BEIRUT: Autobiography and memoir are, by their very nature, self-aggrandizing literary forms. Although self-penned “great man” narratives can make irritating reading, some hope still resides in the written recollections of more modest folk.
When the perceptions are sharp and the writing witty, the insights of functionaries, replete with a lifetime of anecdote drawn from day-to-day labor, can be as intriguing as the high-blown tales of the Lawrences and Churchills of the world.
By his own declaration, Cecil Hourani’s “An Unfinished Odyssey” is neither an autobiography nor a history of the various Arab countries in which he has spent time.
It is rather, Hourani says, a memoir, one he has decided to share with the reading public not due to “an ego of exceptional size” but because “the positions I have occupied, and the activities in which I have participated, have sometimes placed me in the limelight, and sometimes too made me a figure of controversy, so that I have found it not only useful to myself, but perhaps also interesting to others, to try to understand my motives and explain my ideas.”
This declaration of intentions sets a tone that holds throughout most of Hourani’s two-volume memoir.
While the author has indeed found himself in interesting places at interesting times, his painfully stiff yet meandering prose never seems to take the reader to the heart of the matters in which he took part.
The first volume opens with “A Manchester childhood.” Here Hourani introduces his origins, born in the English industrial city in 1917 to Lebanese parents who themselves had migrated from the then-Syrian town of Marjayoun in the late 19th century.
The narrator isn’t the first Mancunian Hourani. Students of the history of the modern Middle East will likely have come across the writings of the eminent historian Albert Hourani, the author’s brother. This perhaps better-known Hourani is a recurrent but minor character in the memoir.
The writer does a fine job of portraying the cultural dichotomy of his childhood home, where the vibrant Levantine celebrations were juxtaposed with Sundays’ rigid adherence to frugal Presbyterianism.
As the narrative progresses, however, it grows a trifle longwinded, as ceaseless name-dropping overshadows potentially engaging incidents.
At times, it feels as if the author acknowledges various individuals by name for the simple purpose of, well, acknowledging them. It is simply distracting if not irrelevant to learn that Hourani was taught by “A.D. Whitehorn (father of Katherine)” when neither the teacher nor the daughter plays any further role in the memoir.
This sort of aimless citation of names is a recurrent theme of both volumes, a disservice to the memoir since it detracts from references to significant characters who do play substantial roles in Hourani’s story.
The chapters of the first volume progress, at first, in chronological order. During World War II, Hourani travels back to Lebanon in the service of Britain, then on to Cairo before heading to Washington, D.C., with the Arab Office in the aftermath of the war.
Henceforward the work proceeds topically. exploring the Middle East’s mid-20th century wars before turning its attention his time in the service of Tunisia’s independence leader and later president, Habib Bourguiba.
A chapter dedicated to Hourani’s role in founding and running a cultural center at Hammamet, Tunisia, tantalizes readers by promising fascinating insight into an exciting project. Alas, enthusiasm is quickly lost as it reads increasingly like the cover letter and CV of an overzealous job applicant.
As Hourani sees it his efforts at Hammamet failed because of the jealousies of other public figures and an unnamed illness Bourguiba was suffering at the time, which impaired the president’s judgment. Here, and elsewhere in the book, Hourani barely grapples with the complex motivations conditioning these figures’ actions.
Perhaps the most engaging read in the first volume is the chapter “Marjayoun Besieged ” in which Hourani relates his experiences in the south Lebanon town during the late ’70s and early ’80s, and his views of its fate.
He is critical of the Palestinian presence in the south and sympathetic to the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army, which for those somewhat versed in the happenings of the period will prove intriguing. For neophytes, the chapter is less likely to be meaningful.
Volume one of the memoir was published in the U.K. in 1984, shortly after its completion. Antoine’s first edition of volume two is packaged alongside volume one.
The second volume is a shorter and a more eclectic collection of chapters, each of which could be published as an independent essay.
Hourani explores, among other things, the role of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan in the Arab world and in relation of the Palestinian question. He discusses pre-1950s Baghdad. He considers his wife’s family’s role in the evolution of the Baha’i faith. He relates his role in efforts to return a monarch to the Albanian throne. He narrates an amusing, seemingly whimsical, foray into cheese production.
The problems permeating the second volume of the memoir are not unlike those afflicting the first, with one notable addition: The latter volume is also poorly edited. Typos abound. A misspelling here or there is forgivable but a mis-dated event in the final chapter gives rise to confusion – a dinner is said to take place in Cairo in 1994, but one of the attendees, readers of volume one will know, has been dead since the 1940s.
There are many facets in Hourani’s professional career as a transnational cosmopolite laboring in the service of the sometimes parochial successor states of the mid-20th century. Any number of published biographies – William L. Cleveland’s studies of Sati al-Husri and Shakib Arslan spring to mind – testify to what fascinating reading such stories can yield.
Cecil Hourani is surely an intelligent man who has a unique perspective on the Arab world. Those unfazed by self-aggrandizing prose will open these volumes to find slivers of insight into this world await them.
Cecil Hourani’s “An Unfinished Odyssey, Books 1 & 2” is published by Antoine S.A.L. and available at Beirut-area bookstores.