Celebrated author Jabbour Douaihy — shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) and winner of the Prix de la Jeune Litterature Arabe for his The Vagrant, and also IPAF-shortlisted for his beautiful June Rain — has released a new book, American Neighborhood, which reviewer Mishka Mourani says is his “best novel yet”:
By Mishka Mojabber Mourani
“Abdel Rahman Bakri comes out of the bedroom in his bare feet. He has looked in vain for something to shield his feet from the freezing floor. He lurches toward the bathroom to answer the call of nature; it is growing increasingly urgent with the passing of the years. He pauses. As has become his habit since he bought the color television from which his wife is convinced he will not be parted until death, Abdel Rahman scans the landing between the bedroom and the bathroom under the stairs for the remote control, his left hand holding his striped nightgown high up against his thigh in response to the urgency that has taken hold of him.” (p.5)
“She negotiates the sidewalk through her senses: a clutter of garbage then a puddle of water, then the smell of boric acid, of which the old man sitting at the door of the soap factory is heedless, followed by the redolence of the spiny fish in the basket of the hawker, until she is assaulted by the call for noon prayer, which suddenly emerges from the bag that hangs from her shoulder.” (p.13)
The opening pages of The American Neighborhood (Hayy El Amerkan), with their cinematic descriptions, carry the mark of a confident and mature writer. Jabbour Douaihy’s discerning use of the present tense enhances the immediacy of the action, and his narration is both amused and bemused.
Through the use of a third person omniscient narrator, the writer adopts a style that is clinical, with incisive observations, yet the writing still manages to border on the lyrical, as if the author is struggling to restrain his affection for the bedraggled neighborhood and its inhabitants.
The key event of the novel is a non-event: the decision of Ismail, a young man from a Tripoli ravaged by poverty and ignorance, not to blow himself up on a suicide bombing mission to Baghdad. The novel explores the growth and effect of fundamentalism and its ability to dehumanize and manipulate circumstances. It also points toward why fundamentalism is unsustainable. As grim as the present may be, hope will prevail.
This novel is very much about cultures and their interdependence.
Douaihy grounds his novel in a literary tradition that draws from biblical and quranic sources, as well as other cultural references, ranging from the art of bonsai cultivation to ballet and opera, from Adam and Eve to Montserrat Caballe and the Los Angeles Lakers. This novel is very much about cultures and their interdependence. It centers around two families, that of Intissar and the Azzams. Intissar is the mother of Ismail and the daughter of the servant who raised Abdel Karim, the last member of the Azzam family to live in the city. Abdel Karim is an effete character who returned to Tripoli from Paris after Valeria, the love of his life, a Polish ballerina, left him. She was pregnant with their child.
The names in the novel are striking, and, whether intentionally or not, underline the cultural interweavings that make up many Levantine cities, of which Tripoli is one. Ismail is known in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the son of Abraham and Hagar. In Islam, the prophet Ismail is an ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad. While in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac and at the last minute is stopped and told to replace him with a ram, in the Islamic tradition, it is typically believed (though not actually stated) that Abraham is told to sacrifice his son Ismail, not Isaac.
In the novel, the character Ismail is about to be sacrificed on the altar of fundamentalism but spared by a little boy who reminds him of his fragile brother, tying him to a family with roots in a multicultural tradition based on coexistence and what the French call le vivre-ensemble. This message is further reinforced by Ismail’s escape from Baghdad thanks to a Christian family that is traveling to Lebanon in order to eventually emigrate to Canada.
Other references include the novel’s “madeleines” — the crimson, syrupy candied apples that Abdel Karim and Intissar enjoy as children, a delicious reference to the forbidden fruit of the tree in the Eden that Tripoli once was. The now decrepit American neighborhood referred to in the novel’s title is epitomized by the bonsai, a dwarf citrus tree — Tripoli being known as the ‘fragrant city’ because of the scent of its erstwhile citrus plantations.
We catch a glimpse of life after fundamentalism passes: The veiled Intissar (Arabic for Victory) sheds her hijab, Ismail looks to his future, Abdel Karim puts his past behind him by commemorating Valeria, but goes forward nevertheless. Only Bilal, the degenerate father of Ismail who cannot emerge from his fear and hatred, remains a loser: “Bilal Mohsen sought death, but death would have no part of him.”
For all the decrepitude and decadence of its world, Hayy el Amerkan embraces life. This is an unlikely story of hope, a celebration of community and of connection that transcends class, religion, or politics. Even the doomed love story between Abdel Karim and Valeria, whose worlds were incompatible, carries the seeds of a future, since it ends with a pregnancy, the promise of a new life.
The novel does not go as far as proposing a solution to the poverty, misery, and ignorance of Hayy el Amerkan, with its ancient shell-pocked castle. It posits the possibility of survival because of the resilience of the bonds that bind its inhabitants to each other and to their pasts. Abdel Karim and Ismail are out of place each in his world, but that displacement carries the possibility of a new world that goes beyond resilience.
The novel affirms that blind fundamentalism is not the end of a city, but rather a stage, and that the besieged city is as strong as the dilapidated fort that stands over it, broken and damaged yes, but standing nevertheless.
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