BEIRUT: When history proves too complex, cloudy and controversial to encapsulate, fiction sometimes does the trick. In “June Rain,” Lebanese author Jabbour Douaihy has penned a beautiful treatise on violence and revenge, weaving a complex fictional web around a kernel of truth.
In 1957, rivalry between the Douaihy family and the neighboring Franjieh and Mouawad families reached fever pitch. On June 13, while attending a requiem mass at a church in Meziara, young men from the two sides engaged in a brutal gun battle, leaving dozens dead.
In the wake of the incident, barricades split Zghorta’s Zawiya neighborhood in two. Behind them, armed men shot at former friends and neighbors. The conflict continued for months, becoming part of the wider state of sectarian violence in Lebanon known as the 1958 crisis. The intervention of U.S. troops and the formation of a national reconciliation government finally put an end to it.
It is the complex tensions and propensity for violence that led to the massacre, as well as the simmering bitterness and obsession with revenge in its wake, that Douaihy explores in “June Rain.”
A beautifully written, artfully conceived novel, it was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction after its publication in 2006. Available for the first time in an accomplished English translation by Paula Haydar, the book explores not only Lebanon’s history of brutal sectarian conflict but the futility of seeking rational explanations for senseless acts of violence.
Douaihy’s fictionalized account is set in a small village called Barqa in the north of Lebanon. Here, in the lead-up to elections, tensions begin to grow between the Al-Semaani family and the Al-Rami family. The young men begin buying revolvers, which they proudly display as they strut around town.
During a remembrance service in the nearby town of Burj al-Hawa, tragedy strikes. Accounts differ as to what triggered the incident, but somehow a fight breaks out, leaving 24 dead. Both families are left bereaved and spoiling for revenge and the town is split in two, forcing residents to choose between blood relatives and spouses.
Douaihy doesn’t appear to be interested in a historical reconstruction as much as an exploration of how these sorts of tragedies take on a life of their own, mutating as events are told and retold until multiple narratives coexist, none with a definitive claim to truth.
The author himself lived through the events of 1957, and it’s easy to imagine that the book’s memorable, finely painted characters are based on real people and their stories.
Whether or not this is the case, Douaihy has a talent for conjuring up a strong sense of personality in a very few words. Few of his characters appear in more than one chapter, but the impressions they leave are more powerful than the protagonists of many full-length novels.
Narrated in a series of chapters that switch between time periods and narrators – some penned in the third person, others told in the first person without necessarily revealing the narrator’s identity – the book’s structure is confusing at first. It’s a narrative device that cleverly mimics the complexity of the story at the heart of the novel, offering multiple, often conflicting perspectives for the reader to accept or reject at will.
The plot revolves around Eliyya, born nine months and one week after the massacre, in which he’s told that his father was killed. His mother, Kamileh, the subject of vicious gossip from her neighbors, sends Eliyya to the U.S. She doesn’t see him for 20 years.
One day he returns to the village, a single man in his 40s, determined to discover what really happened on the day of the massacre, when an unseasonable rain shower forced the feuding families to shelter together in the church.
As he wanders the streets of the village, crossing what was once an impassable front line, he uncovers tales of loss, violence and revenge and counterrevenge.
Although Eliyya is the catalyst for revisiting events forty years in the past, the multiple characters and perspectives in the book preclude a protagonist in the traditional sense. If anything, it’s the village of Barqa, united, divided and finally tentatively stitched back together by its residents, that becomes the focus of the work.
A child who is suddenly recalled from boarding school is left to walk alone past the bodies of 10 men, laid out on beds in the town square. A young girl observes as her father agrees to lend his cousins his gun, but refuses to accompany them to the church, then watches as her youngest brother is branded the son of a coward.
A baker who finds himself suddenly working on the wrong side of the barricade trusts that his neighbors won’t turn against him after decades of friendship. Eliyya’s elderly, near-blind mother struggles to accept his decision to seek the truth from everyone in the village but her.
A storyteller himself, his life in the U.S. punctuated by a fleeting series of relationships based on fabricated pasts, Eliyya is more of an absence than a presence in the novel, an abyss capable of fabricating or eliciting stories but unable to come to terms with his own.
A thought-provoking, moving and bleakly humorous exploration of the roots, impact and legacy of bloodshed on a once-peaceful community, “June Rain” is a must-read for anyone interested in Lebanon’s history or a community’s mechanisms of violence.
Jabbour Douaihy’s “June Rain,” translated by Paula Haydar, is published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing and is available from local bookstores.