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The virtual as a salute to the paper book
Journalist Akl Awit speaks during an interview in Beirut, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
Journalist Akl Awit speaks during an interview in Beirut, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
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BEIRUT: As the virtual world of social media seems increasingly to be taking over our daily lives, Lebanese poet Akl Awit has chosen to reverse this trend, using “the virtual as a salute to the book.” In his new book, “Skyping,” an imaginary dialogue between a woman and a man, each behind their computer screens communicating via Skype, the two interlocutors reflect on the meaning of love, the body and death.

“The book for me is a paper book,” Awit, a critic and university professor, told The Daily Star. “This is the only body I know of ... and I deal with a book as I deal with my own body or with a woman’s body. I can only feel the book, if [it’s made of] paper, within pages and between two covers.”

“But a book only becomes a book by invention,” he added. “There is no difference if this occurs on paper or on a screen. ... What I liked [about ‘Skyping’] is that the virtual paid a tribute to the paper book.”

In Awit’s book of prose poetry, published by Dar Nawfal, both the intense language and the strict style of writing seem to be breaking new ground, reconciling contradictions and yet flowing smoothly.

Awit, the managing editor of An-Nahar’s cultural supplement in Beirut, said that he felt he had succeeded in “taking over both the language and style in this dialogue, this literary trick, as I have never done before.”

“This takeover is unprecedented in the Arab language,” poet and critic Mohammad Shameseddine wrote in a preview of the work.

Awit said that he found himself going through this literary work “without a prior conscious will” and yet he found everything in his physical, emotional and literary consciousness ready to embrace this key transformation in his writing.

“I still perceive this work as a stranger to me,” he said, “whereas in reality it is my hidden mirror.”

Awit, a poet who approaches literature with considerable delicacy and craftsmanship, stressed that he was keen on preserving strict literary standards in this book. He said that the idea of the virtual conversation came from a real dialogue, via the computer screen, between a man and a woman but added that he didn’t want to supersede literary skill in favor of passion.

“I did not want, at any moment, to make the book a hostage or subject it to flings or aims that do not serve the strict literary experience,” he said.

As for his relationship with social media and computers, Awit said he had been using a computer to write since the beginning of the ’90s, but added that he dealt with the device as “a machine used for mere professional reasons.”

“It is not a trend for me,” he explained. “I deal with the computer as a path to my virtual world, this world that lives inside of me from head to toe, in my dreams and not on a computer screen.”

The writer then edits his work on paper, which “brings out the critic in me,” he said, enabling him to evaluate his own work.

The writer, who has dedicated many years to poetry, penning more than eight titles, said that “Skyping” was the part that was missing from his latest autobiographical poetic prose, “A Birth Certificate.”

Awit treated both interlocutors as an equal in terms of language and style, he said. “I write with the language of flesh,” he added, describing his intimate and intense relation with writing, “with the flesh of the language.”

He emphasized that he did not try to physically dominate the female character in his work but let her be herself. “The woman in the dialogue wrote herself by herself,” he said. “[I] did not sneak into the desires and [fantasies] of the woman. [I] was just a trustworthy literary messenger.”

Both the male and female characters seem to be chasing and escaping each other, as if involved in a new form of passion. The male interlocutor is always telling his beloved that he “wants nothing but yet wants all.”

His love seems at times to have freed itself from all the burdens of physical desire and the longing to possess the body of his partner. Asked if a human being can really reach a level and depth of emotion in which “love becomes sufficient with only love,” Awit answers with a “yes.”

“I do not hide that the man in the book is [based on] myself,” he said. “Yes, a man can reach such a level of love. I can.”

Akl Awit’s “Skyping” is published by Dar Nawfal and is available in select bookstores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 13, 2013, on page 6.
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