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Saturday, January 23, 2016

The angst of not belonging

Rawi Hage
In many and different ways those who immigrate experience alienation in their new home. Actually, the new home is not quite home; it never becomes home, it cannot become a home. At best, it's a house; and no more than an adjustment that takes its toll repeatedly and unsparingly.

This is especially true for a writer who is generally an exile often from her own life. A immigrant writer attempts to cope with this perennial transition by inventing a world – often, several worlds – that is a mix of the past and the present. These worlds are incomplete, messy, depressing and put together by the writer to fill real and imaginary chasms between the mercilessly reality of the adopted new world and a nostalgia for a world abandoned. The length of time the writer lives in the adopted home doesn't usually change the feel of angst of not belonging. In fact, in most cases, it gets accentuated. 

In this context, Bhiku Parekh, the renowned political theorist who defined multiculturalism (Rethinking Multiculturalism – Cultural Diversity and Political Theory), has said, “Although equal citizenship is essential to fostering a common sense of belonging, it is not enough. Citizenship is about status and rights; belonging is about acceptance, feeling welcome, a sense of identification. The two do not necessarily coincide. One might enjoy all the rights of citizenship but feel that one does not quite belong to the community and is a relative outsider…(quoted from Seminar)”

Rawi Hage, the Canadian-Lebanese author, is among the many Canadian authors from a diverse background who have crafted a world to which they cannot belong, and cannot leave. His second novel Cockroach is an unrelenting rendition of how inhospitable a new home in an alien place (Montreal) can become for an exile.

Hage immigrated to North America in 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War. He lived and worked in New York initially before going to Montreal to study photography. He turned to writing fiction in English (which is his third language after Arabic and French) and attained global recognition when his manuscript was plucked out of the slush pile at Anansi.

The Montreal-based Hage was in Toronto to participate in an informal chat titled Beirut, Montreal, the World. The conversation was mostly about his work, but it was also peppered with some insightful anecdotes. He spoke about the rich tradition of literature in Arabic ("30 % of Arabic literature is about wine and sex..."), as showed his familiarity with the latest trends in contemporary Arabic literature.

Hage was forced to learn English while in New York because he didn’t have any source for either Arabic or French books. His work in a photo studio egged him on to go to Montreal to study photography, and his work at ledgering his work turned him into a writer.

Hage was uncomfortable when a member of the audience compared to Khalil Gibran, and narrated an episode from his childhood when he accompanied his atheist father to a program celebrating Gibran in Beirut, where a priest couldn’t stop praising the author of Broken Wings. After a while Hage Senior got so worked up that he shouted at the priest, “He (Gibran) was against all that you stand for.”  

Hage said he is disappointed at the absence of a translation tradition in North America, unlike in Europe, where translations proliferate and are immensely popular. Revealing a deeply felt humanism and universalism in the context of cultural identity and how it impinges creativity, Hage said isolation is impossible. Arab creativity has been enriched by European influences as much as European civilization has been enriched by Arab influences.

Commenting on the rise of conservatism across the world, Hage said in the ultimate analysis, the battle, as postulated by Edward Said, is between secularism and religion. Conservatism gains acceptance because it provides certitude to people.

Hage engaged in a dialog with the audience for nearly two hours, and for that period we forgot the brutal weather and other minor inconveniences. The Arab Canadian Cultural Association, the Toronto Arabic Studies Colloquium and The Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations of the University of Toronto organized the conversation. 

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