"Carrying Africa Around on his Face": Imagining 'Africa' in Lebanese Fiction

By Ghenwa Hayek
Submitted to Session P3304 (The Transnational Middle East: Culture and Political Society in Arab Diasporas, 2013 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; African Studies;
Lebanese emigration to sub-Saharan Africa began to pick up steam in the late nineteenth-century, and almost as quickly, it began to seep back into the literary consciousness; the first novella published in al-Machriq, Khar?dat Lubn?n (1898) tells the tale of a Lebanese immigrant who returned to his native village after twenty-five years in South Africa. Although the Lebanese diaspora in South and West Africa, which numbers approximately 200,000 individuals spread across a half-dozen nations, is not as culturally visible as other Lebanese diasporic communities, particularly those in the American continent and Europe, these immigrants to Africa have nevertheless left their marks on Lebanese fiction. Besides Khar?dat Lubn?n, the African diaspora appears in such canonical texts as Tawfiq Youssef ?Aww?d’s Tawah?n Bayr?t, where the quote in this title comes from, and Hanan al-Shaykh’s Story of Zahra. My presentation builds on recent work on the historical and contemporary Lebanese diaspora by scholars like Akram Khater and Ghassan Hage that has begun to broaden the scope of earlier ethnographic and statistical studies of Lebanese diasporic communities abroad and parse out the relationship between this diaspora and ‘back home’; as Hage puts it in a recent lecture, “just as the [Lebanese] village as a ‘home’ [is] present in the diaspora all over the world, the world of the diaspora [is] equally present in the village” (Hage, “The Everyday Aesthetic of the Lebanese Translational Family”, 6). In this talk, I will focus on the literary representations of Africa and the Lebanese diaspora in Africa in these three texts to explore how the imaginary geography of ‘Africa’ has been constructed over time, and what implications such a construction has on the cultural construction, formation and articulation of Lebanese identity. I argue that in these three texts, Africa and the African emigrant, who is represented as literally embodying ‘African-ness’, become the dialectical counterparts to textual constructions of Lebanon and Lebanese identity. Fraught with racialized and gendered complexities, these “signs of ‘abroad’ include, even as they repress, a rich and complex history”, (Said, Culture and Imperialism, 93), in turn shedding light on the complex histories of Lebanese emigration to Africa as well as the shifting dynamics of cultural and national identity formation in Lebanon.