The Vagrant by Jabbour Douaihy, Beirut: Dar Al-Nahar, 2011.
Towards the end of Jabbour Douaihy’s Arab Booker shortlisted-novel, Nizam Al-Alamy – the vagrant of the title – is standing at a Lebanese security checkpoint during the country’s 1975-90 civil war. His only crime was to believe in love and present his own version of Lebanese identity. When the soldier operating the checkpoint asks his name, Nizam speaks about his lover, Jinan, and her beautiful eyes which allow him to create his own identity system. He was able to move from Muslim West Beirut to Christian East Beirut without a problem and equally he was able to move between Sabah, his Muslim mother by birth, and Dalal, his Christian benefactor and mother by choice.
Nizam (the word literally means order) lives in a sectarian society rooted in killer identities. He lives alone with his religious conversion, thinking of things with a bird’s logic, moving freely from one place to the other.
The dreamy artist, Jinan, captured Nizam’s heart when she fixed the Saint George statute left to him by Olga, the Russian woman who fell in love with Lebanon but fled and left her apartment to Nizam so he could protect the statue.
The apartment overlooking the Mediterranean turned into a space for discussion. In addition to his first lover, Yosra, there were representatives of a leftwing organisation that wanted to protect Lebanon’s diversity.
The crisis that led to Nizam’s fatal end was his vagrancy: Muslims could not accept him in as one of them and nor could Christians. Even the scene of his burial turned into a journey resembling his own life, when his sister stole his body right after reaching their Muslim family, and took it to the Christian quarter and the cemetery gardens to give him a little break between sleep and death.
The Vagrant provides a new viewpoint on the Lebanese civil war, a subject that has long engaged novelists. Douaihy has looked at the war from an existentialist viewpoint, with a loving hero who appears like a pampered boy, yet deep inside carries energy to give and fill all of Lebanon’s geography and identities.
Douaihy’s language is poetic and does not seek to document but rather to weave an untraditional love story rooted in sacrifice. Every step in the novel is a mirror image of a Lebanon we dream of seeing.