The number of Lebanese writers featured in the International Prize for Arabic Fiction reveal the strength of contemporary Lebanese fiction. These contemporary writers inherit a rich literary history in Lebanon which belies the tumultuous recent history of the country.
Lebanon has suffered from a complex history of political, ethnic and religious division marked by fifteen years of bloody civil war from 1975-1990. The scars of this war and the fractured sense of national identity it engendered makes for a compelling national literature which often explores the displacement of the individual self and the splintering of memory. We look at Lebanon’s rich literary heritage and through four of its most successful writers.
As well as being a novelist, Najjar has worked as a literary critic and lawyer, something which undoubtedly influences the considered and poignant style of his own writing. The author of around thirty novels, Najjar often focuses his work on his childhood memories of growing up during the Lebanese War and the effect this had on his character. He deftly paints a picture that interweaves a humorously personal voice with the hard-hitting realities of modern Lebanon. In novels like The School of War, Najjar uses narrative elements from Lebanese folklore to comment upon the universality of war and the suffering it produces.
Lebanese-American writer Gibran is lauded for his work as a novelist, philosopher, poet and artist. He is most famous for the prose poem The Prophet which has been translated into 40 languages, making Gibran the third best selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. Often interpreted as a tale of Eastern mysticism, the poem is best described as a collection of essays which follow prophet Al Mustafa, as he regales a group of strangers with his musings on topics ranging from the domestic and worldly (childhood, eating and drinking, work, clothes etc) through to the philosophical and metaphysical (religion, beauty, death, self-knowledge etc). The Prophet gained cult status in 1960s America.
Working as director of Beirut magazine An-Nahar until 1975 when civil war forced him to move to Paris, Maalouf’s writing is informed by both the history and trauma of his native country, and the experience of exile. Many of his novels are set in historical periods of interest for the Middle East of today. For example, in Gardens of Light he returns to third century Mesopotamia and depicts the volatility of the Middle East as it was fought over by Romans, Persians, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians; in doing so he mirrors the situation of modern day Lebanon. The Guardian has praised Maalouf’s writing as ‘a voice which Europe cannot afford to ignore’.
Like Najjir, Khoury’s work (especially White Masks which was translated into English in 1981) revolves around semi-autobiographical accounts of growing up in war-torn Beirut. Unlike the nostalgic and touching memoirs of Najiir however, Khoury’s style is visceral and journalistic; he writes about the literal impact of the war as well as the effect it had on the citizens of Beirut and their state of mind. Belonging to the Fatah faction and himself a militant at one point, he ironically classes his move away from violence and into literature a ‘shifting of alliances’ akin to those which were going on around him in war-torn Beirut.