The Amazin’ Sardine (Mazen Zahreddine)

An interview with Lebanese storyteller and writer Mazen Zahreddine by Farah Aridi, founder of the writers collective B-Beirut and writer, editor and blogger.

The year is 2015. The city is Beirut where Haidar, a mentally-ill Shiite bordering on insanity, lives in an apartment in the district of Achrafieh, a strictly Christian area now taken over by Shiite Muslims and constantly unsettled by Israeli shelling.

Addressing sectarianism through fiction, the Lebanese writer and artist Mazen Zahereddine stages his August 2015 Project, using boldness, cynicism and wit. To get a glimpse of Haidar’s world, maybe even to live through his psychedelic and insane journey, which may or may not have been happening inside his head, you have to be an interactive reader: Haidar’s story is read to you, not by you. Mazen, an avid reader and a talented writer, chose to assume the role of a storyteller and “perform” Haidar’s story to whomever is there to listen, reviving, in his own way, the culture of storytelling. In a little pub Knock on Wood, on one of the corners of Hamra Street in Beirut, every other Sunday, Mazen reads and performs a new chapter in the life of Haidar. He relays and acts out the journey of a reverie-d protagonist who lingers in between moments of wakefulness and hallucination, between reality and a ghostly world. His meetings with all the remnants of sectarianism are interwoven in a comic and cynical way. You meet a headless goalkeeper, a blind and wounded donkey, a bullet-filled warrior, an inflated leader, and tree-like religious figure, to name just a few.

Sitting in Café Younes on Hamra, Mazen talks about the August 2015 Project and the man behind it.

Who is the Amazin’ Sardine and how did the name come to be?

Well, it’s me. My real name is Mazen Zahereddine. I was born a Shiite Muslim, but I quit. I’m Lebanese and I have a degree in English literature. I have been acting and creating art since I was little: first acting in plays and then I just took off from there to music, writing, doing random acting jobs, and finally publishing a book. How the name came to be? I have done many performances outside of Lebanon and I have noticed my name is difficult to pronounce for non-Arabic speakers. People would pronounce it like Amazin’ Sardine. It just sounded eerily close to my real name, audibly. So I liked it and decided to adopt it. Like anything random, after a while you find meanings and subtleties that you had no idea were there and you can pretend later that you meant it all along: the idea that sardines all look alike just like the idea foreigners have of Arabs, a motif Shiites love nowadays. This desire to show the outsider that they are a uniform mass of one horrible thing replicated in the thousands. Being an Amazin’ Sardine sort of plays on a contradiction I appreciate. The first poster for the Amazin’ Sardine showed an opened can showing a set of identical sardines with one bright pink sardine sticking out. I guess this is how I see myself.

“Cropped Arrogance” – Mazen Zahreddine.

What made you embark on the August 2015 Project?

Laziness. I have 3 unfinished novels on my hard drive. Writing a novel is very difficult, especially the way I write them. my novels are usually a lake of shit with diamonds in the mix somewhere if you have the patience to look. They are usually dystopias with larger than life characters stuffed in them. I really tend to fill it to the rim, and sometimes more with really convoluted plot lines. And I always end up the same place. I would always find the base of my novel to be weak, threatened to fall when over 600 pages are added on top of it. Then I go into a frenzy of editing that never ends, making everything even more labyrinthine and confusing. So I started this one day and I was really excited at the prospect of it, I felt I had something fantastic under my hands. Then the existential questions arrived: What gives you the impression that you will finish this one? It’s not like you don’t have precedents. Will this also find itself discarded in a folder in my computer like all the others? So I decided to put myself under the spotlight. I promised a chapter for people every two weeks, it is not just about me walking around the house “looking for inspiration”. When you have expecting people you left last time with a cliffhanger, inspiration somehow offers itself in more docile ways. I inflated the expectations of people with a really strong chapter and now I either lose my credibility or I deliver.

What do you hope to achieve with this experience?

I’m already achieving everything I want from this. I love writing and that’s what I’m doing. But writing is somehow ingrate and I never liked that part. I am a little too flamboyant to work for a year to wait for feedback. When you’re acting or singing you have immediate feedback. The whole novel is all based on acting, dialogue, and shifts between one mood and another; the performance itself is what I really enjoy. When I’m done, I plan on publishing it. But I believe it will be a different beast when put in writing. Some sloppy parts that you can get away with when performing do not go too well when written. [Click here to read Chapter 1 of the August 2015 Project, pages 76-83 of Revolve #5, Summer 2012]

How would you describe the transition between writer and storyteller?

Judging from how I’m performing this and going about it, I’d definitely say I’m a storyteller. I make it fun. I can get away with gaping plot holes the size of a village because I got my audience to a point where they don’t care. They just want more. I write like a Hollywood car chase. I put a lot of stock in my vocabulary, the convoluted images that always want to push outrageously more. I was never really impressed by plots. Spoilers don’t work for me. I used to read Agatha Christie when I was little and I would get really bored, and promptly decide to start reading from the end. I never cared about what happens; I care about how it’s told. When I read, it’s usually for style; looking for stuff that can put me back in my place. Henry miller, James Joyce, William Burroughs, for example, are all favorites of mine. Although I have read them the least. They depress me. Their use of language is unreal. I read one page of Joyce, and I am fueled for a week. Whole dark facets of the planet of language waiting to be plundered. Use language. So yeah, Storyteller. But with an obsessive insistence on style.

You mentioned some authors, what about more contemporary writers?

Chuck Palahniuk is an interesting guy. He is expressing a certain malaise that I can touch. It is very American, dead souls roaming in a dead city, sort of thing. Got to know him from Fight Club. Other than him, I don’t know.

I don’t know them. I have nothing against them. There are ones I know personally. But they are very few. Some others I stumbled upon, or was made to read them in some way or the other. But here’s the thing, I’m not a native speaker of English, and although I might want to believe that I attained a decent level of English, I always feel I’m not up to par and that I am falling short. There are so many things I haven’t read yet and although I have become an expert in talking about books I haven’t read, my main focus has been and will continue to be to check the writers of all time rather than the writers of just today which is very limiting if you think about it.

How would you describe your writings?

I am not a Van Gogh type; I’m more of a Dali. I wanted my project to pay off now and I know how to make it so. I know how to get there. I’m not misunderstood. I’m not selling my product to Europeans. That doesn’t last. You’ll get your hype and you would be just another social raconteur. The American would give you guarantees and protect you, but I want to make it here, in Lebanon. I use Arabic words like akhi or sahib to make them cool; so that they become a reference. I want Americans to say to one another that it’s cool to say ya akhi, I want them to adopt my language and not the other way around. This in the long run would create a Lebanese [or Arabic] Jargon, to put it on the map. The coolness that I’m trying to give is supposed to convince people that this is what coolness is. The Rolling Stones and The Sex Pistols for example, looked horrible, but their coolness factor made people adopt their language and attitude. Very consciously I’m writing in English for a wider platform, but I will not forgo the Arabic to show that you can juggle with it as well. I’m not using American/ European catch phrases because I’m running out of ideas; we can make something out of this language we have.

Do you think people would think differently about August 2011 Project, maybe like it less, if it weren’t being performed?

I guess so. I’m being very sloppy in writing because I don’t have much time and I need to deliver on time. Sometimes I substitute words with a single word that I would make up for it by performing it. But I will probably have to spend more time rewriting some stuff, when I want to publish it. The written text would be accompanied by an audio CD. It won’t be fully enjoyed without visual or audio with it.

How is your performance aiding your story and the purpose behind it?

I seriously believe everything SHOULD be mocked. And I believe it is my job to look for things that haven’t been mocked and mock them. I feel closer to the stand-up comedians rather than writers. I just happened to read them rather than perform them.

How do you think your work is significant to a country like Lebanon, and at times like these?

I’m prepared for everything. It’s probably my Shiite side speaking and its need to sacrifice itself in a blaze of glory. I’m on a mission. My agenda is that I have none. I’m ready to mock everything in an effort to tickle as many uptight serious people as much as I can to loosen them up. I prepared myself psychologically that I might die and for the first time in my life, I feel I have a purpose, my life has a meaning. If you are touched, it would all be worth it. Somehow. I have a clear conscience; I know I do not want to hurt anyone. If someone wants to genuinely discover what I’m trying to say, I try my best to take him on the ride and I promise to be gentle. I would end there.

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