The Druze of Belgrade

synopsis by Anwar Hamed
14 March 2012

Like the author’s previous novel, ‘America’, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2010, ‘The Druze of Belgrade’ is also an historical novel, drawing on events which occurred after the 1860 civil war in Mount Lebanon.

The hero is a simple egg seller, Hanna Yaaqoub, who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, for which he has to pay a high price: years spent in prisons in the Balkans.

A number of fighters from the religious Druze community are forced into exile, travelling by sea to the prison fortress of Belgrade on the boundary of the Ottoman Empire, after being accused of involvement in the killing of Christians. Hanna Yaaqoub is no Druze, but he has to replace one, whose father had bribed the authorities to set him free. He is just sitting in the port, selling his ‘fresh boiled eggs’ and waiting for buyers, when, of all people, he is picked up by the Ottoman officers to replace the lucky Druze.

His protestations that he is a Christian and not a Druze are of no avail. Even when the French consul notices him, the interpreter gives a deceptive translation and tricks him into believing that Hanna is a Druze who is declaring proudly that he killed a Christian.

Once again, the author sails into history to choose an event upon which to build his novel, and once again he chooses to set his novel (partly at least) in landscapes unknown to him.

When a novelist chooses a different era to the one he lives in and a different landscape to the one surrounding him, he sets himself a huge challenge.

Whether Rabee Jaber spent long days researching the era and the geography of his setting or just relied on his imagination, he managed to move his characters smoothly and credibly, and even seemed more at home in that environment than his own characters, who find themselves strangers in a strange land, surrounded by people who do not speak their language.

Hanna comes back to his young wife and little daughter after years in exile, wishing to continue his life where it was interrupted, but alas, time has not frozen in his absence: the young wife has become a middle-aged woman and the little girl a young woman, so will he fit into their life or live in another kind of exile in his own hometown with his own family