Chased away

Chased away

Publication Date: 2010

Publisher: Dar an-nahar

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 257

Charid al-manazel

Born to a modest Muslim family of Tripoli, Lebanon, in the early sixties, Nizam Al Aalmi, couldn’t suspect that the unconditional love that an old and rich Christian couple had for him would change the course of his life. When the civil war broke in Beirut in 1975, the handsome 20 year old man found himself in an impossible situation. An ordinary man, enjoying his youth and the wonders of a busy city, he did not have a cause, nor did he wish to fight. Born a Muslim, brought up a Christian, and finally baptized at the age of 17, he didn’t naturally belong to any side. Trapped in the growing madness of the civil war, this poetic character is destined to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He ends up losing his life at the hands of a Muslim militia, convinced that he was a Christian.

Douaihy’s sense of irony strikes the reader once again. Nizam’s loss of his life is the simple result of a series of unrelated events, circumstances and coincidences. ‘But isn’t that just what life is?’ Douaihy seems to say. In this novel, irony is also defined by the contrast between the light heartedness, dreams and illusions of the leftist revolutionary youth in the sixties, who are taken by surprise and completely unsettled by the crude, unimaginable and meaningless violence of civil war. A dramatic shift of weight structures the novel and splits it into two halves: before and after 1975.

Even a dead man Nizam is a disturbing puzzle: where to burry him? Following what rite? Deeper ones, barely disguised, underwrite these pragmatic questions: Who is Nizam? Is he a Muslim young man? A Christian? This apparently simple question cannot in this case be easily answered. Can it ever? What does it mean to be a Muslim? A Christian? One of the author’s recurrent themes, cultural and personal identity, here, once again, leads the story and is developed through Nizam’s tragedy, with the help of half a dozen of characters, friends, family and lovers. Olga, the young attractive and extravagant Russian landlord; Yusra, the passionate activist and violent mistress; Jinan, the true love, fragile and hopeless; Vasco, the Christian bourgeois, leftist at heart, stuck on his wheel chair; Maysaloun, the loving and caring older sister; Khaled, the religious and intolerant younger brother; Raffoul, the miserable hotel owner. All ordinary people living an ordinary life, to which the reader identifies so easily, that the possibility of such violence and injustice seems even more unbelievable.

Chased away was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, 2012).

By Paula Haydar

Nizam went with Olga to Jounieh Saturday morning in her red and white Mini Cooper. She’d barely finished introducing him when her mother launched her assault.

“You just can’t get your fill of handsome young men, can you, Olga?” she shouted, having grown very hard of hearing.

Olga responded full force despite her mother’s age.

“Like mother like daughter!”

Olga could see that her mother was in good health. She’d claimed she was dying so Olga would come see her. She preferred not to stay overnight at her mother’s because they would spend the time quarreling over every little thing.

Her mother invited them to stay for lunch but apologized for having to leave for an hour to go to Mass.

They decided not to wait for her and headed back to Beirut. The streets at that time of morning were jam-packed with pedestrians and cars, so Nizam signaled for her to take the coastal road toward the port. That’s when they suddenly found themselves stuck at a makeshift checkpoint.

Up to that time, Nizam had never shown his ID to anyone, except the police sergeant who’d barged in on them at the apartment in al-Manara. Touma had procured the ID for him from the Sérail in Tripoli. Touma was always telling the story, in front of his friends, claiming it was the Civil Registry Officer who entered all the personal data information into the application, based on what Touma told him in Nizam’s absence, but Nizam’s ID didn’t reflect what he’d said. Touma also tried to get the employee to leave the part about religious affiliation blank, but he insisted on following the rules. And so Touma resorted to erasing the phrase “Sunni Muslim,” which the registrar had entered under “Religion,” himself. Nizam remembered seeing the phrase on his ID at one time, but then noticed it was gone, with some evidence of tearing where the paper had been rubbed with an eraser. Nizam had passed through numerous armed checkpoints before, and every time it was the same. The soldier or policeman or armed militia man who was in charge of checking the IDs of all the car passengers, waiting for him to signal and peer through the window at each one’s face, would get to Nizam, take a quick glance, and look away. Generally speaking, the guards at checkpoints were comfortable with Nizam’s appearance. None of them ever asked to see his ID.

The gunman who now had his ID wasn’t looking at people’s faces. He was looking all about, preoccupied and nervous about what was going on around him, worried there might be some threat to his own safety. No actual checkpoint had been set up. Gunmen appeared from side streets or nearby buildings and pounced on the cars. Just like that, the place was suddenly swarming with them. They were dressed in civilian clothes with belts of ammunition strapped around their waists, some with hand grenades or revolvers, too, in addition to automatic rifles. They spread out. Some performed patrol while others pounded on cars signaling the drivers to stop.

“IDs. Quickly!” the gunman shouted at the passengers, without looking at them.

The young man who’d given them the order was agitated, flustered, afraid. He frightened them. Olga winked at Nizam and handed the young gunman her ID. He glanced at it, then leaned in to get a good look at its owner. The car was low to the ground, and he was tall. It was hot, and Olga was wearing a lightweight dress that showed her shoulders and a bit of her back and chest. His stare lingered. Then he glanced over at Nizam. He liked Olga. All men liked Olga.

Nizam felt that older men did not see him as a barrier when they were hitting on Olga. He appeared small and nice and was most likely a relative, worst-case scenario. He did not provide her with sufficient protection in the face of those with sudden desires. Their hungry eyes gobbled her up while flitting past him in contrast, merely to ascertain what his relation to her might be.

Cars were lining up behind them. He returned her ID, bidding her farewell with a piercing stare. He was about to wave her along when he remembered Nizam.

“You. Give me your ID.”

He started looking around again, troubled. He was quick to lose his patience.

Feltrinelli, Italy, Italian, 2012

Sindbad, Actes Sud, France, French, 2013

Seagull, India, English, 2022

Chased away