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by Jabbour Douaihy
Translated by Paula Haydar
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, Qatar, 2014. 304 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 97899921-42783. Kindle $14.50.
Profound depiction of a community grief– conjoined
There are many ways to tell the story of a massacre. On June 16, 1957, more than a hundred bullets were fired during a funeral at a crowded church in the village of Burj al-Hawa. It left twenty-four dead and countless wounded. The title, June Rain, embraces the event through the unexpected downpour on that day that drove many to seek shelter inside the church. Its poignancy is further enhanced in the words of one survivor who described the sound of gunfire as if it were rain.
One starting point is forty-three years later when Eliyya, the son of one victim, returns from America to visit his mother. In a notebook, he records interviews, draws sketches and inserts photographs in an attempt to piece together what happened the day his father was killed. Uncertainty always remains and we end up with many frames of reference: a shopkeeper’s, a photographer’s, an article by a foreign journalist, whose piece matched the title, and a neighbour. Picking up the pieces was no easy task: one informant did not see any point in recounting the details of that day, another believed those killed were murdered by their own friends or by relatives, a third saw no point in holding on to the memories and handed over his stash of hidden photos.
The assumption that buried animosity awaits for the slightest spark to set off a civil war and a frenzy of killing is the easiest explanation of violence. Douaihy approaches the massacre through examining facets of masculinity – infatuation with guns, men showing up to funerals with guns, surrounding the head (zaeem) of their clan in full gear, or the photographer who keeps an array of guns (and two swords) as props for men who want their photos taken. No man lends his gun. Cycles of violence become inevitable once honour is tied to revenge that is often sanctified by men of religion. Men protect their communities with guns and those who refuse have only one option – to move out.
The borders of community are well defined. Douaihy is candid in exploring the notion of the “stranger” as not a phenomenon “measured in kilometers but rather in hundreds of meters outside the village”. As the novel unfolds, this theme is explored in the way a mother teaches her children to do things differently or through relatives who never forgive the wife for being a stranger. And in times of conflict we see families and marriages broken along blood lines.
It is against this rich background that past meets present. The characters in June Rain are beautifully depicted. The cast includes victims of the massacre, families who have moved out, a wife separated from her husband, a gambler, womanizers, a deaf mute. Two chapters offer excellent commentary on ranking and social change. Eliyya, in America, reinvents himself many times over. Unable to keep up with the many versions of himself, exile offers no comfort. He reverts to an urban nomadism, a man on the move, of many addresses, phone numbers, email accounts, while avoiding anyone with connection to his homeland. As Douaihy demonstrates in several characters, risk and gamble form part of Lebanese identity.
This novel is one of the most profound depictions of grief as it affects a community across generations. At the end, Eliyya leaves his notebook for his mother, with its account of that fateful day, and she decides it is best to burn it. And on his way back he, too, sheds his baggage, the food his mother has packed for the various stages of his journey back to America.
A candid depiction of death, June Rain is one of most powerful novels on Lebanon. It is rich, complex, beautifully written and more importantly, beautifully translated by Paula Haydar. This work is outstanding and will continue to remain relevant.
Published in Banipal 50 – Prison Writing, pages 210-211.