By Mohammad Mazhari

Arabic and Persian are languages of poetry rather than novel: Lebanese novelist

August 9, 2021 - 21:52

TEHRAN – A Lebanese novelist says that Arabic and Persian are languages of poetry due to cultural and historical causes that has kept the poetry ahead of the art of narration in these two languages.

“I think that Arabic and Persian are similar in that they are languages of poetry par excellence,” Zeinab Merhi tells the Tehran Times.

 “Of course, this is also related to the culture and history of both countries, as I think that poetry is actually still ahead of the art of narration in these two languages,” she says.

Despite some Arabic masterpieces in the field of novel, Merhi believes that Arab writer needs to keep distance from his poet ego. 

“The works of the new Lebanese novelists as well as the Arab writers in general, there is a need to abandon the “me” of the poet, and pay more attention to the other and the outside world that creates the magic of the novel,” Merhi remarks.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Could you tell us how you were drawn to the field of writing? And what are the works that inspired you with the sense of novel?

A: Since I was a little girl, I loved imaginary stories and reading.

 Then I was fortunate because in my home as in my school, there was a large library containing a great number of French novels, which had the greatest impact on me and through which I was able to develop my love for the novel.

Unfortunately, the Arabic library lacks this type of novel.

However, these books introduced me to the feelings and problems of people in my age, so I was very sympathetic and identified with them as we grew up together. At that time, I understood the emotional and intellectual impact and power of writing on the reader, and my attachment to it increased.

I do not like to mention works that inspired me, but they are actually writers and novelists, such as: Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera and Dostoevsky.

Recently, my second novel was published by Dar Hachette-Antoine (Nofal), “Floating House on the River”, which is currently being translated into Persian.


Q: The Lebanese civil war ended on the ground, but it is still fresh in the mind of successive generations in Lebanon. There are novels, stories, as well as films that address this painful scene of history of Lebanon. As a novelist, how were you inspired by the war and how did you see its repercussions on the daily lives of the Lebanese?

A: There are many literary and cinematic works that are inspired with the Lebanese civil war, especially in the nineties of the last century and the beginning of this century.

For me and for someone of my generation, born around the end of the Lebanese war, our questions and preoccupation with the civil war were somehow different from the generations lived with that war and touched its depth.

My first novel, “The Abyss” or “Dozakh” in its current Persian translation, recently published by Morwarid publishers, started from a main question: what happened to the fighters of the civil war after the war came to an end?

I mean, there are people like Sohail, the main character in the novel, who failed to complete their basic education because of the outbreak of war, and then had to take up arms and fight in the war, whether it was for a few years or for a whole fifteen years.

 Then suddenly, after the fighting ended at the beginning of the nineties, they were asked to lay down their arms and try to integrate into society, find a normal job and start a family as if nothing had happened!

 In "The Abyss" I was trying to find these people; where are they among us and how do they live? Are they psychologically able to build a family? Then it became clear to me in one way or another that they are only physically present among us, but that they actually live in another world and time.


Q: How can a novel and a story link the reality of society and the dreams of folks? Do you think the novel embodies the social subconscious?

A: The writer reflects many of the characteristics of his cultural milieu and the society in which he lives in the novel. After all, he belongs to a particular social and cultural context. When I thought of Sohail, the main character of “Dozakh”, a man in his late fifties, born and living in Lebanon, it was impossible to think of this character and make it real, without thinking about the Lebanese civil war and its impact on his life and personality, as it took place 15 years of his generation.

 It is not possible to simply overlook this major and extended impact on the life of the character or its creation, or talk about his life without addressing the subject of war.

 From here, many of Sohail's character traits and behaviors, his dreams and hopes, success or failures were related to the security and social atmosphere that prevailed at the time in the country.

Thus, it can be said that the novel is linked to society, but it is also a space to speculate about it as well.


Q: Do you follow Iranian novels? What are the common bonds linking the Iranian and Arab mentality in novel?

A: Unfortunately, my Persian is not good enough to actively follow Iranian works. I read some translations, but they are not enough, I think, to express an opinion on the Iranian novel.

 However, I think that Arabic and Persian are similar in that they are languages of poetry par excellence. Of course, this is also related to the culture and history of both nations, as I think that poetry is actually still ahead of the art of narration in these two languages.


Q: How would you describe the level of Lebanese and Arab novels compared to their international counterparts? What are the areas of development for the Lebanese novel?

A: As I mentioned before, the Arabic language is initially a language of poetry, and it took a time to get used to the novel.

However, today, in Lebanon and the Arab world, we have a number of distinguished international novelists whose works have been translated into many languages ??around the world.

 Among them, for example, are the Lebanese novelists like Hassan Davoud, Abbas Beydoun, Jabbour al-Douaihy, Rabie Jaber, and others.

 Then between the Egyptians, though they have a large cinematic industry, the storytelling takes precedence over anything else, as they have Naguib Mahfouz and Bahaa Taher, for example, and in the Maghreb as well, where many writers are influenced by the French School of the Novel, so they focus on high proficiency in form and content; there is Rachid Boudjedra for example, or Malik Haddad.

But at the end of the day, I see that in some of the works of the new Lebanese novelists as well as the Arab writers in general, there is a need to abandon the “me” of the poet, and pay more attention to the other and the outside world that creates the magic of the novel.

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