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A Profile on Dartmouth’s Hoda Barakat

posted on: May 21, 2019

A Profile on Dartmouth’s Hoda Barakat

SOURCE: THE DARTMOUTH REVIEW

BY: RACHEL T. GAMBEE

Throughout the Spring term, Hoda Barakat, newly-crowned queen of Arabic literature, has been quietly holding court on the southeast end of campus. Barakat, acclaimed Lebanese author and the latest recipient of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, has spent the term as a visiting professor in the Middle Eastern Studies Department. Her courses, “Language and Rebellion in Arab Literature,” taught in English, and “The Art of the Novel”, taught in Arabic, use literature to expose students to the often-overlooked human dimension of the ongoing unrest in the Middle East.

Barakat is no stranger to violence and unrest in her own writing. As a survivor of the Lebanese Civil War, Barakat’s first-hand experience with the conflict shaped the backdrop for many of her most acclaimed works. Her novels currently in English translation —The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciples of Passion (1993), and The Tiller of Waters (2001)— all focus on characters who are forever changed by the civil war and its aftermath. Both of Barakat’s Dartmouth courses, the English course and the Arabic course, feature these novels—the former showcasing Barakat’s work alongside a selection of novels of other Arab writers, while the latter focuses on Barakat’s work exclusively.

In a comment to The Review, Chair of the Middle Eastern Studies Department Tarek El-Ariss stated that he was confident that Professor Barakat’s courses are  “supremely intellectually stimulating” in ways entirely different from those taught by Dartmouth Professors who do not have her background as an author. El-Ariss remarked that, while Barakart is an author and a creator, other professors, himself included, are critics— “we critique the work that authors create, and an critics we read with an entirely different len.” El-Ariss argued that Professor Barakat’s students benefit from not just her general experience as an author, but from her intimate knowledge of the books that she is teaching—“how often do students get to learn from an author whose books they have been studying for years?”

Professor El-Ariss’s confidence in in the quality of Professor Barakat’s courses seemed to be shared by Professor Barakat’s students. The Dartmouth Review sat down with students in each of her classes to discuss their experience learning directly from a such a culturally significant author:

Katelyn Zeser ‘22—a student in Professor Barakat’s “Language and Rebellion” course— told The Review that Professor Barakat’s class is “very unique” from any others that she has taken during her freshman year at Dartmouth. Zeser largely credited this to the extremely small class size—only eight students are currently enrolled in this course— in addition to the depth of discussion that Professor Barakat is able to cultivate.

Zeser confirmed that Professor Barakat had been successful in steering the class away from more sensational works of Arab fiction that often lose themselves in Hollywood-esque tropes when discussing social and political conflicts in the region— “The readings are not the blockbuster mold of what Arab literature should be. I’ve had to go into the stacks and search every nook and cranny to find some of the books that she has picked. Because of that, I feel like I have gotten a more holistic view of what Arab literature actually is.”

Zeser also commented on Professor Barakat’s connection to the books she teaches—“It’s very clear that every book [Professor Barakat] picked is very personal to her. We aren’t just analyzing books, we are analyzing them in relation to her as a writer.” These books she has selected, along some of with Professor Barakat’s own books have served as the foundation for what what Zeser called “moving” discussions in class. She concluded remarking, “we are discussing universal human ideas—we aren’t just discussing Arab problems, we are discussing human problems.”

Zeser’s praise was echoed by Eric Forehand ‘21, a student in Professor Barakat’s “The Art of The Novel” course. In this course, which is taught primarily in Arabic, Forehand explained that “when we are focusing on a book we will read it first in English, but then we will go more in-depth and read sections again in the original Arabic, which I think is important.” He remarked that this course has helped him further strengthen his skills in the language with all class discussions and responses being conducted and written entirely in Arabic.

On Barakat’s teaching, Forehand remarked that “she definitely lends an interesting perspective because she is a part of the Arabic literary community—she just won the [IPAF,] so she is the biggest name Arabic literature right now.” The award Forehand is referring to is the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). Barakat was awarded the prize just a few weeks ago at then end of April for her latest book The Night Mail, a collection of fictional letters from Syrian refugees to their loved ones. This prize, often referred to as the Arab Booker, is the most prestigious award available in Arab literature, and Barakat is the first woman ever to win the award outright.

To that end, Forehand’s praise for Barakat’s teaching continued to her writing. Having just finished two of her books, The Stone of Laughter and The Tiller of Waters in English and in Arabic, Forehand attested, “these books don’t just talk about war… they have truly universal qualities.” He also attested that Barakat “very intentional about her writing, every word she writes she writes with a purpose.” This fact, he remarked, has become even clearer to him having now read her books in the original language and having had the opportunity the study the works in class with Barakat.

Forehand spoke to the intersection between Barakat’s course and his main course of study in the government department. He commented that through these books, “you really do get an image of the politics [of the region]. It’s not direct but you get these hints of what people might have been feeling during the time and of the effects of the war on the people.”  Forehand noted that “there are a lot of intertextual references—from the history of Florence to Plato and other important works of political theory—that manifest themselves in her books.”

Forehand finally asserted his belief that this course is extremely beneficial to the many Dartmouth students like him who choose to study the Middle East in conjunction with Government— “I think that [it is very beneficial,] whether it be more of a focus on diplomacy…or more basic political theory, it really works in tandem with what I have been studying.”

Regarding her students, Barakat told The Review, “They’re very serious and clever. They have a desire to know about this region and they have a high literary sensibility—it’s like a gift for me. I love my classes.” When asked how her classes would impact Dartmouth students, she responded by focusing on her confidence in the abilities and intentions of the students that she has interacted with at Dartmouth: “I’m sure this new generation will be very different on their approach to the big problems of society—especially regarding the region of the Middle East.”

Reflecting on her recent acceptance speech for the International Prize in Arabic Fiction, Barakat offered insight into her connection to the Arabic language, which she chooses to write in despite being primarily educated in French and a current resident of Paris. She explained, “My relationship to the Arab language is all that I have from the Arab world now, because I’m not living in Beirut or in another Arab city. It is my language, and I have a physical connection to it.” Perhaps her most insightful comment was on the value of language and literature to intercultural understanding: “Literature gives you a very deep vision, so it’s not only loving books or novels—it’s a matter of communication, real communication between civilizations.”

In addition to teaching, Barakart has also hosted numerous public panels featuring other Arab intellectuals such as Abdellah Taïa, Iman Mersel and fellow Dartmouth Professor Tarek El-Ariss. While these discussions have tended to stay firmly rooted in the arena of arts and culture, they have all hinted at the changes afoot in the region. Perhaps more significantly, however, these talks have also all alluded to the massive shadow that Barakat casts over the Arab intellectual community.

At the beginning of the term, Taia and Barakat held a discussion on homosexuality and masculinity in the Middle East. The talk was given in conjunction with Taia’s latest film “Salvation Army”—a film about the turbulent life of a young gay teenager in Morocco that seemingly has no connection to Hoda Barakat. Nevertheless, Taia crediated Barakat throughout his presentation with paving the way for his depiction of homosexual characters on screen through her depiction of homosexual characters in her books. Just a few weeks ago in their talk on motherhood, Egyptian author Iman Mersel referred to Barakat as her inspiration to write. Finally, Chair of the Middle Eastern Studies Department Tarek El-Ariss has repeatedly introduced Barakat as an icon in the Arab literary world and his most valued interlocutor.

All of this praise, through well deserved by Barakat, has also served a purpose for the department. The Middle Eastern Studies Department was only officially established last summer after years stuck in limbo as part of the amorphous and generally confusing Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department, which is thankfully now defunct. Despite already promising enrollment numbers and a handful of very strong newly-tenured professors, the department needed a strong opening if they hope to compete with academic giants like Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department or The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. This entire academic year has been a campaign to establish the department’s credibility both to Dartmouth students and the larger academic community. The acquisition of Hoda Barakat, even just on a visiting professor basis, has been the crowning achievement of this campaign. In addition to her adoration by her students, this was only further solidified when Barakat received the IPAF during her tenure at Dartmouth. The department’s decision to tie its nascent star to Barakat’s has been quite wise—hers is already high and appears to be only further on the rise.