Hoda Barakat and her ‘Kingdom of this Earth’

Yes, I’m flying in the air somewhere (insha’allah); meanwhile, the blog is updating itself (insha’allah) with this post about Hoda Barakat‘s 2012 novel, ملكوت هذه الأرض (Kingdom of this Earth), thanks to Jadaliyya.

Hoda Barakat, author of the acclaimed Stone of Laughter and Tiller of Waters (for which she won a Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2000) has a new book out this year, another contender for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction*.

As Ghada Mourad writes in the introduction to her translation of an excerpt from the novel, “With her latest novel, Kingdom of this Earth, Hoda Barakat enriches Lebanese literature with a gem of a novel, and, as other critics have noted, inaugurates a new aesthetics in novelistic writing in Arabic literature. ”

The novel is set in Bsharri, a small Maronite community in Mount Lebanon, during the period between the beginning of the twentieth century until the eve of the Lebanese Civil War. It follows two main characters, Salma and Tannous, as they attempt to find and use their voices.

The translated excerpt opens:

“Saba got married.

We saw the bride only at the wedding. We didn’t even go to ask for her hand from her parents. At first we reproached a little and then we forgot the subject, as my uncle Youssef took care of everything. For the bride is from Zahle or from its vicinity, as we understood. And we all assumed that she is a relative of Hanna’s wife, and might be rich like her, and Saba wants to introduce her only to the rich in his family. When we saw her at the wedding we said she must be very rich as there was nothing at all beautiful about her, in spite of all the money they paid to beautify her as a bride. Good heavens, Nabiha and I said. Her mouth was very big and her lips thick and protruding from her face, while her eyes were small and sunken like two tiny buttons…and we felt that the well-wishers exaggerated in their expressions of congratulations, which means that Saba was successful in getting a very rich bride, no doubt. Keep reading.

Jadaliyya also has posted an interview with Barakat about the novel, conducted by Ibtisam Azem and translated by Suneela Mubayi. Barakat speaks about, “These oppositional, suffocated voices, which constitute a tiny minority, [who] feel estranged and isolated, sometimes driven to desperation by their disappointment, like someone with a beautiful voice to whom no one wants to listen – that is if they are not punished for speaking in this voice.”

Barakat also talks about the shift in her language:  “I think that the language in this particular novel differs from everything I have written, when it comes to the use of the colloquial. In my previous novels, I was careful to ground myself in the “essence” of fusha [modern standard Arabic], which is more elegant, refined and cohesive, even if some vocabulary that expresses the reality of newly-coined words may enter this structure and “contemporizes” it from the inside, so to say. Still, my conscious and devoted affiliation to the fusḥa that I dearly love and am in awe of has remained the same.”

But in Kingdom of this Earth, “The entire world of the novel’s characters…would not have held together without a language that was closest to their ways of expressing themselves.” Read the whole interview here.

More on the novel and on Barakat:

The book’s Goodreads page.

AUC Press editor R. Neil Hewison chose Barakat’s The Tiller of Waters as one of his “5 Arabic books to read before you die” back in 2010. He called it “an absorbing, enlightening, multi-layered novel set in the empty war-ruins of Beirut, as a man struggling to survive and retain his sanity among packs of feral dogs reconstructs his history and the histories of those close to him through the metaphor of fabric (in which he used to trade), and slowly reveals the secret meanings of linen, cotton, velvet, silk. This is simply one of the best Arabic novels I have read, and it is beautifully translated by Marilyn Booth.”

*Submissions for the 2013 IPAF close June 30.