Hoda Barakat is one of four Lebanese authors on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist, for her 2012 novel, The Kingdom of this Earth.
Barakat was born in the Lebanese town of Bsharre, where her most recent novel is set. Bsharre is also known as “Gibran Khalil Gibran’s village,” as it’s the place of that famous poet’s birth. Barakat lived there until she moved to Beirut to study French literature. After graduation, she moved to Paris to work on a PhD, but returned when Lebanon’s civil war began, and there worked as a teacher, translator, and journalist — falling in love with and marrying a Muslim at the height of the war — and then returning, with her two sons, to Paris in 1989.
Barakat told Youssef Rakha in a 1999 interview that she went because her sister was in Paris:
That was the only reason I went to Paris rather than anywhere else. I had no money, no promise of work, no future provisions. And for months I lived with my sister and two boys in those 25 square meters. Until I managed to find a job, sort out my papers, get things going. It was a nightmare. But I didn’t regret it and I didn’t feel like going back. I used to feel perfectly unconcerned about that country, its people or its intellectuals or its wars. I was unconcerned.
Later she told Rakha, she made her peace with Beirut. But:
It’s as if you were in love with someone whom you can neither love properly nor abandon. I can tell you that my relationship with the country is still sick. Now the war is over. In a sense, Bsharré has allowed me to make my peace with Lebanon. On holidays, if I want to go back, Bsharré is where I stay. But the discomfort is still there, I always feel on the verge of some danger. Not physical danger, but something in the air. I don’t think of Lebanon, I think of Beirut. Part of the problem is that it has changed so much it is no longer recognisable as the city I knew. That, in essence, is what my last novel [The Tilling of Waters] is about. Can you imagine Cairo without the city centre? Can you imagine Egypt without the city centre of Cairo? No, I have not made my peace with Beirut and I think it’s too late, because the Beirut I need to make my peace with is no longer there.
It was in Paris that Barakat began publishing her major works, including The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciplines of Passion (1993), the Naguib Mahfouz-medal winning The Tiller of Waters (1998), and My Master and My Beloved (2004). All but My Master and My Beloved have been translated into English by Marilyn Booth.
Barakat published her debut story collection, Visitors, in Beirut in 1985, and that’s where she worked on Stone of Laughter. In a 2004 interview, Barakat told Brian Whitaker that she wrote The Stone of Laughter (and invented its protagonist Khalil) while she was in Beirut, during the war. She explained why most of her protagonists have been men:
…I always felt that the men who were near to me suffered more than the women, because a society in crisis asks from men much more than it asks from women. They don’t ask us women which side we are on, but men have to be combatants. They have to declare sides and take up arms and go to battles for what they believe. But women are not public beings, so it gives you more freedom in your head.
She also said:
I’m never interested about heroes, about men who make history and the characters who believe in something. I don’t have an answer to anything, so when we were on our tour I let the other writers answer the big questions.
Her novels, until her IPAF-longlisted Kingdom of this Earth, have been set almost wholly in the confines of Lebanon’s civil war, and have all been narrated by men. She also told Whitaker:
My characters start in my head as persistent ideas. It’s like someone wants to talk to you and you don’t know what he wants to talk to you about but he’s still there, saying “I have something to tell you” – and you begin to listen. There is no idea, there is not something to prove, no objective, but I feel a presence behind me. It starts always like this. And they are never women. They are always men.
In Barakat’s Kingdom of this Earth, however, one of the two narrators is Salma (the other is her younger brother Tannous). The novel also begins earlier, at the end of the 1920s, and ends at the eve of the Lebanese Civil War. It is set in a previous era, but, Barakat told Suneela Mubayi for Jadaliyya, “there is no real history, other than fable and myth, or writing that comes closest to them.”
It begins with the tragic death of Muzawwiq, and Barakat told Jadaliyya that “the tragedy of that character’s death inaugurates the narrative at the beginning of the novel and gives the ambiance of inevitability to the trajectories of the characters’ lives[.]”
The language Barakat uses in Kingdom, she told Jadaliyya, “differs from everything I have written, when it comes to the use of the colloquial.”
And Barakat said:
I can add that Arab readers – non-Lebanese ones – will have difficulty in understanding some of the local vocabulary, but this does not leave me sleepless. Difficulties akin to this did not prevent me from being greatly impressed when I read Arabic novels that used local vocabulary. And in the end, it did not stop me from understanding these words according to their narrative content.
There are many “spoilers” in the Jadaliyya interview, so read them at your own risk.
A brief excerpt:
English-language interviews with Barakat:
With Suneela Mubayi, in 2012 (specifically about Kingdom)