they too are gatherers of fruit and frankincense, and that which they bring, though fashioned of dreams, is raiment and food for your soul.

For most of you who won’t have that opportunity, the book is available and worth discovering or re-reading

You need to read this: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad

December 22, 2013 30 comments

Dans les meules de Beyrouth by Toufic Youssef Aouad. 1972. In English: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

Preamble:

Apparently the transcription of Arabic names is totally different between French and English. Compared to this, the difference between Tolstoy and Tolstoï is piece of cake. Without this blog, Arabic Literature (In English) I wouldn’t have found the English version of this novel. I have read Dans les meules de Beyrouth in French, so I’ll use the French spelling of names in this billet. It will probably differ in English if you decided to read it.

aouad_meulesThis is a pre-Christmas Humbook. When I met in Nino in Lyon a few weeks ago, he gave me his favourite Lebanese book Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. We all have clichés about foreign countries. For me Lebanon means Kahlil Gibran, fine food, business as in the journalistic expression “L’homme d’affaires libanais” and Francophone cultured elites. But it also brings back childhood memories of the pictures of three French hostages in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. They stayed there three long years and every night, the news on television opened with their photos and the countdown of their captivity. In colloquial French, “C’était Beyrouth” is used to describe chaos, a place of destruction. I’d rather think about the first clichés, literature and cuisine. So, what about Dans les meules de Beyrouth?

We’re in 1968-1969. Tamima Nassour is around 17 when the book opens. She lives in a small village named Mehdiyyé. She has an older brother Jaber who is studying law in Beirut. Her father Tamer has been in Guinea for almost twenty years. He built a business there and sends money home to support his family. Her mother Amné is a traditional Arab wife, like you see in books by Naguib Mahfouz. She stays at home, prays God, accepts everything that life throws at her without complaining and worships her husband and son. Tamima is in high school and she struggles to find the money to pay for the tuition of her senior year. She’s a brilliant student and unlike her mother, she’s aware of Jaber’s flaws. She knows he’s debauched, violent and would rather starve his mother and sister than renounce to pleasures for himself. When she visits Jaber in Beirut to ask for the tuition money, she makes two life-changing acquaintances. She meets with Ramzi Raad, an influential journalist and poet. She admires him for his relentless attacks against the government and his fight for individual freedom. She also stumbles upon Hani, a Maronite Christian activist in the student movement.

The book revolves around Tamima. She becomes Ramzi’s lover and falls in love with Hani. Once in university, she joins the student political movements. Hani relies on her as a correspondent in her uni and she becomes a key figure of this movement and she’s quite good at organising it. She’s intelligent and rather moderate. The novel is written from Tamima’s point of view and she doesn’t see herself as valuable as she is. She tends to minimise her actions and thoughts. However, for this reader, she’s a brilliant young woman whose gender hampers her advancement in life. Her capacities can’t blossom fully in this context.

Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad portrays his country through his two heroes. Hani fights against religious prejudices when the government sends a Muslim as a primary school teacher in his Maronite village. The villagers don’t accept him as a teacher and Hani will organise his first political fights to defend this teacher. Hani is more moderate than Tamima. He deeply believes in changing things from the inside. Tamima is less afraid of a violent revolution. Perhaps it comes from their difference of background. Hani’s a man and comes from the most influential community in Lebanon, if I understood properly. Tamima is a young Muslim woman whose brother believes he has a right to slit her throat if she doesn’t behave decently. She has more to gain in a revolution and less to lose.

Aouad_EnglishTawfiq Yusuf Awwad was born in 1911, so he was already 60 when he wrote this book. He became a diplomat after the independence of Lebanon and he was posted in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Dans les meules de Beyrouth is a novel written by an experienced man. He’s experienced with life as he’s already 60 and experienced in politics through his career as a diplomat. He wrote this novel in 1972, shortly after the events and three years before the civil war began. His insight is amazing. He perfectly describes the explosive mix between the youth’s cravings for freedom and the political context.

Students push for changes in their country just as other students in the world did at this time. 1968 was an explosive year for student protests. Lebanon became totally independent in 1946, so it’s quite young in 1968. It’s a multi-confessional country and the power is split between Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunnite Muslims and Greek Orthodox. The students question the direction their country is headed to and there’s a ground swell among them to abolish the multi-confessional system. For example, a newspaper ordered a poll about mixed marriages between Muslims and Maronites and about civil marriages because it’s a key issue. Tamima wants sexual freedom for women but she comes from a culture where it is “tradition” to slaughter a woman who has a lover. This side of the problem is enough to create quite a stir in the country especially given the very different cultural backgrounds of the population. It’s always difficult to fight against traditions on issues touching marriages and women rights. It takes time and a lot of explaining. In France, the right to abortion was voted in 1973 and it was an ugly fight. And France is a mono-cultural country. Imagine here with populations with so different customs about such intimate and everyday life issues. It’s difficult to reach a consensus about these topics in a peaceful time and quite impossible in troubled political times.

For these were troubled political times. We’re after the Six-Days War between Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq and the South of Lebanon has a border with Israel. Add to the mix the Palestinian Liberation Organization which was created in 1964. The Arab-Israeli conflict weighs a heavy weight upon Lebanon. Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad shows how the international political issues interfere with the student movement. External agents infiltrate the political meetings and radicalise part of the public. He depicts the slow but inevitable slide from moderate and democratic claims to more political demands. He had foreseen the violence that would shake the country a few years later.

In addition to these fascinating elements about Lebanon, Dans les meules de Beyrouth is extremely well-written. The style is descriptive, almost journalistic when Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad relates about political meetings and students fights. It’s poetic when it comes to the descriptions of landscapes and feelings. It reminded me of the lyricism you can find in Mahfouz’s prose. (“Elle aurait voulu lui sauter au cou et cueillir d’un baiser le sourire de ses yeux”.) It has this I-don’t-know-what I associate with literature translated from the Arab and Arab culture. It’s familiar although I have only read Naguib Mahfouz and Khalil Gibran, I think. I don’t know why it’s more familiar than, say, Japanese literature.

I hope I didn’t write anything inaccurate about the political and cultural context. It’s a fascinating read that makes you touch a sensitive atmosphere with your fingertips. I’ve often wondered about people’s lives in long-lasting conflicts. The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990. You can’t put your life on hold for so long. How do you live, go to school, fall in love, marry, raise children, work with such a risk of impending doom? How do you think about the future? How do you have fun on a day-to-day basis with such a threat? In other words, how does life go on?

This is going to be on my best books list for this year. Thanks Nino, I wouldn’t have read it without you. I once wrote a post about how much you can know about someone through their reading. I think you can know a great deal. My blog led you into thinking that I would enjoy this and I did. So yes, the books we love give away part of who we are.

%d bloggers like this: