Najwa Barakat: ‘I Needed Something Bigger Than Myself’

Lebanese writer Najwa Barakat has written six novels since 1986. Over the past ten years, her work has been garnering increased critical acclaim. But in that time, Barakat hasn’t focused only on her own work:
Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

From a short essay-interview in Qantara:

If every writer has a question at the centre of their novels, says Najwa Barakat, then “my question is related to the human capacity for committing and bearing violence: the paradox of our ability to produce violence that we can’t bear.”

In the last decade, Najwa Barakat’s novels have received growing critical acclaim, both in Arabic and in translation. This year, the Lebanese writer saw her first book published in English: Oh Salaam!, translated by Luke Leafgren. This signature work explores how it is possible – or not possible – to move past war-time patterns of violence. Also this year, Barakat’s The Language of Secrets (2004), translated into French by Philippe Vigreux, was shortlisted for the French “Prix de la Litterature Arabe”. In the book, a precious document is stolen from a hermitage and violence ensues.

Barakat was born in Beirut in 1966 and came of age during Lebanon’s 1975–1990 civil war. She published her first novel in 1986, while the war still raged, and has since written five more. Like other contemporary Lebanese writers, Barakat has been drawn to writing about her country’s conflicts. But her novels also move beyond the war, to other explorations of the human capacity for violence. “Many who read my novels now think they’re in response to what’s happening in the Arab world today,” Barakat said in a July 2015 interview.

But Barakat, who has also written for radio, film and theatre, is not just an important contemporary writer. Since 2005, she has also been a key guide for emerging writers across the region. She launched her first “Mohtaraf” writing workshop in 2005. In 2009, it became a permanent fixture on the Arabic literary scene. Since the 2009–2010 workshop year, the intensive Beirut-based writing workshop has attracted a diverse group of aspiring novelists, scriptwriters and playwrights; extensions of the workshop have been staged in Manama and Dubai. Eight novelists are participating in the core 2014–15 edition.

Launchpad for young Arab novelists

Cover of Najwa Barakat's novel "Oh Salaam!" (source: Interlink Press)

The first intensive workshop, held in 2009–2010, launched books by young Lebanese novelists Rasha Atrash, Hilal Chouman, and Rana Najjar. By now, Barakat says, her workshops have launched 18 books. “Eighteen novels means 18 new writers,” says Barakat. Many of these books have won awards. One of the top $60,000 prizes of the new Qatar-based Katara award went to Bahraini author Mounira Sowar for her Mohtaraf-supported novel A Slave.

The Mohtaraf project was born of an existential crisis, says Barakat. After she’d reached a certain stage in writing Secret Languageshe needed to wait a while before continuing revisions. “I needed to get involved in something bigger than myself, something to distract me and give myself a goal.” Keep reading on Qantara.