Rawi Hage Turns His Lens On Biased Reality In Latest Stray Dogs Book

From a Baghdad prison cell to a Tokyo conference to a beleaguered city in the mountains of Lebanon to the bowels of McGill University’s library, the stories of Rawi Hage’s collection Stray dogs run a range of venues and spaces. However, the focus is on what goes on in the heads of his characters. Is their perception of reality skewed – or is it reality itself?

Mediators between the outside world and the inside, between the real and the observed, these are the photographs. A large number of Stray dogsit’s characters take or study photos – as Beirut-born Hage did when he arrived in Montreal in 1992 to enroll at Concordia. The medium has been a motif in his novels, from his Dublin International Literary Prize-winning debut, De Niro’s game (2006), to Beirut Hellfire Society (2018). With Stray dogshe said, “I finally tried to join these two forms in a book. On the phone from his Montreal home, Hage talks about photographic writing and the cerebral and visceral aspects of his art.

In your stories, you seem to bring together characters from different backgrounds and perspectives to explore what’s to come – setting nearby forces in motion.

None of us are the product of a monolithic culture, and if I want to flatter myself, I think I’m writing something very contemporary. This cosmopolitan writing that I do is not about a life of luxury; it’s this constant interaction with different stories – meeting and negotiating our lives. It used to happen with wars, travel, or trade, but now it’s much more accelerated. In Canada, we are moving towards a homogenized third space – but even this third space must interact with something else and change.

Hats: A peculiarity in the work of surrealist painter Magritte is his repeated depiction of hats – and not just any hat in any place, but a particular type of hat in a particular space. If one takes a closer look at this seemingly inconsequential detail in the much grander canvas of the Surrealist Revolution, one notices that Magritte’s hats always appear nearby or in an outdoor space. Unconsciously, Magritte was reinforcing the idea that hats should be worn outside and not inside buildings. Taking off your hat indoors was the convention inside the most rigid institutions of his world: places of worship, places where military officers gathered, dinners in respectable houses. One could say that despite his wild and unconventional paintings, René Margritte remained a prisoner of the norms of his time and of his own latent and unconscious visions. Caption written by author Rawi Hage, who also took the photo.Rawi Hage/Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

When your third novel, Carnival (2012), came out, you said your photography is “probably the reason I write in the first person. Just like in photography, I have to be present, to represent things. What does it mean to you that some of the stories of Stray dogs are in the third person – including the last, The color of treesin which a retired philosophy professor tries to save young people from falling off a cliff by taking selfies?

Photography is such a rich medium, from entertainment to surveillance; the diversity of people who have attracted or used it is enormous. This book looks at his relationship to society, and that dictated something beyond my own experience. It is a short book; if you wanted to cover the whole spectrum of photography, it would take thousands of pages, but I wanted to show how diverse, ambiguous and precise this medium is. There is also a theological dimension to photography; there is also economy, class and humor. Especially in commercial photography, which I had to do for a long time – as an art student exposed to all that kitsch and weddings.

Every time we take a selfie, it defines our relationship with each other. The story The color of trees is all about yourself. How do we define the self? How do we plan? Is it necessary to transform ourselves into a mere representation – an image?

The medium is so changeable, and I’m surprised how much it has changed and how people are still finding ways to use it. If anything, photographic film is experiencing a resurgence now. I always shoot with film. I once got kicked out of an apartment because of hipsters and gentrification, but I don’t hold a lot of grudges: if it wasn’t for hipsters using analog photography, I couldn’t find of film!

Beirut Opera – The photo was taken in 1996, after the end of the Lebanese civil war. It shows the Beirut Opera House, a well-known theater where many of the greatest singers and musicians had performed. My cousin, who was in charge of security in this area of ​​downtown Beirut, guided me through rubble that included unexploded landmines. What looked like a small forest grew along the green line between East and West Beirut. I remembered how, when we were kids, my cousin and I snuck into that movie theater and watched a war movie. We sat on these chairs and disagreed on the color of the seats. Today, the opera building has been demolished and a hypermarket has been erected in its place. Caption written by Hage, who also took the photo.Rawi Hage/Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

In history The whistle, the narrator recalls trying to photograph bombs in Beirut as they fell. All photographs capture and freeze images forever, but this attempt seems particularly poignant.

Well, that part of that particular story was true. In my youth, one of my cousins ​​and I were doing photography, and somehow we wanted to freeze bombs in the air, maybe subconsciously so as not to drop them and explode – a kind of wishful thinking. Looking back, I don’t know why I decided to do something so stupid, adventurous and dangerous. But it was a confrontation – to confront the war. I think my writing is conflicting. It was perhaps the seed of the use of art, of writing, as a means of honesty, confrontation and courage. Also, I have always used art to express myself – sometimes in a violent, poetic, emotional way.

Anonymous: Portraiture must surely be the most narcissistic art form we humans have developed. When visiting the caves which contain the first rock drawings, one is struck by the rarity of the human figures; and when such a figure appears among the magnificent representations of animals, it is small and distant. When and how did we achieve our sense of self-importance? Why did we begin to admire ourselves, then to reproduce our figures in stone and then in images? In 1995, I photographed some thirty Montreal artists. Those who agreed to be photographed had a variety of reasons for doing so and, in all honesty, most resisted or were worried. The person who resisted the most was called Anonym Sans Regret. He had meticulously covered the space of the building where he lived on St-Hubert Street with dots, which combined into a large abstract painting that encompassed everything, including the objects or packages he had acquired. He covered them with more dots so that the letters of words and names were changed – some turned into puns that became a political statement against consumerism. When I asked Anonym why he finally agreed to be photographed, he replied that he planned to disappear and that whatever image I took would be covered up by his future disappearance. Caption written by Hage, who also took the photo.Rawi Hage/Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

A story ends with an image of someone moving towards an area of ​​destruction, while protectively hugging children…

I guess it’s a commentary on our deep attraction to violence and destruction, as a species. There’s also a certain sense of absurdity – everyone tries to escape by taking things to a certain extreme. All of my characters tend to defy the impossible. I don’t know if that’s a suicidal wish or some degree of realization that this universe is unfair. You know you’re going to lose, but still, in an existentialist way, you make the decision to protest. And why not? It’s literature. It is one of those places where we have to confront these aggressions, these transgressions and ourselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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