Dar al-saqi , Lebanon , Beirut , 2014, 160 pages
The so-called American district is, ironically, at the heart of the Bab al-Tebbeneh neighborhood, a cradle for Salafism in Lebanon. It is from Bab al-Tebbeneh, in the Northern city of Tripoli, that many jihadis are recruited and sent to Iraq to fight the Americans and their allies.
Ismail is one of these men. Son of Intisar and Bilal Mohsen, Ismail was a dreamy boy, and a rebellious teen-ager, before turning into a conservative religious young man. Thirsty for recognition, Ismail accepts the mission set forth by the Islamic association “Al hadaya”, and embarks on a journey through the Syrian desert into Iraq, where he is to blow himself up in a bus.
Intisar, his mother, suspects something terrible has happened to her son when he goes missing. Powerless, and a mother of three other children, all crammed up in a house they share with another family, her only salvation, she believes, can come from Al Azzam. Intisar, as her mother before her, works for this powerful and rich family of Tripoli as a cleaning lady.
All that remains from Al Azzam’s past glory, is a beautiful Ottoman house, and a solid reputation. Abdel Karim, the only son, heir to the house, recently moved back from France. To the traditional home he now inhabits alone, Abdel Karim brings his forever lost lover’s large photograph, some of her ballerina’s attires, her Bonzai trees, and his passion for classical music and wine. Lonely and heart broken, Abdel Karim was occasionally one of Intisar’s playmates as a child. Between ‘master’ and ‘servant’, lies a complex trustful relationship woven in tradition and historical ties.
Abdel Karim met Ismail before. They even spent one memorable evening together. Ismail had probably never felt so close to anyone in his adult life. But that was before he went to Iraq, before he had disappeared from the American district, and worried his mother sick.
Soon, the film Ismail had recorded prior to his suicide mission is broadcasted, and he is praised by all in the American district as a hero. His portrait is printed on large banners and hung around the neighborhood. Finally, Ismail gets the recognition he had longed for…
But Ismail is not dead. While on the targeted bus in Iraq, he changes his mind at the last minute. Instead of blowing himself up, he leaves the bus and decides to go back home.
Ismail didn’t expect to see his portrait on banners praising his martyrdom. Scared and trapped, he goes to Abdel Karim. Meanwhile, the city and its security apparatus have closed in on him. There doesn’t seem to be a way out.
The story is told from a distance. The author depicts with great care the different faces of the city of Tripoli, and moves the different characters as pawns on a chess board. The social mechanisms that may lead one dreamy young boy to Djihad, or to his possible end, unfold before the reader.
Of all of Jabbour Douaihy’s novels, American district is probably the one in which sarcasm is most structural. In this novel, irony is not just in the words, or in the situations, it is in the fate of the protagonist.
As in Rose fountain motel, Douaihy counterbalances cruelty with tenderness. Ismail is not a hero, and despite his evolving in an undesirable way, despite his occasional despicable intolerance, the reader is unexpectedly moved by this character.
RAYA has world rights to this title.