Writing to Combat Memory Loss

Despite his literary transformation, the Lebanese writer Raschid al-Daif can still see the horrors of his country's civil war clearly in his mind's eye. Katja Brinkmann reports on the life and work of this author

Despite his literary transformation, the Lebanese writer Rashid al-Daif can still see the horrors of his country's civil war clearly in his mind's eye. Katja Brinkmann reports on the life and work of this author

photo: Larissa Bender
Rashid Al-Daif

​​The date is 22 January 1979. The place is West-Beirut, Lebanon. Civil war has been raging here for four years and Palestinian militia now control the western part of the city. On this day, Rashid al-Daif drives to the Lebanese University and gives a lecture. Afterwards, he drives home after being held up briefly by a student. He is almost home when a massive explosion rocks the entire city.

Al-Daif abandons his car, runs through the scene of devastation in front of the building in which he lives, and climbs the stairs to his flat. There is glass everywhere. The front door of the flat is hanging off its hinges; he kicks it down. Even inside, the floor is covered in shards. Ambulances and the militia pull up outside the building. A remote-controlled bomb hidden in a yellow Golf was detonated as Ali Hassan Salameh drove past in a convoy.

Salameh was one of the Palestinians responsible for taking Israeli athletes hostage at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He managed to survive the carnage at the end of it. A short time later, he was released from prison in conjunction with the hijacking of a Lufthansa airplane. The Israeli secret service was probably behind the explosion in Beirut which killed ten people and injured countless others.

Everyone fighting everyone else

"I remember noticing the car that morning. I drove around it and looked inside. They could have detonated the bomb at any time. The events of 22 January 1979 were the straw that broke the camel's back. Back then we were communists."

But the war wasn't about the poor fighting the rich; it was a case of the rich and the poor fighting the poor and the rich. "Palestinians were fighting each other while Syrians were fighting with Palestinians against Christians, and then with Christians against Palestinians. Then you had the Christians fighting amongst themselves and against the Druses; everyone together and everyone against each other. Who was supposed to make head or tail of that?" It may be almost cynical, but it's true: "At the end of the day, we laughed about those who tried to analyse the situation."

What happened simply defied analysis. "The only thing I could do was to try and describe reality. Literature is a great way of talking about what is happening," says al-Daif. Writing became increasingly important. "Writing was a way of escaping the dreadfulness of the war. You never know why something happens. Things just happen. And I write about that. I write about people who exist."

Writing in the shadow of death

Between 1983 and 1992, three volumes of poetry, a children's book and five novels were published. Large parts of Beirut were destroyed by Israeli bomb attacks. Al-Daif himself sustained serious injuries in a grenade attack. In the novel Passage to Dusk, the first-person narrator describes an experience of death:

"Six men. I can't remember anything. I died instantly. They killed me because they were afraid of me. Definitely. They were afraid of me, so they killed me. 'He's dead!' That's what they said. Then they packed me in a plastic sack and brought me to the next militia post... But my parents didn't want to believe that the corpse was me." Al-Daif's descriptions are brutal, detailed and highly subjective. This novel is considered one of the most sublime literary commentaries on the Lebanese civil war.

A sort of literary process of coming to terms with the past

In 1991, after the end of the war, al-Daif returns to his old flat. From that point on, his impression of events no longer influences what he writes. The street where he lives is given a new name and a general amnesty is declared. In 1995, al-Daif reacts to the state-decreed memory loss with a fictive letter/novel to the Japanese Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. "I chose Kawabata because he was dead. He committed suicide in 1972. He was attracted by nothingness. And because he was neither from the West nor the Middle East."

It was with the novel Dear Mr Kawabata, the only one of his novels for which an excellent German translation exists, that al-Daif made his international breakthrough in 1995. The letter-writing Rashid recounts highly personal events in his life to the Japanese recipient of his letter: the arrival of the modern age in his small Maronite/Christian village in northern Lebanon (in the form of Galileo's vision of the world in a geography lesson or radio transmissions about Gagarin's orbit of the earth), the consequences of the inhabitants' tribal feuds, and his time as a student in Beirut during the war – three people living in a four-bed room – until the time he was injured.

Since then, al-Daif has written four other novels that illustrate the tension between the traditional and the modern in contemporary Lebanese society. In Learning English, the reader is drawn into the inner monologue of a Beirut professor of literature, who is convinced of the need to pursue a vendetta for his father, only to be told by his mother, who is illiterate, about the recent existence of courts.

In search of openness and understanding

His novel To Hell with Meryl Streep is about an arranged marriage between a women who is influenced by the Rashid al-Daif was born in Ehden, close to Beirut, in 1945 and is now a lecturer in Arabic Literature at the Lebanese University in Beirut.western vision of woman and a man who is the epitome of the oriental husband. Al-Daif has this to say about his humorous tale: "I now want to write simple novels. They should have depth and be amusing. I never write much, never more than about 150 pages. I spend a lot of time fine-tuning the texts with a view to making it possible for a reader in Vietnam to understand what I'm trying to say."

Al-Daif feels that once everything had been destroyed, the time had come to start with himself. "There was an inflation of martyrs in Lebanon during the war. I don't want to speak ill of them. But it is necessary to ask the dead questions about what happened. It is an impossible request, but the only solution. I call on people to be afraid. To be afraid means to respect humanity, to respect the individual and to respect life."

Katja Brinkmann

© Qantara.de 2004

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan