Remembering Hani al-Rahib: Death Ends Novelist's Portrayal of Arab World in Crisis

Mahmoud Saeed

Syrian novelist Hani al-Rahib, who died on February 6, 2000,  at the age of 61, used to call the novel an immunization against madness.  Certainly some creative people are so afflicted, while others obviously struggle to stave it off. Dostoevsky’s epileptic fits convinced some that he was insane, and even if Dostoevsky was not clinically insane, he lived in a continual crisis and suffered from depression; the novel was a mechanism of escape from these realities. Many agree that Ernest Hemingway feared madness, a fear he kept at bay through writing.

Rahib seems to have tamed madness by transforming it into an anxiety that can be controlled and that manifests itself in the form of continuous struggles and conflicts. Upon returning from Kuwait in the summer of 1998, Rahib filled his time by “spending long hours in the Damascene Rawda Café, playing chess, as if this small space had become the field of his last battle after he waged his literary battles and political debates over a 40-year period. He was not always a winner, for he paid a high price for the intellectually and politically inspired positions he had taken since the late 1960s,” wrote Khalil Swaylih in the London-based Al Wasat magazine.

Rahib lived a stormy life, marked with confrontations and challenges. He rebelled against and was expelled from the Union of Arab Writers as far back as 1969.  He was fired from his teaching position at Damascus University and demoted into a secondary school teaching position.  In 1995, Rahib was forced out of the Union of Arab Writers for a second time, for allegedly calling for tatbi (normalizing relations with Israel).  Most recently he was fired from the University of Kuwait on the grounds that he incited students to rebel, and to oppose the decadent values.

Rahib’s two major battles were forced upon him by misunderstandings: the alleged call for normalizing relations with Israel, and inciting student rebellion against the government of Kuwait. He did not support normalization but had called for dialogue with non-Zionist Israeli intellectuals, whom he thought could bring about a change from within Israeli society.  He believed that the Arabs cannot liberate Palestine. In an interview published in Al Wasat magazine last year, Rahib explained why he favored dialogue with the enemy. “If you talk with an enemy while ignorant you are bound to end in a submissive position; if you talk while armed with knowledge, you can overcome it.…”

As for the other misunderstanding which incited a student rebellion, Rahib had not singled out Kuwait’s leaders but rather lamented the conditions in the Arab world on the whole. Though Rahib emerged victorious from these two battles, he was weakened by his wounds.

Fame found him when he was barely 22, when he was recognized as one of the leading novelists in Syria, an assessment that was later expanded to the rest of the Arab world. His first novel, “The Defeated” (1961) won him a prestigious literary award from the Beirut-based Dar Al Adab, the publishing house that opened the door to some of the Arab world’s most prominent literary figures and intellectuals.

Highly acclaimed, “The Defeated” examined the prevalent political conditions in the Arab world in the early 1960s, portraying the state of confusion in which the Arab peoples lived. Their nationalist loyalties were unclear, a factor that led to the successive defeats by Israel.  Moreover, the Arab states betrayed their own nationalist interests and obligations.

The defeated Arab hero is a common character in Rahib’s novels as well as the works of other Arab novelists. Rahib chose the defeated hero very intentionally, for at that time literature had become the only safe outlet for criticizing the Arab regimes who were moving away from democratic reform and instead entrenching themselves more firmly in individual dictatorial systems. Some critics suggest that Rahib was haunted by the notion of defeat; he is reported to have said that the “defeat lies in us, and my novels are an attempt to document this struggle between the elements of the defeat and the opposite forces pushing to firmly establish and elevate our humanity.” Rahib emerged as an early pioneer in exposing the defeat of the nationalist model. His literary creativity expressed itself by producing a novel that spoke of the disorientation of an Arab generation and the loss of the Arab youth in the heyday of the Cold War, for which the Middle East was one of many battlefields.

Although “The Defeated” launched Rahib’s famed literary career, he wrote other important novels. His “One Thousand and Two Nights” (1977) profoundly portrayed the Arab defeat in 1967, analyzing its causes and uncovering them at the cultural rather than the military and economic levels.  The reference back to the famous Shahrazad is not coincidental, for he reportedly commented: “Our society is circular, reproducing itself and its relations according to incredible types.  It is a widely ruptured society, speaking the language of today while living the mentality of the past. The Arab world is still where Sharazad has left it in ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’”

If “The Defeated” marked the beginning of Rahib’s career and “One Thousand and Two Nights” the middle, then “Drawing a Line in the Sand” (1999) takes the featured place in the works completed just prior to his death.  “Drawing a Line in the Sand” attracted its share of controversy, including both harsh reviews and personal attacks on the author. Perhaps the most insightful comment about this novel came from Rahib himself, published in an interview in the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi: “The idea of writing this novel began with the War for Kuwait, of course. But the idea itself originated a while ago, because since its discovery, oil has had a great impact in Arab life. Writing something about this had become a necessity and an obsession, particularly after I saw Kuwaiti oil refineries go up in flames, an incident that was a symbol for all Arabs.”

The attacks on this novel were motivated by the novel’s autobiographical element, where Rahib reflects on his academic career and life in Kuwait, exposing corruption, decay, and backwardness at the intellectual, religious and social levels, especially among men.  Some Kuwaiti writers resented this assessment and retaliated by asking the government to ban “Drawing Line in the Sand.” The other reason for controversy was his critical examination of religion, sex, and politics, issues he elaborated on in his last interview, which appeared in the Cairo based Adab Wa Naqd. “Nothing new can be said on those three prohibitions in our Arab culture. As a people we suffer the most of all other peoples as a result of these prohibitions. Perhaps because of this continuous submission to them we became unable to raise our heads a little bit high and say no, or sing a new beginning.”  The truth in Rahib’s indictment of what the oil has done to the Arab world—to its culture and even its very existence—is inescapable.

His other works include “Rupture in a Long History” (1970), “The Epidemic” (1981), “One Country is the World” (1985), “Green as the Swamps” (1992), “Green as the Fields” (1993), and “Green as the Oceans” (1999). It is reported that he was working on three other novels, and perhaps even more, but death would wait no longer.

Rahib affiliated himself with various political and literary schools over the years, including existentialism, nationalism, socialism, and others. Regardless of his harsh criticism and exposition of flaws in Arab society, he always insisted that rationalism, secularism, democracy, and individual liberties are essential for the Arab world to escape its state of defeat and decay.

Rahib’s death is a great loss indeed, a loss that was truly felt by the Arab intellectual community. “The death of this courageous, multidimensional, and diligent man is the beginning of a new dialogue,” said Abd Rahman Munif, a prominent Arab novelist.  In Al Hayat, Mohammed Jamal Barout seems to suggest that Rahib was indeed an academic, but not in the conventional sense: “In his whole academic life, he did not write one work that would have qualified him for a promotion in his teaching career.” Despite Rahib’s unconventionality, Faysal Darraj, a Palestinian critic, still considers him “one  of the main pioneers of the Syrian novel.”

Translated and edited from the Arabic by Elie Chalala.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 31, Spring 2000.

Copyright © 2000 AL JADID MAGAZINE