Thursday, October 13, 2011

launch & review of jad el hage's novel 'one day in april'

The Lebanese writer and journalist Jad El Hage’s latest novel One Day in April was launched at the Mosaic Rooms in central London, at the invitation of El Hage’s legendary octogenarian Palestinian publisher Naim Attallah, chairman of Quartet Books. The evening event included a book signing and a reception with drinks and Arab snacks.

Attallah [pictured above] presides over one of the few remaining independent London publishers, and takes a hands-on approach to the selection of titles. “I met Jad only through the telephone – we were talking for about the last six or eight months and we became friends; yesterday was the first time I met him face to face,” he said. “When I got the manuscript I read it over the weekend and thought it was marvellous. So I rang him the next day and said ‘we’re going to publish it’. And everyone else at Quartet loved it. He came all the way from Lebanon to attend this launch – so please I urge you buy many copies, give it to all your friends! Pass the good word because he deserves it.”

The guest speaker was Jihad el-Khazen [pictured below], the distinguished Al-Hayat newspaper journalist, columnist and former editor-in-chief. There were readings from the novel by El Hage and by Lebanese actress Valerie Sarruf, a one- time member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

El-Hage has worked for two decades at Al-Hayat, first in London and then in Lebanon, and el-Khazen hailed him as a colleague and as a friend. El-Khazen said reading the novel was for him “a trip down memory lane: there were things that I remembered from my life in Lebanon during the civil war on every page.”

El-Khazen recounted a number of anecdotes from his days as a journalist in Lebanon. He noted that the newspaper for which the book’s first person narrator, Armenian photo-journalist Koko Krikorian, works is the Daily Sun, while “I was editor-in-chief of the Daily Star, the only English-language newspaper in Lebanon.” He paid tribute to the prominent role played by Armenians in news photography in Lebanon.

The book is set on 13 April 1977 and is divided into two halves, Morning and Afternoon, plus an Epilogue. The afternoon section is set in the wilds of the Bekaa Valley where Koko Krikorian goes to team up with with his former friend but now enemy Nader Abi Nader for a journalistic assignment. The two had fallen out after Nader stole Koko’s great love, the painter Najla Helou.

El Hage writes well of love, friendship and fatherhood, and the passage he chose to read at the launch told of how during his time in the Bekaa Koko misses his Armenian wife Arsiné and his baby son, who that morning took his first steps.

Jad El Hage and Valerie Sarruf

El-Khazen said Najla and Nader “come across in the book as unreliable and spaced out, and I think they deserve each other.” El-Khazen found the book’s second part with its wedding and a blood feuds, particularly interesting. He spoke of visiting the Bekaaa, “one area of Lebanon with which I am very familiar”, and of the valley’s code of honour and revenge killings among the clans. El Hage’s description of the Bekka is lively “and anyone who doesn’t know the area will find something to make them continue reading .”

Review of One Day in April from Banipal issue 42

Lebanese author and journalist Jad El Hage’s new novel completes what his publisher terms his “informal civil war trilogy.” The trilogy began with The Last Migration (Panache Publications, 2002), exploring the Lebanese émigré experience in 1990s London. Next came The Myrtle Tree (Banipal Books, 2007), which takes the reader to a village in Lebanon early in the 1975-1990 civil war.

One Day in April is set in Lebanon on 13 April 1977. Its first-person narrator is an acclaimed Lebanese-Armenian photojournalist Krikor Krikorian – known as Koko – who works for the Daily Sun newspaper in Beirut.

On the morning of the day in question the newspaper instructs Koko to travel to the Bekaa Valley where he is to meet the writer Nader Abi Nader in order to cover a big wedding. The two men are to go to a village that hosts a number of fugitives, among them former prisoners who freed themselves from Raml prison.

Koko is aghast at being given this joint assignment with Nader, “the bastard who’d robbed me of my first love”. At the beginning of the civil war Koko had been close to Nader, who had studied experimental theatre in Poland, and had worked on Nader’s film project portraying the Mediterranean as the “Blue Pirate”.

But the friendship had turned to hatred after Nader and Koko’s free-spirited painter lover Najla Helou betrayed him. Najla vanished from Koko’s life and Koko married Arsiné, a childhood friend and fellow Armenian. He is now the devoted father of a baby son who on that day in April has taken his first steps. And yet “the imprint of my time with Najla still lingers inside me, a shard of unfinished business.”

El Hage has set his novel on the second anniversary of the killing of Palestinians on a bus in the Ain al-Rummaneh suburb of Beirut, a massacre that is widely seen as the spark of the civil war. And April is also the month in which massacres of Armenians in Turkey began in 1915. Koko observes: “April is the cruellest month indeed, the month of genocide, when Armenians throughout the world remember their massacred forefathers ...”

As in his previous novels, El Hage delights in the details of everyday life. He brings a strong human dimension and a humorous touch to his portrayal of characters caught up in the chaos and bloodshed of the Lebanese civil war. Writers, filmmakers and artists try in vain to use their creativity to combat the growing sectarianism. The real-life restaurateur and cultural activist George Zeenny organises an anti-war arts festival in the streets of Beirut.

During his drive to the Bekaa Koko recreates in flashbacks his passionate love for the notorious red-haired Bohemian artist Najla, who believed “monogamy was hypocrisy and marriage a silver coffin for cowards.” And he recalls his Nader and their shooting of scenes for the never-completed “Blue Pirate” in Tyre from where boatloads of refugees were fleeing Lebanon.

In the Bekaa , with its wild landscape, thriving cannabis industry, outlaws, and glimpses of a so-called white witch, Koko enters a different world. He encounters a now-vulnerable Nader, and must decide how to deal with this detested love rival. He learns that the Bekaa wedding is intended to reconcile feuding tribes and that the fugitives from prison have proposals to stop the escalation of violence in Lebanon.

The narrative is occasionally over-crowded with information, as in some almost ethnographic descriptions of Bekaa life and traditions. But Koko holds the reader’s interest right up to the novel’s disconcerting, even shocking, conclusion. The novel is a fitting finale to El Hage’s accomplishment in producing a highly readable trilogy, which gives unique visions of Lebanon and of a civil war which has continuing repercussions.

Susannah Tarbush


Anonymous said...

I am happy to know that Ms. Sarruf contributed her time and excellent acting skills to this worthy work. I know her voice from many BBC broadcasts.

I'm sorry I missed the boradcast.

Do you happen to know where she will be performing next, or someone I could contact to find out?

susannah said...

to Anonymous, unfortunately I don't know where and when Ms Sarruf may be appearing. She certainly has a lovely voice and look. I looked on the Equity (perfomers' union) website to see if she is listed, hoping in that way to trace her agent who might have details, but couldn't find her there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for trying. Appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Well done Jad for all your literary achievements. Would love to hear from you after all this time. My email is