More Than Just Words (iLoubnan, Nov. 12th, 2007)

November the 12th, 2007, by Jasmina Najjar, from iLoubnan.info

 

Welcome to the world of Rashid al-Daif. Entering this realm is challenging but extremely rewarding. Rashid al-Daif, was born in 1945 in the Northern Lebanese town of Zgharta. Although he has been writing since the age of twenty, it wasn’t until 1979 after a near death experience resulting from a car bomb blast that Al-Daif was provoked to concentrate on writing. Writing presented itself as the perfect outlet for him to relate his redefinition of the self and discover his identity which had been shattered. To date he has written eleven novels, three poetry books (which were reprinted in a single volume for the 2007 Arab Book Expo) and a short collection of stories. His latest novel Maabad Yanjah fi Baghdad or ‘Maabad Makes It In Baghdad’ (2005) is taken from an old book by Abul-Farag Al-Asfahani called “The Songs” which covers 25 volumes and 2 indexes about the singers and poets in Baghdad at the time of Haroun El Rashid. Having a setting in the distant past is not your usual Al-Daif though…our contemporary world and its concerns are his usual backdrop and grounds for exploration.

A university professor at the Lebanese University, Dr. Al-Daif is also a best-selling author in Lebanon and is popular in the rest of the Arab world. But his reach doesn’t stop here. He is attracting the world’s attention and is receiving international acclaim. His works have been translated into eight different European languages (English, French, German, Swedish, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Polish) and have been translated into Japanese.

Paula Haydar’s 2001 English translation of Al-Daif’s This Side of Innocence (1997) received “Foreword” magazine’s silver award (second place) for best work of fiction in translation. “Foreword” magazine specialises in “thought provoking and startling books” from independent publishers. Other works translated into English are Dear Mr. Kawabata (1995) by Paul Starkey in 1999 and Passage to Dusk (1986) by Nirvana Tanoukhi in 2001, while Learning English will be available at the end of May 2007. The most recent release in French was Fais Voir Tes Jambes Leila (Forget About The Car/Watch Your Legs Leila) in September 2006.

Al-Daif’s novels have even been brought to life on film and on stage due to their potent allure. Passage to Dusk has been adapted into a film by the Swiss director Simon Edelstein and Al-Daif’s first novel The Obstinate was transformed into film by the Lebanese director Bahij Hojeij who worked on his reading of this novel for ten years, adding aspects of Al-Daif’s other works such as Abu Ali, the superintendent from Passage to Dusk. Elie Karam turned Testefil Meryl Streep or ‘To Hell With Meryl Streep’ (2001) into a humorously captivating play which charmed the Lebanese audience. In May 2008 this play is set to fascinate a more international audience at the Rond-Point Champs Elyses in Paris, France.

Not only have the public fallen under Al-Daif’s spell but academics too. Several PhDs and MAs in America, France and England have been written about his works (including my own MA dissertation on identity in Al-Daif’s three novels translated into English), in addition to an array of essays published in specialised journals.

When interviewed Al-Daif reveals that he is a modest man of great subtlety. When asked why he thinks his work is being translated, he replies: “I don’t know for each book has a life of its own and its lifespan and path is unpredictable”. When asked which of his novels he prefers, he replies: “I have no preference…I just hope people will read my works”. Al-Daif believes that: “Literature is for pleasure and not just for entertainment that passes the time. It should be deep. And yet both the illiterate and the educated should find something relevant in it”. When questioned about how Arab literature in general is being greeted by the West, he comments: “It is slowing taking a place in the world with the pace speeding up at times…exposure is better than before but not as much as we would like because of a certain ‘resistance’. Resistance due to stereotypes, ignorance and the fact that we are ‘far away’ from their problems. Maybe Arab literature doesn’t answer the needs or expectations of Western readers…even though I don’t like to categorize the West as one entity as each country is different. Despite all this, the potential is there.”

Al-Daif’s work breaks the boundaries of genre, being ever illusive of classification. He is a unique voice merging Arabic and Western literary traditions, combining several contemporary writing trends to create his vision of a chaotic world flooded with people with fragmented identities. He is the eccentric, neurotic voice screaming in the wilderness, blurring timelines to depict the angst of the human psyche. His novels are almost plot-less interior monologues highlighting the dominance of subjectivity, written in a non-traditional style. He searches for answers that can’t be found (and possibly do not exist), for new tools to describe the ruptured world and new criteria upon which to build a definition of unified, complete identity.

Al-Daif uses the Lebanese Civil War as an apparatus to uncover human nature and identity. He touches upon how the West and Western media view the Lebanese (especially in Dear Mr. Kawabata), acknowledging the established stereotypes and the split between Us and Them/Us and the Other, taking this a step further, transforming the Other into your neighbour and even your own self. The self that is your enemy, trapping you with no escape, making suicide sweet because of the culmination of intense pain, disillusion and incoherence.

Al-Daif’s narrators are mostly called Rashid but should not be confused with the author because his works are not autobiographies. They are a potent cocktail of his and others’ lives merged with uneasy fantasy and nightmares. Each narrator is exploring the conscience of a nation through the search for his own identity and his representation of the collective ‘I’ that encompasses victim, oppressor, the guilty and the innocent, the kidnapper and kidnapped, the innate evil in man and the obscure enemy. Al-Daif captures the contemporary Lebanese experience and zeitgeist. In his world issues of victimisation, oppression, guilt, innocence, truth and identity are like Russian roulette, tricky and complex dilemmas that are high risk and ever changing like the revolving bullet chamber. The tension that permeates this realm is like staring straight into the barrel of a gun and not knowing whether the trigger will be pulled or not.

The main protagonists anxiously grapple with the chaotic world around them, feverishly trying to establish some form of control and understanding, but this is impossible. Everyone is injured and helpless due to the trauma of Lebanon’s civil war, political turmoil and their debris. The reverberations and repercussions torment the narrators’ psyches. But the turbulence is not over, it’s merely muffled. There are no hopeful rays of light. The silence is chilling and the unrest is unspeakably lurking in the shadows.

Al-Daif is currently working on a new novel. Who knows what journeys his new work will contain. A trip into the mind? Into confusion? Into disillusion? Into social commentary? Into subtle critique? Into humour…or nightmarish fantasy? We will have to wait and see. Meanwhile you can check out Al-Daif’s website: www.rachideldaif.com and your local bookshop. But please note that once you step into his world, there is no turning back…the experience is addictive and will leave a lasting impression.

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