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Vol. 6, No. 3, 2007
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© Ted Rhodes



Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game was a finalist in the category of fiction for both the Governor General’s Literary Awards and Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary competitions, as well as the The Writer’s Trust Award and The First Book Regional Commonwealth Award. It was awarded the Hugh MacLennan Prize and McAuslan First Book Prize.

ARTS & OPINION: I’m interested in the events in your life that shaped your secularism. You were born in Beirut, Lebanon, raised as a Christian, and as a matter of course exposed to Christian biases.

RAWI HAGE: That’s correct, and it is true that in general we all unconsciously come to adopt the values and preferences and prejudices we have been exposed to. I was no exception to this but there were attenuating circumstances: my family, my Father in particular was well-read, while on my Mother’s side there was an openness to a multiplicity of views.

A & O: Did you have Muslim friends when you were growing up?

RAWI HAGE: As you know, Beirut was a divided city, much like Berlin, except there was no wall but sandbags and snipers, so we Christians lived in our enclave and the Muslims lived in theirs, and there was for all intents and purposes no contact between the two sides. It wasn’t until I was maybe 16, when I went to Cyprus to visit an aunt, that I had my first meaningful contact with Muslims.

A & O: And then, at the age of 17, in the midst of a civil war, you decided to leave Lebanon for New York. With the blessings of your family?

RAWI HAGE: I would say yes. I didn’t see any future for myself in Lebanon that was in ruins and went to New York where I struggled for many years before coming to Montreal.

A & O: How did New York shape your thinking?

RAWI HAGE: Artistically, I became very interested in photography which I was able to develop while working at various odd jobs. But I was also exposed to racism for the first time in my life. I was learning English and spoke with a pronounced accent.

A & O: But the prejudice against you was as an Arab whereas in Lebanon you would be negatively viewed by the Muslims for being a Christian.

RAWI HAGE: I suppose there is some irony there, but in Lebanon, the negative views towards some Christians factions (I should correct you here because many Christian stayed and were tolerated and some even fought with the predominately Muslim side) were never personal, or personalized. There was a civil war and the attitudes either for or against were shaped and propagated by the media and the various interest groups that only cared about their agendas – much like what’s happening in Iraq today.

A & O: How did your perspective on Lebanon change while you were living in New York?

RAWI HAGE: I began to see the civil war in its absurdity, not of two sides fighting for their rights and beliefs but two sides being manipulated by regional and not so regional powers whose interests had very little to do with anything either Christian or Muslim. Any number of foreign corporations were funding and funnelling arms to both parties.

A & O: In other words you began to see the communities as a tool?

RAWI HAGE: Or a proxy, doing someone else’s dirty work or fighting someone else’s war. Lebanon had become a theatre, a convenient venue to resolve issues that had nothing to do with the country. And when I was finally able to step back and see it for what it was, it became difficult to sustain what I thought were my beliefs and convictions, and it was during this period that the seeds of my secularism were planted.

A & O: What do you mean when you describe yourself as secular?

RAWI HAGE: It means I no longer relate positively or negatively to people or groupings of people based on their religion or ethnicity. I much prefer to be in community with people with whom I share common values and morals or ideology. In other words if I believe that writers expressing their views shouldn’t have to fear state censorship, and consequent to their numbers decide to form a group, those excluded from this group will have excluded themselves by virtue of their opposing views, not because of their tribal or religious affiliations.

A & O: As a secularist, you can’t please everybody. How have family and friends responded to your, let’s call it a conversion?

RAWI HAGE: All of my family left Lebanon so there was no problem there. But yes, I have lost friends who remain captive to their tribal loyalties.

A & O: And how do you answer your detractors, those who accuse you of abandoning the cause?

RAWI HAGE: I say to them that yes, I was born into a particular political situation, but at some point, if I’m lucky enough to be in a position to chose, I can reject the values that it represents in favour of others that are more consistent with the humanitarian values I aspire to. When I look at all the trouble spots in the world it seems that wherever two sides are engaged in long-term violent disputes, both sides are able to justify their actions, reprisals and counter reprisals; but there are other value systems in the world, and I see no reason why someone has to remain married to the values that were originally imposed on him or her by birth or culture.

A & O: It seems that most people are locked into their tribal identifications, as if prisoners of their genes, which seems to exclude any kind of secular option.

RAWI HAGE: I tend to view this in terms of anthropology where at some point in human evolution tribal identity was not only very important, it was essential for survival. So it is true that we don’t come to a secularist position as naturally as we come to our tribal identities but we can certainly cultivate a secular identity and secular values. If my tribal identity obliges me to be positively inclined towards my own kind, my thinking about it can tell me that this is not rational, just as it’s not rational for me to be negatively inclined towards someone I don’t know simply because he isn’t a member of my tribe. Either way it’s a prejudice. Why should I be less positively disposed to an Albertan with whom I share the same values than a reactionary Lebanese Christian?

A & O: Is there any place in the world that features the kind of secularisms you embrace?

RAWI HAGE: I can’t speak to the many places in the world which I haven’t visited or know very little about, but Canada certainly has to rank high. All things considered, Canada is host to many minorities who have somehow managed to co-exist without the kind of borders you find in other places in the world. Though I am stating that despite the nationalist, reactionary, corporate based government that is currently in power. [The governing Conservative Party is led by Stephen Harper].

A & O: You were born in Lebanon, lived in New York, and now Montreal. Where is home?

RAWI HAGE: Home is definitely Montreal for the moment. I can’t imagine living elsewhere.

A & O: And the reasons are?

RAWI HAGE: Besides its physical aspect, I love its heterogeneity. I’m intrigued by the idea that everyone here is a minority; even the French in the sense that they are an island in a sea of English. So we are all sharing in the same struggle for identity, especially self-identity, which is often expressed through the arts. Where borders blur and minorities are able to freely mix, you usually find exceptional ferment which translates into a thriving culture. Consider the arts in Quebec: its literature, its film industry, its music and dance – the envy of the rest of Canada?

A & O: Are you still an activist?

RAWI HAGE: Not as much as I used to be but I certainly support certain causes, such as the anti-globalization movement. The fact of the matter is that as much as I believe in activism and would like to be there on the activist front, my conscience bids me to dedicate my life to my writing, and for this, I need much time that must be spent alone with my thoughts. It’s not an easy life but it’s the one I must live.

A & O: Do you belong to any coterie of writers, local or otherwise?

RAWI HAGE: No. To be honest, I’m not much of a drinker or attracted to the self-importance these groups wear on their sleeves. I prefer talking to regular people going about their day to day existence. I find this very nourishing and stabilizing. It wasn’t so long ago that I was one of them.

A & O: You strike me as a quiet, private person, suddenly thrust into the limelight. Are you comfortable with all the public appearances?

RAWI HAGE: It comes with the territory. I don’t have to do it but somehow you feel pressure to participate in the promotional side of getting published. I’m looking forward to doing less of it.

A & O: Who have been your literary influences?

RAWI HAGE: It depends on when. I began with the French writers, went through all of the Russians, I like to read history but not for the facts but the story. I like books more than writers, especially those books that I keep rereading, such as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Pan. To bad Hamsun became such a Fascist. (laughs). In terms of my writing style, I would say Arab poetry has most informed the imagery I use in the shaping and sharpening of events.

A & O: What’s next in the life of Rawi Hage.

RAWI HAGE: I’m working on the final draft of a new novel which will probably be published in 2008. And I’ve just begun a third novel.



reviewed by

DeNiro's Game, Montreal author Rawi Hage's debut novel about a young man yearning to escape war-torn Beirut, takes its title from another fictional work, the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter. In that film, the main characters (played by Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken) are repeatedly forced to play Russian roulette, first in a POW camp for the amusement of their Viet Cong captors, and then later for redemption in the gambling underworld of Saigon. Few contests, if any, are as grim and distressing as pointing a partially loaded revolver at one's own head and testing fate, yet for the characters of DeNiro's Game, the rules of Russian roulette are not restricted to bullets alone. Hage has crafted a novel as tense as it is sombre, where guns are more abundant than tap water, abandoned pets wander the roads en masse, and falling bombs make each day appear dimmer than the last.

Set in the early 1980s during the Lebanese civil war, DeNiro's Game follows the plight-ridden paths of Bassam and George, best friends who spend their days roaming the mean streets of Christian Beirut on a motorcycle, hatching schemes to make money. "We were aimless, beggars and thieves, horny Arabs with curly hair and open shirts and Marlboro packs rolled in our sleeves, dropouts, ruthless nihilists with guns, bad breath, and long American jeans," Bassam narrates. Their friendship starts to fray, though, when George joins the thuggish local militia that controls their part of the city; before long he becomes increasingly secretive, his authority more threatening. As loyalties are tested and boundaries trespassed, thoughts of fleeing Beirut consume Bassam, whose life turns into a long series of terrifying risks.

I'm not spoiling much by saying there's a final showdown between Bassam and George. Along with Hage's vivid descriptions and dramatic use of the cutaway, part of the filmic nature of his novel is its tight movie-like plotting. Films have obviously influenced the surface aspects of DeNiro's Game, but beneath the grandeur of its tormented larger-than-life characters and its stark settings lies a quiet rumination about wartime life. Besides The Deer Hunter, Hage's novel shows a kinship with at least one other work of fiction. Albert Camus' L'Étranger, a book which makes a cameo appearance in DeNiro's Game but is visible early on in the benumbed tonality of the prose, the pregnant silences between bombings, the conscious lack of sensationalism when violence occurs. When the bombs fall on Beirut, Bassam simply lies in bed and daydreams. To Hage's credit, these scenes play out as serenely as brewing a cup of tea.

But there are instances of lyricism in DeNiro's Game, too. In Bassam's bleak world, whether he's smoking hashish, ambling past silent houses on a street, or being physically tortured, only his imagination seems to offer him refuge. Hage writes these passages as a startling array of discordant imagery, darkly comical at times, in language as densely woven as an Arabic tapestry.

In recent years more than a few books about the conflicts in the Middle East have been released. Anthony Swofford's 2003 memoir Jarhead comes foremost to mind, with its marines stirring themselves up while watching Apocalypse Now - a sharp contrast to the image of Lebanese fighters brooding over The Deer Hunter. With DeNiro's Game, Rawi Hage has written a story not only emblematic of the nihilism of war, but also one that's as illuminating as it is enjoyable to read.

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