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In Syria by Joseph Kessel

March 21, 2015 24 comments

En Syrie by Joseph Kessel (1926) Not available in English.

Joseph Kessel was born in Argentina in 1958. His parents were Jewish and had fled pogroms in Russia. He grew up between the Urals and France. His cosmopolitan origins influenced him and he was a citizen of the world.

In 1926, Kessel was sent in Syria as a journalist. He spent around four weeks there and as he points out in the disclaimer of the book, he cannot pretend to know the region. However, his childhood memories of caravans arriving near his home in the Urals left him captivated with the Orient. En Syrie is a collection of the reportages he wrote during his assignment there. In the first one, Une vue sur Beyrouth (A view over Beirut), he writes:

La Syrie? Que savons-nous d’elle? Avouons-le sans faux orgueil : quelques reminiscences historiques sur les croisades, quelques pages célèbres, les beaux noms de Damas, de Palmyre, de l’Euphrate, voilà tout notre bagage pour une grande et féconde contrée placée sous le mandat français. Syria? What do we know about it? Let’s admit it without false pride: some historical memories about the crusades, some famous pages, the beautiful names of Damascus, of Palmyra, of the Euphrates. This is our only knowledge of a great and fertile country placed under French mandate.

Kessel_SyrieTerribly true. When we study decolonization in school, we learn about the countries rebelling against the French rule and winning their independence one by one. We learn the names of the leaders who led the fights for freedom. We linger a bit on the war in Indochina and the one which left the deepest scars, the war in Algeria. We never hear anything about Lebanon and Syria. And of course nobody tells us about the wars to submit these territories in the first place. I had to read Maupassant to realize it took thirty years to conquer Algeria. The way it’s told, you’d think these people were waiting for us to take charge. So, with the current war in Syria, I was curious to read these reportages, republished for the occasion.

The first pages reveal two things: first the cultural, historical and political context is incredibly complex for a Westerner; second, Syria is at war and it seemed nothing had changed in almost a century, except that they rebel against the French mandate. (I’d never heard about this fights.)

Depuis l’insurrection que seul –il faut le dire—a réprimée le bombardement du général Sarrail (qui peut-être ce jour-là a sauvé le mandat français), la « gouta » de Damas abrite toutes les bandes que stipendie le comité syro-palestinien qui, du Caire, dirige la révolte. Elles sont embusquées là, invisibles, guettant avec la patience orientale l’imprudent qui s’aventure sans protection suffisante. La nuit, souvent, elles attaquent les postes.« gouta » = jardin Since the insurrection that, it needs to be said, only the bombing done by general Sarrail (who may well have saved the French mandate that day) had managed to repress, the “gouta” of Damascus shelters all the groups that the syro-palestinian committee reviles while organizing the rebellion from Cairo. They lie in ambush, invisible, watching out with oriental patience for an imprudent who would wander without sufficient protection. At night, they often attack military positions. “gouta” = garden.

It sounded familia and I wondered what hope there is for this region to be at peace in a foreseeable future. I also thought that the West meddles in issues they know nothing about and probably only makes things worse.

Then Kessel takes us with him in his travels in the country. It’s not a political analysis. It’s more a colorful picture of both sides and a global message of mistrust for politicians. They’re assigned in Syria for too short a time to know the culture of the country and create a reliable network with the influential natives. They see the issues through their Parisian lenses. Consequence: they make rooky mistakes.

Kessel is a strong storyteller. The landscapes and the people come to life under his pen. His cosmopolitan origins and his unquenchable curiosity for the world are an asset. He’s never arrogant. He accepts other cultures as as valuable as his own and this approach gives the reportages a special tone. Almost a century after they were written, they are still readable without blushing of shame for all the contempt that we, colonist countries, poured down on conquered territories. He doesn’t think that the West holds all the answers or that his civilization is superior. It’s refreshing and this special angle makes that the reportages do not sound dated, even if they relate past events.

PS : sorry for the clumsy translation of the second quote, Kessel’s syntax is complicated to translate into English.

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.

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