Writer, publisher, lecture organizer and cultural expert Henri Zoghaib shares his incredible love for Lebanon and enthusiasm for literature.
Your influence here is most felt through your involvement with universities. How did that come about?
Well, in 2000 I suggested a Center for Lebanese Heritage to the Lebanese American University (LAU) and the project got approved in 2002. In 2007 I again suggested a University Press Department to the American University of Science and Technology (AUST); because a university is more than a simple classroom, or should be. Education is a wide horizon, not a limited exercise. This oasis is where I move. I focus on functions and events to help students break beyond the academic.
And do you feel they’re affected?
Beautifully so. The satisfaction I get from this new generation is incredible. I can feel the effect immediately and this makes me happy. Students are now interested in heritage far more than they used to be, I know this from attendance. I’ve also become something of a resource for heritage related queries to some of the students.
For me our heritage is a living memory, and memories should be collected and preserved. We collect books, magazines and newspapers, especially out of print ones. I mean, do you just throw away out of print newspapers? Of course not. We collect them, reference and index them and make them available to students and researchers in this field. This information is important, you need it on your shelf.
And the same goes for the Khalil Gibran collection you’re working on…
Ah, Gibran. I followed the man’s steps and the places he went. I worked on his literary and private lives. You may feel he’s overdone but in fact he’s a deep well. The more you dig the more water you get. The more you read ‘The Prophet’, the more meaning you get, and this goes for all his works. That’s the sign of true literary genius, and genius should not end, but should be renewed every day. He’s gone, and his books will no longer change, but they will still change things in you.
Isn’t he overshadowing other Lebanese writers though, perhaps equally important ones?
Sure. He overshadows Amin al Rihani, he overshadows Michael Naimeh. But to compensate I’m creating a series of lectures on Rihani, and another on Naimeh. I get people for the lecture, collect them then publish them in a book. It’s my job.
What exactly is your job?
I’m not a writer in the traditional sense, I’m something of a messenger. Like I said, I’m in LAU, I’m in AUST and I’m also working with Sawt Lubnan, the radio station. I write in Al Nahar every Saturday, and I am the editor-in-chief of Cedar Wings, the MEA in-flight publication. I try to perpetuate Lebanon the beautiful, the green, the cultural. This is my message to the readers. This is important to my people and country. I more than love Lebanon, I worship it insanely – the language, the culture, everything.
The language is rather unique…
Of course. Arabic here is still evolving. Some Arab countries don’t let anything new into their language – some countries still call a computer hasoob, why? It’s a computer. Just write computer in Arabic. We suffer no such complexes. The American language includes words like attaché, French includes words like sandwich and the Lebanese will say computer. Lebanon alone dares to take in new words in to our language.
Don’t the Egyptians do the same?
Yes, but never into their proper written language. You won’t find modern words in Egyptian novels, and while some Egyptian novels may include some colloquialisms it never becomes part of the fabric of their language. ‘Hi, keefak, ça va’ is a perfectly acceptable term here, and if you say it out loud no one will blink. I’m telling you, I love this country.
So, what’s your favorite place in Lebanon?
Jounieh Bay. It’s open to the wide sea and the towering mountain. I’m a child of that city, and this view inspired my poetry, even my attitude. I’ll help out a man in need because I’m the son of wide open spaces and not a child of narrowness. I hate the narrow, it scares me.
She’s the absolute pearl of the Mediterranean. Do you know that it’s the third most visited city in the world? We should be proud of it. In its current humble state, Beirut is still one of the greatest cities in the world. Imagine what we could be in a few years.
© 2011 Time Out Group Ltd. All rights reserved. Written for Time Out Beirut. Thumbnail © Henri Zoghaib.
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