BEIRUT: “I see that Lebanon is hurt,” writes Zahi Haddad, “that it is suffering and no one will know why.” Haddad’s French-language autobiography “Au Bonheur de Yaya” (The Happiness of Yaya) recounts the story of the former L’Orient le Jour writer’s transhumance from Lebanon to Europe. He first left Beirut as a child to flee 1975-90 Civil War, then again in 2010. The book casts its net a little broader, though, taking up historical and culinary themes as well.
The eponymous “Yaya,” as the reader discovers at the end of the book, is the nickname the author’s nephew gave his grandmother – Haddad’s mother. “Bonheur” can thus be read as a memoire in triptych – one frame taking up the author’s personal journey, another examining his country, a third ruminating on his close relationship with his mother.
The book begins with Haddad’s 2010 departure from Rafik Hariri Airport, en route to Geneva where he and his family had been living since he was a child. This first chapter immerses the reader in nocturnal Lebanon. Haddad’s depiction of the way the city smells, sounds, looks and feels at 5 a.m. immediately captures the reader’s attention.
“But, today, I have to go back to my reality,” he writes. “Before returning [once again]. Later. All this to-ing and fro-ing between my native country and [Lake Geneva], which welcomed me at the beginning of the 1970s, always regenerates me and makes me rejoice.”
Like many Lebanese expats, Haddad has a deep bond with his country, one he wants to discover again and again. Two weeks after returning to Geneva, he quits his job and returns to Beirut, whose traditions and customs he tries to understand while searching out his own identity and that of his family.
His account begins in earnest while still in Geneva, when he uncovers an album of old photographs, drawings and songs, along with a book of his mother’s recipes. The find provokes Haddad to examine his family genealogy.
Soon upon arrival in Beirut, he greets his first culture clash philosophically. “To understand the Orient,” he writes, “I will have to learn the ultimate virtue of patience.”
For more than 200 pages, the reader is given a tour of the Haddad family history from the 19th century to today. “I feel extremely happy ... to be able to research my roots,” he writes, “and to understand the country in which I was born and from which I was separated due to fifteen years of fratricidal war.”
Haddad reveals how his parents met, the elegance and tenderness of both his grandmothers, the ambition of his sister and the many cousins to whom he’s been introduced.
Love, friendships and disappointments mingle to render a touching portrait of the author’s life – punctuated by the sudden death of his father, when he was a teenager, and that of his mother as an adult.
Escorting him on his journey of catharsis is Ghinwa – a woman he first met online, then face-to-face. With her, Haddad discovers himself and confesses his deepest fears and secrets. The pair’s platonic love enables the author to dive deeper on his quest for identity.
The photo album is an intermediary between the author and his lost mother. Her recipes – reproduced in italics – draw Haddad and his reader into the world of traditional cooking. Moughleh, kibbeh, maamoul and caramel bring additional facets to the work, as though the author wanted to share this woman’s day-to-day routine.
Like many Lebanese memoires, “Bonheur” lingers over the Civil War. “In April 1975, I didn’t even celebrate my eighth birthday,” he writes, “and I didn’t understand my parents’ agitation in front of the television, announcing some weird news. Armed conflicts were shaking Beirut. ... I didn’t know why human beings had to stop living, why a country had to fall apart, and a history had to be put in brackets.”
The recollection of his childhood to Geneva and his contemporary exploration of Lebanon give Haddad’s memoire the aspects of a Bildungsroman. Individual recollections are complemented by poignant depictions of some relatives after they passed away.
Haddad describes his mother as “the incredible flame that was guiding” him.
“This situation is abnormal,” he writes of his father’s death. “It is completely unrealistic. How did my father – this lover of life’s beauty – succumb? Why? How can this man, so generous, succumb so young?
“What am I going to do without him? Who is going to teach me about life? Guide me? Did he feel it was his time to go? What was he thinking about? Who [was he thinking about]? I’m feeling dizzy.”
Zahi Haddad’s “Au Bonheur de Yaya” is published by Tamyras and available at select bookstores.