April 14, 2012 12:28:33 am
Jean Said Makdisi,born in Jerusalem,raised in Cairo,resident of Lebanon since 1972,betrays the years catching up with her now,but not the blunting of her intelligent obsession with a homeland she has very little first-hand memory of. Makdisi,the sister of Edward Said,is the author of Teta,Mother and Me,a memoir that covers Arab history through three generations of women. She is also the author of Beirut Fragments,a war memoir. Hoda Barakat is a Lebanese novelist living in Paris. She writes in Arabic and her novel,The Tiller of Waters,won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for literature. Makdisi and Barakat were in Delhi for the launch of a new series by Women Unlimited called Arabesque. Sudeep Paul caught up with them to chat about politics and memory,history and writing. Excerpts:
How do you see the Arab Spring? Where is it leaving the Arab woman?
Makdisi: Its very complex. The Arab Spring is a word I absolutely detest,because its not very springlike at the moment. The main thing is that the people have taken history by the throat its a feeling that they own their history and their countries,they will not put up with being always told what to do. How its going to end,I dont know.
For me,Arab women have always been embroiled in history,as women are elsewhere. I dont see a separate history for women anymore,I think we need to research women much more than we have,just to understand them more. But I dont think they are a separate subject from society from imperialism,from colonialism,all the wars and upheavals weve lived through. Were part of that history and have contributed to it,and been victimised by it. If the current movement is going to lead to more political advancement of women,weve to wait and see.
Barakat: As a novelist,I have a different approach to history. Its like waves from the ocean. Literature has its special way to capture this history in miniature,because theres a history of individuals,families,places. And our big history wasnt really enregistré [recorded with a scientific approach. There are too many histories.
Both of you,a memoir writer and a novelist,chose to wrestle with Lebanon at the most gruesome moment in its recent past: the civil war. Jean,what does it mean to be a writer of Palestinian descent in Lebanon for someone who doesnt trust nationalism yet cannot let go of the idea of Palestine,constructing instead a memory one doesnt really have? And Hoda,why did you finally choose to write only about Lebanon after you left for Paris for good in the late 1980s?
Makdisi: As a Palestinian it was terribly important for me to stay,and not only for myself,but also for my husband who is a Lebanese but who,like everyone else in the region,had learnt the lesson of Palestine. You stay,the opposite meaning being out in the world,scattered and lost.
Memoir-writing and fiction-writing arent,ultimately,all that different. Its true that one constructs memory,but one doesnt invent it. One reconstructs it as a place ones been at,a place not just being a location. Then one remembers it,as something thats gone now. So you construct a memory,although you dont know how accurate it is. And what does it mean to be accurate anyway? A fiction-writer can be in many ways more accurate than a memoir-writer. And a memoir-writer can be more imaginative than a novelist.
Barakat: I decided to leave Lebanon when I was sure that this area and its memory were totally fragmented. I chose to leave because I was feeling this country was not mine anymore. But,once in Paris,I took two big decisions to write always in Arabic,which I wasnt very good at to begin with,having studied French literature. The other decision was to always write about Beirut and Lebanon. After five novels and three plays I continue to write about Lebanon. Its like getting a new memory through fiction. Fiction helps me to reconstruct places that dont exist anymore.
Jean,youre in exile from Palestine,but not really from the Arab world,whereas Hoda,youre situated outside the Arab world. No diasporic writer is credited with getting her homeland right. However,in the case of the diasporic Arab writer,its somehow accepted that youll not get your country right and that its okay. Its simply more important to use fiction to create the world that was,that may still be.
Barakat: For me,its not a political exile like Jeans. With a little distance,you can enter these places more profoundly. I never feel estranged from Lebanon,and I try more and more to get inside,without the noises but with the liberty to not respect the rules.
Memory is not exactly to be in the place. Memory is not to register what youve lived. Its a matter of your soul. I can pretend I have a part of my soul in Palestine although Ive never been there. So Jean doesnt have to be in Palestine to have a memory of it. She lives in the memory of all the generations she comes from. Places are the meaning we give to places,not their geography.
Makdisi: Im certainly in the Arab world,but Im in exile because I write in English. My family was already living in Cairo before 1948,but Jerusalem was always the point of reference for the family,and when the axe comes down like that you ask yourself many times what can it possibly mean. Its catastrophic. I was a very young child at the time,but the older I get I look to that as the defining moment. In fact,I dont like being called a Palestinian writer,since that easy categorisation leaves out the Lebanese in me,or the Egyptian and American in me.
Its impossible to encounter in practice an aesthetics divorced from politics. Jean,your avoidance of the political dimensions made Beirut Fragments a very political work. Palestinian writing cannot imagine itself as an apolitical writing at all,can it?
Makdisi: Its probably true to a large extent of all Arabic writing,but Im not sure. I think you cant help it. If youre living in a place like Lebanon,how can you help it when every single day youve Israeli planes going overhead,you turn on the news and wonder oh god,what has happened now,or you hear a siren the outside world is a constant presence in ones life. In America,you can live your whole life without turning on the TV and not knowing whats going on. But in Lebanon,its impossible. The world encroaches on you. Its ingrained in you,the expectation that something might happen. Therefore,you have to be engaged. Even saying you dont read the papers anymore is a way of engaging with it,of establishing your relationship with the world.
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