Serendipitously, National Poetry month is April and poet, Pierre Jarawan’s debut novel “The Storyteller” was just released. He took a few moments to speak to HVY as he is currently on tour with the book; which includes a visit to the Bay Area later this month.
Jarawan was quick to point out that “The Storyteller” is not autobiographical in anyway. Only, “the place is real, the taste is real…,” etc. he said. It is his father who was a storyteller, which then spurred Jarawan on to take a break from poetry to compose the novel churning inside him.
The child of a Lebanese father and a German mother, he has always been at the juncture point of two or more worlds. Even though he has been writing since the age of 13, it has been mostly poetry. “I didn’t have a story then,” he said.
“In Europe you can make a living as a poet,” he added. Through performance, workshops and teaching a poet can manage.
For more than a decade Jarawan participated in Poetry Slam events throughout Europe, winning acclaim and literary distinction, especially in his hometown of Munich.
Yet, as he said, “I knew I wanted to write about the second generation of immigrants and how their lives were impacted by choices made for them.” For Jarawan, he considers himself very privileged to be part of two cultures. “I always felt at home in both countries,” he said.
To appreciate the uniqueness of Jarawan and his literary work, one must examine the history of the Middle East. In particular, the spot to look at is Lebanon and why the long 15-year war that broke out in 1975 still resonates today.
It is obvious in Jarawan’s writing. For most Americans the bombing of Beirut back then was simply a brief report on the evening news, a world far away.
Yet for this reporter then age 12, the devastation of Beirut was placed briefly into my consciousness when my father who had been watching the news exclaimed, “oh my God! How sad, that’s the Paris of the Middle East!”
This essentially is what pulled me in to the book. Jarawan has a richness and depth to his writing that is much needed in our world today. Reviews of his book affirm this. “The Storyteller” brought me immediately back to that moment of a brief broadcast on the news and to my dad’s unexpected and heart-felt reaction.
Later, my dad explained that Beirut was a beautiful city and that as a pilot he had been there several times. From then on, each time he saw a broadcast of the on-going destruction he would shake his head and mutter “terrible, tragic!”
As a sheltered kid of 12 living in a prosperous and upbeat San Francisco Bay Area, I was made aware of something that my dad called to my attention; soberly bringing me into the world, apart from the Americana of sit-coms, cartoons and reruns of Star Trek.
And when I asked ‘why? What was the fighting for?’ He said, “religion, probably.” But in my 12-year-old mind, living in a prosperous open-minded USA, I couldn’t fathom people fighting over things like that. It seemed absurd.
Jarawan made it clear, that “This is only the surface! It’s very important to keep in mind that this was not a religious war, he said. It was not about belief.” Explaining further he said.
“It broke out because of political reasons: an economic crisis, a dissatisfaction with the political system and most importantly, he added a refugee crisis with Palestinians coming from Jordan, and among them the PLO and its armed forces. So it’s much more complex, and one cannot say, Oh! It’s about Christians against Muslims, Jarawan said, without looking at it closer.”
Interestingly and again unexpectedly, some years later as I was working as a file clerk at a bank, I met someone who had lived thru the bombing of Beirut in 1975. He was an Armenian, born and raised, up to that point in his life, in Beirut.
He was my age and as we got more acquainted, he spoke of what had happened. Taken aback I related what my dad had said to me about Beirut being “The Paris of the Middle East.” My co-worker gently noted, “Well, while you were sitting comfortable in the living room watching it on TV with your dad, and then you able to go back to your sit-com, cartoons and re-run of ‘Star Trek’ me and my parents were running for our lives. It was horrible,” my co-worker, friend said.
Fortunately, for my co-worker, he and his parents were able to escape to Europe and then to the U.S. But for thousands and thousands of civilians living in Beirut an escape was not possible.
Jarawan pointed out that the destruction of Beirut did not stop. “It went on from 1975 to 1990,” he said. In fact, the repercussion’s of it continued for more than 15 years. And in the 1980s when I was born, said Jarawan, Israel got involved and it escalated.”
What had started initially as a civil war within Beirut between hostile fractions of Christian and Muslim then became a war between the Israeli military forces and Lebanon. And, it went on from there. Getting back to Jarawan’s background he said.
“My father is from Zahlé it is in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon -famous for wine. (Also, think of Cedar trees, they are from Lebanon). This is where his parent met.
“My mother went to Lebanon to work, he added, as a teacher working abroad for the Schneller School. The school, (part of a collection of schools founded in 1860 by ecumenical German missionaries), was in the mountains where it was okay,” said Jarawan. Most of the fighting was happening in and near Beirut.”
“But by 1982, he said, the situation had gone worse, Israel and then Syria both were part of the War, so it got really messy.”
Recounting more details Jarawan said. “I remember my mother telling me how they spent the nights with the children from school in a cellar built under the earth and when they got out the next day, there were burning helicopters that had fallen onto the schoolyard.”
An echo of this experience, amid others and of the War is in the novel. The need to find what was lost or perhaps stolen of Lebanon is what takes the main character of Samir on his journey to look for his father who has gone missing.
Still as Jarawan reiterated, “this novel is not autobiographical.” (Both his parents are alive and well). “I feel at home in Germany and in Lebanon. Yet, he noted. I know others who don’t feel that way.”
“I have heard kids from Turkey say for example, said Jarawan. ‘In Germany I am always seen as ‘the Turkish kid’ and in Turkey I am always seen as ‘the German kid.’ I think that pretty much sums it up. For them, added Jarawan home is neither here nor there.”
But society keeps asking them: ‘where do you come from? Where do you feel home?’
“Under the surface this question always implies: ‘you are a foreigner, you don’t really belong here.’ I am a novelist,” said Jarawan.
“I don’t have an Agenda. By telling a hopefully entertaining story my book tries to give readers an objective insight into Lebanese history and into what happened,” he said.
Of the presentations he has made thus far on tour enroute the Bay Area, Jarawan said. “People are surprised of the country of Lebanon, its history, its beauty, it is informative and entertaining.”
Poet, now novelist, Pierre Jarawan will be at Books, Inc. on April 24. For details and more information visit the Books, Inc. web site.