Booker Winner Review: Rabee Jaber's dive into the history of Lebanese identity

Sayed Mahmoud, Monday 2 Apr 2012

Lebanese Rabee Jaber in The Druze of Belgrade writes on a Christian man just after the 1860 massacres between Druze and Christians with the aid of his signature, vivid reconstruction of history

Rabee Jaber while receiving the IPAF award
Rabee Jaber while receiving the IPAF award in Abu Dhabi last week

The first positive responses over the awarding of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF or the Arabic Booker) to Rabee Jaber for his novel, The Druze of Belgrade, reflects   the critics' respect for his literary achievement – a feat in Arabic contemporary literature.

The writer, who has just entered his forties this year, wrote 18 novels, most of them received with exceptional praise from critics and readership and some becoming top sellers.

Rabee Jaber was born on 1972 in Lebanon, received his primary education before finding himself a physics student at the American University in Beirut. In 1992, when he was 20, he published his first novel Sayed Al-Atma (Master of Darkness), which earned him Al-Naqid magazine prize. Three years later he released his second novel, Shay Aswad (Black Tea), the novel that carried many of his key ideas that he developed in his later works.

In 1996 Rabee, published his third novel, Al-Farasha Azzarqaa (The Blue Butterfly), under the pseudonym Naour Khater, which was later published in Egypt.

Working as a professional journalist, chief editor of the literary supplement of the prestigious Al-Hayat Newspaper, Afaq, for 10 years, Jaber was never under the spotlight. He isolated himself from the media and totally devoted his life to his literary projects, to the extent that he’s described in his country as the "Lone Writer." His life is marked with a distancing from engaging in daily life struggles that might consume the writer’s time and energy.

Jaber built his literary work around the search for the causes of the Lebanese religious identity crisis as well as what leads the Lebanese to alienate themselves.

Anyone following Jaber’s career is aware that he bases all his ideas on historical facts, even when treating current events. A prime example is his trilogy Beirut, Beirut the World’s City and Biatris.. A City Underground.

Because his daring formulation of the history of the Lebanese identity crisis was not totally free from journalistic rummaging into real life, Jaber's works received some heavy criticism. However, the writer printed the disclaimer in his novels: "The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental."

The author attempts to use novelistic writing as a tool to question reality and reconstruct the "truth." The author presents history built on facts, but reconsiders, imaginatively, the history that is taken for granted as a given. This bold reconsideration of history couldn’t be done without the daring imagination that invents new realities and characters to restore and fill in gaps in history, thus, vividly recreating it. As the Palestinian critic, Faisal Darrag, writes about Jaber: "The history in Jaber’s works isn’t but a tale, the past is a vast time space where the human being quests for the pleasure of narrations."

Therein lies the defect, however. Some critics see that while his novels are perfectly narrated, they lead to nothing. Critic Moahmmed Badawy believes that Jaber lacks a vision of the world, compared to the Egyptian Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz.

What’s certain about Jaber’s works as a careful reading proves, is that Jaber began his career as a mature novelist, who was clear from the his very beginnings. He uses a simple, beautiful, yet shocking language that directly goes to the heart of the readers.

This may be the reason behind the great IPAF winning this year, though some see that his novel isn’t as good as his previous novel, America, which made it to the IPAF shortlist last year, but didn’t win.

The Druze of Belgrade, draws from the history of the writer’s birthplace. He tells the story of the Druze who were exiled from Lebanon by the Sultan after the massacres that took place in 1860 between Christians and Druze. The novels opens when a Christian man, Hanna Jacobs, is captured along with the exiled Druze in a case of mistaken identity.

Jaber draws a dramatic scene of the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the European powers during the 19th century. But the most important thing about the novel is that it’s based on the History from Below, as it adopts the voice of its marginalised character, Hanna Jacobs, who became a tragic hero.

In this novel, Jaber moves his events from Lebanon "the Place" to Lebanon "the Question," as the events take place in foreign lands (the Balkan), but Lebanon is still at the heart of the novel through the question that the Lebanese carry in their hearts about their identity.

All the characters of the novel are living in a life – or space  – crisis. As with his previous novel, Jaber throws Hanna Jacob into exile: planting him in a land that’s not his and fighting a destiny that was not meant for him, reflecting the fragility of the human condition amid the construction of reality.

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