Where do you start, writing about Hoda Barakat? The handful of books associated with her name, particularly the two novels on sale in Egypt (Hajar Al-Dahik, The Stone of Laughter; and Ahl Al-Hawa, People of Love) have been widely, if somewhat sporadically, appreciated. Her Egyptian friends — writers and critics like Radwa Ashour and Amina Rashid — praise her humane warmth and whimsical intelligence, the brisk, fast-paced routine to which she submits her days, her astonishing capacity for drawing the line exactly where the line must be drawn. But little is known about how she lives her life in Paris, what drove her there in the first place, why she continues to write in an elaborate, almost idiosyncratic Arabic even though she is practically half-French in language and culture.
And nobody, not even Barakat herself, has provided a satisfying explanation for the fact that, though intensely, palpably personal, her novels bear no resemblance to her life. Barakat writes in the first person, for one thing; her protagonists are invariably men. Her stories take place in Lebanon, often during the last decade or so; the time during which she has been away. They revolve around — no, they scamper up and down — the far side of normality.
And there is no telling what exquisite or horrific hysterias might have nourished the harrowingly lyrical ruminations that make them up: "He who doesn’t know love, and passion complete like a sun, doesn’t know. Complete, passion like the giant nuclear mushroom of one fixed and eternal explosion, doesn’t know. Doesn’t know. The seed of death descends into the humidity of the appropriate darkness. When we know for sure, from the first touch, that this itself, this skin and its appropriate temperature, adjusted exceptionally and finally to match the temperature of our skin, is death." Or, again, in a formal speech (open letter) addressed to Ashour: "An unknown century deserves the adventure of an individual’s estrangement which is all I now possess; it deserves the remains of a marginalised self that perceives its enemy inside it and is still unable to grasp it."
The Lebanese singsong of her voice can provide a peaceful counterpoint. Suffused with the intonation of a French-educated Maronite, it is so soft it almost lulls you to sleep. "I’ll wait and see," she hastens, "whether or not you’ll ask me the questions I really hate." Yet even in a relaxed conversation, she is outspoken, stimulating, at once straightforward and diffident. "This reality," she points to the tape-recorder. "I still don’t deal with it like a star. I don’t go around carrying my CV or pictures of myself. Not even visiting cards. I don’t want to." When she supplies an oral curriculum vitae instead, the movement of her thoughts is strikingly similar to her stream-of-consciousness compositions. First you get a string of crisp, level-headed facts, but sooner than you realise, the rational connections between them have faltered. "I am Lebanese," she states. "I’ve lived in Paris for 11 years... I worked briefly in research and education. Translation too. No, I’m a radio journalist and I work on news, so as to stay as far as possible from literature, culture, the arts. I don’t participate in French or Arab cultural life much, and it takes me four to five years to complete and publish a book. So far I have four: one collection of short stories and three novels. My novels have been translated into a certain," she laughs, "a respectable number of other languages."
Then the information metamorphoses into something else. "The war is why I left, yes, it was why I finally decided to leave. Well, I left in 1989. That was the last year of war. It’s not as if... I mean, I lived through the entire Lebanese civil war, in Lebanon. But during the last battles — of course I didn’t know they were the last battles then, otherwise I would’ve waited — I started to get scared in a real way, I had genuine fear. Because by that time I had children. I was afraid for the children." There is a surge of intellectually processed emotion as the words finally hit target. "And I felt there was no need for me to stay in the country. None whatever."
Yet through her words, the way they slip and escalate, she manages to subvert the reality which torments her — to a far greater extent, it turns out, than many self-advertised revolutionaries and feminists. Until you think about it, her answer to the question of belonging, the one locus of relations that has conditioned her life and work (how does one react to being Christian, in Beirut, at the outbreak of the civil war?), seems matter-of-fact enough. "I studied French literature at the Lebanese University, and the year I graduated  the war in Lebanon broke out. Yes, my first book [Al-Tha’irat, The Rebels] came out in 1985, in the middle of the war. Three quarters of my life are in the middle of the war. You didn’t have time to embark on adult life before the war started, and when you did you were armed with your parents’ upbringing, values that were no longer useful for anything."
It is almost as if she’s apologising, but in her demeanour there is neither rancour nor remorse. "I used to write, yes, but in secret. But I was really afraid of that other thing. The books that I read made it clear how difficult it was, so I didn’t publish while I was young. Even when the first book was published — what was I, 33 or 34 — it was a collection of texts and short stories. I didn’t venture to publish a novel. It’s a serious, dangerous business, publishing. People liked the book, though, I got very positive reviews. So I was a little encouraged to go on. Yes, all my novels were written after I left, but that was only because I’d been intimidated for so long. Nothing to do with the fact that I was in Paris as opposed to Beirut. But anyway, I was."
To start over, to wipe the slate clean in one’s third decade, as a woman, alone: Barakat had already done it once. Was it a serious love story? She is reluctant, timid, facetious. "Of course," she says finally. "Because I married a Muslim." There is an abrupt pause in the conversation, a dramatic silence. Everyone bursts out laughing. "No... of course, that was something. At the height of a civil war between Christianity and Islam, yours truly just happened to fall in love. I mean, I was born and brought up in Bsharré (Gibran Khalil Gibran’s village), which is a strictly Maronite village, and to get married to a Muslim in the middle of that violence..."
But this is as far as she will go. She is willing to tell me that he was a colleague at university, a talented poet, a hero, that she didn’t worry much about her own writing because "his writing was sufficient for the entire region," and that she left with her two boys, without him. "In retrospect I’ve come to realise how very idealistic it all was. We were the first generation of students to include Muslims and Christians. It was at that time that I was on the margin of certain political activities, but I soon backed out. By the late 1980s all that counted was to get out of Beirut, not what would happen next. It was a real leap into the unknown. My sister was studying in Paris and had a little studio, 25 square meters. 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."
In another context, Barakat speaks of the way she discovered Arabic, reading the classics independently in her mid-teens. Her fascination with a language that was "not given" in the way that French was would prove life-long, but only because it was given in a different way. "When my parents spoke to me as a child, it was in Arabic. There is such a thing as a mother tongue. In my innermost blood vessels I see the world in Arabic. And, besides, I worship the Arabic language. It was my choice to have a very close relationship with it. I work on the language itself. Half of my achievement is in the sentence, doing something with each sentence I write. It isn’t simply a question of telling a story."
Between feeling utterly estranged from Beirut and cherishing the Arabic sentence, there is a sense of comfort and accomplishment, "perhaps due to personality, character", that favours individual solitude and defies pigeonholes. Yet the tension of belonging, of love-hate, of love and loss, remains the fuel of Barakat’s life: "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 [Harith Al-Miyah, Ploughing the 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."
Where do you start, writing about Hoda Barakat? Not in her life, which is both "ultimately unimportant, uninteresting" and an elaborate paradox of identity. Not in her work, which is contrived and invented from the first word on. But perhaps in the specific, complex way in which her work reflects her life, even to the point where she creates characters and plots from scratch, simply to get at "the discomfort". Nothing motivates her, she explains, apart from the desire to get something out of her system. She works in a practical void. When she receives positive reviews in the French press or a letter of praise from some unknown reader in Palestine, she is elated, of course. But this is not what she writes for.
"Paris teaches you to be modest. There is a genuine challenge in producing something of quality. In Cairo you publish an article in a literary magazine — it needn’t be anything special — and as soon as you go out to the cafés you know what everyone thinks, you feel important. But anyway I work a great deal, simply in order to live. Writing is effectively a luxury."
And it is a clean slate too, every time. She lives away, she largely isolates herself from the French and Arab literary scenes, and she isn’t going to write in French. "Had I decided to be a Francophone writer, to give up that part of the soul of my books, I wouldn’t be the mess that I am now." She is, above all else, a mother; and her children are her most terrifying critics, when they get round to reading her work. "But all the rest, literature and everything, the respectable opinions of critics, intellectuals, the press, all that can only come later. They matter most."
Yet it is perhaps in her exposition of why she writes from the viewpoint of (mad)men that the greatest secret resides: "I don’t write from memory, I don’t write autobiography, I don’t write about myself. But all these people are very similar to me, even though they’re men, even though they don’t live the way I do. With each of them there’s some feature that I share. When you talk about a character far from yourself, one that you assume is far from yourself, you find it opening doors inside you. And maybe you’re not expecting to go to the places they go, but you find yourself there all of a sudden. In moments of extreme tension, we experience madness. The only difference between us and the mad is that the water of our daytime dilutes the wine of our nights, whereas their situation is a permanent night. Am I my unconscious or the social being that you see before you, a creature whose autobiography is frivolous? It is my consciousness of life that counts, and I gain access to that consciousness through my characters, who sometimes take me places I don’t want to go. All I know is that the character that comes into my head is a man. I want to get together with someone other than myself, and maybe that person is a woman trying to pass for a man. But if I wrote about a woman, the character wouldn’t be as real. The woman trying to pass for a man, or the man who emerges in the head of a woman, is more real than the person sitting before you now."
In the same way, maybe the individual, the human being who constantly escapes categorisation, is more real than The Lebanese, The Woman, The Writer. And perhaps it is necessary to start over and over, in order to keep this individual alive. It is this possibility that Barakat can finally, refreshingly communicate. Only here can you really start to write about her.
photos: Randa Shaath
Source: Al Ahram 1999