British-Lebanese poet-scholar Omar Sabbagh enters fiction arena with Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile
by Susannah Tarbush, London
[English original of an article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat newspaper ]
The 34-year-old British-Lebanese writer and academic Dr Omar Sabbagh has in the past few years gained a growing reputation as a poet, essayist and literary critic. Now he makes his first entry into fiction, with the publication of his novella Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile.
The 92-page novella is set in Beirut over a period of seven days, with each chapter covering a day. Its central character Dr Yusuf Ghaleez is a young Lebanese academic in his first-ever university job, teaching literature at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Sabbagh was himself a Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature at the AUB for two years. He currently has an assistant professorship in English at the American University in Dubai, where he recently launched the novella with a public reading. He will be visiting Beirut from 20 December to 2 January, and may do a further reading there.
Via Negativa is published by Liquorice Fish, a new imprint of the Welsh publisher Cinnamon Press. Liquorice Fish aims “to encourage and foster new writing that is vibrant, playful, transgressive, radical and, yes, just plain beautiful, wherever it might be found.”
Sabbagh’s lyrical prose style reflects his talent as a poet. It has a rich use of language and mingles memories, anecdotes, dreams, reflections and “stories within stories”. There is also a considerable amount of humour in the writing: Via Negativa is a sort of tragi-comedy.
The novella begins with a dizzying three-page description of colourful, busy and varied Beirut and of Yusuf’s somewhat chaotic state of mind as he walks along Abdul-Aziz Street. Yusuf has various troubles, including the fact that he does not have a girlfriend, nor has he had a romantic or sexual relationship for more than three years. The book has several loosely-connected narrative threads, one of which involves Yusuf’s best student, Karim Faris. Aged 22, Karim is somewhat older than the other students in the class. This is because at the age of 19 he had had a mental breakdown and lost a year of his studies while he recovered.
Yusuf has encouraged Karim to write about his problems. Karim has already told his fellow students about his psychotic breakdown. “This way, at a pragmatic level, you are taking control of your own story,” Yusuf says. “Now I want you to make that story into art!”
So Karim writes a story about a young man called Bassel , which Yusuf reads out to the class. Bassel had become infatuated by a girl he had seen in a library, and he goes to the library daily hoping to catch a glimpse of her. “Laying eyes on her for the first time in a day was like dying for a few moments – where dying wasn’t death, but a more intense kind of living.”
Bassel is actually based on Karim himself, and the girl is an Egyptian Karim had seen and fallen for in the Jafet Library in his first year at AUB. Four years on she has graduated and returned to Cairo, but Karim is still obsessed with her and she appears repeatedly in his writings.
The day after Yusuf reads out Karim’s story, Karim emails Yusuf a sort of confessional diary in which he writes that some of his friends and their girlfriends think he is gay but he does not think he is. He also describes various unsatisfactory sexual encounters with women. Yusuf arranges to meet Karim in Yusuf’s favourite bar, Hemingway’s, and Karim admits that he is of a “womanly nature”, but their conversation is interrupted by Yusuf’s colleague Teymour. The next day Karim tells Yusuf that he had been “temporarily insane” and that he is not in fact “that way”. At a later point in the novella Karim emails Yusuf a story about Yusuf himself set in London, where Karim knows Yusuf grew up.
Another main storyline in Via Negativa revolves around Robbie, the Christian-Palestinian head barman in Hemingway’s where Yusuf habitually drinks the Polish Zhubrowka vodka – with a picture of a bison on the label – to which one of his maternal uncles introduced him.
Robbie tells Yusuf various details of his life. His mother is Lebanese, and he did not know he was a Palestinian until he was fifteen. Most of the pupils at his school were Christian, and supporters of the Lebanese Front, and was only when his grandfather saw him on TV taking part in a Lebanese Front demonstration, and was furious with him, that he exclaimed to Robbie, “Don’t you know you’re Palestinian?” He also tells Yusuf of how his relationship with his wife Marie-Rose had started as a Romeo and Juliet type of love story when they were both teenagers and her parents kept trying to split them up.
Another main character in the novella is Yusuf’s lecherous older teaching colleague Teymour, a fun-loving married man of Afghan origin with a family back in the UK who boasts of his sexual conquests of students and makes wine from dried figs.
Yusuf’s parents live in a plush third-floor flat overlooking Verdun Street and members of his family feature in the narrative. They include his striking-looking mother with sea-green eyes and tanned skin and his two maternal uncles, one of whom had recently died. The family has a flat in southern Spain and Yusuf recalls a conversation there between him and one of his mother’s women friends. “Look at your generation!” she had said. “You young people have a million, a trillion options. You are so lucky...” To which he had replied: “Yes Auntie, but I guarantee you: your generation was and is a happier generation.”
Reading Via Negativa may raise questions in the reader's mind as to how far it is autobiographical. Certainly there are some points of correspondence between Sabbagh, Yusuf and in some instances, Karim. Sabbagh was born in London in 1981 to Mohamad and Maha Sabbagh who had left Lebanon in 1975 and settled in the British capital. They moved back to Beirut in 2006.
Sabbagh’s academic career has developed alongside his burgeoning career as a poet. Cinnamon Press published Sabbagh’s first two poetry collections: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint (2010 - reviewed on this blog here) and The Square Root of Beirut (2011 - reviewed here). Agenda Editions published his third collection, Waxed Mahogany, in 2012 (reviewed here). Cinnamon plans to publish his fourth collection To the Middle of Love in late 2016.
Sabbagh’s latest published prose work is the essay “From Bourbon to Scotch: Extracts from a Dubai Diary” which appears in the new issue of the quarterly poetry magazine Poem. He is now working on his next novel, the provisional title of which is I Decease: An Allegory from the Desert.