Poison in the air

Poison in the air

Publication Date: 2021

Publisher: Dar al saqi, Beirut

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 208

Summon fi al hawa'

Narrated in the first person, Jabbour Douaihy’s last novel reads like a long letter going over the narrator’s life, from childhood to death. We meet him in a small Christian town, where civil violence erupts, and he smells “the poison in the air” for the first time. He then moves with his family to a popular (sunni) neighborhood of Beirut, an only child with his parents, and his old aunt, only to be compelled a few years later to flee yet again in the context of a now more generalized civil war.

His impoverished family, his unemployed and unfaithful father, as well as the death of his dear aunt punctuate his life as a teen ager. Having decided to join the Fedaiyin (who defend the Palestinian cause) as a young adult, he discovers he is not made of the stuff of heroes. A student in literature, his appetite for reading makes him more knowledgeable than his teachers, and he loses interest, roaming the streets of the city instead of attending class. Then a teacher himself, a young (Shia) colleague piques his curiosity, and after several platonic walks in the city, he asks her to marry him. The disastrous marriage where he ends up beating his condescending wife, leads him to jail. A free man a few years later, the narrator who inherits a silent rifle from one of his only — recently deceased — friends, plays at shooting trucks in their tires from the room he rents in the top floors of a nearby building.

Soon tired of this pointless life, he retires in the mountain, where he rents another small room overlooking the city port. Though it is not named, the Covid-19 pandemic context is identifiable. A now old man, the narrator stays in, refuses to see anyone, and has his grocery delivered at the door. Until one day, he hears a deep explosion, accompanied by pink plumes over Beirut’s port. There ends the letter, as well as his life.

Following closely the evolution and transformation of Beirut, the rightly titled “Poison in the air” sometimes feels like a reflection on the end of a city as it was once known. As if the poison that was emitted decades ago, eventually got the best of Beirut, and of the narrator’s mind. Fast paced and with no interruption, the novel flows in the present tense. In light of its ending, the reader cannot escape the feeling of a note left by a man who decides to take his own life.

Somehow also a tribute to a disappeared way of life, Douaihy’s novel is in some parts tinted with nostalgia. The long passage describing his adolescent love during a summer in the Lebanese mountains, like the adventurous and glamorous life his aunt once had, or his extended stay at a Beirut hotel and his love affair with the owner’s wife, all add color and sweetness to a novel that follows the several stages of Beirut’s deterioration. 

As always, Jabbour Douaihy surprises us with yet a new writing style. The themes of colorful Lebanon, with its violence and contradictions remain close to his heart. Though sadness here takes over sarcasm, several moments in the book offers us the joy of his exquisite irony.

Coming soon

Sindbad, Actes Sud, France, French, 2024

Interlink, United States, English, 2023

Poison in the air