American Neighborhood

Hayy Al Amerkan
DOUAIHY Jabbour
Dar al-saqi, Beirut, Lebanon, 2014, 160 pages

Summary

Summary

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.

American Neighborhood was longlisted for The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, 2015).

Translation sample

Translation sample

Translated by Stéphanie Dujols

N’ayant pas trouvé de quoi se chausser pour se protéger du froid du carrelage, Abdel-Rahmân Bakri
est sorti pieds nus de sa chambre et s’est hâté vers les toilettes d’un pas brinquebalant –avec l’âge, ses besoins naturels matinaux se font de plus en plus impérieux. Mais subitement,cédant à la manie qui
s’est emparée de lui quand il a acheté ce large téléviseur couleur –manie dont sa femme pense que,
sans doute, seule la mort parviendra à lui ôter –, il s’est arrêté à mi-chemin entre la porte de la chambre et les toilettes, installées sous l’escalier menant à l’étage, et s’est mis à chercher la télécommande en se tournant dans tous les sens, tout en serrant de sa main gauche, à l’entrecuisse, son pantalon de pyjama
à rayures, signe que son envie devenait vraiment très pressante.
Abdel-Rahmân, surnommé “le Pendu” par allusion à quelque anecdote familiale oubliée, vit dans ce quartier dit “américain” en raison d’une école anglicane désaffectée dont, pendant des années, un bureau des redoutés “Renseignements de l’armée de l’air” a occupé les bâtiments à moitié croulants.
Le quartier surplombe le fleuve traversant la ville. Pour se rendre chez eux, les habitants n’ont d’autre choix que de gravir les multiples escaliers qui tracent sur la butte des sillons semblables à ces rigoles creusées par la fonte des neiges sur les pentes montagneuses. Ils s’entraident quand il faut transporter des meubles ou des malades, et ceux qui peuvent se le permettre louent les services d’un porteur pour remonter du marché aux légumes installé au pied de la colline. Le Pendu habite avec sa femme, plus âgée que lui, et leurs cinq enfants, une maison de grès qu’une famille marchande du souk aux Grains,
de condition plutôt aisée, a abandonnée il y a un demi-siècle – leurs enfants sont partis s’installer
à l’ouest, dans les quartiers huppés de la ville. On voit encore la trace d’une rose gravée dans un carré
de marbre au-dessus de la grande porte d’entrée en bois de résineux et quelques vestiges d’ornementations le long de la corniche du plafond, détails témoignant du triste état de la bâtisse,
mais aussi de la vie que le Quartier américain a pu connaître autrefois, avant d’être envahi par les pauvres des montagnes voisines, où la culture des abricotiers à joues rouges, ni d’aucun autre arbre fruitier, ne suffit plus à nourrir leurs familles. Faute de moyens, le Pendu a dû se contenter des deux chambres du rez-de-chaussée et du hall d’entrée, qui sert de pièce de vie dans la journée. Au milieu du hall, un escalier mène aux deux pièces de l’étage – escalier par où le colocataire, Bilâl Mohsen, entend monter par intermittence les hurlements que l’autre lance à la figure de sa femme et de ses enfants.

Rights

Rights

RAYA represents the author for the world rights of this title.

Check Jabbour Douaihy‘s page for the rights situation on this title.

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