Learning English

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Some of the high costs of patriarchy

Dec 25, 2011
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:when the love-hate story takes over

Cons:initial flailing by the narrator

The Bottom Line: Somewhat difficult to get into, but eventually compelling account of a love/hate triangle within a Mediterranean honor culture




Like Dear Mr. Kawabata, Rachid al Daif’s Learning English (published in Arabic in 1998, in English in 2007) is a long monologue (if short book: 161 pages). This time there is no specific addressee (the previous one was long dead and the ramble of self-explication had practically no connection to the Japanese Nobel laureate). The narrator, again named Rachid, is like the author from a Marronite (Christian) village in Lebanon near Zgharta, born in 1945, and possessed of a French doctorate (the author actually has two).

A professor of Arabic literature at the Lebanese University in Beirut (where Daif was an undergraduate student), the narrator has been struggling to add English to a brain that can understand words and grammar of the new international lingua franca better than it can remember.

Does that also apply to remembrance of his family history? It seems that he remembers quite a lot following the shock of learning that his father has been murdered in an act described in a news item as “blood vengeance” when an acquaintance in a Beirut coffee house asks Rachid if he is related to the murdered man.

Rachid is not surprised that his father was murdered, nor is he surprised that it was a revenge killing, since that honor/vengeance culture is the one in which he grew up and he knows that his father killed the husband of the father’s mistress. The shock is that neither his mother nor any of his uncles or cousins informed him and that his father has already been buried.

Rachid, who is away from the honor/vengeance culture but not far enough (physically or psychologically!), takes a tranquilizer and tries to phone “home,” without getting any answer. The duty to avenge his father’s killing is by tradition his, which means he is also the prime target of the killer making a pre-emptive strike. One reason he should have been told!

Affection or closeness to his father is not a reason, did not exist, though Rachid is grateful to his father’s support for his education and getting to the larger world (Paris and Beirut, though the latter is only an hour’s drive from Zgharta).

From his distress in the present, including his female companion in Beirut, Rachid drifts back to the youth of his father, mother, and their classmate Anwar (from an enemy clan) who took Rachid’s mother’s virginity. On the wedding night, when Rachid was conceived, his father was more than displeased to discover his bride was not a virgin. Her marrying him was a lunatic gambit in her relationship with Anwar, the love of her life — a life turned to cold war with Hamad, who had wooed her patiently and kept her imprisoned for the rest of his life in punishment for having allowed someone else to precede him inside her.

Hamad’s younger brothers and Rachid are not completely sure that Hamad is Rachid’s biological father, and Rachid has not had the nerve to ask his bitter mother (and/or could not rely on an honest answer if he did ask). Rachid knows — or at least believes — that “what my mother hated about me was that I was my father’s son.” His doubt about his paternity is not slight, but exists.

The last third-plus of the novel is Rachid’s speculations on why his mother did not accompany Anwar to Egypt en route to America along with recollection of the murder of a nephew, the 16-year-old only son of Rachid’s youngest paternal uncle and his mother’s female confidant before that trauma. I found this part of the book more interesting than the professor’s flailings about what to do in Beirut.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

Thanks to Patsy (pestyside) for adding this title to the database.
The first quarter of Land Without Justice (set in Montenegro) remains the best discussion of growing up within a blood revenge culture. There is little about the long civil war in this novel, in contrast to Dear Mr. Kawabata, as what happened in the mid-1940s comes to preodminate in Learning English.


Recommend this product? Yes


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