Lebanon has many publishing houses, which publish in Arabic, French and English. In 2009, UNESCO designated Beirut as World Book Capital, ‘in particular thanks to its efforts for cultural diversity, dialogue and tolerance as well as for the variety and dynamism of its programme’. Each year (with a few exceptions), Beirut hosts the Salon Francophone du Livre, the largest literary salon outside of Paris and Montreal. It also hosts an Arab and International Book Fair (representing 170 publishers and attracting 35,000 visitors). Lebanese literature is also published in countries with large numbers of Lebanese emigrants. Poetry plays an important part in Lebanese literature. Prominent musicians have written music to traditional poems, and newspapers deem poetry important.
In the second half of the 19th century, a literary and scientific renaissance occurred. One reason for this was the establishment of several universities and schools, the most prestigious being the American University of Beirut (1866) and the Jesuit Saint Joseph University (1875). But writers and poets also seem to have been inspired by the tragic events that marked that century. The same applies to the civil war (1975-1990) and the influx of Palestinian refugees.
The Nahda: a New Cultural Movement and the Shaping of Lebanese Literature
The first signs of a new cultural movement became apparent in 1957 with the foundation of Shir, a magazine for experimental poetry established by the Syrian poet Adunis (the alias of Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) and others. Poets from all over the Arab world settled in Beirut, attracted by the free press and the relatively tolerant intellectual atmosphere that reigned at the time. In the same period, modern narrative prose began to take shape. Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad, Maroun Abboud and Yusuf Habashi al-Ashqar published their first novels and short story collections, heavily influenced by European and Russian naturalism.
Others, such as Suhayl Idris, were drawn to the existentialist movement of Jean-Paul Sartre and his group. In the second half of the 20th century, female writers began to gain ground. In 1968, Layla Baalbakki published her autobiographical feminist novel Ana ahya (‘I live’), which made her famous not only in Lebanon but across the Arab world.
The Arab defeat in the 1967 conflict with Israel and the subsequent civil war (1975-1990) in Lebanon deeply affected Lebanese society, including the cultural and literary scene. The war featured in everything that was written, be it the political novels of Suhayl Idris, the prophetic novels of Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad or the surrealistic stories of the political activist and writer Elias Khoury.
Among female writers, the war seemed to function as a catalyst and a source of inspiration. New names rose to prominence, notably Emily Nasrallah, Hanan al-Shaykh and Hoda Barakat, who would soon become known as the ‘Decentrists of Beirut’. The Decentrists tried to demystify Lebanese society by identifying the controversies underlying the political crisis. According to them, politics was not the only issue at stake and they advocated a reconsideration of traditional, pre-war patriarchal values.
In the early 1980s, a new genre of literary prose emerged. The war was still present but was stripped of the heavy ideology that had previously dominated the written word. Writers such as Hasan Daoud, Rashid al-Daif, Alawiya Subh and Iman Humaydan concentrated on the daily life of the Lebanese people during the war. The new millennium saw the emergence of a new generation of writers who were still children when the war broke out. In their literary work, they try to recover the youth that the war stole from them. Rabee Jaber is one of the most prominent representatives of this generation.
In the past 20 years, Beirut has grown into a thriving cultural and literary centre. Each year (with a few exceptions), Beirut hosts the Salon Francophone du Livre, the largest literary salon outside of Paris and Montreal, and the Beirut Arab Book Fair (representing 170 publishers). In 2009, UNESCO designated Beirut as World Book Capital, ‘in particular thanks to its efforts for cultural diversity, dialogue and tolerance as well as for the variety and dynamism of its programme’.
Modern Lebanese Authors and Notable Works
Salah Stétié (1928), writer, poet and diplomat, writes in French and has published more than 35 books, including poetry, biographies of other poets (Mallarmé, Rimbaud) and essays, such as Culture et violence en Méditerranée. He also translated Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet into French. He was awarded the Grand prix de la Francophonie in 1995. A selection of his poems was translated into English under the title Cold Water Shielded. His works have also been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish and Serbian. In 2006, he received Serbia’s Smederevo Award, the oldest poetry award in Europe. In 1996, the Arabic-language l iterary journal al-Adab published a special issue about him. He is also the subject of three documentary films.
Adunis (born 1930) is a poet, philosopher and literary critic. He founded two literary journals, Majallat Shir (‘poetry’) and Mawaqif (‘positions’). He has been named several times as a possible Nobel laureate. The first collection of Adunis’ verse in English, The Blood of Adonis, appeared in 1971 and was reissued in 1982 as Transformations of the Lover.
Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) is one of the most important writers of Lebanese origin. From the age of 12, he was raised in Boston, United States. He studied art in Paris for two years, then returned to the United States, where he live from 1912 in New York. His name was shortened to Khalil Gibran by mistake upon his arrival in the United States, and he is known under this name outside Lebanon. Gibran’s early works were written in Arabic, but from 1918 he published mostly in English. Among his best known works is The Prophet, a book of 26 poetic essays, which has been translated into more than 20 languages.
Vénus Khoury-Ghata (born 1937) writes in French and has lived in France since 1973. A well-known and highly regarded poet, novelist and short story writer, she was awarded the Prix Mallarmé in 1987 for Monologue du mort, the Prix Apollinaire in 1980 for Les ombres et leurs cris, and the Grand Prix de la Société des gens de lettres for Fables pour un people d’argile in 1992. Her most recent collection of poems, Quelle est la nuit parmi les nuits, was published in 2004. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Dutch, German, Italian and Russian. She was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2000. Her most recent novel, Sept pierres pour la femme adultère (2007), was shortlisted for two important prizes.
Elias Khoury (born 1948), novelist, playwright, literary critic and sociologist, is considered one of the leading contemporary Arabic intellectuals and writers. In his youth, he enlisted in the Fatah movement within the Palestine Liberation Organization, then fought in Lebanon’s civil war. His novels have been translated into many languages. For several years, he was the editor of al-Mulhaq, the weekly literary supplement of the daily newspaper al-Nahar. Among his best known books are Little Mountain, The Journey of Little Gandhi, The Kingdom of Strangers and Gate of the Sun. He lives in Beirut and New York.
Amin Maalouf (born 1949) lives in Paris and writes in French. A versatile author of novels, essays and even opera librettos, he is a compelling storyteller. Much of his work seems aimed at creating more understanding among (opposing) groups. Many of his novels are set against a historical backdrop and some of his characters are historical figures. His most important novels include Leo the African, The Rock of Tanios, which was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1993, and Balthasar’s Odyssey. Origins, translated into numerous languages, traces his grandfather’s history within the wider context of Lebanon’s and the world’s history.
Jabbour Douaihy (born 1949) is an academic, novelist and journalist. His works include Ayn Ward, June Rain, which was shortlisted for the 2008 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, also known as the ‘Arabic Booker Prize’, and Autumn Equinox.
Alexandre Najjar (born 1967), who lives in France and writes in French, is one of the most important writers of his generation. He was awarded the Grand prix de la Francophonie in December 2009. His books include a biography of Khalil Gibran, The School of War, Berlin 36, Phoenicia and Le roman de Beyrouth, about the tragic events in 1860 and thereafter.