Salim Barakat’s The Two Autobiographies are being re-released. Mahmoud Hosny explores their importance:
By Mahmoud Hosny
Twenty years after publishing The Two Autobiographies السيرتان , Dar al-Gamal will release a new edition that includes the childhood autobiography and boyhood autobiography of the Syrian Kurdish novelist and poet Salim Barakat (1951).
Early and unusually among Arab writers, when he was just 29 years old, Salim published his childhood autobiography Iron Grasshopper الجندب الحديدي, with a longer secondary title The incomplete biography of a child who saw only a fugitive land, so he shouted: These are my traps, O sandgrouse!” السيرة الناقصة لطفل لم ير إلا أرضًا هاربة فصاح: هذه فخاخي أيها القطا(1980). Two years later, he published his boyhood autobiography “Bring it loudly… bring the horn to its limit” هاتِه عاليا.. هاتِ النفير على آخره(1982).
Both books were published in Beirut, where he was living at the time (1971 – 1982). Later, they would be gathered in one book that was published by Dar al-Jadeed (Beirut – 1998) when he was in his last days of living in Nicosia, Cyprus (1982 – 1999). After that, he would move to Sweden, where he continues to live now.
In this work, Salim touches on how it’s painful to write about your tough childhood when you are a young man, while the memories are still clear and not far away, as you haven’t left them behind. The tone of his writing reveals a man whose childhood was an “ordeal,” as he said. This childhood was one reason for his decision to leave his family and country when he was less than 20 years old. What he didn’t know, in the moments of writing those pages, was that he would be forced to leave each place where he was living and move between cities until he was 50 years old.
In Iron Grasshopper, Barakat speaks directly to the reader at the beginning of many paragraphs by addressing them as, “Oh my friend.” He goes deeply into confessions about the bad things he did when he was “young as a baby goose.” Through that, he converts childhood tragedy to comedy. Speaking to the child inside him:
“Oh child, never will you see anything outside of what you’ve seen already. And what did you see—tell me—except cars groaning and springs fleeing from the lashes of the dust?”
In “Bring it loudly… bring the horn to its limit,” the boy-Salim loves hustle and glories in it. He sees school as a comedy and the teacher as a caricature.
He warns the other boys:
“Don’t listen to anyone. Don’t sleep. Throw off the blanket rashly, get out of your beds, and escape through the door. Don’t worry once you find yourself outside, for the dark doesn’t frighten, it’s the day that frightens. Don’t worry, I’m ready to guide you to a shelter where there are no buildings, no schools, and no time but yours, and this place is for all. In it, you weave traps for souls and laugh until the earth shatters. I won’t lure you. It is the place itself that lures, may you be worthy of it. So don’t sleep when the others sleep, but follow me.”
In his two autobiographies, Salim opens a magical space in the ruins of his forgotten places. He tells us about a shabby childhood and a boyhood full of fear and anger. It’s as though this cruel childhood can’t be written without this wild literary voice of Salim’s.
Salim fans can rejoice now to see this pure marvel — mad and dangerous writing full of poetry — that will be available in bookstores again.