Jabbour Douaihy’s The American Quarter is a strange and complex look into a Tripoli neighbourhood

In American Neighborhood, Lebanese writer Jabbour Douaihy narrates the intersection of three lives in an impoverished Tripoli district in northern Lebanon

Book cover of The American Quarter by Jabbour Douaihy; translated by Paula Haydar. Courtesy Interlink Publishing
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Jabbour Douaihy's The American Quarter is a surprisingly graceful tale of alienation, violence and human connection. The novel, ably translated by Paula Haydar, follows three very different characters adrift in the flotsam and confusion of life, who find a way to connect in one fleeting, transformative moment.

The novel, longlisted for the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), is a fresh experiment by one of Lebanon's most accomplished writers. It is set in Douaihy's native northern Lebanon, like his 2012 IPAF-shortlisted novel, Chased Away, and his 2008 IPAF-shortlisted June Rain.

This ballet-like novel, which takes place at the end of 2003, centres on Tripoli's impoverished Bab Al Tebbeneh district, the titular "American quarter". Tripoli has been branded Lebanon's "jihadi city", and one of the novel's characters does travel to Iraq, assigned to a suicide bombing. Yet, before this, we see this character's neighbourhood in rich detail, and the dense, fragmented social networks in Douaihy's stratified Tripoli feel not unlike Elena Ferrante's Naples.

The book's interlocking stories circle around three different characters. At the centre of the dance is Ismail, who has barely reached manhood in 2003. The other two are his mother, Intisar, and Abdelkarim, Intisar's employer.

The narrative often plunges forward and pulls back, throwing a needle into darkness, then tightening the thread by drawing back in time. Early in the novel, we hear about Ismail's disappearance. He is Intisar's eldest and she asks Abdelkarim for help in finding her son.

Abdelkarim, once "a highly envied and heavily protected child", visited Intisar's home as a child, when Intisar's mother was his family's housekeeper. He relished the candy apple she gave him, which Abdelkarim's mother scorned as a poverty sweet. Abdelkarim was then ferried out of the American neighbourhood in the back of the family's Jaguar, unhappy and alone.

Later, we find Abdelkarim in Paris, in love with a slender, Balzacian dancer who keeps bonsai trees. This section unfolds in romantic style, as when "nostalgia came over him like a wave hitting the sandy seashore, rendering it shiny and fragile". 

When his relationship collapses, Abdelkarim has little to connect him to Paris. He ends up back in Tripoli, in the family home.

Yet privileged, romantic Abdelkarim is not the only one who suffers existential loss. Impoverished Ismail, Intisar's son, spent his childhood living well, with his grandmother and maternal uncle. But fate intervenes when Ismail's grandmother dies and he is thrown back into his parents' tiny living space. His uncle stops paying for his schooling and Ismail goes to work for a baker who recruits him into the "Islamic Guidance Association".

Intisar, a middle-aged mother and housekeeper, also has lost her way. She was a young, adventurous teen when she fell for Ismail's father.

After that, her life became a disappointing stream of babies and housekeeping duties for Abdelkarim's family. She has no affection for her husband, whose only accomplishment was once shooting off a rocket-propelled grenade in an attack on a neighbouring district. She is caught in the swirl of daily details.

There is a graceful ordinariness to the book's stories, even when Ismail travels to Fallujah in an overheated truck with volunteers from far-flung places.

This, too, unfolds in unhurried prose, even when a recruit blows himself up in a horror of destruction that shatters a Kurdish family's wedding-day joy.

It is there, in Iraq, when Ismail must make his life's first real decision. Before this, he has been swept along by the desires of others but now he must choose whether to kill. Meanwhile, the American neighbourhood is watching events in Iraq where Saddam Hussein has been captured. The neighbours spot Ismail on TV and believe he was killed fighting United States forces.

After this, Ismail's identity as a martyr is sealed. When he sneaks back to Tripoli, he is dazed to find celebratory posters of himself adorning his neighbourhood's walls. Ismail has nowhere to turn but to his mother's employer.

This is when the three very different poles of the book intersect: Ismail, Abdelkarim and Intisar. They come together in a shared understanding, and find an improbable connection – a strange and magical climax to this Tripoli ballet.