Our Countries’ Orphaned Children

14 February, 2021

Novelist Hoda Barakat in 2019 when she won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for  Night Mail  (Photo: Kheridine Mabrouk)

Nov­el­ist Hoda Barakat in 2019 when she won the Inter­na­tion­al Prize for Ara­bic Fic­tion for Night Mail (Pho­to: Kheri­dine Mabrouk)


Voic­es of the Lost
, a nov­el by Hoda Barakat
trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Mar­i­lyn Booth
Pub­lished by One World (Feb­ru­ary 2021)
ISBN: 9781786077226

Layla AlAmmar

 

Life unleash­es its storm on us and we are no more than feath­ers whirling in hur­ri­cane winds.

— Hoda Barakat

A chain of dark con­fes­sions ani­mates Lebanese author Hoda Barakat’s sixth nov­el. Win­ner of the Inter­na­tion­al Prize for Ara­bic Fic­tion in 2019 (under the title Barīd al-layl or Night Mail) and ren­dered deft­ly into Eng­lish by Mar­i­lyn Booth (trans­la­tor of Man Book­er Inter­na­tion­al Prize win­ner Celes­tial Bod­ies by Jokha AlHarthi), this nar­ra­tive traces the anguished sto­ries of men and women exiled to an unnamed coun­try in west­ern Europe.

The nov­el is split into three parts, which are fur­ther sub­di­vid­ed into small­er sec­tions. Part One “Those Who are Lost” (no doubt the inspi­ra­tion for the pecu­liar title change) con­sists of five let­ters which nev­er reach their intend­ed recip­i­ents. These mis­sives are full of recrim­i­na­tions, trau­mat­ic mem­o­ries, loathing, rage and regret. A refugee, aban­doned by his moth­er as a young boy, writes a dia­tribe of misog­y­ny to the woman he claims to love. A mid­dle-aged woman, wait­ing in a hotel room, writes of her lone­li­ness to the man she’s wait­ing for — a Cana­di­an who vis­it­ed her home­land when she was a girl. Then, a man who suf­fers from severe PTSD pens a shock­ing con­fes­sion to his moth­er. This is fol­lowed by a sis­ter who writes to her broth­er of how abject pover­ty drove her to pros­ti­tu­tion and then pro­ceeds to unbur­den her soul of dread­ful rev­e­la­tions. Final­ly, a young homo­sex­u­al writes to his ail­ing father of his sor­row and destitution. 

This is not my life, and I don’t know how I slipped into it. I don’t know who pushed me into this night, entan­gling me in this des­tiny where I have closed all the doors behind me.

— Hoda Barakat

Many of the char­ac­ters are unsa­vory, manip­u­la­tive, and deceit­ful. As such, it becomes increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to ignore an over­rid­ing theme which seems to sug­gest that all of their abhor­rent behav­ior can be explained away in light of what they’ve been through. Barakat’s goal is clear­ly to engen­der empa­thy, but I con­fess to reach­ing the lim­it of mine on occa­sion. A per­son­al fail­ing, per­haps. Nev­er­the­less, a sense of urgency pre­vails which keeps the read­er gripped, with the con­fes­sions mov­ing from hand to hand until they form a chain of thorny ques­tions, painful admis­sions, lamen­ta­tions, and pleas for for­give­ness or absolution.

The sec­ond part “Those Who are Search­ing” takes us into the per­spec­tives of some of the intend­ed recip­i­ents of these let­ters: the woman vows revenge against the man who tor­ment­ed her; the Cana­di­an rumi­nates on his time in the Arab world while con­sid­er­ing whether he should under­take the jour­ney to meet the woman in the hotel room; and the broth­er vows to kill his sis­ter in order to restore their fam­i­ly hon­or. The final part “Those Who are Left Behind” is told from the per­spec­tive of a post­man liv­ing in the ruined home­land the char­ac­ters speak of — if it is, indeed, the same homeland. 

What does the nov­el have to say about the cur­rent Arab con­di­tion? In fact, one might ask, does it need to say any­thing? The nov­el­’s ambi­gu­i­ty could be seen as a state­ment of uni­ty; that whether one is Syr­i­an, Lebanese, Pales­tin­ian, Iraqi, or from any oth­er war-torn land, the anguish of the soul is the same. The char­ac­ters com­mu­ni­cate the acute and sin­gu­lar agony of hav­ing no coun­try, which, as Hisham Matar writes in In The Coun­try of Men, is “a kind of dai­ly death,” where exile becomes “an end­less mourn­ing.” Dis­placed, dis­lo­cat­ed, unmoored, the char­ac­ters repeat­ed­ly express a desire to return home, even when they know there’s no home left to return to. Writ­ing of Lebanon specif­i­cal­ly, the woman in the sec­ond let­ter coun­sels against indulging in nos­tal­gia, saying:

That coun­try is gone now, it is fin­ished, top­pled over and shat­tered like a huge glass vase, leav­ing only shards scat­tered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could pro­duce only a pure, unadul­ter­at­ed grief, an unbear­able bit­ter­ness.

— Hoda Barakat

Voic­es of the Lost is per­fect­ly posi­tioned for an Eng­lish-speak­ing audi­ence. The title change is per­haps the most overt way of ori­ent­ing the nov­el towards the “West”. The self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry ges­ture of the title could poten­tial­ly alien­ate Arab read­ers who might be unable (or unwill­ing) to read it in the orig­i­nal lan­guage. Are Arab women the only ones with “voic­es” that require unearthing? Do we have a monop­oly on the con­di­tion of being “lost”? What is this title actu­al­ly say­ing about the nov­el? The orig­i­nal, “Night Mail”, is unique and evoca­tive of the soli­tary nature of these noc­tur­nal tes­ti­mo­ni­als. As the man in the first let­ter writes, “You won’t see any­thing but this night; there’s noth­ing behind or above or beneath it. This is all there is.” The Eng­lish title lacks this atmos­pher­ic impact. 

The translit­er­a­tion of Ara­bic words is sparse (insha­la, salaam, warta), and vague ref­er­ences to mukhabarat, secret police, and Islamist fac­tions mean that the let­ters could be refer­ring to any of sev­er­al Arab nations. There are no com­plex polit­i­cal dynam­ics to under­stand, and gen­der rela­tions and issues of sex­u­al­i­ty fail to reveal any­thing we haven’t read before. In fact, giv­en what it says about the asy­lum process as well as the plight of detainees and new immi­grants, the nov­el is more about the refugee cri­sis than any­thing else. And with some six mil­lion Syr­i­an refugees alone flee­ing civ­il war over the last decade, the fate of such per­sons is undoubt­ed­ly wor­thy of lit­er­ary explo­ration (and it’s one I under­take in my forth­com­ing novel).

Such expe­ri­ences and back­grounds are unfa­mil­iar to many cit­i­zens of the host coun­tries that refugees reside in… though “host” is a mis­nomer giv­en the shock­ing­ly inhos­pitable envi­ron­ment faced by a great many asy­lum seek­ers across Europe. And so Barakat’s project is a laud­able one, even if its exe­cu­tion is at times a bit too didac­tic. Per­haps the clear­est posi­tion­ing of the book for a “west­ern” audi­ence comes from the Cana­di­an him­self. In his let­ter he wonders:

How well can we ever know peo­ple who have lived through civ­il wars? How much can we ever real­ly know about the vio­lence and destruc­tion, the loss­es, the dev­as­ta­tion? The over­pow­er­ing fear they must feel every day? Can we ever real­ly under­stand how they are trans­formed, which things change inside them, and which things hard­en?

— Hoda Barakat

 Barakat’s answer seems to be, No, no, we cannot.

Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952. She stud­ied French Lit­er­a­ture at the Lebanese Uni­ver­si­ty and moved to Paris with her fam­i­ly in 1989. She has pub­lished five nov­els and two plays. Her nov­els have been trans­lat­ed into sev­er­al lan­guages and received numer­ous pres­ti­gious prize nom­i­na­tions, includ­ing the Naguib Mah­fouz Medal for Lit­er­a­ture for The Tiller of Waters (2000). In 2015, she was short­list­ed for the Man Book­er Inter­na­tion­al Prize. She lives in France.

Layla AlAmmar is a writer and academic from Kuwait. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her short stories have appeared in the Evening Standard, The Red Letters St Andrews Prose Journal, and Aesthetica Magazine where she was a finalist for the Creative Writing Award 2014. She was 2018 British Council International Writer in Residence at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. She has also written for The Guardian and Arablit Quarterly. Her debut novel The Pact We Made (2019) was long-listed for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and nominated for the First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Her second novel, Silence is a Sense, was published in 2021 and the paperback comes out March 2022. She is pursuing a PhD on the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory.

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