LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO SECULARISM
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
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.
O: Did you have Muslim friends when you were growing up?
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
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?
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.
O: How did New York shape your thinking?
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.
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.
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.
O: How did your perspective on Lebanon change while you were
living in New York?
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.
O: In other words you began to see the communities as a tool?
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.
O: What do you mean when you describe yourself as secular?
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.
O: As a secularist, you can’t please everybody. How have
family and friends responded to your, let’s call it a
HAGE: All of my family left Lebanon so there was no problem
there. But yes, I have lost friends who remain captive to their
O: And how do you answer your detractors, those who accuse you
of abandoning the cause?
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.
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.
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?
O: Is there any place in the world that features the kind of
secularisms you embrace?
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].
O: You were born in Lebanon, lived in New York, and now Montreal.
Where is home?
HAGE: Home is definitely Montreal for the moment. I can’t
imagine living elsewhere.
O: And the reasons are?
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?
O: Are you still an activist?
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.
O: Do you belong to any coterie of writers, local or otherwise?
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.
O: You strike me as a quiet, private person, suddenly thrust
into the limelight. Are you comfortable with all the public
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.
O: Who have been your literary influences?
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.
O: What’s next in the life of Rawi Hage.
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.