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A Conversation with Hoda Barakat

Next month, Yale University Press is pleased to publish Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth, a novel that weaves together a series of devastating confessions about life in contemporary Arab society. We sat down with Hoda to discuss the relationship between literature and politics, as well as why she chose to tell the story as an epistolary novel with a twist.

YUP: What compelled you to tell this story through letters gone astray?
HB: I began writing what became the first letter in the novel three years ago, and it soon became clear to me that the political conditions required that the story be told in letters. The letter-writers cannot see ahead toward what their futures might be; their plight is such that they send their letters into the darkness with no guarantee that the letters will arrive. 

The narrator entered my imagination as a stranger in a country not his own. I wanted to let the narrators tell their own stories of displacement; there are so many people living amongst us with stories like this.
YUP: You’ve said in previous interviews that the book was inspired in part by the global refugee crisis.
HB: In our current climate, refugees and immigrants know the risks, and yet they travel by such dangerous means, seeking safety at any price. We often think of these people as either innocent victims or dangerous perpetrators, but their lives are so much more complex.

YUP: Which letter was the most difficult for you to write—and why?

HB: The most difficult letter for me to write was the third letter by the escaped torturer. He’s an extremely complex, tragic character. You love him, you understand him, you hate him, and you don’t understand him. Most of all, you don’t want to forget him. Anyone could be in his place; he did what he had to do to stay alive.

YUP: Do you feel that your writing is an act of witness?

HB: I hope my work encourages readers to pay attention to those who often go unseen and unnoticed. We may see pictures on the news or hear their stories from a distance, but I want my work to bring the lives of refugees and immigrants into sharp focus—as individuals with incredibly unique stories and circumstances.

An excerpt from The Third Letter

My Dearest Mother,

I’m writing to you from the airport before they take me away, and before trying to go through security. They are watching everyone. Every move. Because they’re afraid of terrorists, they have everything under surveillance, starting with the main terminal entrance. They’re all over the place, patrolling every corner, these plainclothes officers.

But I was ready for this. To them I’ll look like I’m just waiting for an arriving passenger. I’m not carrying a bag and I’ve opened my jacket so they can see I’m not wearing an explosives belt.

My beloved mother, I don’t know if this letter of mine will reach you. What I really don’t know is how long I can stay here. How much time I have, I don’t know. I bought a newspaper so it would look like I’m reading, and I glance at my watch every couple of minutes, and then I go over to the big electric boards where arrivals are announced, and then I come back to my seat. This way, anyone who is watching me will believe that the aeroplane carrying the traveller I’m waiting for is delayed, and they’ll go away and leave me alone. 

There aren’t many things I can occupy myself with in this place between places, amid all the people hurrying in and hurrying out. No one stays long, not the people saying goodbye with a wave and then wheeling round quickly to leave, nor those here to meet someone from arrivals, who compare their watches with the times up on the board and turn their faces to the outside doors the moment they recognize their passenger coming towards them from the gates. I can amuse myself a bit by looking at the variety of people here, their features and their distinct racial types, and the different ways they have of saying goodbye to their relatives or loved ones, each according to their colour and place of origin and religion. From their appearances, I can guess how they will behave. I say to myself, ‘This woman is Sudanese, and she will cry as soon as that teenager standing next to her—he looks a little sad and worried, it must be her son—as soon as he leaves her to head inside.’ ‘This plump young woman with the blonde hair and jerky movements who can’t stay still, she will positively start jumping for joy when she’s finally hugging the person she’s waiting for.’

This doesn’t mean I’m writing to you just so I look busy. No. I want to tell you what’s been going on before you learn it from someone else. You’ll believe me, Mother, as you always have. Well, no, not always. You haven’t always believed me, but I don’t have anyone else to confess to. You won’t be able to defend me, I know that. No one can defend me. But if I write to you, then at least you’ll know how dear you are to me, and that in these very difficult circumstances, I am thinking of you. That’s the least I can do. Maybe it’s the only way I have of trying to seek a pardon. Even if you won’t pardon me, just as you never do. You have never shown me any mercy, ever since they came to get me, at the house, that first time. Before I went with them, as they were already beating me, I told you it was just a trivial hashish case, nothing big, and there was no reason for you to be scared. You didn’t believe me. You didn’t believe me and you spat in my face. Maybe you wanted to convince them that I was really a boy from good stock, someone who should have turned out a polite and well-trained young man because his family had raised him well, and if his family was spitting on him now, it was because they were good, upright citizens who believed and trusted the soldiers. That’s why I’m telling you now that I didn’t feel angry about your spitting at me. In fact, it’s become my fondest memory, your spitting into my face, because what happened to me after that was

You will not believe what happened to me.

From Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat, translated by Marilyn Booth. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Hoda Barakat has published five novels and two plays. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. She currently lives in Paris. Marilyn Booth is professor of Arabic languages and literature at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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