At the end of the gory Druze-Christian conflict in Mount Lebanon in 1860, Ottoman authorities exiled hundreds of Druze fighters to Belgrade, which was in those days ruled by Istanbul.
One of the combatants, Sheikh Ghaffar Ezzedine, attempted to use his family fortune to convince officials to spare his five sons this fate.
Ismail Pasha answered the old sheikh’s request with an ultimatum.
“So that you don’t go back alone I will let someone accompany you,” he said. “Choose one of your five sons and take him with you. Hurry up Sheikh, before I change my mind.”
Walking toward Beirut port this day, the spot he favored for his work, egg-seller Hanna Yaaqoub was taken aback at the sight of an uncountable number of Druze men kneeling, hands tied behind their backs.
Yaaqoub stood and stared, much as someone might do today.
When the Ottoman soldiers guarding the imprisoned fighters found one of the five Ezzedine brothers, Sleiman, was missing, they decided that the missing man must be replaced.
The egg-seller standing a few meters away presented the obvious solution. A few seconds later they seized him.
“I’m Hanna Yaaqoub!” he protested, “a Christian from Beirut. I live in the house adjoining Mar Elias Catholic Church.”
Yaaqoub’s calls went unanswered as he was beaten and forced onto the Belgrade-bound ship. His calls resonate throughout “The Druze of Belgrade: Hanna Yaaqoub’s Tale,” the latest work by Rabee Jaber, the prolific 40-year-old Lebanese novelist who won the prestigious Booker Prize for Arabic fiction last month in Abu Dhabi.
The novel could be read as a literary riposte to the Turkish republic’s increasing influence in the Arab world – which for some historically minded observers is reminiscent of the Ottomans’ centuries-long rule of this region.
The novel does expose indecorous Ottoman practices from the recent past but, more than that, it details the chameleon-like flexibility of identities that can issue from the struggle for survival. In the process it deconstructs the cliches of identity politics.
“Remember when you looked at us when we were tied up at the port and you did not run away?” Qassem Ezzedine, Yaaqoub’s “brother,” reminds him throughout their seven-year journey. “Forgive us Hanna.”
Intentionally, or not, Jaber’s 17th novel has met the prerequisites for winning awards.
Historical fiction is an increasingly popular genre these days and cross-confessional interaction – the dominant theme in “The Druze of Belgrade” – is close to the hearts of politically minded literary critics. Finally, Jaber’s novel is an incontestably exciting read.
In one of the book’s most poignant passages, Bashir Ezzedine, one of Yaaqoub’s adoptive brothers asks, “Are you afraid of me, Hanna?”
“Why would I be?” Yaaqoub snaps. “Do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you Hanna. You’re like my brother now. But I curse the moment we lay eyes on your face. Look at what happened to us!”
Jaber doesn’t limit himself to this winning formula. A more prominent facet of the novel is the author’s appealingly clever and personal style.
Effortlessly sliding among the multiple collective identities he embraces over the course of the story, Yaaqoub could be a Levantine answer to Amin Maalouf’s Leo the African.
The character leaves Beirut a Christian egg-seller. Throughout his exile and incarceration, he is transformed into Druze fighter Sleiman Ezzedine. He returns home a pilgrim in the Hajj caravan to Mecca.
Pilgrims became accustomed to calling the frail and taciturn man, draped in sheep skin and holding a red Sicilian cane between his mutilated fingers, “Hajj Sleiman,” the dervish.
“While he was prostrating under the arcades of the mosque, he felt he was Sleiman, the poor Muslim,” Jaber writes. “Yet he was Hanna Yaaqoub, a Christian from Beirut. I live in the house adjoining the Mar Elias Catholic Church.”
“I know who you are,” Qassem would tell him jokingly. “You almost made me deaf with your screaming at the port.”
Compellingly intense, the plot of “The Druze of Belgrade” is rendered all the more appealing by Jaber’s writing, which departs from the dull poetical language characteristic of some Arabic literature, but also shuns the sometimes bizarre affectations of post-modern Arabic fiction.
The simple, straightforward language of this exciting narrative betrays Jaber’s journalistic background – for several years now he has edited the cultural supplement Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat.
Instead of endless flowery descriptions, the writer captures the unfortunate egg-seller’s pain, longing and occasional madness in brief, cleverly rendered passages.
“Hanna crawled until he reached the chicken coop ... Inside, he found one chicken and one egg. The chicken wasn’t frightened; he scooped it out with an expert’s hand. He did not cry while holding it in his arms in the dark.”
Over the course of Yaaqoub’s epic journey, the author cunningly cultivates the readers’ attachment to his principal character. The author also addresses several themes that are at once interesting and informative.
“It’s hard to sleep,” Qassem tells Yaaqoub in one of the novel’s recurring exchanges.
“When are we going to be set free, Qassem?” Yaaqoub always replies.
Oppression, confessionalism, prejudice and isolation have shaped the lives of the people in this part of the world. Indeed, they continue to poison their lives and ties on a daily basis.
“The Druze of Belgrade” is the journey of a man away from those ruinous conflicts, offering proof that, though people are often conditioned to be narrow-minded and bigoted, alternatives do exist – though skeptics remain the majority.
“These are the Druze of Belgrade,” a prisoner remarks when the Druze stop in the Ottoman Balkan principality of Herzegovina. “They came here walking without food, without rest.”
“Are you an idiot to believe this?” another inmate replies.
Rabee Jaber’s “The Druze of Belgrade: Hanna Yaaqoub’s Tale” (2012) is co-published by the Arab Cultural Center and Dar al-Adab and is available in select Beirut-area bookshops