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Hoda Barakat: Kingdom of this Earth

[The cover of Kingdom of this Earth. Image from www.lahamag.com] [The cover of Kingdom of this Earth. Image from www.lahamag.com]

[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. Kingdom of this Earth relates the lives of the people of Bsharri, a small Maronite community in Mount Lebanon, during the period spanning from the beginning of the twentieth century until the eve of the Lebanese Civil War. The readers follow the life of these mountaineers who have such a fierce pride in "their own" Gibran, their land, their many saints, and in the Cedars, God's Cedars, that after a group of German scientists diagnose the trees with a bacterial disease, they send their car down the steep cliff to their death, so that when the car reaches the bottom of the valley "it looks like a dog chewed on it." The novel also relates the eternal conflicts raging between the Bsherraouis and the Zghartaouis, leading to regular lethal raids between the two Maronite towns, and also involving numerous calls for help from remote Maronite communities from Baalbak region and even Houran.

The two main protagonists and narrators, Salma and her little brother Tannous, alternate in recounting the story of their lives beginning from their father's untimely death, shortly followed by the death of their mother. The author skillfully intermingles the vernacular with the literal Arabic, presenting a text woven in a beautiful, unique, and innovative language. Salma, the eldest, takes care of her two brothers and three sisters, forgetting herself, and deciding to stay single. After her sister Nabiha marries and starts a family, Salma discovers a latent maternal love in her for Nabiha's children, particularly the little girl, Hind, who fills Salma's life with warmth. Salma's brother, Tannous, remains unmarried too, even though he experiences romantic love twice in his life. As Tannous relates the minutiae of his love relationships to his sister Salma, the latter finds out that she has never felt sexual desire or love for anyone in her life. She is disturbed to realize that she is unable to mourn her love life because she does not feel the need for any, as Nabiha's children fills her life. Tannous, on the other hand, feels an irreducible void in his life. He has inherited a beautiful voice from the males of his family, yet finds himself incapable to articulate his emotions because, as he confesses, he lacks the words that his father would have taught him had he not died while Tannous was still a little child. His singing is outmoded as well, and cannot earn him a respectable living. Eventually Tannous's voice fades and becomes suffocated. 

Barakat's captivating text proposes a reflection on the configuration and (im)possibility of community, from the nuclear family, to the religious sect, to the nation, and to human community in its broadest sense, and the way they all instrumentalize sexuality for exclusionary purposes. Whereas the Bsherraouis persistently endeavor to preserve the hermeticity of their community, Salma disidentifies with her community's politics of exclusion, even though she identifies as a Maronite Bsherraoui. She commiserates with the parents of the French soldier whom Tannous kills in self defense; she also sympathizes with all the soldiers killed in the 1967 war, because "those who are killed in wars are the children of nobody." She even enters in a vicious fight with Margot, a Bsherraoui woman who always carries a loaded gun in her breast, for the latter wants the Israelis to annihilate the Palestinians and Muslim Arabs. While for Salma community encompasses all human beings, especially the helpless, Tannous struggles to define community for himself. Both characters diverge from their own community and its politics of exclusion and self-isolation. Nonetheless, (or maybe consequently) the fact that their voices disappear as they remain childless invites a reflection on the role of the parents and the law of the father--materialized in language--that reinforce the community's exclusionary practices while also facilitating the disagreements paradoxically immanent and indispensable to this community's cohesion. Hence the novel's title “Malakut hadhihi al-ard” can be translated in two distinct ways corresponding on the two divergent ways of imagining community: Kingdom of this Earth, or Kingdom of this Land. In either translation, the fact remains that this habitat has not become a homeland.]

 

Hoda Barakat: An Excerpt from Kingdom of this Earth

Translated by Ghada Mourad

“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.

And because Saba did not live in the neighborhood, his visits to us were few until we forgot his wife's name, and I don't know how we kept calling her "the bride," intending a bit of irony…until we said among ourselves that Saba must be ashamed of her company, and that she must be content with the company of Hanna's wife who comes from her town, or who is her relative, so she doesn't come to us. Then we assumed that Saba will force her to visit us when they will have children.

But life made us forget the reproaches we had for Saba and his wife. We were reassured on him because my uncle was vouching for him and securing his future as he came to occupy the position of his only son, working with Hanna in the hotel they had built in the Cedars. Saba was visiting us on holidays only, alone, without the bride, and only to talk about selling a piece of land we can't figure out why he needs it, he who doesn't care about us, who is not interested in knowing how we remodeled the house and bought new stuff and completely rebuilt the lower house… and Saba doesn't ask about the whereabouts of his brother Tannous, until a day Nabiha said that Saba assumes that Tannous had died in his exile.

We were also busy searching for a bride for Betrayseh, who kept circumventing us to spend a large part of his salary on the house, despite our continued and violent objections. And every time we told him about the virtues of a girl, he was quick to say that he didn't want to marry, without even asking who she is. Nabiha and I would tell him, "Go become a monk"… But even in monasteries they don't admit the poor anymore. "Marry who you want, when you want, but save a little so that the girl you choose accepts to marry you"…and he doesn't answer.

As for our real amusement, it was Youssef and Fares, Nabiha's two sons who were like twins, as she became pregnant with the second before finishing the forty of her first-born. And when she became pregnant with the girl, Fares was still suckling from his mother's teat and didn't complete six months. So I started to sing to Nabiha, " O love, O love, O love," like the song says…and she was embarrassed, and said this is God's will.

But this girl, when I held her for the first time my heart ripped.

As soon as she came out of her mother's womb, she opened her eyes and looked at me. I started to say that she sees and looks, while she was staring at me with her big black pupils.

With this girl many things got me confused…when she is hungry I feel a warm liquid coming into my breasts…and when I smell her in her neck my lungs open to the bottom of my belly. I don't dare to believe that, since she was born, my buttocks became a bit plump, and so did my calves; my skin became soft as though moistened by an oil that it secretes by itself.

I hear her before she starts crying, and when I hold her she calms down. She rolls her rosy mouth and turns it in all directions. She complains to me about her hunger as though she knew me, she even knows me from my smell--so I give her to her mother's breast while feeling a light tingling in my nipples.

I call her, "My girl, my daughter, my Mayme," sharing with her mother a boundless joy in her. It's our own joy, the two of us; it's deep and remote, and doesn't resemble our joy in the two boys, for that joy was generalized, for us, but also for the whole family, the neighborhood, and the neighbors, even the distant ones.

The joy of the two of us in the girl was like a secret agreement or an additional complicity so strange we don't understand it, even if we tried to. When we remove her clothes to bathe her, we look amazed at her little pink member which is like a rose bud, we laugh until tears spout from our eyes, we go on laughing without a reason and we go on searching for what we call "her dear taztooz" for we want for it a unique nickname unused by anyone else.

Every time Nabiha extends her arms to me with the girl she offers me a precious gift, despite her claims that she is asking me for help so that she would be able to take care of the two boys… "My sister, for God's sake, I know that I am asking a lot from you but"…Nabiha says, as if protecting me from the feeling of sharing her daughter and dividing her maternity with my many exaggerations.. and when Najib adds, "What would we do if Salma were not present and close," I feel at ease and reassured and I become convinced in my indispensability, due to the fact that Najib was rarely sleeping in the house after he started working with Hanna and Saba in the hotel.

For Hanna brought a gold coin and came congratulating with the birth of Fares at that time, and Saba was proud of this gift as if he paid half of its price. We knew that Hanna wanted something, because he did not bring a gold coin for the birth of the first-born male, Youssef…and we soon identified the reason.

Hanna said that the hotel began to reject many guests for their large number. We heard the word "guest" for the first time, since we used to believe that they are called "customers", and then Hanna said that the level of the guests no longer allows to hire workers unfit for the job and who are not fluent in foreign languages, especially French. Then he said to Najib, "Najib, I need a maître, a valuable manager, and nobody is more worthy of this important position than you, and you are my cousin so why would I go to benefit the strangers who steal my money?... Nabiha said that Najib is not as fluent in French as managers are supposed to, but Hanna persuaded everyone that the post only requires a few words and very simple expressions that don't change…Then Hanna went on explaining how much profit the hotel makes, and that no matter how little the fixed salary is, many, many folds of it come through tips. And Saba expands in explaining the principle of the tip, the baksheesh, asking and replying to himself as an international expert, and citing Hanna, then placing his hand on the image of the Virgin, because Saba knows that we profoundly doubt Hanna's words, whom we for long advised him not to trust him, because he is a swindler.

"Try, try, Najib, and if you don't like the job go back home, and nobody would be angry at you"… So Najib said, "we'll try," and he began working in the Cedars…maître.

I even forgot Sabat and Emiline. When Najib sleeps in the village and I go back to sleep at home, I am surprised a little to see the girls, but I say to them…"Don't think that I don't know every step and every move you make. I know the number of hair each of you has; I know about the jaunts to the Cedars and the excursions with Marta to Beirut. If you don't want to marry, I will not argue because I took the same decision…Think well that the leader Marta has become a spinster. I say a spinster because she wants to marry…a foreign groom… I'll leave her alone, she does what she wants, she's free…If you had wanted…" Then I quickly feel weary, so I stop the flood of words feigning in front of the two girls despair at them…and I go on thinking about the little one, promising myself the imminence of the happy adhesion to her before I close my eyes.”

[Hoda Barakat, Malakut Hadhi al-Ard (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2012) pp. 206-211. Translated from the Arabic by Ghada Mourad.]

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