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Interview with Hoda Barakat

[Huda Barakat. Image from al-akhbar.com] [Huda Barakat. Image from al-akhbar.com]

[This interview was originally conducted in Arabic by Jadaliyya co-editor Ibtisam Azem and is translated by Suneela Mubayi. You can read the original Arabic here] 

Jadaliyya interviewed Hoda Barakat on the occasion of the publication of her fifth novel, Malakut Hadhihi-l-Ard [The Kingdom of this Earth] (Dar al-Adab, Beirut). Barakat was born in Lebanon in 1952 and moved to Paris in 1989, where she now lives and works as a writer and journalist. She has published short story collections, novels and plays, the most famous of them being Ḥajar al-Ḍahk [The Stone of Laughter, 1990], Ahl al-Hawa [People of Passion, 1993] and Sayyidi wa Habibi [My Master and Beloved, 2004]. 

Ibtisam Azem: Let’s begin with the title of the novel – Malakut Hadhihi-l-Arḍ [The Kingdom of this Earth] – taken from a “Biblical” expression. Why this choice, what did it mean to you?

Hoda Barakat: The title is clearly a variation on “the kingdom of heaven.” There are several elements in the bulk of the novel that come together to give the title a set of allusions, beginning with the setting of the events in mountains and elevated areas whose residents pride themselves on their “closeness to the heavens”. It is a region where there has been an exceptionally high number of saints, with the consequent sense of magic with a religious foundation that ensues and then turns into legend and isolation; that usually fit well with the feelings of minorities – or those who feel they are – when the building of inclusive nations does not succeed.

At the same time, the call of the heavens seems to be difficult and burdensome, because “this earth” is a true reality, one may even say a profane one; the heavens (or its agents) do not articulate it meaningfully, nor do they answer its questions. Instead, it often has its own great injustice. Therefore, this “sanctity” or “kingdom” often appears with two completely contradictory faces.

IA: You begin your novel with the Muzawwiq’s tragic death. It reminded me of mythical characters that know their destiny but remain prisoners of the faith they believe in, so they repeat the tragedy time and again. Why did you begin it this way? Does this death symbolize the disintegration of Lebanon or its death for you?

HB: Let me begin with the second part of your question – absolutely not. I do not think I have used in the past, or that I will use in the future, “symbolism” in such an upfront way, or with such obvious intentionality. I do not like novels that are written with this sort of symbolizing; to me it shows a weak narrative. I think that the tragedy of that character’s death inaugurates the narrative at the beginning of the novel and gives the ambience of inevitability to the trajectories of the characters’ lives, which is why we return to it in the [novel’s] final pages. And it is closer to, or fits well with your description of man’s submission to a fate that he cannot comprehend, nor does it do him any good to comprehend it. The characters walk along the paths adjacent to their choices and repeat their tragedies, even as they know their bitter end. In The Kingdom of This Earth, however, there is something beyond this vicious cycle, as they [the characters] belong to a place that remained a place of origin and never became a nation. In it, the story remained dependent on isolation, superstition, and elision, until the fates that led to sorrow (or to war), which struck them like a fury whose reasons they could not fathom, came to settle what was owed to them. And when some of them did understand a little, it did not help them escape from that fury.

IA: Was this novel particularly significant for you on the emotional level, especially since it is about a region that your family hails from? We notice that the choked voice – the beautiful one in the novel – is the voice of Tannus the cantor and singer who alternately narrates with his sister Salma. But this voice, whose owner has distanced himself from his family, realizes that “the Maronites” are not a minority, or different from the rest to the extent they think they are (of course the same thing may be said about other sects – Shiites, Sunnis, etc.). This voice, which rejects the racist and preconceived notions held by his family that invalidate the other, remains muted and suffocated; this is what he himself says by the end of the novel, despite his determination to sing, even if just for himself. Did the polarization and sectarian divisions that took root and still continue motivate you to reclaim these voices that are muffled under the tumult?

HB: In a way, the answer lies within your question. This beautiful voice that comes out from deep inside his community and discovers others drowns in the sorrow of his uniqueness. He is stifled by what he knows, which he cannot share with those he loves. It is precisely the others who shape and refine his voice and give it its range and depth. The danger to minoritarian or other fanaticism comes from opening up to the other who is unlike oneself and truly coming into close contact with him. All forms of fanaticism thrive on isolation and the spread of ignorance. You will not fear the other if you really know him. This is self-evident.

Tannus is forced to leave his distant mountain, but he enters another world. There, he is transformed into an individual and removes himself from the hegemony of the collective. There, he falls in love and there he sings. Simply put, it is there that the walls of the myth, erected by fanatical religious groups, crack apart. Of course, it is the myth that takes the place of history. This is the malady of today’s world, not only our Arab world. Here, though, it has a direct, destructive influence, as it is not neutralized by even a basic level of citizenship, as modern nation states were not established. We have not yet reached the stage of being a part of the nation. Our affiliation is still with the tribe and the sect. These oppositional, suffocated voices, which constitute a tiny minority, 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.

In The Kingdom of This Earth, the Maronite jabal [Mount Lebanon area], is nothing more than a model. This site could have been a Shiite village, or a Sunni one, or anything else; the novel’s logic and narrative mechanism would have stayed the same. I did this in previous novels, even if the project was different. In The Stone of Laughter, the bulk of the events and their consequences take place within the milieu of South Lebanon’s Shiites. This is to say that there is an emotional dimension to choosing my Maronite background as the setting for my latest novel, as you say, but it is not the essential aspect, nor is it the most important. So it annoys me to read a description of The Kingdom of this Earth as “a return to [my] roots”. This is facile and lazy talk, very silly…

IA: In the novel, voices overlap, and the narrative and linguistic rhythm changes according to the change of voices, which happens sometimes within the same paragraph. You experiment with language in way that differs from [your] previous novel; sometimes, the sentences are short and fast-paced with a beat that feels like panting as if they are out of breath, reflecting the narrator’s psychological condition. In other moments, the language is deliberate and reminiscent of the tranquility of mountains. What significance did the linguistic experimentation in The Kingdom of this Earth have for you?

HB: 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. I have never thought that “distorting” fusha is the best pretext to bringing it down to a novelistic language that is “modern” or close to the street. In any case, literature is its language; literature is not at all the language of the street. That is my opinion.

But to go back to the language of The Kingdom of this Earth, I will quickly say that a novel’s language is not its vocabulary. The entire world of the novel’s characters, which bears the stamp of many dense pointers to their primitiveness and ignorance (or being made ignorant), would not have held together without a language that was closest to their ways of expressing themselves. More important than all this, though, is that they are the narrators, not the third-person narrator or the author – or what is called the omniscient author – which is what my writings were before I wrote this novel; I granted myself the agency to blend in among the characters. And so you will notice that my narrative register, which precedes this novel, is quite conspicuous in the opening lines of the three chapters and then disappears. I believe that the subject of novels is precisely their language. Thus I think that every novel I have written has had its own special language, even if the most recent one has tried a different experiment, with a different narrative, characters, and worlds that I confront for the first time – I mean in writing of course. 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.

IA: In addition to the many poetic images present in your writing, you also do not fall into the traps of verbosity and repetitiveness, which some authors fall into. Moreover, your language has a lot of musicality in it? How much “poetry” is present in your novel?

HB: I do not want to fall into the trap of comparisons between poetry and the novel, so I will answer the question in a completely personal manner. When I read a novel that is a masterpiece, it leaves me with a “poetic” feeling, so in describing this feeling, I say: this novel is a poem! It is a vague yet powerful feeling, one that we become aware of before any great work of art, before a painting or when listening to music. Let me get to the point and say that being poetic is not the standard to judge novels. It is another language, different in its particular techniques of compression. Thus, novels can completely fall apart, just as poems can, by rambling. In the novel, the rambling can be a passage and in the poem, a phrase or even a word that is unnecessary. It does not have to do with the volume, but rather with the breaking of the internal rhythm. In any case, I will allow myself to say that we Arabs tend to babble a lot; this babbling becomes clear upon translation, as foreign presses often request some of us to delete or condense. Also, some of us believe that a long novel is necessarily a more significant one. As for your question on musicality in my language, perhaps this is due to my being enamored with music, which I consider to be most cultivated art form and the most powerful at stimulating the senses, or perhaps because I consider the Arabic language, whether poetry or prose, to be inseparable from, even fused together with music. That is what I learned from its canonical works, and perhaps this is why I read sentences out loud while writing them.

IA: To what extent have you attempted to benefit from using other literary genres to play with your narrative style in this novel?

HB: I do not “attempt” to gain from different art forms; they most likely have entered my own being. The sum of what you are shapes your authorial self. These days, it has become more critical for us to move between the different art forms, as has our cultural consciousness of its various tools. The point is not at all to show off what we know but rather to store and process it, so that it enriches that writing of ours that perhaps adheres most closely to spaces we belong to. Sometimes I feel truly sorry upon reading a writer that is truly gifted, only to quickly sense that s/he is ignorant and not well read.

IA: The countryside has long played a basic role in identity formation, culturally and politically, and has shaped both urban and diasporic memory. Your novel returns to the world of the countryside. What is this return searching for and what will it find?

HB: It is very difficult to answer this question, since the text of the novel is my answer! It is an answer that has the complexity and the emotional and sensory levels of these characters’ world; I am not inclined to explain or theorize what concerns narration (and I expect critical readings not to do that!). Sometimes, it is beyond us to find an answer outside the text. Let us say, though, that “the world of the countryside”, to use your expression, is nothing more than an entryway or a pretext to tell a story about other things. I begin from one place, to which I give the highest importance, and then work towards making the reader forget it and leave for the other “places” of the text.

IA: Do you think that the novelist, consciously or unconsciously, has begun to take the place of the historian and is re-narrating history far away from institutional censorship and official myths?

HB: I cannot answer for other writers about their uses of history. The Kingdom of This Earth, which begins at the end of the 1920s (not in the 19th century), is not at all a historical novel, nor does going back to that time aim at writing its history.  Yet again, the time frame of this novel is a pretext. Moreover, I wrote that in the introductory page, in what resembles a dedication, that this novel is not a historical one, and that it is replete with deliberate errors for two reasons: one, to make the label “historical” a distant possibility. The second was that there is no real history, other than fable and myth, or writing that comes closest to them. This – i.e. this absence – is at the foundation of novels. I can generalize and say that Lebanon does not have a true history in the sense of an inclusive national history. There are different histories for every region and sect and they are histories that are often in conflict and contradict each other. This shows itself clearly in our present. Perhaps this is also what the novel intends. The deliberate errors are therefore, in their uses on multiple levels, signs that bring the novel closer to what I intended it to be. In some cases, they refer specifically to the weakness of the characters’ links to history, or hint at some other characteristics about their consciousness of their world, for example, for one of them to call a Syrian worker Nusayri [Alawite] or that he comes from the land of Ḥuran [southern Syria]. This sort of mixing-up indicates the mark of disdain towards that subject because they are from “there”, i.e. they are alike.

IA: You have been living in Berlin for about six months now and will stay there until the start of next summer as a fellow through a fellowship with the Wissenschaftskolleg. What are your impressions of Berlin and how has its atmosphere influenced your writing?

HB: Berlin is wonderful, perhaps because I enjoy a carefree existence here, far from the living conditions of other residents. I do not work or have to support myself; I just write. It is almost like a dream. Unfortunately, this is made available to us only by foreign institutions. These are my living conditions in Berlin, after having lived for many years in Paris in completely different circumstances, which may be summed up as arduous.

Berlin, however, is, for “objective” reasons, much more welcoming, much more spacious, and nature has an unmistakable presence in it, with forests, lakes and green areas. This has a bearing on the general frame of mind [of people]. It seems to me that Berliners are a lot less irritable than Parisians, and more open-minded to how broad the world is. This is perhaps why youthful, dynamic and vibrant intellectual and cultural events take place with great vitality here in Berlin, while Paris sleeps – with its inevitable nightmares – over glories past.

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