By Youssef Rakha
Novelist, humorist, linguist, professor: Rashid Al-Daif is, in more ways than most critics are willing to recognise, the Arab world’s answer to Italo Calvino or Umberto Eco. That he is little translated and seldom discussed from a philosophical standpoint is rather an unfortunate contingency, partly explained by the fact that, following his effective secession from the Lebanese Communist Party in 1979, he has purposely upheld the notion of literature as, before all else, a sublime but accessible form of entertainment, gradually nurturing a kernel of loyal readership, and for the most part eschewing direct political engagement. He admires Abul-Farag Al-Asfahani, he says, because his characters, though in many cases famous personalities in their own right, are presented with none of the Platonic trappings of abstract thought: they show all the weaknesses and sudden strengths, the contradictions and complexities, of simple human beings. And this, Al-Daif insists, is what he tries to instill in his students at the Lebanese University: the love of literature as a sublime but ultimately enjoyable means to appreciating, not humanity, but one or more human beings.
Set in Abbasid Iraq, Al-Daif’s latest novel, Maabad Yanjah fi Baghdad (Maabad makes it in Baghdad, Riad Al-Rais 2005) was regarded by many as a veiled political comment on the American invasion. Yet, modelled on one of Al-Asfahani’s characters, the somewhat picaresque protagonist, as it turns out, has little if anything to do with the smooth operators, freedom fighters and religious extremists who have populated the Iraqi landscape since the American invasion. Al-Daif insists that the project of the novel started long before the occupation of Baghdad. And much of the political thought Maabad embodies arises organically out of the more universal questions of race, class, gender and political power vs creative genius that he raises — issues that have dogged Arab society through the ages irrespective of Western influence. Such would be Al-Daif’s approach to the Lebanese civil war, too, notably in Taqniat Al-Bo’s (Misery Techniques, Dar Mukhtarat 1989): an everyday human being suffering the all-too-human horrors of daily killing and absurdly organised, endless conflict — “how a human being was reduced to a set of biological, animal needs” — and doing so with remarkable frankness, individual compassion and, notably, humour.
Is humour a necessary defence mechanism, a way of shielding oneself against the madness? At the psychological level, is it a release? Al-Daif seldom nods in response to a question, evidencing a refusal to reduce reality into the yes-or-no dichotomies so prevalent among Arab intellectuals. At City Café, adjoining the Lebanese American University Campus, rather, he will pick a word or phrase and expand on it, illuminating the issue raised by the question. “Effectively,” he says now, his fingers lightly tapping the table, “particularly with regard to novels, I started writing during the war. No doubt it was an essential drive. The war is no joke. It was a huge thing, an overwhelming thing.” Was he directly involved, as a fighter? Being a member of the party, Al-Daif explains, he would perform all that the party asked of him: propaganda, smuggling, armed conflict, yes. “But within two years of the war I was wholly disillusioned.” As one of eight siblings in the northern town of Zgharta, whose 10-member family lived in a single room on his father’s “very small income”, he had practised writing since his early teens, and under the influence of the free verse movement, published a number of poems. But class awareness quickly gave way to the urge to engage politically, and on joining the Marxist struggle — “we had believed, with implicit conviction, that we held reality in our hands, that we knew the direction of history, and that as agents of the struggle we were but speeding up the inevitable” — Al-Daif felt that writing was less of a priority than a myriad other practises pertaining to “understanding and changing the world”. He felt it was necessary to spread awareness of science and rational thinking, for example — his prerogative as, already in 1975, a professor of modern Arabic literature. Yet within two years of its outbreak, the war had demonstrated that “we were but horsemen of words”. Even now, Al-Daif continues to uphold Marxist convictions at some level, but through party activity in the war his nascent philosophy of engagement had been dealt a terminal blow: “I’ve since been ruminating that failure.”
As Al-Daif noted that “people were completely mad” — the war, he insists, was so chaotic and absurd, so devoid of any semblance of logic, no “analytical system” was capable of explaining it — disillusion took on, among other forms, a turning away from science, from research, and the adoption of writing as “the only means to performing that delirious reality”. Literature alone could make sense of “the killing virus that had spread among people with astonishing speed”. Here as elsewhere — with regard to current developments in the Lebanese political sphere, for example — Al-Daif insists that religion was never an option. He envisages a Lebanon, indeed a contemporary Arab world, “freed from the darkness of religion”; and with the fall of the Marxist grand narrative as a means to making sense of the world, “I entered wholly into writing”. It was not a question of replacing rational thought with creative practise. Rather, the need to understand receded in the face of “the need to scream”, And to this day, Al-Daif says, understanding is impossible. Why, he asks, did the war stop in Lebanon? “It just stopped. You could come up with as many political science theories as you will, you could point to the events that ended it: Al-Taif etc. The truth remains that it could just as well have gone on. The reasons remain but the literature of the historians.”
His novels kept appearing, one after the other, accompanied by collections of poetry until well into the 1990s, when he started producing them at an even faster pace, paying less and less attention to verse. In Azizi Al-Sayed Kawabata (Dear Mr Kawabata, Dar Mukhtarat 1995), translated into eight languages, Al-Daif addressed the 1968 Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata: “And now my kind request to you, Mr Kawabata, is to forget everything and pay attention only to what I will say… Something in me hurts me that’s metres or miles or generations away from me… My problem, then, is summarised in knowing the place and time of my hurt. Where and when could this pain be? Whence does it emanate? From the past or from the future? Or from the two of them as they run towards the present (the past, Mr Kawabata, runs towards the present, and so does the future; the present is the future of all time and its past)…” Perhaps the most directly autobiographical of his works, the novel typifies Al-Daif’s off-beat titles, his humorous sense of tragedy and intense individualism, the protagonist’s state of mind (even in conditions of peace) verging on insanity. Like much contemporary literature, but in a more approachable way than most, the narrative framework within which the novel progresses is ultimately less significant than the language, the ideas and the feelings it contains, and their complex mode of expression. Al-Daif insists that his language, however similar it can sound to the spoken Arabic of Beirut, remains “perfectly correct”; his makes an effort, rather, to “reach the simple statement, free of the trappings of rhetoric”. And his insistence on correct Arabic is not so much an ideological standpoint as a pragmatic one: he wants the access to the entire Arab world that fosha (standard Arabic) affords him; and he feels that amiya (vernacular) prose is an extremely difficult medium, perhaps best practised by composer, song- and stage play-writer Ziyad Rahbani, he says. “I must write my own style, my own statement, which is concerned with the zero-degree of rhetoric — which is a form of rhetoric.”
Though not his academic specialisation, the “prose heritage of the Arabs” is something to which he has paid close attention for the last 20 years. It is something, he insists, that shows in his books, if less obviously, on the whole, than in Maabad Yanjah fi Baghdad : half of his penultimate novel, for example, Insa Al-Sayara (Forget the Car, Riyad Al-Rais 2002) — with the Qais of the novel bearing similarities to the Qais of the canon — is “taken from heritage but modernised”. So too with Testefil Meryl Streep (To hell with Meryl Streep, Riad Al-Rais 2001): “It contains whole passages taken out of canonical books, but similarly treated.” In Maabad, specifically, Al-Daif insists, the important thing is “the breath”: “I mean, I dealt with the characters of Maabad Yanjah fi Baghdad in the way that Al-Asfahani dealt with the characters in his book Al-Aghani. He deals with his characters in a gorgeous way: he does not burden them with any metaphysical tasks, national or religious concerns — nothing of the kind. He deals with them simply insofar as they are human: so you might have a serious character, someone so respected he is almost revered, and you find Al-Asfahani describing how he eats a lot, for example, making fun of the resulting appearance. I really loved that breath, and I always wanted to produce that kind of writing, because my characters are in crisis, as you will notice, especially those in the books produced at the screaming stage…” In his last endeavour, the result of an exchange project named Diwan East West organised by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, he describes the chance encounter of the 39-year-old, gay German writer he accompanied in Beirut with a German woman whom he made pregnant there: it was that writer’s first encounter with a woman in 20 years, and they decided to have the child — something that his older gay partner, back in Germany, finally accepted: “I called it, ’The German comes back to his senses’, it was translated into German and he was happy with it, even if a little shocked.”
Al-Daif impatiently awaits the German writer’s response, to be written in the form of a novel about his Lebanese counterpart.