The Stone of Laughter (Hajar al-dahik) by Huda Barakat

On April 7th we gathered to discuss The Stone of Laughter (Hajar al-dahik) by Huda Barakat. A bold novel full of black humor and cynical observations about life in war-torn Beirut, The Stone of Laughter explores the contradictory history of a city under fire through the life and dilemmas of a male narrator at the margins of Lebanese society. With a personal, poetic language and an honest look at contemporary society, this book is a very compelling read. It was the recipient of the prestigious Al-Naqid Literary Prize in 1990.

Themes we explored included are included here:

  • Throughout this book Barakat grappled with the historical the symbol of the act of war and weapons as an extension of masculine identity, the counter view of the feminine, and by extension the young protagonist who is caught at a coming of age moment – questioning his sexuality in the midst of a highly militarized context. Some questions raised: Did she break sterotypes by playing upon them or limit herself/Khalil? Was this just an easy context for her to step outside of herself to ask these questions on gender and militarization? Was the end separation between Khalil’s masculine identity and the previous third person narrator in fact the author / Khalil’s feminine side looking at the masculine / conflict protagonist as a separate son/self who was now lost in the war?
  • Comparisons were made to previous Kutub read: The Story of Zahra by Hanan AlSheik, where the central character seemed to gain clarity over her mental illness only when the chaos outside was at its most grotesque, finding a routine in the war that fit the distraught nature of her mind.
  • This book is marked for its use of a disoriented stream-of-consciousness writing, where metaphors blend into descriptions and dream/hallucination sequences seek to express the personal tumult of experiencing conflict. Very similar to another Kutub read: I’jaam by Sinan Antoon, we are left wondering about reality and almost are driven to the point of questioning our own sanity.
  • The book also explores how being driven to the point of death, the destruction of a city and nearly one’s body, can lead to a pivotal illumination on the joy of life – but it feels Barakat only allows Khalil this illumination (after his illness) as a moment of hope so that she can crush it all the more thoroughly. Khalil’s tormented mind, his betrayal of newly discovered selfhood reflects the unendurable stress provoked by such war – shows the totality of the loss of self. Is hope that fragile? Is civilization that immaterial?
  • Under the constant pressure of war, the grotesque becomes mundane. What is normal life? How does the soul feel when confronted with violence, mindless violence, on a daily basis? Can life continue under this context? Do the continual parties and the celebrations that the western journalists marveled at in war-torn Beirut (the wealthy paying ambulances to smuggle them to parties for example), do they reflect an unstoppable zest for life or a perversion of the war becoming everyday, of death losing its impact with a societal de-sensitization to violence? There were different stories shared about experiences in Lebanon, with different perspectives – different reasons why people ‘laugh’ – pages 120-123 in the English version we read.
  • The novel’s coming of age themes are at times the central consideration, war or not. But the coming of age is warped by conflict — The manufactured chaos of war unleashes the latent fear and madness in men’s beings and makes them prey for strong and manipulative minds that offer the stability of certainty. And so the book is also a story about the influence upon young people to turn towards violence. Khalil (responsible?) for Youssef, The Brother for Khalil (?)…
  • The author as the political actor? “Literature sometimes comes out of you as a protest,” Barakat said. “As a writer you realize how useless we can be.”
  • This book, as with others by Barakat uses the isolated figure as the vantage point from which to explore conflict: in a quote from a paper by Ghenwa Hayek is a PhD candidate at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

“In The Stone of Laughter, the narrator is a gay man, in his apartment building as the city collapsed around him. In another novel by Barakat, Disciples of Passion, the narrator is institutionalized in Dayr al-Salib, the country’s most infamous mental institution, as the Lebanese civil war rages around him [questioning sanity, civility, those who fight and those who are unable to, with marginalized characters]. In The Tiller of Waters, the protagonist was stuck in Beirut’s gutted center unable to escape the barricades, and the sea, surrounding him on all sides. All three novels are marked by heavily introspective characters, narrated in the voices of protagonists whose inner lives are disrupted by the outside world, especially the fighting that they do not want to, or cannot, participate in. Barakat’s continual return to the theme of isolation and alienation seem to indicate that she has not yet exhausted the creative possibilities and problems of the effects of violence, particularly war, on marginality, masculinity and memory.”

More on the author an the book can be found at:

http://www.guysimpson.com/lebanon-and-england–the-non-combatants.html

http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-310/_nr-402/i.html

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/457/profile.htm

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