Brilliant and Elusive: the Talented Lebanese Author Rabee Jaber
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Say, for the sake of argument, that we all make it to the year 2047. In this year, there are two distinct possibilities: First, that Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber will win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and second, that the literary establishment will have entirely forgotten who he is.
This year, with a gorgeous translation, Jaber’s talent has begun to gain recognition in English.
This is particularly evidenced in the PEN writing group’s two translation-prize shortlists for 2017. One represents the East Coast (PEN America), and their six-book translation shortlist came out in January, and one represents the West (PEN USA), and their four-book shortlist arrived in August. Only one book appeared on both shortlists, charming both groups of judges. It was Rabee Jaber’s Confessions, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
A slim, gorgeous novel about the nature of human identity, Confessions is a dizzying, minutely detailed blend of destruction and creation, set between the maelstrom of the Lebanese Civil War and the complicated peace that followed. It’s narrated by a man who was adopted by his parents’ killers and raised as their son.
Confessions appeared in Arabic in 2008, on the heels of Jaber’s ambitious trilogy about the evolution of his hometown—Beirut, City of the World—and before his acclaimed historical novel America, which has since appeared in French and Italian.
Only a handful of Jaber’s novels have made it into translation, and he hasn’t yet been translated into the Nobel judges’ native Swedish. But his avalanche of work about the nature of identity, violence, and reality has turned him into both a force and an enigma in Arabic.
Born in Beirut in 1972, Jaber’s first novel was published when he was twenty, while he was a physics student at the American University of Beirut. That novel, Master of Darkness, won a Critics’ Choice Prize. Between 1995 and 2011, Jaber, who is a voracious reader as well as a prolific author, could hardly stop writing. He published almost a novel a year.
Then, in 2011, the reclusive author stopped publishing. Recently, he missed out on an opportunity to be published in Swedish.
Thus, our two scenarios for 2047. In one, Rabee Jaber wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, and—like Naguib Mahfouz—sends someone to collect the award on his behalf. In the second, Jaber is largely forgotten by the 2047 literary establishment, remaining a cult favorite who lives entirely underground and refuses to publish. Perhaps his fans, myself included, comb Beirut searching for the entrance to his lair.
Awards and their effects
Celebrated in Beirut from the time of his first novel, it wasn’t long before Jaber was recognized on an international stage. In 2009, Jaber was chosen as one of the Hay Festival’s “Beirut 39,” a group of 39 of the “most promising Arab writers under 40.” A translated excerpt from his novel America was included in the collection Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World.
Since then, three of Jaber’s novels have been honored by the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). His America was shortlisted in 2010; his Druze of Belgrade won the prize in 2012; and his Lebanese Civil War epic, Birds of Holiday Inn, was longlisted in 2013. The French edition of Druze of Belgrade, translated by Simon Corthay and Charlotte Woillez, was also shortlisted for the 2015 Prix de la Littérature Arabe.
But Jaber hasn’t had an easy relationship with his success. The year he won an IPAF, Jaber left the press conference midway, waiting until journalists had cleared the building before he emerged and went back to his hotel. Jaber is famously difficult to pin down for an interview, and recently parted ways with his Paris-based literary agency.
The dual lives of The Mehlis Report and Berytus: une ville sous terre
In addition to Confessions, Jaber has had one other novel reach English. His The Mehlis Report, also translated by Kareem James Abu Zeid, was published in 2013 to surprisingly little fanfare.
This strange and wonderful novel appeared in Arabic in 2006. It must have been written in a fury, as it’s set in 2005, just before the release of the titular “Mehlis Report.” The United Nations report-writing team, led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, was charged with revealing the names of those responsible for the February 2005 bombing of then Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s motorcade.
Jaber, meanwhile, charges himself with a different task: revealing the city of Beirut in 2005. To do this, the novel looks both at the world of the living and that of the dead, through the lens of a forty-year-old architect and his dead sister, who sometimes phones him, unsuccessfully, from the underworld.
Jaber’s wonderfully strange Berytus was also written in that productive 2005. It, too, is a blend of the fantastical and the political, set in an underground city that those above the surface have never seen. But instead of a city of the dead, this is another, mirroring city of the living, similar to and very different from the visible Beirut.
History and identity in Les Druzes de Belgrade and Amerika
In addition to his Berytus, also translated by Corthay and Woillez, Jaber has two other books available in French. These are his two big, IPAF-recognized historical novels: The Druze of Belgrade and America.
Like his fantastical works, Jaber’s realistic work also examines the weird, terrible, transformative, and possibly redemptive aspects of humanity. The Druze of Belgrade follows in the wake of the 1860 civil war on Mt. Lebanon, after which some of the Druze fighters—and one Christian—are forced into exile. America shadows the Syrians who left home in the early twentieth century and traveled to America.
Jaber’s final work, before his hiatus, is also a historical novel. Set during the opening year of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, when Jaber was a preschooler, the novel gives a minute, oddly compelling picture of life during the war. Although the whole work is not available in translation, there is an excerpt online, translated by Ghenwa Hayek, as well as an excerpt of the original Arabic.
Five in translation for Jaberophiles and the Jaberocurious:
Confessions – If you’re interested in a literary murder-mystery about the invisible ghosts of the past that lie sneakily beneath the present, this is the book for you.
The Mehlis Report – Another surreal murder mystery that combines historical detail about the killing of Rafic Hariri and a fantastical depiction of the rat- and book-filled underworld beneath Beirut.
Amerika – (In French) This book, shortlisted for the IPAF, follows the Syrian Marta, who travels to New York in search of her husband at the turn of the twentieth century. For those who don’t read French, there is an excerpt in the Beirut39 anthology.
Les Druzes de Belgrade – (In French) This book, which won the IPAF, begins—like many of Jaber’s books, with “mistaken” identity. Hanna Yacoub, an egg seller sitting at the port, is seized and exiled along with Druze fighters who participated in the 1860 Lebanese civil war.
Berythus: une ville sous terre – (In French) This is a fantastical travel tale, told by a security guard who fell down a hole, about the Beirut that exists beneath the above-ground Beirut we see.