This article is also available in: Italiano
A very pleasant interview with Pierre Jarawan, one of the most promising new names on the European scene and of the second generations, author of “There where cedars grow” published by the SEM publishing house, who also organized our chat. Photos by Emanuele Sosio
Interview with Pierre Jarawan
On Saturday 20 November 2021, on the occasion of the Milanese Bookcity, I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing Pierre Jarawan, author of “The Storyteller”, of “Song for a Missing” (to date unpublished in Italian) and in general one of the most promising new signatures on the European and second generation scene.
None of this would have been possible without the support and trust of the SEM publishing house, which immediately treated me splendidly, welcoming me as if we had always known each other, showing itself in every situation always available and proactive. I can only thank all the members from the bottom of my heart, they are one of the most beautiful and interesting editorial realities in Milan and I am pleased to tell you that all the photos of the interview were taken in their headquarters, a truly magical place that has contributed to making the interview even more beautiful.
Thanks also to Emanuele Sosio because with his shots he did justice to this place allowing you readers to immerse yourself in this wonderful atmosphere.
Coming to the interview: what you find below is actually only the translation, if you are interested in listening to the original (in English) just visit the podcast or the Medio Oriente e Dintorni Youtube channel. Everything will be released on November 26, 2021 at 07:45 in both formats, but the audio file of the interview itself will be the same, simply in the video you will find the introduction and the photos in this article. Attention: below you will find the translation of the interview from Italian and there may be some inaccuracies; if you want to discover the real original, listen to the podcast at the bottom of the interview. Enjoy the reading!
K: The first question I want to ask you is whether the story told in “The Storyteller” is more related to your past or to that of Kamil El-Hourani, a character mentioned in the thanks and who has the same surname as the protagonist. I ask this above all because I was particularly struck by the part in which it deals with depression for its depth and accuracy, so much so that I myself realized that I had lived a period of depression just by reading this book.
P: No, the work is fictional but you cannot invent anything without having come into contact with it. I read, listen to stories and try to write something new. It is not my biography and it is not that of Kamil El-Hourani, but I must say that it was really useful to me; all the part concerning the hotel, for example, is the result of Kamil’s direct experience during the war, but it is not an exact repetition and in the book I attribute it to his father. Of mine there are above all the feelings of Samir, the typical second generation boy. Questions like “Where is my home? Germany or Lebanon?” I personally believe that I am in the middle and I am sure that this feeling is typical of every 2nd generation boy, no matter where you come from, it is inevitable to try it.
K: But in the book you don’t really put just a way of seeing this aspect, because on the one hand there is Samir who considers himself Lebanese, but there is also Yasmine who instead has a completely different approach, so much so that she defines herself as German rather than Lebanese
P: Yes exactly, I really wanted to show this double way of understanding the relationship with the country of origin of one’s family, I also wanted to show this aspect and it is no coincidence that it is Yasmine, the strongest character of the couple who chooses to let go of the past and focus on the present.
K: Between the two characters by whom do you feel most represented in this respect?
P: I think I am both, but I also think I am because they are two visions that I have experienced over the years. As a young man I was definitely more like Samir, every year I wanted to go to Lebanon with my family and I thought it was a real paradise. However, things began to change with the assassination of Hariri and the war with Israel. There I said to myself “Ok, maybe it’s not really the paradise I had in mind, I need to find out more”; from that moment my vision regarding the country has changed but it has become much more realistic. Now I think Lebanon is a magnificent country, but at the same time it is chaos.
K: Now I have two questions: the first is more of a literary nature, or which is the novel that you think best tells about Lebanon without the need for “great insights”; the second one is a little longer and is: how do you see the country changed since you wrote the novel? Because 5 years have passed since the first publication (in German it was published for the first time in 2016) and many things have changed
P: Honestly I think this is one of the best to understand this country, as it does not tell a single moment, but 30 years and among the most eventful. There are other novels, but they tend to tell it by Lebanese who have experienced these moments firsthand and this means that the narration is always different and linked above all to the historical events that involved the author. It is not to advertise my novel, but I think everything is more understandable here as I have accurately reported many details, for example the names of the various militias, to ensure that the reader can enjoy something light, with a good story. , but that he can still leave him something once the book is finished in order to increase his knowledge as well. With this I do not mean that the others are outdone, on the contrary, I am just saying that for those who are fasting in Lebanon this I believe is more easily understood than the book of a “very good” author but who, having lived everything live, tends to be more specific and take many details for granted.
K: You are absolutely right, in fact reading it I noticed many thoughts which, although authentically Lebanese, it is evident that they originated from someone who does not live the daily life of the place and this allows him to elaborate more accurate judgments. Mahmoud Darwish for example lived exactly in Beirut in 1982, but it is clear that, however beautiful the text is, his vision cannot fail to be influenced by who he was and his role in history.
P: Absolutely. Returning to the previous speech, what was the second question?
K: How do you think the country has changed in the course of these 5 years, because personally I believe that if there is a moment in which Lebanon and its inhabitants can change their history, this is it. Politics has been at a standstill for a long time now and I feel that more and more Lebanese have realized that they are one people, no matter what faith, you are still and always Lebanese.
P: It’s a bit complicated, there have been a lot of changes in the country, but in a way it’s still the same. To give an example: the political class is always the same, the same names and the same families that have ruled for decades. Another thing that has not changed is the way that these subjects have, or do not have, of seeing their past; no one ever said “Ok, we all made mistakes, but now let’s roll up our sleeves and build a new future together.” At the same time, however, many things have changed for the worse: the economy, the growing corruption and people’s living conditions. I agree: no moment has been so bad in the history of Lebanon; however at the same time there is a young population that is increasingly asking that we look to its future.
K: Let’s jump into the novel and talk about Youssef: is his thinking about Lebanon the same? And then a question about Samir’s father, Abou Youssef: what do you think about it? Because in my opinion he is not exactly the prototype of a “good father” and I do not understand if in the end Samir forgives him or not, because it seems to me more as if he were putting a point on the story, but I did not understand exactly where his judgment hangs; I did not understand if he is happier to have found him anyway or if he is angrier because of the great betrayal.
P: I did not understand: the first question is about Youssef?
K: Yes, if his thinking is the same and if you too believe that writing a unique history book for all Lebanese can be a key to resolving tensions between communities.
P: Ok now it’s clearer to me. Unfortunately this group does not exist, but this from my point of view was more of a metaphor: to build a past on which we can all agree and with which we can move forward. In Germany we know very well what it means to have a bad past and we have understood that it is very important to continue talking about it in order to avoid it happening again in the future; the problem is that this does not happen in Lebanon. There is no history book in common and we do not have a “common history”. If you ask a Christian he will tell you a completely different story than the one told by a Sunni, a Shiite, a Druze or any other religious denomination in the country. So, to go back to Youssef, I think it’s something a little naive but it’s a really strong and solid belief and that’s what it takes, someone really motivated to put the pieces of the past back together to unite the present and move on. together. I’m not really convinced that a book can solve everything, but I think it can definitely be a first step.
Regarding the father, many people got angry, but that was my goal. I wanted people to say, “Ok Samir, I’m with you, let’s go see your dad.”, But when you get to the ending and you’ve actually found him, it’s time to say “It’s okay, but I’ve come this far to you, why have you never made yourself heard in all this time? Not a call, not a letter, nothing. “. Regarding this, I don’t really have a real answer, except that in this case the journey itself is more important than the end of the journey; this is obviously one aspect, the other is that many people do not understand the importance of the first male child in the Arab world. Perhaps in Southern Europe it is approaching, but in the Arab world it is still something even more intense and visceral; it is no coincidence that the father in the stories does not call himself Abou Samir but Abou Youssef.
K: Yes, this for me was actually the most unacceptable thing about the father because the others are still understandable, but this is really bad, because all the time he told his son a story in which he told about another son and that he would come back to him.
P: Yes, but it is precisely here that the typical vision of the Middle East and the typically European one collide, because an Arab would have said something like “But it’s obvious, his name is Abou Youssef and that is the most important son”, while a European would have had another kind of reaction, but that was what I wanted to happen. But you’re right: he’s not a good father, he’s a coward, he could have made at least one call.
K: Yes, the call would have been better, but what I’m saying is something more subtle. The thing that made me mad the most is that he talks and tells the stories to his son but all the time he is thinking about the other. It is as if you are dating a beautiful woman who loves you but you, while being with her, are thinking of someone else all the time; a bit like what Samir himself does in the book. This is worse for me, because it means that all the time you have been together is actually like you are saying “Hmm yes, nice to be here, but how better to stay elsewhere”; to the calls or not you can find an excuse, to this no.
P: I think you are right and I believe it is something human. Most of the time people look at the uniforms, at the symbols, they look at the picture and they see what they want to see, weapons, war, but the woman is in the picture and there is because I didn’t want to write a story about the conflict, but on the human being and his errors.
K: Let’s take another leap to the general. I recently wrote an article about Lebanese cedar and found that due to fires and climate change there are fewer and fewer of them in Lebanon and I would like to hear from a Lebanese on that. Cedar is not a normal plant, so much so that I believe it is one of the only plants to be the main symbol of a flag.
P: Absolutely, cedar also has a special role in the book, so much so that it represents both the roots and where to look for these roots. Personally I have no idea if this thing of climate change is present in the minds of the Lebanese or not, but to reason, in recent summers there have been new big and very violent fires; Fortunately, there are Lebanese activists on this, but I believe it is not the main problem in the head of the average autochthonous, even if when it is all gone he will remember what he lost. The cedar for us is something different, the cedar is Lebanon; we disagree on many things but not that cedar is the perfect representation of the country.
K: The only thing the Lebanese agree on is cedar and disagreement.
P: Ahahaha, exactly.
K: Now I’m curious about something I can’t see right now, because I want to ask you a few questions about your new book, “Song for the Missing”, first published in 2020 but still unpublished in Italy. My questions are: Does this book represent you more or less than “The Storyteller”? Do you already know when it will be translated into Italian? Finally the biggest: what is it about? Because reading a bit I only understood that it takes place in Lebanon in 2011 and that it talks about some boys killed, but otherwise there is not a lot of information around and I was curious to find out a little more.
P: Ok, it’s called “Song for the Missing”, it was released in Germany last year and this year it was translated into English and released in Holland and France. I think the decision whether to publish it in Italian or not depends on the success of “The Storyteller”, at the moment there is no contract, I think they are interested but I don’t know yet. It is a decidedly more political book than this one and is about disappearances in Lebanon. In fact, many people do not know that 17,000 people disappeared during the Civil War without a trace and that no one knows what happened to them; most likely they are dead, but nobody knows, they left the house and disappeared.
K: Like the desaparecidos in Argentina.
P: Exactly, in fact it is something I also say in “Song for the Missing”; we know that similar things have happened in Argentina and in some African countries, but no one knows that this also happened in Lebanon. The book has 3 timelines set in 2011, the period in which the Arab springs break out and the Syrian civil war, is a period in which everything gets closer to Lebanon and in the text the protagonist takes the opportunity to write his own memories of 1994, the moment in which he goes to the country with his grandmother, meets another boy named Jafar who had an experience similar to his but different, as the protagonist was born in exile in France and only later moved to the country. Precisely because of the issues dealt with, I see it as something less biographical and more linked to politics and to the denunciation of a history that is still full of mysteries today.
K: Referring back to “The Storyteller”, maybe I have done it before but I want to try again, I would like to know if you believe that people can and are really interested in changing the country, because politicians are clearly not interested in what the situation suits him, but at various points in the book it is instead evident that people do not like this, even if it is. Before I asked you a similar question but you answered me above all about what the political class wants to do, I am interested in what the people want to do, especially after the great protests that characterized the country in the period immediately preceding Covid. For example, I know two quite important Lebanese in Milan who, despite having two different faiths, are great friends and, like Ibrahim and Hakim in the novel, place more importance on being Lebanese rather than on their confession of belonging. Personally, I believe that it is precisely people and ties like this that can enable the country to overcome the National Pact, something that was really fantastic to stop the conflict but which today, in my opinion, is one of the major causes of political paralysis within the country; in a certain sense with this Pact it is as if they had not made peace but only a kind of truce.
P: I think I have everything clearer, if not, do not hesitate to ask me again, for me there is no problem. What we saw in the 2019 protests I think was special, everyone took to the streets, especially the younger generations, and the protests were not aimed at one particular confession but at the whole government. It was something very similar to what happened in 2011 but different, as they were protests against the whole political apparatus and not towards a specific office or figure. Beliefs didn’t matter, you could be Christian, Muslim, Druze or whatever, everyone protested as Lebanese. From this point of view, I believe that Covid has helped the ruling class a lot because protests have been completely blocked between lockdowns and the like. There everyone realized how serious the situation was and they began to think about the fact that Lebanon is a small country, we are all close to everyone and we must get along well to achieve our goals and move forward.
K: Have you seen these protests from Lebanon or Germany? How does the way you see things change if you are at a distance or if you are physically there on the spot? In the book we have a representation of something similar when Samir witnesses the protests over Hariri’s death from Germany; I would like to know how different is the way of observing the situation, also from a psychological point of view
P: You know, I know a lot of Lebanese from the diaspora, but none of them have ever felt the desire to go back. Everyone tells me that they are very happy to be back for the holidays, I myself am really happy to visit my family and I feel Lebanese, but at the same time I am very happy when I leave the country. For some it is something unsettling, but many of those who left Lebanon between the “80s and” 90s were convinced they would return, only to realize that they do not want to return forever. My father, to say, emigrated to Germany, but when he began to feel bad in Europe he did not return to Lebanon, he went to live in Abu Dhabi, a different country, within the Arab world, but which in any case is not Lebanon. We all look at the situation in the country and are shocked by it, but I believe that being distant facilitates a more complete and cleaner view of what is happening; if you are in Beirut or Lebanon you are closer, but you are also closer to chaos, from a distance instead there is always chaos, but you don’t live it directly, you have time to breathe and digest everything better. The particular thing, then, is that there are many more Lebanese outside Lebanon than there are inside it, especially in Brazil, Canada and Australia.
K: Not to mention Argentina or Chile, the country in the world where there are more Christian Palestinians.
P: In addition, outside Lebanon they are all businessmen.
K: Ahahaha, right. Well I actually finished, it was a real pleasure for me to meet you and have this chat together, I really liked your book and this year I will put it on a special list dedicated to the surprises of 2021; I didn’t think it was so beautiful yet it bewitched me, it has something different from all the others. This interview together was the icing on the cake and it was a real honor for me, thank you very much with all my heart.
P: It is my pleasure, it was a pleasure to meet you.
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