Art in the press

Lebanese Literature by Katia Ghosn

Extract from the book 'A Complete insiders Guide to Lebanon'

The Nahda in 1799, or Arab cultural revival, unfolds soon after Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign. During the 19th century, many Lebanese authors contributed to this renaissance, pioneer among them Nasif al-Yazigi (1800 – 1871), Faris al-Shidiaq (1876 – 1940), Butrus al-Bustani (1883 – 1919). At the turn of the century, prominent literary figures of the Nahda like Amin al-Rihani (1876 – 1940), Gibran Kahlil Gibran (1883 – 1931) and Mikhail Nuayma (1889 – 1988) paved the way for the emergence of the modern Lebanese novel. Gibran author of a single novel, Al-ajniha al-mutakassira (Broken Wings), and of a large number of short stories and aphorisms, is most famous for his Prophet) written originally in English). Fayruz, the great Lebanese diva, sang extracts of this philosophical poem, which added to its popularity. A museum dedicated to Gibran’s memory, in his hometown of Becharré, displays some of his artwork.

The second wave of the modern Lebanese novel begins with Marun Abbud (1886 – 1962) and Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad (1911 – 1989). Awwad’s Tawahin Bayrut (The Mills of Beirut) evokes the buoyant political and cultural Lebanese scene prior to the outbreak of the civil war. Suhail Idriss, founded the famous publishing house, Dar al-Adab. Al hayy al latini (Latin Quarter) is his best-known novel. It evokes the tribulations of a young Lebanese student in Paris torn between modernity and tradition.

During the 60s, the Arab novel underwent deep changes. In 1988, the Egyptian writer Neguib Mahfuz won the Nobel Prize. An entire generation of Arab writers would break with social realism and classic writing. In Lebanon, the civil war (1975-1990) deeply influenced literature exploring new themes such as violence, identity, collective amnesia and the loss of confidence in a changing world.

Elias Khury, the author of the imposing 1998 novel Bab al-shams (Gate of the Sun), adapted by filmmaker Yusri Nasrallah, is by now known worldwide. His writings deconstruct myths that have petrified the language and the spirit in the Arab world. His most recent works Yalo and Ka’annaha Na’ima (As Though She Was Sleeping) describe dramatic characters mired in a troubled and wounded country.

The latest novels of Rashid al-Daif Testefel Meryl Streep (The Hell with Meryl Streep) and Ok, goodbye, describe the inner-selves of the characters’, uncovering some of the psychological complexities of Lebanon’s post-war society. Hassan Dawud describes the slow agony of places and the throbbing despair of human beings. In Binayat Mathilde (Mathilde’s Building), he focuses on the disintegration of Beiruti society.

Al Rajol Al Akhir (The Last Man), a novel by Mohammad Abi Samra, portrays a character who carries the burden of a painful past and ends up venting his anger on his mother. The writings of Alawiyya Sobh, a major female literary figure, depict some of the enduring religious and sexual taboos of the Shia community in South Lebanon. In a similar vein, Imam Hmaydan Yunis, writes about the miseries of the Druze women. Misk al-ghazal (The Deer Musk) by Hanan al-Sheikh tells the story of four women struggling against a patriarchal society. Hoda Barakat’s Hajar al Dahek (The stone laughter) is probably the first Arab novel to include a homosexual as a main character. The books of May Menassa are filled with nostalgia and pain generated by loss of the land and loved ones. Jabbur Dweihy’s novels abound in pictorial motifs; Matar Hozayran, dedicated to the late journalist Samir Kassir, pays a tribute to the sacrifice for freedom. He is also the author of an ecological tale in French, L’Ame de la Forêt (The soul of the forest), which explores the nature reserve of Horsh Ehden in North Lebanon.

Several authors mentioned above write in Arabic and their books have been translated in English and French. Nonetheless, and given the prominent position of the French language in Lebanese culture, many authors have chosen to write in French, gaining the title of “auteurs francophones” which some resent as “orientalist”. Their works explore the socio-political and cultural context of Lebanon. Amin Maaluf, Alexandre Najjar, Charif Majdalani, Carole Dagher are among the most famous.

In Les Identités Meurtrières (Deadly Identities), Maaluf explores the grueling task of building self-identity and sense of belonging when one is part of another culture.

Alexandre Najjar has written many novels, biographies and essays. His last novel, Phénicia (Phoenicia) is an historical epic about the awakening of the Phoenician civilization. It relates the fabulous destiny of Elyssa, a Tyrean princess who confronted Alexander the Great during the siege of Tyre in 332 B.C.

Another francophone writer, Cherif Majdalani portrays stories of Lebanese emigrants. Lebanese literature encompasses a mosaic of writers and a myriad of themes that mirrors the sheer diversity of the country.