Lebanese novelist Jabbour Douaihy dies at 72: 'The world is dimmer'

He was best known for works that tackled the intricacies of Lebanese society

Jabbour Douaihy. Photo by Kheridine Mabrouk

Jabbour Douaihy got close but never quite managed to step on the podium in Abu Dhabi.

The revered Lebanese author died on Friday, having seen three novels shortlisted twice and longlisted once for the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf), sponsored by DCT Abu Dhabi.

He died aged 72, after a long illness, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.

But even if he didn't win one of the Arab world’s biggest literary prizes, his trophy cabinet wasn’t exactly empty.

Douaihy won the 2013 Arab Literature Prize from Paris's Arab World Institute for The Vagrant, and then the 2015 Saeed Akl Award for The American Quarter, which was also nominated for the Ipaf. This comes on top of his Saint-Exupery Prize for Youth Literature for the 2001 novel Rouh Al Ghaba and 1995's Best Translated Work nod from the University of Arkansas for 1995's Autumn Equinox.

A gentle mentor

While some literary critics bemoan Jabbour’s Ipaf snub – the award is judged by a jury of fellow writers and critics – administrator Fleur Montanaro says Jabbour's nominations remains unparalleled in the competition's history.

She also praised Jabbour’s mentoring of up-and-coming novelists as part of the prize’s Nadwa series of writing workshops.

“Ipaf is deeply saddened to hear of the death of the Lebanese writer Jabbour Douaihy and sends sincere condolences to his family and loved ones.

“Jabbour Douaihy was once longlisted and three times shortlisted for the prize, a rare achievement,” she tells The National. “He was not only a talented writer whose work never disappoints the reader, but a gentleman who encouraged younger authors to develop their creative gifts.

“Emerging writers who participated in the prize’s annual Nadwa [workshop], twice mentored by Douaihy, have testified to this. His kindness, wisdom and sense of humour will be greatly missed.”

That wisdom also extended to young creatives in the UAE. As a guest of the 2019 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Jabbour shared writing tips with students while touring Dubai schools, festival director Ahlam Bolooki recalls. “He gave so generously of himself to our audience and school students,” she says.

“Behind the scenes, our team enjoyed his sense of humour and we will remember those moments fondly. The world is dimmer with the loss of a great writer.”

The shadow of the civil war

Born in the northern Lebanese city of Zgharta, Douaihy built a distinguished academic career in parallel to his life as a novelist, as a professor of French Literature at the Lebanese University in Tripoli.

That rigour and research was applied to his work with the Lebanese newspaper, L'Orient Express. Writing in French, Douaihy would pen regular columns and essays about the latest trends sweeping the Arab-Franco literary spheres, in addition to translating snatches of relevant works

Jabbour announced himself as a writer of fiction with Al Mout Bain Al Ahl Na'as, a 1990 collection of rural stories set in a Christian community in northern Lebanon.

The collection put in motion the themes Jabbour would explore throughout his writing career, from analysing the social and cultural divides coursing through the Lebanese community, to how politics and religion intersect at various junctures of Lebanese life.

Hovering above these mediations was the shadow of Lebanon's Civil War (1975-1990), which remains firmly etched in Douaihy's memory. “Just as everybody expects a Palestinian writer not to handle any other subject but his relationship with his homeland, with impossibilities and agony, it is expected of a Lebanese writer to revolve around the themes of the everyday happenings of civil conflict,” he told literary site Raya.

“Still, a lot of novelists try to avoid writing directly about the war, but no one can escape the presence of the civil struggle in the background.

“The struggle, being on the verge of falling into an abyss, and trying every morning to look out for the possibility to fix some destruction of our public concerns, has become a lifestyle. So this instability haunts our writings in spite of us.”

His key works

Distilling that approach is June Rain – shortlisted for the inaugural 2008 Ipaf. Douaihy used the simmering divisions of a small Lebanese village to paint a larger picture of the deterioration of Lebanese society.

As an Arabist and translator, Montanaro cites the searing novel – also available in English translation – as an ideal entry point to Douaihy's work. "It is one of his most inspired novels," she says.

"He weaves this careful web of memorable protagonists from small-town Lebanon during the civil war, whose lives interlock in intricate and sometimes devastating ways. A non-Arabic-reading English friend told me she is still haunted by one of the characters.”

Book cover of The American Quarter by Jabbour Douaihy; translated by Paula Haydar. Courtesy Interlink Publishing

Another option for new readers is 2014's The American Quarter, which was first translated into English three years later. In the book, which was longlisted for the 2015 Ipaf award, Douaihy casts his eye on Tripoli's impoverished Bab Al-Tabbaneh district and follows a family pulled apart by the city's fractious relationship with its inhabitants and foreigners.

Despite some of the foreboding subject matter, The National's reviewer M Lynx Qualey's described The American Quarter as "surprisingly graceful tale of alienation, violence and human connection".

A moment of grace

It is that light touch that Lebanese actor and Dubai Drama Group member Hani Yakan wants people to ultimately take away from Douaihy's novels.

He recalls moderating Douaihy’s session at the 2019 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and realising how the author’s candour and wit on stage were apparent in all his works.

“Jabbour belongs to a generation of Lebanese writers who lived through the civil war, which gave him a distinct sense of dark humour and a strong feeling of nostalgia that was quite evident in his writings and novels,” he says.

“I remember meeting him in the green room for the first time and feeling an instant connection. It was like I've known him for a long time. As though he was an uncle I haven't seen in a while and he wanted to tell me stories about the family”.

When it comes to the future of Lebanese fiction, Douaihy predicted that the pandemic would play a similar role for the current generation of writers as the Lebanese civil war did for him and his peers.

"Great authors wrote about previous pandemics and used them as symbols," he said in an interview last year.

"[Covid-19] will become part of the general literary scene and the imagination of humanity, just like wars, the plague … and other pandemics in history."

However, those epic tales will come long after we've recovered from the trauma of the pandemic. I don't think the Lebanese war was written about until it was over and done with, meaning it could be used in literature," he said. "Writing novels takes time – we can't write about events that are still taking place."

Out in May, Jabbour's latest novel, Sim Fi Al Hawa, is a nostalgic tale about a Beirut once glittering and now lost.

Updated: July 24th 2021, 4:19 PM
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