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Woven Archives of Beirut: A Conversation With Hoda Barakat
By Elisabeth Marie
Marie: Why did you choose fabrics?
Barakat: That is really a hard question to answer, and my answer may seem mysterious. We live in a new era where you do not take the time to choose anymore. It is the era of prêt-à-porter. I have fond memories of my childhood when we had our dresses custom-made. It was always a special day when the seamstress would come. I remember I used to collect the pieces on the floor, and feel the different materials. The character in my novel is someone who takes me into a subject I don't already know about. There are always various interests in a book that intertwine in my head, and this provides a little alibi to tell the world. There is an exchange - the fabrics have transmitted/given something, a profound communication. It is also a critique of modernity, of what is à la mode. The book was constructed step by step, as it came to my mind, and I did a lot of research for this novel. A lot of people contributed to it: there is a long list of people I thanked at the beginning.
Marie: There is a lot of sensuality in this book associated with the different materials. Was this conscious or unconscious?
Barakat: It is a world of contact with the fabric. It is conscious and unconscious. I write as it comes to me, but there is an added dimension with touch. Fabric is the first and last shelter of the body. It is even more attractive to men, for it is a means of touching women. It is contact with the other body - the feminine body.
The Beirut I needed to make peace with no longer exists. I think that many people who lived the war, whether they left or not, feel this way. In my novel, it is the real Beirut, but not the one I knew. I was too young.
Marie: Would it be correct to say that the different layers of fabrics in which Nicolas sleeps represent the different civilizations that have lived in Beirut?
Barakat: Yes, but it is above all a constant game with the different levels. The novel is like a puzzle but with various levels. It can be read horizontally and vertically.
Marie: The book is itself a piece of fabric. By writing this book were you weaving the streets and places of Beirut so that they will not be forgotten?
Barakat: Yes, but it is not a national duty. I did it for the pleasure, the delectation of pronouncing streets that do not exist anymore. There is a distance, a detachment, but writing allowed me to put a name on the neuralgic points. There is always a void, an emptiness. It was to write "It was like this."
Marie: In a previous interview, you said that you still haven't made peace with Beirut. Is this book a sort of closure? Have you finally made peace with Beirut?
Barakat: No, well, not really. The Beirut I needed to make peace with no longer exists. I think that many people who lived the war, whether they left or not, feel this way. In my novel, it is the real Beirut, but not the one I knew. I was too young. I did not go "on the other side." I was living in Achrafieh and rarely went to West Beirut. Many friends helped me piece together the city as it was, providing me with names of streets and places that no longer exist.
Marie: Why did you choose to represent the Kurds?
Barakat: Because they were the real strangers, the outsiders - the marginal. They were even more destitute than the poorest Lebanese, but they were tragically free, having no boundaries, no country. Despite everything, they have maintained a great dignity and pride. When I was young, the maid at home was Kurdish. I associate myself with this woman. Chamsa is partly inspired by this woman, especially in the description of her clothes. I was always fascinated by the way she dressed and what she was wearing. The presence of the Kurds is also to represent a moment when myth and history mix/merge.
Marie: Can we see a new Sheherazade in Nicolas? After all, like Sheherazade, he keeps telling stories so that Chamsa stays.
Barakat: I did not think about it, but definitely yes!
Marie: How do you choose your titles? Is it a reference to something in the books or is it to force the readers to think further?
Barakat: I usually do not like my titles! This is what I do last. For this one, I was inspired by the quotations about the Phoenicians. They were late people, in the process of leaving, who are not going to leave traces.
I write about Beirut with much more cruelty. I love and hate this city at the same time. I do not have an objective look - things are intertwined. Writing makes it more accessible.
Marie: This book is not an autobiography, but is there a bit of you in this "Tiller of Waters?"
Barakat: It is not an autobiography, which is even better because I can talk about myself even more profoundly. I can say everything, my desires, nightmares, etc... All novels are autobiographic, there is always a part of yourself on the factual level. You find all the "crumbs" of my life in the novel.
Marie: Are you working on a new novel now?
Barakat: There is always a new novel in preparation!
This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, no.39 (Spring 2002)