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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Imagining Nations

A memoir writer and a novelist talk about homelands and exile

Written by Sudeep Paul |
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: It’s very complex. The Arab ‘Spring’ is a word I absolutely detest,because it’s not very springlike at the moment. The main thing is that the people have taken history by the throat — it’s a feeling that they own their history and their countries,they will not put up with being always told what to do. How it’s going to end,I don’t know.

For me,Arab women have always been embroiled in history,as women are elsewhere. I don’t 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 don’t think they are a separate subject from society — from imperialism,from colonialism,all the wars and upheavals we’ve lived through. We’re 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,we’ve to wait and see.

Barakat: As a novelist,I have a different approach to history. It’s like waves from the ocean. Literature has its special way to capture this history in miniature,because there’s a history of individuals,families,places. And our big history wasn’t 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 doesn’t trust nationalism yet cannot let go of the idea of Palestine,constructing instead a memory one doesn’t 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 aren’t,ultimately,all that different. It’s true that one constructs memory,but one doesn’t invent it. One reconstructs it as a place one’s been at,a place not just being a location. Then one remembers it,as something that’s gone now. So you ‘construct’ a memory,although you don’t 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 wasn’t 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. It’s like getting a new memory through fiction. Fiction helps me to reconstruct places that don’t exist anymore.

Jean,you’re in exile from Palestine,but not really from the Arab world,whereas Hoda,you’re situated outside the Arab world. No diasporic writer is credited with getting her homeland right. However,in the case of the diasporic Arab writer,it’s somehow accepted that you’ll not get your country right and that it’s okay. It’s simply more important to use fiction to create the world that was,that may still be.

Barakat: For me,it’s not a political exile like Jean’s. 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 you’ve lived. It’s a matter of your soul. I can pretend I have a part of my soul in Palestine although I’ve never been there. So Jean doesn’t 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: I’m certainly in the Arab world,but I’m 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. It’s 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 don’t like being called a Palestinian writer,since that easy categorisation “leaves out” the Lebanese in me,or the Egyptian and American in me.

It’s 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: It’s probably true to a large extent of all Arabic writing,but I’m not sure. I think you can’t help it. If you’re living in a place like Lebanon,how can you help it when every single day you’ve 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 one’s life. In America,you can live your whole life without turning on the TV and not knowing what’s going on. But in Lebanon,it’s impossible. The world encroaches on you. It’s ingrained in you,the expectation that something might happen. Therefore,you have to be engaged. Even saying you don’t read the papers anymore is a way of engaging with it,of establishing your relationship with the world.

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