Despite his battle against leukemia, Jabbour Douaihy's death at age 72 on July 23 came suddenly, a surprise to even some of his acquaintances. Douaihy wrote several novels throughout his life, and though he never intended this role, critics and friends regarded him as the narrator of Lebanese life. He wrote about aspects of Lebanese life that history books could only dream of capturing, detailing Lebanon throughout its various historical moments to its current state of dystopian ruin and collapse, a world seen vividly in his last novel, "Poison in the Air.”
Born in 1949 in Zgharta, North Lebanon, Douaihy's ties to his hometown influenced his writing. He was deeply connected to the region's conflicts and knew of them firsthand, a perspective that lent great insight into many of his novels. Beyond place and historic events, he loved theater, acting in several plays and international movies, and he explored photography before becoming a novelist, later drawing upon the form in his writing. "Photography was Jabbour's ancient hobby," poet and academic Fawzi Yamin, his long-time friend and brother-in-law, said in an interview with Sawsan al-Abtah of Asharq Al-Awsat. He continued that Douaihy especially loved ancient pictures, collecting and archiving them and later referencing them in his novels.
Although known for his writing, Douaihy had only spent the last quarter of a century as a novelist and worked as a university professor before that. He graduated with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the New Sorbonne University. Later, he taught French literature at the Lebanese University in Tripoli while also working in French-language journalism for the Lebanese newspaper L'Orient Express, covering trending topics within the Arab-Franco literary communities. Though a capable writer in both French and Arabic, he wrote his novels in Arabic, finding that only the Arabic language was "open to the local spirit, the vernacular language, and its expressive store," according to poet Abduh Wazen in Independent Arabia.
Douaihy did not officially enter the world of creative writing until his 40s, with his first and only collection of short stories, "Death Among Parents' Drowsiness," published in 1990. In this collection he told the stories of rural people "who are imbued with historical identities from which they cannot escape." The stories revolved around the northern Christian community that he was very familiar with, according to the novelist Hilal Shoman, as cited by Muhammad Houjeiri in Al Modon. He published his first novel "Autumn Equinox" (1995), at 45, at "a mature age, which made his novelist work solid and well-established, far from the predicaments and problems of beginnings," according to Wazen. "Douaihy didn't regret that he started writing novels late because he was lucky he didn't have to regret what he wrote," said Yamin. Douaihy published several novels, including "Riya Al Nahr" (1998), "Ain Warda" ("Rose Fountain" 2002), "June Rain" (2006), "The Vagrant" (2011), "The American Quarter" (2014), "Printed in Beirut" (2018), "The King of India" (2019) and his latest "Poison in the Air" (June 2020).
Douaihy's novels hold a quality of complexity that gives them depth. They are not difficult to read, nor are they easy to read, according to Baha Aelie in Diffah, who explains, "Readers say that it is easy to read, as he does not resort to complex experimental methods that plunge the reader into countless labyrinths; but it is difficult to read because most of his works have taken history as their primary basis, and he does not want to represent Lebanese history in the stereotyped image that historians have been insisting on." Instead, Douaihy enters into the history of Lebanon from a marginalized perspective, mainly by analyzing the urban and rural Lebanese environments and reconstructing its cultural and social identities, according to Aelie. His most important secret is "his amazing ability to transform history into a lived reality."
Douaihy's novels were rich with Lebanese popular aspects of tradition and customs. He came from a generation that lived through the civil war, closely acquainted with its bitterness and the volatility of Lebanon's leaders. He had a close relationship to his roots and a sound awareness of history developed by his personal experience. He possessed "candor and wit on stage" as well as a "distinct sense of dark humor and a strong feeling of nostalgia," qualities evident in his novels, according to Lebanese actor and Dubai Drama Group member Hani Yakan, who moderated one of Douaihy's mentorship panels. In an interview, Fawzi Yamin shared one of Douaihy's quotes: "The place is the hero in a novel. Places are the basics, and the fate of the world revolves around them." The locations featured in his novels served as metaphors symbolizing the state of the country. Lebanon, which Douaihy loved and knew intimately, and "Lebanonization" — the division of Lebanon — remained at the heart of his novels.
Like others of his generation, Douaihy dreamed of justice and change, joining a leftist communist youth movement in Zgharta in the 1960s that supported the Palestinian struggle. As a university student in Beirut, he joined the Lebanese Communist Party — but like many other Marxists, the Lebanese Civil War and other developments in Lebanon shattered his dreams. "June Rain" (2006) evoked the horrors of the war by observing daily life in a Lebanese village, where revenge replaced the justice system. Douaihy regarded this novel as the most difficult he'd ever written, documenting the Miziara massacre of 1957, as cited by Houjeiri in Al Modon. The novel described a violent rivalry between two village clans after 24 people were killed in a church shooting. He linked the massacre to the phenomenon of identity loss among Lebanese immigrants who grew up in countries of exile.
"The American Quarter" (2014), set during the early stages of the Iraq War, glimpsed into the lives of a wealthy man, a housecleaner, and a terrorist living in one Tripoli neighborhood in Lebanon. "Printed in Beirut" (2016) summarized Lebanon's history through the printing press, complete with police drama and a cast of comical personalities. The story followed a man's discovery that the print house he works for is printing counterfeit bills. "The King of India" (2019) reconsidered the concept of Lebanese death within family and clan while exploring sectarian conflicts in towns and villages.
Douaihy considered characters in his later novels as primarily "shaped by the transformations of Lebanon during the 20th century, the most important of which are war, immigration, and social dynamics Lebanon witnessed in the city's affluence and urbanization of the countryside," according to Houjeiri in Al Modon. His last novel, "Poison in the Air" (2020), harshly reflected the Lebanon he saw today. Houjeiri notes Douaihy seemed to "return to himself and his private life" in this last novel, which he was keen to complete before his death.
In "Poison in the Air," Douaihy seemed to share the main character's voice and living situation, whose professional and intellectual paths resembled his own. Boutros is intellectual, rebellious, and striving for change, hoping to bring reform only to find that the conflicts around him are "far greater than him and his innocent desires," according to Sawsan al-Abtah. Boutros had moved from a village to Beirut to escape civil strife in the North. Still, he witnessed the political and social transformations that overtake the city during and after the civil war. He coordinates a leftist party during the war that fails and later struggles with issues of sectarianism and socially divided identities when he romantically pursues a Muslim colleague.
Douaihy received several awards, including the 2013 Arab Literature Prize from Paris' Arab World Institute for "The Vagrant" and the 2015 Said Akl Award for "The American Quarter." "June Rain," "The Vagrant," "The King of India," and "The American Quarter" received nominations for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), of which the first three were shortlisted and "The American Quarter" was long-listed.
Douaihy once said, "Awards are not bad, but what is bad is their worship." He did not concern himself with literary prizes, however. He believed that "awards did not invent good literature, but by those who write them, for the latter is nothing but a tribute to the work of the writer and his achievement," as cited by Baha Aelie in Diffah. Douaihy took part in many workshop panels hosted by these awards and was beloved by many emerging writers for his role as a mentor. He regularly mentored young creatives in the annual Nadwa (symposiums) by IPAF and gave tips to writers during the 2019 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Regrettably, the last sight of Lebanon Douaihy saw before his death was the same dystopian reality he depicted in his last novel "Poison in the Air." Even in the end, the book was almost autobiographical. Like the main character, Douaihy retreated into solitude in his final years, and as if taking one last breath of "poison," succumbed to his illness, still mourning the loss of his mother, who passed 10 months before at 100. In a painful irony, his death was followed just hours later by his good friend, Lebanese author, and publisher Fares Sassine, who believed the most essential character built by Douaihy was the character of JabbourDouaihy himself, according to Houjeiri. "He narrated Lebanese life, and in the end, narrated his own life."
Copyright © 2021 by Al Jadid
Copyright © 2021 by Al Jadid