A. Naji Bakhti on Between Beirut and the Moon, inheritance and coming of age in Lebanon
Naji Bakhti was born and raised in Beirut. He studied at the American University of Beirut and completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster in 2018 before returning to Lebanon.
Between Beirut and the Moon (Influx Press, 2020) is Naji’s first novel, praised by Roddy Doyle as ‘engrossing, warm and gloriously funny’. Adam, the narrator, dreams of becoming an astronaut: but before he can be the first Arab on the moon, he must contend with issues much closer to home, as he comes of age in post-civil war Lebanon.
On the phone from Beirut, I spoke to Naji about reaching an Anglophone readership, humour in the midst of conflict, and whether he remains optimistic about Lebanon’s future.
What triggered your novel, Between Beirut and the Moon?
It started way back in 2011/12, when I first left Beirut and went to London to do my master’s. It was the first time I’d ever lived outside of Lebanon and the first time I’d really lived on my own. I came to realise Lebanon was not the centre of the world. I’d meet people from around the world, because London’s such a massive and cosmopolitan city. They’d ask me ‘Where’s that accent from?’ and I’d say ‘Lebanon’. Most of the reactions were ‘Where’s that?’ That set me along the course of thinking ‘Where am I from, and what does that mean to the rest of the world?’ And I think part of writing in general is shouting ‘we exist’ into the void, with various degrees of success.
Part of writing this book was the idea of reclaiming the narrative — or claiming it: of being someone from a particular part of the world who wants to have a role in shaping that narrative, and to communicate with the Anglophone readership. Which is why the novel was written in English, my second language. It’s an attempt to reach out to the rest of the world and tell a story that not too many Anglophone readers would have come across before. Hopefully you can see that with the narrator, the way he is constantly ‘Arab-splaining’ and ‘Leb-splaining’: stopping to break the fourth wall and address the audience, and very much aware of that gap between the world the narrator lives in and the world the presumed reader might live in.
Which English — and Lebanese — writers are you influenced by?
In terms of Lebanese: writers like Rawi Hage or Rabih Alammedine, who wrote their novels in English and addressed the Lebanese experience to some degree. De Niro’s Game is a coming-of-age novel like mine, but it’s set throughout the Lebanese Civil War. These authors are writing partly back to Lebanon, whereas my novel is writing from Lebanon in the English language. That might be a distinction.
In terms of English or American writers, there are lots. Recently, Julian Barnes. Paul Beatty — The Sellout, whose use of humour to expose issues such as racial and social injustice was remarkable. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of my favourites because it deals with a specific, local experience which was something I’d never thought about or come across before. But, through that local experience, it addresses universal themes.
And Roddy Doyle — Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha — whose humour shapes the coming-of-age novel. The idea that this is a child’s view of the world, and using that lens, makes it all the more bittersweet throughout. Joe Dunthorne with Submarine. John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany: coming-of-age in a time of upheaval and change, and having to deal with instability around you as well as within you.
Comedy is an important aspect of your novel; it has a really quirky sense of humour.
The use of humour in my novel might not be typical of the Lebanese novelists of the war generation. The atrocities of the war and the scars that are left behind would naturally merit a lot of the grave and sombre tones that those earlier novels adopted. But I’m a writer who was born after the civil war, so I have that sort of distance which allows me to then insert humour which was not something they might have felt earlier. That distance, coupled with the linguistic distance — the fact that I’m writing in English, as opposed to in Arabic — also helps facilitate humour.
You used the word ‘bittersweet’, which I think describes the humour in your book perfectly: coming alongside, or perhaps from, the pathos and the struggle going on in the background of the story. There’s a scene where Adam (the narrator) and his family are hiding as their street is being shelled, and the main thing Adam is feeling is that he needs the toilet. It’s the contrast between the quotidian and the horrific which is so funny and poignant.
Its the shift in register as well, the idea that there is war but also daily human issues to deal with, and those sometimes have to take precedence.
I started to think a little bit of Persepolis, the graphic novel, in that it’s a very human and often funny coming-of-age story, but there is that darkness in the background and occasionally intruding on the foreground.
Yeah, that’s a wonderful graphic novel, and very high praise. Certainly, that’s the idea: a young boy is going through all the experiences that any young person around the world would go through, except just around the corner war and conflict are lurking, and those will sometimes intrude upon a daily, menial task. There is the underlying, bubbling tension, the sectarianism that hasn’t quite gone away, the deeply rooted sense that all is not well and the war didn’t actually end, it just paused. That carries on through the novel: for instance, when the father of one of the characters gets kidnapped.
Adam’s identity straddles Lebanon’s sectarian divide. He is from an interfaith family: both Christian and Muslim.
The idea was I would have a character who would embody the country, which is itself a product of that interfaith marriage. At the beginning of Lebanon’s foundation, there was this pact between the Muslim Sunni Prime Minister and the Christian President. It was a handshake of sorts — a marriage of convenience, which led to independence and moving the French out. And then came the problem of, ‘how do you run a country like this?’ Adam reflects these tensions.
I myself am a product of interfaith marriage as well. You get an objective sense of both faiths, and you have more of a well-rounded view. That’s the angle I hoped the narrator would have — the sense that he isn’t pulling for one side or the other, but rather gets to experience both ends.
The other culture that features in the book is the Druze people — Adam describes them as ‘a peculiar religious minority which exist only in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon.’
The ideas of the Druze, of reincarnation and experiencing the world again, and having another shot at it — the cycle of life, as it were — those are important to the novel. And although the Druze are a minority in Lebanon, they have played a major role in the history of the country. They’re often looked upon in certain circles of Lebanese society as mysterious, or their faith being unclear or undefined. That’s a notion which was important to explore as well.
There’s the theme of inheritance, what religion you’re brought up with, but also the idea of literary inheritance — who you’re brought up to read. Adam’s father travels around with a comet’s tail of books, and has decided Adam will be a writer, whether he wants to or not.
Certainly there’s this idea that you inherit not just your religion but also your profession and your role in society. And that’s linked with patriarchy, and carrying the family name and the family profession. While, with Adam, religion isn’t necessarily an inheritance, certainly in Lebanon as a whole you are assigned that religion the moment you are born, and you have to carry it forward. It’s not just your faith, it’s part of who you are in society: your relationship with your government and your country is defined through those channels. It feeds into your role as a citizen.
Can you tell us more about your role as a citizen? After you finished your PhD you returned to Lebanon and involved yourself in some of the political movements and protests going on.
Once I was done with my PhD I came back to Lebanon optimistically, hoping for the best. Obviously, it hasn’t turned out that way. The recent protests which began in October of 2019 — the revolution, if you like — were a result of thirty years of corruption and mismanagement and embezzlement, which the ruling class, the warlords of the civil war, have wrought upon the country. The protests were a reaction to that, an attempt to finally cleanse the country of these vicious warlords who’d deprived Lebanon of any sort of progress since the end of the civil war. I was regularly involved in the protests, and campaigned. There were tents set up for academics and lecturers, and young, secular Lebanese minds who wanted to finally move forward and get rid of this sectarian system. There was, and there is, a sense that hopefully some change can happen, that we can eventually move forward and start a fairer and more just country for all Lebanese citizens. As citizens, not as members of a particular sect who follow their sectarian leader.
But since then, we’ve had inflation, economic crisis (the lira has lost about 80% of its value against the dollar), and that’s led to about 50% of the Lebanese population, if not more, who’ve sunk below the poverty line, and challenges with hunger. That air of optimism we had in, say, October, is not quite there now. These politicians continue to govern the country, with no attempts made to stop the rot. The only hope is that we get back on the streets. With the pandemic, that’s not been easy to do — cases have been rising in Lebanon. But there is the hope that by going back to the streets, we can force the government’s hand. Which was what happened initially — the government at the time resigned as a result of the protests. But the political elites managed to hang on to power.
In your book Adam’s father writes a very pessimistic article which says Lebanon ‘presented our children with two alternatives: death or immigration and instructed them to pick between the two’ — but I get the sense that you’re not quite so downcast. Would you call yourself an optimist about Lebanon’s future?
It is very difficult at this point in time to be optimistic, about a lot of things. But I’d certainly say I’m hopeful. Right now, there is a sense that Lebanon is at its worst. It’s in a place where, if change were to come, it would need to do so very quickly. There is always optimism, and when it comes to Lebanon that’s mainly what it’s survived on. The idea that there is always a better Lebanon somewhere, that we’re all aching to see and hoping to reach. It isn’t today, but hopefully in the future we can wrest back control from those who’ve led us to this situation. I’m not in total agreement with Adam’s father’s view of Lebanon but, again, that character was born and lived through the civil war, so he would have more despair than someone like me, who was born at a time of relative peace.
Interview by James Riding.
Born and raised in Beirut, Naji Bakhti graduated from the American University of Beirut (Lebanon, 2011). He recently obtained a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Between Beirut and the Moon is his first book.
Between Beirut and the Moon is published on August 20. To find out more and buy a copy, visit Influx Press’s website.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.