“Whosoever has not killed remains prey to fancies, prey to suffering, captive to an enervating search for wondrous salvation.”
Hoda Barakat’s second novel, The Disciples of Passion (2005) – in French Les Illumines (1999) and in Arabic Ahl al’Hawa (1993) – set our recent discussion in ULIP’s new series of library talks under the shadow of human capacity for violence, a shadow that has had decisive impact on Hoda Barakat’s life and writing, but one to which she has succeeded in bringing strange and compelling illumination. Barakat has made her home in Paris since she left her native Lebanon in 1989, yet has continued to write in Arabic, even tending towards a much more idiomatic Arabic in her latest work Le Royaume de cette terre (Malakût hadhihi al-ard, 2012). We were intrigued to discuss this choice, to know whether it was indeed experienced as a choice, and how she thinks of her writing in relation to the languages that people her everyday existence in Paris, as well as those that translate her work for readers around the world. These questions cannot be approached separately, implied Barakat, from their background in violence and upheaval. Any easy delineations we might have wanted to invoke between a state of exile or of belonging were kicked over by her insistence on the fact that she was ‘déjà partie’ when she was still living in Beirut. ‘Partir’ meant first withdrawing from her society of friends and colleagues as they became embroiled in the civil war, realizing that she had hardly exchanged any words with people other than her children for days on end, negotiating the complexity of crossing the city by displaying different passes at different checkpoints. ‘Partir’ also meant giving up all of the fluid circulation between cultures and languages that had characterized the city of Beirut. It meant finally reaching the conclusion that this was no longer a country, that there was nothing for her to do there: ‘Quand je suis partie, je détestais ce pays, j’étais malade de ce pays… mon sentiment d’être un étranger dans mon pays était beaucoup plus pénible que quand j’en suis sortie… Ici, c’était juste la sécurité, pour moi et pour les enfants. Je n’avais pas vraiment de projet, pour la France… Et puis j’ai continué à écrire comme si j’étais restée là-bas. Je crois, vraiment. Après on ne peut pas savoir. J’ai aussi le sentiment que cette distance m’a donné beaucoup de cruauté, beaucoup de radicalité, dans l’écriture… Heureusement qu’il y avait l’écriture…’.
‘Partir’ meant essentially moving to the space of writing. A therapeutic process? Undoubtedly. Also a form of resistance, or a means of shoring up a certain cultural heritage? Barakat was less willing to take that idea on board. Perhaps a form of resistance is a consequence, she replied, an indirect result, of her work, but it’s not a motivation: ‘Pourquoi je vais écrire en français ? j’ai une langue… et elle est capable de tout. Et, au fond de moi, ce n’est pas un acte volontaire, d’écrire en arabe, c’est une envie qui vous envoie vers une langue ou vers une autre. Moi, l’envie est la langue que je rêve pour mon écriture, et c’est la langue arabe. C’est vrai que ça me maintient dans la marge. Je suis traduite en français, j’ai beaucoup de bonne presse, j’ai même des décorations, mais je sais que je ne rentre pas sur le marché des ventes du livre comme un écrivain français… je suis loin de tout ça, des prix et tout ça, mais je suis bien comme ça.’
Our gathering was small, a group of students and academics all interested in the ways writing and speaking in different languages happens in this city that we share, but as Barakat talked in an increasingly expansive way and we settled into a more relaxed exchange, we found ourselves slipping away from the context of our encounter. Paris is for her, she insisted, purely contingent, and always has been. Beirut in every respect, not just as place of violence, but also of cultural and linguistic cosmopolitanism, was the more significant location of experience: ‘Beirut était une ville poreuse à toutes sortes de langues, donc je n’ai pas du tout eu l’impression d’avoir été étanche dans mon pays pour arriver ici et du coup m’ouvrir à d’autres langues, pas du tout.’ This was not to suggest exactly that she practices a sort of ‘impermeability’ to Paris, but her disinterest was striking in contrast to the effort she expressed to find analogies to help us – a non-Arabophone public – understand the modes of free circulation and invention still possible for her within classical Arabic. Rejecting the assumption that Arabic is largely conditioned by the sacred nature of the Koran, she evoked an image of a great garment made of all sorts of fabrics and trimmings, lace and nylon, none of which are straightforwardly more noble or prestigious than others, before admitting that she was far from conjuring up the possibilities she enjoys for self-fashioning in Arabic. The most important thing, she concluded, was to realise that Arabic was a language that had not been ‘saccagée’: ‘c’est comme si vous avez une matière qui a été filtrée, au lieu d’être mélangée brutalement, tout est resté, tous les termes sont d’usage, il n’y a pas eu de perte…’. It is also, she insisted, a language that remains ultimately distinct from any of the spoken forms, which in part explains this preservation.
The library reading room where we were gathered, had gradually emptied of the last students working in carrels around us, and as we sat on in the gloaming the city did indeed seem remote. Between us was a vision of a linguistic continent reserved for written experimentation, stretching out like a dream with radical implications.