Modern Arab writers

An interview with Hoda Barakat

In November 2004, Hoda Barakat was among a group of Arab writers who toured Britain under the auspices of the literary journal Banipal. Brian Whitaker interviewed her in London ...

How was the tour?

Very good. I see people and I see England for the first time. It’s very beautiful.

What kind of questions were English people asking about your books?

It wasn’t about my books, but general questions about how we write and why we are in exile ... How we see English writers – did we know them. How we live. It’s curious ... it’s like we come from another planet, but it’s a beautiful curiosity.

A publisher told me that an Arabic novel is considered successful if it sells 3,000 copies. Is that your experience?

Maybe a little more.

Five thousand?

Yes, five thousand is very good. I can never leave my job because I have to eat and I have two children.

You must make more money from the translations than the Arabic versions.

Always.[Her books have been translated into English, French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Dutch, Greek, and German.]

You live in France but write in Arabic. Is that a matter of principle?

I can write in French, but I love Arabic. It’s not a question of principle but I cannot express myself really du fond in French. For example, when we [Arabs] are very painful we say “Aakh!” – and you can’t turn this sonority into another language. Somewhere, deep in your soul there is one language, and it is the language of your body also. I won’t write in the same way if I choose to write not in Arabic.

The characters in your books are ... kind of ... figures on the margins. They are not like the characters in normal Arabic novels.

No! Thank you. [Laughs] I’m never interested about heroes, about men who make history and the characters who believe in something. I don’t have an answer to anything, so when we were on our tour I let the other writers answer the big questions.

My characters start in my head as persistent ideas. It’s like someone wants to talk to you and you don’t know what he wants to talk to you about but he’s still there, saying “I have something to tell you” – and you begin to listen. There is no idea, there is not something to prove, no objective, but I feel a presence behind me. It starts always like this. And they are never women. They are always men.

This is one of the fascinating things ...

It’s not too much fascinating, because when I write I have no gender. I have all the genders in the universe. It’s wonderful, it’s a moment of freedom. Why do I have to choose only half of humanity? I don’t have a choice. They come to me in these voices – the voices of men – and they want to tell me because I am a woman. I never pretend I’m a man who writes. I’m always a woman who writes about men who tell me something. I love these characters. They never let me go.

In The Stone of Laughter, the character of Khalil ... did you know somebody like that in Beirut , or was he one of these figures that came into your head?

I wrote that novel when I was in Beirut [during the civil war], and I always felt that the men who were near to me suffered more than the women, because a society in crisis asks from men much more than it asks from women. They don’t ask us women which side we are on, but men have to be combatants. They have to declare sides and take up arms and go to battles for what they believe. But women are not public beings, so it gives you more freedom in your head.

This is an interesting view because a lot of feminists say that women should be engaged, like the men, in politics ...

There is something luminous in the lives of women – not ideologically but physically. It saves them from having to play the ideological games, so your sensation is real.

In the civil war – I don’t know if it was the same in other wars – women in Lebanon had this kind of blessedness (baraka) but they had not come from another planet. So in this novel mothers want the salaries of martyrs. They are here to ululate and force the combatants to fight. The women are involved in the war but they have different roles.

Historically, women are not really fighters but there are no fighters without women. The historical role of women is to preserve the community and to push the fighters into combat ... I don’t have an illusion about women in general.

I like to be inside men’s characters because I don’t know men, so I discover something. In my second novel I talk about a very violent man. When I finished this book I discovered how much I am myself violent.

How are these characters received by an Arab audience?

All the game is how you write. I take the reader slowly. He is not shocked, so he believes the story. So there is a gay man in my first book but it’s not shocking because he narrates a real sentiment of love. He isn’t there to make paysage. He is something you cannot refuse – you have to admit – because he suffers and he’s really in love and when I describe how much he is in love and how much he suffers and the beauty of the other [man] I take a passage from the Qur’an.

This is very dangerous ground ...

No, it’s not dangerous. Nobody told me: ‘How do you dare to talk like this?’ Youssef is the name of the young man who Khalil loves, so he compares himself to Pudifar, the wife of Youssef the prophet.

Nobody was shocked because it’s really ... I don’t know why ... I took it step by step, from the feeling, not in a sexy way or a shocking way. People accept it and they feel what I feel, really. I respect gay people very deep in my heart – it’s not a pose.

But you’d think it would be fatwa stuff ...

No, never – and I’m a Christian and I’m more exposed to fatwas. I haven’t seen any attacks on me as a Christian writing gay stories and using images from the Qur’an.

All your novels are set in Lebanon during the war, is that right?

My last one, which is about to come out [My Master and My Beloved – Sayyidi wa Habibi] talks about young men who are not militia. They live in Beirut but they are completely on the margins of all this war. The second part of the novel is out of Beirut, in Cyprus. It’s near, but it’s not Lebanon .

Are you beginning to feel that you’ve exhausted the war as a setting for these books? Will the fifth novel be about something different – set in France, maybe?

In France, no. I have too much to tell about what my life was [in Lebanon]. Maybe after years ... but Paris doesn’t interest me.

I suppose the war was a very powerful experience for anybody, but what interests me is the way you write about it. It’s very easy with events like that to go over the top, but you have a away of doing it that draws a line somewhere. It’s restrained in a lot of ways, I think. Most Arab writers would have lots of blood but this, in a way, is quite subtle and understated.

I have not many big things to tell about this ... great events are not my field. What interests me is the little life of people who are not important – and the reflections of the larger process on the lives of marginalised people. Simple people can give an impression of life that is more crucial than an epic. For me, life is an epic.

There’s a popular image of a “pure” Arab culture which is quite monolithic – deserts and Islam and all that sort of thing – but your writing has a very Mediterranean feel. You talk about Phoenicians, Kurds – all the sorts of people and all the aspects of the culture that people often ignore.

History is never a history of purity – it’s always made from mixtures. There is no possession of property in cultural identity. Dante and Shakespeare are not to be possessed by only the Italians and the English. World culture is the property of all.

You can never say “This is my culture and nobody else has had anything to do with its construction”. You say that only when you are in deep decadence. When a culture is in deep decadence it wants to be pure: “What I have belongs to me and I never took anything from other cultures” – it’s totally stupid.

Many Arab novels strike me as heavy, but yours are not.

They suffer from the weight of ideologies. When you have a just cause it’s very good to defend it, but it does not make great literature. Big ideologies make you blinkered. Arab novels suffer from this.

Is that likely to change?

Of course. There is a generation in all the Arab countries who begin to feel the weight of the pan-Arab ideology. These big issues don’t really have success. They have lost their hold and have never worked.

One of the big themes is Arabs as victims. But sometimes it gets to the point where they enjoy being victims rather than trying to find solutions ...

It’s a very comfortable role. It’s a magnificent role as victims – “I’m not responsible in any way”.

I keep myself away from all these people. I don’t go to [literary] festivals. I never write for cultural pages. I keep away from writers and intellectual circles.