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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Learning English

Rachid al-Daif

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To purchase Learning English

Title: Learning English
Author: Rachid al-Daif
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 161 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Learning English - US
Learning English - UK
Learning English - Canada
Learning English - France
  • Arabic title: ليرننغ إنغلش
  • Translated by Paula and Adnan Haydar

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting take on the clash of tradition and modernity

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Banipal . Fall-Winter/2007 Mona Zaki

  From the Reviews:
  • "As a team the two Haydars have rendered a superbly seamless translation and have masterfully captured, and kept up with, the pace of the text. There is a maturity to al-Daif’s work; this faultless translation should be acknowledged as one of the best of Arabic fiction reads currently on the market." - Mona Zaki, Banipal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Learning English focusses on a traumatic event in the narrator's life, the death of his father. Rashid has a harder time than most might have when that happens because of unusual additional circumstances surrounding it -- most notably the way he learns about his father's death: sitting in a Beirut café on a Monday morning a friend sees a small notice in the newspaper and asks whether a Hamid D. is a relation of Rashid's. It's his father, of course, who was killed two days earlier -- and buried on Sunday -- in Zgharta, the town where the family comes from, a mere hour away from Beirut. But nobody even called him to tell him what had happened.
       Rashid's father was killed in an act of 'blood revenge' (which Zgharta is still notorious for), and Learning English is very much a novel of contrasts between an old world with its out-dated customs and the new. The narrator, Rashid, is very much a part of the new, a worldly academic who admits:

     I can't bear not to be contemporary. I have always been contemporary and up-to-date.
       It's like a badge of honour, even when he embraces the new just for the sake of its newness -- "In literary criticism I was structuralist, and now I follow what is called post-modernism." -- though, of course, what it also is is something to separate and distance him -- more and more -- from his roots.
       His father's death forces him to confront his roots again, a world he left behind but that refuses to die out. Even the death of the individual reverberates on, as every murder leads, eventually, to an act of blood revenge -- a cycle Rashid can't see himself as part of.
       The way he's treated -- that no one calls him, or is particularly helpful once he does get in touch with them -- shows how out of touch he is, how apart he is from tradition (as embodied in family and these codes of honour). In part they want to spare him the responsibility (and danger) of becoming embroiled in this feud, but it's clearly also that they don't believe he can play his part like he should. To them the fancy professor is: "useless in serious situations such as these."
       But even as he tries to separate himself, he can't completely, and his father's death prompts him to dredge up and dwell on his family history, including the difficult relationship his parents had with one another, as well as his own relationship with them. The father was an unpleasant man, and the parent's history a complicated and emotionally fraught one, which also affected Rashid. Nevertheless, the father was in some ways supportive -- more so than the often denigrating mother-figure.
       Trying to learn English is one more hurdle Rashid faces, a stumbling block that prevents him from being as modern and contemporary as he wants to be. He is fluent in French, and for a long time that sufficed, but now he feels it's necessary to learn English, too. He thinks: "today, English is the language" -- and, significantly, that it is one that can bridge worlds and bring people together. "Just like that", he thinks, as if English were an almost magic potion. Which perhaps also explains why, despite his ambition and best efforts: "I forget today what I learned yesterday."
       He thinks he's contemporary, but really the continuum of old and new is much more lasting (and interconnected) than he's willing to admit. He's tried to carve out a small piece for himself, but as his own complicated family history (with all its lingering resentments and consequences) shows there's no escaping the bigger, all-encompassing picture.
       Al-Daif presents the material fairly well, and it's an interesting picture of a clash of cultures, but the complicated emotional baggage bogs down the story a bit, the complex personalities -- especially the mother and the father -- a bit much to handle in such a compressed tale. Still, certainly of interest, and with some powerful and clever touches.

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Learning English: Reviews: Rachid al-Daif: Other books by Rashid al-Daif under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Lebanese author Rachid al-Daif (رشيد الضعيف) was born in 1945.

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