Returning home meaningfully

10 May

Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat was in the Thessaloniki International Book Fair as part of Middle East Festival: When ideas revolt. The following is an interview in the Greek press on the occasion of her visit.

Hoda Barakat, has lived through the civil war and Israel’s invasion in Lebanon. She left Beirut in 1989 at the age of 37 “ at a time when violence was at its peak” and went to Paris, where she lives and works to this day. “I was taken by a feeling of fear, especially with regards to my two kids. I could not find any meaning in living in a country that was self-destructive and destroying me, as part of a general, indiscriminate madness. I wished to leave, to get away, not necessarily to reach somewhere or build something somewhere else. I felt that my inner life was full”.
The war in Lebanon radically changed her worldview. How does she see the current turmoil and the bloodshed that is currently shaking the Arab world? “These events were not expected nor easy to foresee. Yet they were so much needed! I wouldn’t call them “conflicts” though, but revolutions. Both in Egypt and in Tunisia. These societies could no longer remain inert, on the verge of death, outside of time.” Will they be able to find political stability? “Democracy is an almost absolute value” Barakat says. “It is something that is practiced daily, while the way towards it is long, I’d say endless. For us every step of the way is a big accomplishment and it’s worth the risks”.

Barakat’s first novel The stone of laughter was published in 1990 and received the Al Nakint prize. Next there was The enlightened (1993) and The Tiller of Waters (1999) that received the Naguib Mahfouz prize in 2000. The novel’s central hero, Nicolas Mitri, is a Greek-Orthodox Lebanese. “There’s really strong ties between these orthodox Lebanese and the Greek-Orthodox of other countries like Russia, but particularly with Greece because of its proximity” she explains. “History and geography are full of examples. The Greek community in Lebanon was very affluent and there are still families in the country with a hundred per cent Greek names. These bonds are strong and impossible to break.”

The world-traveled novelist still writes in Arabic (her work has been widely translated) and Beirut always features in her books. “I believe that, had I stayed in Beirut, I would still have the same opportunities to write and get published because I write in Arabic. Compared to other Arabic countries, women in Lebanon enjoy great freedom. Also in Egypt, in Tunisia, women were and remain present. They keep on fighting their fight daily and vigilantly. In other countries it will be harder to improve their status because of the weight of racial, religious and other traditions. Still, the first step is enormous. The times are changing when women realize that they are citizens. In that sense globalization has done some good.”

Having lived in two different countries and two cultures Hoda Barakat believes that we live in a time of “false ideas” that the Westerners have for the ‘Orientals’. “This one-sided approach is our century’s evil” she points out. “We refuse to meet the ‘other’, we have a deep-seated hatred for differences. Before we even start talking about acceptance or tolerance, let’s talk about the interest, the curiosity that we are missing. Look at the difference between traveling, the journeys from which there are still written documents dating back to antiquity, and today’s tourism”.

In her new home, France, did she encounter difficulties to be welcomed and accepted? “I have never been a victim of racism, but that doesn’t mean I don’t experience the problem, among Arabs or foreigners in general. People are generally more tolerant to a wealthy foreigner as opposed to a poor one who doesn’t even know how to defend him/herself. But if I never encountered racism it had nothing to do with being wealthy. What saved me is the good command of the French language and knowledge of my civil rights as well as the fact that financially I didn’t have to ask the support of the French government. And I should also add the literary success which came very fast when my novels were published in France, and I was honoured twice with the highest prizes in the cultural field.” Yet she never forgets that she is a “foreigner”: “I am not in France in order to become a local. I am a Lebanese who doesn’t live in Lebanon but who returns there with more freedom, more meaningfully and radically. My writing testifies to this”.

Source: Eleftherotypia.
Translated from Greek by Aktina Stathaki

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