An extract from ‘The Lebanese Troubles’
Richard Devine is an English language teacher who has recently arrived in Beirut – just before the outbreak of the 1975 civil war. He describes a day in the classroom:
The school was in fashionable Hamra Street but there was nothing fashionable about the classroom. An anonymous grubby box with two enormous ceiling fans designed to keep the chalk-dust in circulation, and barely enough space to cram in twenty desks, let alone twenty boisterous students. There was the usual segregation: the girls toward the back and the boys at the front. Except for Huda, the eager, dull, ugly Palestinian girl directly in front of me. I despised her – and so did the rest of the class. The troublemakers sitting together.
- Clovis, I told you yesterday. I don’t want you next to Ibrahim. Change places with Toufiq.
- Leysh, stes? Why?
- Never mind leysh. Just move. NOW!
I hated shouting at the kids. As Clovis grinned inanely to his classmates, then at me, and shuffled shrugging to the other side of the room, we both knew he’d won the first victory of the morning. Oh, I got my way – that was allowed, I was the teacher – but on his terms, at the cost of my self-respect.
It had come as a shock to me, this continual negotiation between teacher and students. At home, teaching self-motivated adults, there had been no question about it – I was master of my classroom. If I wanted students to speak, they spoke; to listen, they listened; to write, they wrote. Sometimes we asked them to sing, to act, to play games, to make fools of themselves .. grown adults – bankers and lawyers and doctors and soldiers – and they never questioned why. When I had power like that, it was easy to be agreeable.
But children, especially the children of Lebanon, knew different. A teacher was only a teacher, invested with no extraordinary powers. If they wanted to learn, they learnt; if they wanted to chatter, they chattered; if they wanted me to shout, they made me shout. They were preparing themselves for life in the real Lebanese world, and so every single lesson, every two hours in that room which I had come to dread, we teetered on the brink of chaos. And yet they liked me, so they always let me win a little, even when I was losing more. And in an odd sort of way I liked them, especially Clovis, who made my life so miserable. He was a bright kid.
- Open your books at page eighty-four.
- Stes, we do that page yesterday.
- Yes, and we’re doing it again today. Elias, where’s your book? And you Maha. And Therese. And Ibrahim.
As I said the names I was reminded how easy it was to distinguish between Christian and Muslim. Christians had Christian or Western-sounding names; the Muslims didn’t. So you were marked Christian or Muslim from birth. I wondered what Clovis was. Probably Christian – it didn’t sound like an Arab name. But Palestinian or Lebanese? That was more difficult now I knew there were Christian Palestinians as well as Muslims. How did people know you were a Palestinian? Was there some distinguishing mark or something? Or did people just know? I would have to ask Monique sometime. Monique!
I was drawing a crude picture on the blackboard. A hippie. An exaggerated version of myself.
- You, stes.
- No, it’s not me, it’s Tom. Now Tom wants a job. Do you think he’ll get a good job looking like this?
- Yes, stes.
- No, look at him. His hair’s too long, isn’t it? And it’s dirty, yes? What else? Ibrahim?
- His shoe dirty.
- Yes, his shoes are dirty. Mohammed?
- He have big bird.
- What? A big bird? Where?
- Yes teacher. Here big bird.
- Oh there. A long beard, you mean.
- Yes teacher. Long bird.
- Beard. And what must he do?
- Shave, shave, shave, teacher.
- Yes, good. He must shave his beard.
- Why, teacher?
- Because he wants a job.
- Yes, but teacher, beard is nice. You are teacher and you have beard.
Mohammed, taller than me, stood up, came to the front and began to stroke my beard. The class collapsed in laughter. Mohammed blew a kiss at me.
- Bird nice, ustes, yes.
- Yes it’s very nice, Mohammed. Now sit down.
- Why must cut bird?
- SIT DOWN, MOHAMMED!
Again the wide grin and the slow shuffle back to the desk.
- Now look, Tom wants a good job, and you’re his friend, so you must tell him what to do. You say – listen – You’d better cut your hair. Listen – You’d better cut your hair. You-had-better-cut-your-hair. You’d better cut your hair. Everybody!
- YOU BETTER CUT YOUR HAIR.
- YOU BETTER CUT YOUR HAIR.
- YOU BETTER CUT YOUR HAIR.
But now everyone was losing interest, and only about five of them were repeating the sentence.
- You better cut your hair.
- You’d. You’d. You had. You’d. Huda.
- You-you-you betterr .. er .. you betterr .. er .. to cut the hairs.
- Good. You’d better cut your hair. Clovis.
- Why he’d better cut his hair?
- Never mind why. Say it.
- He’d better cut his hair. Stes, look, Elias, he’d better cut his hair.
To demonstrate, he grabbed a cluster of Elias’s carefully groomed curls and yanked them – hard. War was inevitable. Elias immediately jumped to his feet, snarled (not in English), and almost lifted Clovis out of his seat by his not so well-groomed locks. Clovis screamed, the class yelled encouragement, I shouted …
- STOP IT, OR THE CLASS IS FINISHED!
Clovis had Elias by the ear.
- I’M WARNING YOU!
Elias scored with the opposite ear. The two of them just stood there in an earlock, their faces twisted with pain.
- I’M LEAVING!
Clovis reached for the nose.
Now to get you thinking:
1. What do you notice about the presentation and layout that’s different from most novels?
2. Did you find the extract easy to read, or not? If easy, does that surprise you, given the unusual style. If hard, where did you stumble or get lost?
3. How many people are involved in this scene. How many of them speak?
4. How visible is the author? If you likened his role to someone making a film, what would the role be?
5. Perhaps a difficult question after a relatively short extract, but did you feel engaged? Why might this stylistic approach make a reader feel more (or less) engaged?
That’s all. Now I welcome comments, thoughts, criticism, debate, questions – and I’ll reply. When the discussion starts getting stale, we’ll stop and assess what we’ve learnt from this early attempt to write an e-novel for a digital format
If you’d like to read the whole book, I can arrange for you to get a free sample via a Smashwords coupon up to and including April 1st. Please understand that I’m doing this because I’m keen for those who are working with me to explore the novel and then, hopefully, spread the word. And since you’ve come this far with me, I think you deserve it! All I need is for you to make a sensible comment below, and follow me on Twitter, where I’m alain_miles. I’ll then send you a direct message with the coupon number.
Just for information, I will be increasing the normal retail price – to $4.99 – in April. However, I’ll also be introducing special arrangements to encourage supporters to share the novel with friends – more soon.)
Jump back to the post: e-Novel: explorations in writing and reading.