Portrait of the Exiled Lebanese Writer Huda Barakat

"As If the People Had No Memory"

As civil war raged on in Lebanon, from 1975 to 1990, many no longer knew what they were fighting for or why. Lebanese writer Huda Barakat, today living in exile in Paris, experienced the turmoil of the war firsthand. Ibtisam Azem spoke with her about her experiences

Huda Barakat (photo: Samuel Shimon)
"After 15 years of war, I felt like all the accumulated wickedness was corroding my soul," Huda Barakat recounts

​​Many Lebanese are still haunted by memories of the long-drawn-out civil war in that devastated their country – for example, Lebanese writer and journalist Huda Barakat, who today lives in Paris. The 56-year-old fled Lebanon 18 years ago.

Penniless and with no hope of finding a job, she selected Paris, a city that was alien to her, for one reason only: because her sister lived there and she would at least have roof over her head. She had no desire to return to her homeland for the time being. The horrors of the war are still fresh in her mind today:

"After 15 years of war, I felt like all the accumulated wickedness was corroding my soul," Barakat recounts. "It became clear to me that this crazed killing did not obey any rules and that I might be next."

Vicious circle of war

Barakat had only one thought in mind: to escape with her children from war-torn Lebanon. Paris became her second home. The journalist and author describes her relationship with her former homeland as "sick." The civil war destroyed her belief in the good in man, and shook her fundamental trust to the foundations. Incredulous that the Lebanese could be fighting amongst themselves, all she wanted to do was salvage the last shred of humanity that was left in her.

A Christian of Maronite extraction who married a Muslim, she did not fit into the scheme of the warring parties, nor into the dynamic of the former conflict – a dynamic that ultimately encroached on her life as well: "You end up doubting everything!" recalls Barakat.

"If I hadn't experienced it myself, I would never have thought something like this could happen to me: I was standing with my son in a stairwell during a heavy attack and a shell hit nearby. I immediately dropped to the floor in fear, without noticing that I had left my child behind. I ask myself today how I could do such a thing. I still haven't come to terms with my own reaction."

Outsiders as protagonists

Barakat's books have been published in over ten languages. Although she attended a French school in Lebanon, she writes her novels in Arabic. French is the language she uses to earn a living, Barakat says, i.e. for her journalistic work, but Arabic is her preferred language for storytelling. Critics praise her High Arabic – with a Lebanese touch – which lends her descriptions such vivid realism.

All of the heroes in her books are men and society outsiders. In her novel "Stone of Laughter" the protagonist is a homosexual who tries to survive the civil war while behaving according to ethical principles. But he is ultimately defeated by the reality of war. The Lebanese Civil War usually forms the setting for her novels, and the destinies she portrays and the insights on the war that come to light are universal – a "female perspective" in the opinion of many critics.

Ideologies are still divided

Barakat disagrees: "I don't think there is an essential difference between male and female authors. But female writers are allowed more freedom than their male colleagues. People expect more from male authors, and men are therefore under much more pressure to perform. If no one expects anything of me, then I can take my time and enjoy greater freedom when I'm writing."

This freedom has helped Huda Barakat to discover her own creativity. She only pays occasional visits to Lebanon these days. So much has changed in the basic attitudes of many people, she notes, but these ideologies are still just as divided along strict religious lines. And that's why she can't imagine ever living there again.

People spend all their time among others of the same religion; all of life is determined by which faith you belong to, says Huda Barakat. You can't just simply convert to a different denomination. And you have to ask yourself how people can turn into murderers. The civil war opened her eyes and showed her the monstrous deeds that human beings are capable of. "It was as if the people had no memory."

Ibtisam Azem

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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