Hoda Barakat to Il Manifesto: “Exile has little to do with geography”

20 November 2015 209 views No Comment Email This Post Email This Post Print This Post Print This Post

rp_HodaBarakat_TheGuardian-300x2271-150x150.pngBy Guido Caldion, for Il Manifesto, published on November 15h, 2015

Hoda Barakat is among the most famous and brilliant Lebanese authors. She has lived in Paris for the past thirty years, at Place de la République, the epicentre of the terrorist attack that hit the French capital. Deeply knowledgeable about the works of Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, but also about the Arab poets of the ninth and tenth centuries, Barakat investigates the symbols and history of the Middle Eastern countries, returning to the crisis in that part of the world…

Born in 1952 in Beirut to a Christian Maronite family originally from Mount Lebanon, Barakat moved to France in the late eighties. There, she has been in charge of the editorial staff of “Radio Orient”for over a decade , one of the French and Arab stations that are most listened to. Barakat has published five novels of great beauty and narrative power – two of which have been translated in Italy The disciples of passion (Jouvence);  The tiller of waters (Ponte alle Grazie) – and a collection of articles wrote for al Hayat, an Arab newspaper: Letters from a foreign (Ponte alle Grazie) on her experience of exile. Her latest novel, The Kingdom of this Earth, released by Actes Sud in 2012 is not published in Italy yet.

 

You are currently in Italy to attend the conference “Conflicts and revolutions” organized by the League of literature in Florence. What was your reaction to the news of the massacres in Paris?

I spent all night calling my children to make sure they were safe, and they were. I do not live far from the Bataclan; for me those are familiar places. I really can not make sense of what happened. These people, these killers are like robots out of a horror movie. It is hard for me to see even the true claims behind their acts. I’m afraid that we have entered a new era of human history, dominated by terror, but we are not able to understand it fully because we have outdated tools, overtaken by events. We do not understand Isis’ nihilism, and especially we do not understand entirely how this appeal to terror and death can conquer a part of the new generations, to proselytise in countries that have long known the war, but also in Europe, in our neighborhoods.

… For the moment I think the only thing to do is try to sharpen our gaze to really understand with what we are dealing with…

 

After the shooting at “Charlie Hebdo”, you wrote for “Le Monde” a short text entitled “The shame and rejection,” in which you explained how these killers were sons of fundamentalist violence, but also of the broken promises of the République.

When Le Monde asked me to write I was not optimistic, because I could already see what was going to follow the first moments of collective mobilization, as in fact happened. After the anger and fear, we immediately stopped asking why young people born and brought up in France can be pushed to identify with an ideology of suicide and death. In many ways they are the “orphans of the République”, one of the most terrible and tragic consequences of the fact that the democratic France has never taken up at the bottom of its colonial and imperial past.

My characters try in every way to escape the constraints and the unwritten laws that govern the membership to a particular community, group or religion and the blind violence that is often the terrible corollary to this membership.

At the center of your work as a writer there seems to be a desire to investigate the way in which individuals can avoid the fatal embrace of the community. One would think that this is a kind of escape from membership to the community, is that what it is?

In many ways I think so. My characters try in every way to escape the constraints and the unwritten laws that govern the membership to a particular community, group or religion and the blind violence that is often the terrible corollary to this membership. This attempt is done through different forms in each of my novels, but it is a theme that runs through all my literary efforts. Somehow it’s like I’ve always wanted to examine the forms, even the most extreme, that humans can give to the pursuit of freedom that is then also an escape from evil, corruption, hatred.

The conflict between communities is the basis of the long tragedy of Lebanon that, as shown by the terrible bombing in Beirut on Thursday, has never ended completely. The reality of Lebanon continues to be analyzed in your novels, until “The Kingdom of this Earth” which evokes the genesis of the clash between religious groups which will lead to civil war. Have you identified the causes of this?

In this novel I tried to understand how they developed those phenomena that affect Lebanese society yes, but more generally the life of all cultural and religious minorities in the Middle East. One could say the same of Iraq or Syria. There is no question about the abuses that have characterized these countries where the state and the institutions, although they often arose from national liberation movements in the fifties, have not been able to build cohesive societies, able to hold together their differences without going to pieces or drown in violence.

I chose a family from a village in the mountains because it is the reality that I know best, to understand what went wrong, not only in Lebanon, but also in the rest of the Arab world. The result is that if you replace the Maronite family of which I speak, with any family or any other community in the Middle East, the same dynamics that lead this world toward implosion will emerge. And this is because these communities have never found a unifying fabric that made them feel part of something more complex.

Despite having chosen to live in Paris since 1989, you have often said that you not to feel like an exile, why?

I think the condition of being in exile is something deeply interior that has little to do with geography. I’m not even sure that the term has a negative connotation at all, tied to nostalgia, sadness, the loss of what we loved as children. Exile can also be a place of freedom.

I think the condition of being in exile is something deeply interior that has little to do with geography. I’m not even sure that the term has a negative connotation at all, tied to nostalgia, sadness, the loss of what we loved as children. Exile can also be a place of freedom. For example I think I could keep writing about Lebanon because I left. If I had stayed, my eyes would have been less critical, less radical, more conciliatory towards an absurd way of life . Therefore I can say that it is actually in Lebanon, in the years of civil war, fought between 1975 and 1990, when it had become difficult and dangerous to communicate with anyone, that I experienced a true form of exile. For Christians, there was no longer a good Christian… Similarly, for the environments of the left to which I belonged, it was not possible for me to speak critically of some violent act committed by the Palestinian militants who lived in Lebanon because I was a Maronite mountain. All this happens at a time where to get bread or gas, one had to belong to a community; if you did not, you had no right. And when you were stopped at a checkpoint you had to be sure to show your ID card right, as a mistake could cost you your life. When I got too scared for myself and my children, I realized that it was time to leave.

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