The Anguish of Being Lebanese: Interview with Author Racha Mounaged

18 October, 2021
Lebanese-Bel­go nov­el­ist Racha Mounaged pho­tographed in Brus­sels by AJ Naddaff.

A.J. Naddaff

 

Between the Par­lia­ment and the Roy­al Path­way in the cen­ter of Brus­sels, not too far from the touris­tic Grand Place, there is a park with two par­al­lel kiosks serv­ing refresh­ments: one in which ston­ers lol­ly­gag and smoke joints against a back­drop of Zen music, and anoth­er where the more busi­ness-casu­al folk gath­er after work days to sip cap­puc­ci­nos. I went to the sec­ond kiosk on a clear-skyed July evening, one of the only days this sum­mer in Bel­gium where there was a week of con­sec­u­tive sun, to meet the bud­ding Lebanese-Bel­go nov­el­ist Racha Mounaged. 

La Blessure is pub­lished by Édi­tions Com­plic­ités.

Racha had pro­posed to meet in the “Park Roy­al” because it would be more con­vivial than a tra­di­tion­al café ter­race. Yet her atti­tude and appear­ance con­veyed the for­mal­i­ty of pre­cise­ly that kind of meet­ing. She dressed in a teal crêpe blouse with fine­ly pat­terned grey pants and thick heeled black sil­hou­ettes. I addressed her in the for­mal vous and we main­tained this civil­i­ty despite my yearn­ing to bond over our slight age dif­fer­ence and many sim­i­lar­i­ties. We are both Bel­gian cit­i­zens, but out­siders to the coun­try (My moth­er was born and raised out­side Brus­sels and passed the cit­i­zen­ship onto me through jus san­gui­nis, where­as Racha recent­ly applied and received cit­i­zen­ship after liv­ing and work­ing in Bel­gium for many years). We also both con­sid­er Lebanon home in one way or anoth­er (Racha was born and raised between Tripoli and Beirut. I am study­ing for a master’s in Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture in Beirut, and my father’s grand­par­ents were from Lebanon before they immi­grat­ed to Boston). I still hold true to what the famous Lebanese-Egypt­ian actor Omar Sharif said regard­ing his sense of belong­ing: “Once you’re Lebanese, you’re always Lebanese.”

Above all, I devoured her debut 2020 nov­el La Blessure (per­haps best trans­lat­ed as The Wound) in two days, a book that made the rounds in my fam­i­ly and seemed to speak to every­one because of its heart-wrench­ing tale and sim­ple, sus­pense­ful, poet­ic prose. The pro­tag­o­nist, a young child named Jad, res­onat­ed with me on a per­son­al lev­el because of his trou­bled child­hood and his final act of hope, although he lived through more adver­si­ty than I ever did.

Prepar­ing a long list of ques­tions on the novel’s plot, themes and inspi­ra­tions was sim­ple. As an aspir­ing nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist, ques­tions on the act of writ­ing and cur­rent events also came with ease. Yet the for­mal­i­ty of the inter­view and my iPhone record­ing it on the table stilt­ed the con­ver­sa­tion in some ways, or pre­vent­ed us from get­ting close as I had want­ed on that first encounter. 

Today, regard­ing Lebanon, per­son­al­ly I am lost. I think we have sur­passed the stage of Lebanese humor that we were always used to have  — the Lebanese who jokes, and says every­thing is always going well — we are now in a peri­od of depres­sion. A psy­chol­o­gist told me that this depres­sion is more advanced now than pre­vi­ous­ly. ..We are unhap­py, things are not okay, we can no longer pre­tend that things are okay. 

Born in 1982 in Beirut, Racha grew up dur­ing the end of the 15-year civ­il war that engulfed the coun­try and killed more than 100,000 peo­ple. She recalled endur­ing mem­o­ries of extend­ed fam­i­ly gath­er­ings, pic­turesque views of coun­try­side and sea­side land­scape, but also bomb­ings, images of a Beirut scorched. “I lived some episodes and moments where we hid in clos­ets because bombs were explod­ing around me,” she said. 

In addi­tion to war, she lived the trau­ma of her parent’s bru­tal sep­a­ra­tion. While much of her nov­el, which, as the best fic­tion often does, employs imag­i­nary events and peo­ple as a fil­ter for real­i­ty, she dis­played a strict faith­ful­ness to this con­flict of child loy­al­ty. Or, as she told me, “I want­ed to put myself in the shoes of a child and ask: what does it feel like for some­one who, in order to keep one of his par­ents, has to remove the oth­er from his life?”

The innu­mer­able check­points across Lebanon divid­ed the coun­try and cre­at­ed a bar­ri­er between her father, a soci­ol­o­gist and jour­nal­ist who lived in Tripoli and wrote in Ara­bic, and her moth­er, a Lebanese Fran­cophile who filled her house with French books, and with whom Racha lived in Beirut along­side her sis­ter. These days, the cap­i­tal is at least a two-hour dri­ve from the north­ern city of Tripoli, to say noth­ing of the fuel cri­sis that fur­ther com­pli­cates travel. 

 

From a young age, French was incul­cat­ed in Racha by her moth­er, as well as her edu­ca­tion at one of the excel­lent French sec­u­lar schools in the coun­try, left over from the colo­nial era: the Lycée of Abdel Kadar in the Mar Elias neigh­bor­hood in Beirut. She excelled in all sub­jects and found refuge in school, but becom­ing a writer was nev­er a seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion. As is typ­i­cal here and in most oth­er places in the world, sci­ence is the key to a suc­cess­ful career, which in wartime Lebanon, just as today, equat­ed with a tick­et and sta­ble life abroad. 

For the Lebanese, France is usu­al­ly looked at pos­i­tive­ly as young peo­ple fol­low fash­ion and music trends that come out of Paris (unlike Algeria’s ties to France which are typ­i­cal­ly viewed through an antag­o­nis­tic lens). “France was a myth­i­cal and fan­tas­ti­cal place. It was a lan­guage that made me dream,” she said with a glit­ter in her eyes that shone through her pair of thick­ly framed, rose-gold round glass­es. At the age of 18, it was her mas­tery of French that facil­i­tat­ed the real­iza­tion of her dream: she received a full schol­ar­ship to pur­sue a degree in biotech­nol­o­gy at the École Nationale Supérieure in Toulouse. Yet, like many oth­er Lebanese who have exist­ed in mul­ti­ple lan­guages, it cre­at­ed iden­ti­ty prob­lems. Now, although she is more com­fort­able speak­ing in Ara­bic than in French, she writes with more ease in French. “French was the lan­guage cho­sen by my mom and my father was a jour­nal­ist in Ara­bic. So I threw out lit­er­ary Ara­bic and went towards French, even though I speak with my mom in Ara­bic” she said, a vis­i­ble look of befud­dle­ment on her face. “Today, I feel guilty and dis­loy­al to Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture.” She hopes to change that and to approach writ­ing in Ara­bic in future years.

While estranged from her home­land, she did not join a dias­poric net­work despite inevitable home­sick­ness. She only stayed con­nect­ed with home through fam­i­ly, friends and social media. In this sense, maybe she would con­cur with what the Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat described in an essay that was recent­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish about the dias­po­ra: that there is no com­mu­ni­ty (some­thing I dis­agree with, as I always have found Lebanese or Arab com­mu­ni­ties abroad!)  Lack­ing a Lebanese net­work hit her hard­est dur­ing the August 4 explo­sion when she expe­ri­enced a huge dis­crep­an­cy between her real­i­ty and that of those around her. After August 4, being Lebanese in her nor­mal con­texts was unset­tling. Ques­tions posed by friends such as “Where are you going to go for vaca­tion?” were utter­ly absurd.

A decade after emi­grat­ing to Bel­gium, Racha had accom­plished every­thing that looks good on paper: a degree from a top uni­ver­si­ty, a top job in the lucra­tive phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try, and the secu­ri­ty and peace she longed for. But some­thing was miss­ing. She remem­bered the itch­ing vow that she had long made to her father, before he passed away in 2013, that she would write one day. She kept push­ing the promise like a dream deferred until it grew too large to ignore and star­tled her into action. Suf­fer­ing already from burnout, she quit her job, put her­self in a sort of dole­ful soli­tude, and got to writ­ing. “It is the part of me that comes from my father, this is how I’ve inter­pret­ed it, I need­ed to inte­grate in me this part of him that was more artis­tic, lit­er­ary, dif­fer­ent from pure sci­en­tif­ic research,” she said, as if relieved.

Despite her deter­mi­na­tion, writ­ing the nov­el was hard, a fight against both her psy­cho­log­i­cal and mate­r­i­al con­di­tion and out­er voic­es. Peo­ple around her start­ed to pan­ic. “My moth­er had no idea what was hap­pen­ing to me and nei­ther did I. I was going in every direc­tion and I need­ed to fence it in, fin­ish it and find a job.”


Racha Mounaged’s La Blessure Captures Trauma of Lebanese Civil War

While she took a break from sci­ence, the metic­u­lous method­ol­o­gy of project man­age­ment that had mold­ed her mind helped her tremen­dous­ly, a type of obses­sive plan­ning that might make “some writ­ers pull out their hair.” She wrote a syn­op­sis of chap­ters on sticky notes and then trans­ferred them into an Excel spread­sheet with a fixed amount of words for each chap­ter, and set her­self to writ­ing 1,200 words per day. Three months lat­er: voilà! An hon­est encounter with her past birthed the well­spring from which her words poured, and a man­u­script was ready.

In her words, she is “atyp­i­cal and mar­gin­al,” and the Covid pan­dem­ic sat­is­fied the intro­vert­ed side of her, allow­ing her to stay home with her books and ideas. “I did not blame myself because it’s not like any­one was going out,” she said. 

With no rela­tion­ship to the edi­to­r­i­al world, she was excit­ed for her debut nov­el to find a home. Her pub­lish­er didn’t have much of a mar­ket­ing bud­get, so Racha worked to ensure the nov­el reached var­i­ous book­stores in Brus­sels on her own, and although she want­ed it to be put in the shelves of her home coun­try, the eco­nom­ic col­lapse has made books a luxury. 

Her goal, she said, “is to live as a writer, but this is a dream. I learned that the lit­er­ary career is very dif­fi­cult and is not a way to make money.”

Above all, she wants to write on sub­jects that inter­est her, or rather, heal her. “For me writ­ing is essen­tial, even with­out recog­ni­tion. If I am able to live par­tial­ly from it, that’s great. But if I have to spend mon­ey and time to be invis­i­ble, I would do that, too.” There is a blue­print to fol­low to pro­duce best sell­ers, but she rather have the lib­er­ty to write on sub­jects that inter­est her.

Racha, who is large­ly inspired by the sym­bol­ism and sim­plic­i­ty of poet­ry, finds Baude­laire exem­plary, a sort of per­fec­tion in style, form, and melody. She also has forth­com­ing poems select­ed in reviews in Bel­gium, Switzer­land and France.

At this point in the con­ver­sa­tion, two hours had passed, and the loud jazz music had shift­ed to an even loud­er and quite dis­tract­ing Édith Piaf. We depart­ed as the sun shone down on us, but I couldn’t help but feel like I had just scratched the sur­face of Racha’s intro­spec­tive mind, despite the two and a half hours we spent togeth­er. So I called her again, much to my girlfriend’s cha­grin, ten min­utes after we had depart­ed, and asked if she could come back for a pho­to since it was the gold­en hour of the day and the light­ing was per­fect. She agreed, and said that she appre­ci­at­ed the per­fec­tion­ist side of me—something we also bond­ed over. 

Our sec­ond meet­ing was held at the mini-café inside the near­by Fil­igrane book­shop, her favorite store where she spends a lot of time read­ing and brows­ing the mas­sive selec­tions of cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly arranged books that span sev­er­al floors. The weath­er fore­cast had pre­dict­ed a day of down­pour yet per­haps unsur­pris­ing­ly, it was wrong and there were only inter­mit­tent rains. 

I reached out for anoth­er meet­ing with the incen­tive to intro­duce Racha to my grandmother’s friend, an 83-year-old dynam­ic woman by the name of Genevieve, who is a vora­cious read­er of phi­los­o­phy, was a stu­dent of Ray­mond Aron at the Sor­bonne, and had rec­om­mend­ed her nov­el to me in the first place.  By coin­ci­dence, Racha’s part­ner Mar­tin, who joined our meet­ing, was an ide­al com­ple­ment. Like Genevieve, he stud­ied phi­los­o­phy in Paris, and they were delight­ed to exchange dialec­tics. This time, the meet­ing was far more casu­al (we spoke in the infor­mal, friend­ly tu) and far-rang­ing in top­ics rang­ing from Afghanistan to Kant to Islam in Europe and Brus­sels to imagination.

Just when I looked at my watch, four hours had passed in what was one of the most enjoy­able meet­ings of my life. Per­haps most inter­est­ing was our con­ver­sa­tions about Racha and Martin’s recent trav­els to Lebanon and how they nav­i­gat­ed the coun­try in the wake of the elec­tric­i­ty, water, and gas short­ages. (The next day, I would board a plane on my way to Lebanon and the air­lines did a fan­tas­tic job feign­ing like we were going to a nor­mal coun­try, or at least, a Lebanon from two years ago before we stepped off the precipice). Yet Racha and Mar­tin had well pre­pared me for the infer­no await­ing me, and I knew that to sur­vive here with all my short­ages, I would have to have solid­i­fy a men­tal for­ti­tude and box myself with­in the Ham­ra neigh­bor­hood near my uni­ver­si­ty. “Just make sure you don’t need gas, get sick, or leave food in your fridge,” Mar­tin warned, advice I’ve since been try­ing to heed. Recent­ly, I even received my sec­ond first doze of the Pfiz­er vac­cine at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty of Beirut hospital.

As after­noon turned to night, we ambled out the store under the driz­zle to catch trains at the metro sta­tion, where we final­ly part­ed ways. We promised anoth­er meet­ing next time we were all unit­ed by fate in the city. I had left with the enor­mous sat­is­fac­tion of what I had ini­tial­ly set out to find: a new­found friend bond­ed by our love for Bel­gium, Lebanon, French and Lebanese cul­ture, read­ing, intro­spec­tion, the Mediter­ranean and so much more.

Recent­ly, she won a writ­ing schol­ar­ship from the fed­er­a­tion Wal­lo­nia-Brus­sels to sup­port her sec­ond nov­el, which also explores issues of child­hood trau­ma as well as a young French professional’s chal­lenges inte­grat­ing into the work­force. “It can be dif­fi­cult some­times to be an immi­grant here, so to write some­thing in Europe is like land­ing here,” she said.

Arab identityArabicBeirutLebanese civil war

A.J. Naddaff is a multimedia journalist and translator. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Davidson College and is currently pursuing a Master’s in the department of Arabic literature and Near Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut. His work has appeared in the LARB, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, the Intercept, and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ajnaddaff.

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