Culture

Bakery workers of Beirut unite

REVIEW

BEIRUT: Hassan Daoud is a writer's writer and an architect's dream. He constructs intricate, episodic narratives that are based on individual building typologies, and his novels are shot through with an economy of phrasing that is clipped and restrained yet bristling with humor.

Editor of the cultural supplement Nawafez for the Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, Daoud is the author of five novels and two short-story collections. His fictional debut, "The House of Mathilde," was published in Arabic in 1983. It took 16 years for the English translation to appear, courtesy of Granta Books in 1999, though sadly that edition has since fallen out of print. Skip ahead eight years to the present and Telegram, an imprint of the seemingly indefatigable Saqi Books, has just released Daoud's 1996 novel "The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine," translated from Arabic to English by Randa Jarrar.

"The House of Mathilde" seizes hold of a single apartment building in Beirut that was designed to support the bree-zy, cosmopolitan lifestyle of the Lebanese capital but during the Civil War grew crowed and cramped by the arrival of rural migrants from South Lebanon and their village ways. Told through the perspective of an unnamed young boy, the book chronicles the building's fading fortunes as tenants move in, move out, get married, give birth, drop dead and commit all manner of misdeeds from adultery to murder.

Daoud's attention to the details of the built environment is acute in this and a later novel, "The Penguin's Song," from 1998, which zones in on a precise urban quarter as seen through a young paraplegic's bedroom window. A few years ago, architect and academic Hashim Sarkis declared: "Daoud's spatial perspicuity puts architects to shame," in an essay on Lebanon's postwar literature and its ability to render, represent and possibly even repair Beirut's destroyed urban fabric.

Yet "The House of Mathilde" isn't merely an architectural blueprint translated as prose, and likewise, "The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine" offers a great deal more than a detailed plan illustrating the layout of a Ras Beirut bakery circa 1966 (though of that there is much). Where the former was sensitive to the striations of sect and religion in Lebanese society, the latter takes a careful calibration of class distinctions and divisions during an era of massive social upheaval - due not to the outbreak of war this time but rather to rapid and staggeringly uneven economic growth.

Daoud's young protagonist is the son and nephew of Beiruti bakers and so too are several of his friends. Never named, he is headed for a splendid failure on his school exams and destined to be ruined, in the words of his mother, like his brother before him by too much time spent around bread loaves and ovens and workers with hands as coarse as their conversation.

"The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine" is populated by a pack of young men, some of whom (Ramez, Farhat, Mustafa, Muhammad and Khalil, a relative of some sort) are childhood chums of the protagonist,while  others (Muhammad al-Halaby and his brother Radwan, Zeid, Hussein and Nawwaf) exist in a tenuous space between being true friends or simply his dad's dispensable employees.

Adolescence suspends and sustains that space - beautifully depicted in a single, exquisite, nearly Hemingway-esque chapter in which all the boys head to the beach on a day off from the bakery for the eid - but it is clearly diminishing as the novel unfolds. Daoud's book is both a dramatically spare coming of age story and a poignant account of a young man entering into class consciousness - and all the sad, retreating horizons of possibility that such a process entails.

Muhammad al-Halaby - who later becomes Muhammad Rajiha with the arrival of a cousin who shares his name - sings like a songbird while he works and wants to be a star. He goads the protagonist to join him, but when he proves to be nearly tone deaf the protagonist recites poetry instead, to the occasional delight of the bakery's customers. The two young men fuel each other's dreams, if only for a little while.

Two sisters from the neighborhood take turns dropping by to buy bread for their family each day. Our young hero falls for them both but can't decide which he likes more, the younger one with the open sandals and the painted toes or the older one with a voice like laughter. In fact, the streets are so full of beautiful girls and women that the protagonist often loses his head - the American babe with the Jaguar and her high heels strewn on the seat, the university girls who speak multiple languages and are stylishly composed.

The baker boy watches with envy as the bookstore clerk down the block flirts brazenly with them all. But toward the end of the book, he realizes - he knows, like a knot tightening in his chest - that not only are the females way out of his league but that the bookstore clerk's banter isn't going to get him anywhere near them either. (Ramez and Farhat, meanwhile, take to scaling rooftops in the early morning to spy single women sleeping naked or couples rousing to copulate at dawn.)

As tenderly portrayed as the protagonist's initiation into adulthood are the workers' experiences in the face of automation. Some of them are nameless and faceless, a rotating roster plucked from a sprawling network of other bakeries and baker's cafes. Some are ruined by gambling, debt or drink. But others, like Nawwaf, Ghaleb and Hussein, are steadfast as the stone-table trio. When the protagonist's father buys a dough-cutting machine, Ghaleb tries to master it but he's worked with his palms for a lifetime and can't make the transition to manipulating a twiddlesome gadget with his fingertips.

"Ghaleb left a few days after the machine's arrival; not because my uncle got angry with him when he saw the loaves of bread stretched out like boards, but because he hated working with machines," writes Daoud. "He told my father a little boy would be able to take his place, and probably do a better job. Those few days after the machine's arrival, he felt alienated from the trio he was a part of, forced to join the ranks of the workers and the delivery men ... When Ghaleb left, my father said that he hadn't known what to do with his body in front of the machine."

Indeed, "The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine" obsesses over the micro-manual labor that goes into preparing loaves. The workers grow increasingly ostracized and unbalanced by the arrival of dough cutters, slicers, makers and flatteners. Hussein of the stone-table trio already reduced to a pair "stood silently by his machine," Daoud writes, "as though he felt guilty that his palms were softening, and that he was barely doing anything at all to earn his wage; guilty about the new machine which gave him a break."

Then Muhammad Rajiha loses his thumb to the cutting machine, never to sing again, rarely to even speak after the accident occurs. By the end of the book, the revolutionary contraption of the title materializes, a monstrous structure built by a Bourj Hammoud "inventor" with jagged, knife-like protrusions. It obliterates the bakery's previously jerry-rigged yet rustically charming interior and strikes the death knell for old-school Ras Beiruti bakeries at large. On the final pages, there are no more customers and only Nawwaf remains. The bakery is subsumed by the economic food chain, transformed from an element of vibrant urban street life to an insular metal box supplying bread directly to grocery stores. Nawwaf, like an office employee, brushes a stray bit of flour from his trousers as the novel ends.

Daoud's redolent detail evokes historical circumstances - from a rampant increase in purchasing power and a round of lira devaluation to the fierce internationalist flavor and quirky pseudo-intellectual activity of the street - without ever evoking 1960s Beirut as a gauzy golden age. A thread of Marxist principles weaves through the narrative with subtlety.

To be sure, "The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine" is a book about dashed hopes and broken dreams and the alienation of modern times. But by situating such grand, sweeping narratives in a single storefront, Daoud tells a story as painfully precise as one's first case of heartache.

Hassan Daoud's novel "The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine" is published

by Telegram Books

 

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