On Monday, November 2nd met to discuss Tiller of the Waters (Harith al-Miyah) by Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat.
Barakat is a fabulous ‘tiller’ of the human soul, with a rebellious gaze defying classification as well as a captivating literary style. Tiller of the Waters features a protagonist stuck in Beirut’s gutted center unable to escape the barricades, and the sea, surrounding him on all sides. Translator: Marilyn Booth and published by: American University in Cairo Press. Barakat received the prestigious Naguib Mahfuz Medal for Literature this book in 2000.
Themes we discussed included:
- In this story, as with Stone of Laughter where the main character is a gay man isolated during the civil war in Lebanon, Barakat returns again to the themes of isolation and alienation, for those who read both books, compare her treatment of the male character. Her latest book also has a male character facing isolation, but this time from the vantage point of an insane asylum during the civil war. Why do you think a female author would be drawn repeatedly to an isolated male figure on the edge of society as a way of exploring the human impact of the war?
- How is the story of Niqula Mitri an exploration of the effects of violence, particularly war, on marginality? On masculinity? On memory?
- Niqula’s feelings toward Shamsa are conveyed in sequences of different metaphors, allusions about textile. Do you think his love for her was limited to the tactile, and/or to his impression of her with her Kurdish fabrics?
- What did you make of Niqula’s mother’s obsession with silk? Is this what made her ill? When do you think this developed? What do you think happened to Shamsa after she felt the silk? What did the silk itself symbolize?
- Did Niqula’s descriptions of fabric and the origins of types of fabric have a visceral impact on how cloth/clothing felt for you as you were reading the book?
- Does Niqula’s physical distance from other people during the war years act as a metaphor for his alienation from his own emotions (as when his father died, his mother died, the store was lost)? Or is this just something which exacerbates it? Did his personal inability to communicate except for through the metaphor of fabrics perhaps prepare him for his isolated life in the center of the city?
- How do you think he died? Does it matter?
- Hoda has previously explored war as having an emasculating effect as well as having a hyper masculinizing affect. Do you feel as though this was the case for Niqula?
- Some reviewers have described the character as hallucinating. Did you feel as though he was lucid?
- The landscape is unlike an other urban landscape, at once desolate and abandoned and at once a place of life and of reclamation by the wild forces (plants, dogs, at some level Niqula himself). How did Barakat’s descriptions of the ‘new city’ impact (or not) your previous image of Beirut in civil war?
- This book is very much about the act of storytelling itself and the power of stories. By weaving together the contemporary story of Niqula, the stories he was telling about the history of fabric, the history of Shamsa’s Kurdish relatives migrating from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iraq, and Niqula’s own history of his family and the saga of Beirut – we were ourselves constantly back and forth between time. Buffeted on the waves so to speak? Were you drawn to one layer more than the other?
- A brief author’s biography is bekow. How do you think Hoda Barakat’s experience changed her approach to writing?
Biography: Hoda Barakat was raised in the Maronite Christian town of Bsharré, Lebanon, where she lived until she moved to Beirut to study French Literature at the Lebanese Beirut University. She graduated in 1975. In 1975-76, she lived in Paris where she worked on a PhD, but decided to return home when the Lebanese Civil War started. She worked in higher education, journalism, and research before becoming a writer. In 1985, she published her first work a collection of short stories called Za’irat (Women Visitors). She moved to Paris in 1989 and has lived there to the present. Here she published a series of major works including Hajar al-Dahik (The Stone of Laughter, 1990) and Ahl el-Hawa (People of Love, 1993). She also is the author of a collection of short stories. Her work Hajar al-Dahik (The Stone of Laughter), which is the first Arabic work to have a gay man as its main character, won the Al-Naqid prize. Her third novel, Harit al-miyah (The Tiller of Waters), won the Najib Mahfouz 2000 award. She and two other novels, one of which, The Stones of Laughter, was published in an English translation in 1994.
For an interview with Barakat in Al AHram see: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/457/profile.htm
For a review of The Tiller of Waters see this article by Nawar Al-Hassan Golley from The Middle East Women’s Studies Review. 2003: http://www.accessmylibrary.com/article-1G1-112687727/tiller-waters-book-review.html