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The Tiller of Waters, by Hoda Barakat.

April 17, 2017

The Tiller of Waters, by Hoda Barakat.  Cairo: American University of Cairo, 2001.  Translated by Marilyn Booth.

4 stars

A powerful, multi-layered novel by a Lebanese woman about a man stranded, alone and hallucinating, in war- devastated Beirut.

Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952 and grew up in Lebanon.  She now lives and writes in France but has continued her connections to Beirut.  Her novels focus on her country’s civil war, recounted in innovative and sophisticated language. Rather than claiming an objective view of the city she both loves and hates, Barakat explains that she writes in order to understand. Her writing has been awarded various literary prizes.  The Tiller of Waters received the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.

In this novel, Niqula Mitri, a middle-aged cloth merchant, finds himself in Beirut after the city has been bombed and parts of it abandoned.  He explores the deserted city and his memories, often at the edges of continuing gunfire. His refuge is an underground room full of beautiful fabrics that he and his father had collected. It becomes his safe place where he can luxuriate in the sensuous natural materials.  He feels happy and powerful there where each night he wraps himself in one of the bolts of fabrics.  When he ventures out into the larger city, he finds himself attacked by packs of dogs and tries to mark off his safe space with his urine. In long, almost scholarly accounts he recaptures the histories of his parents and the Kurdish woman he loved, laying out as well the history of the fabrics and world from which they came.  He reaches out for a past that has disappeared and left him alone and rootless.  At the same time he seeks to make a life for himself in a world that is both familiar and unknown.

Barakat does not follow a clear plot, but rambles with Mitri around the city and his thoughts.  Her words are beautiful and satisfying, although they left me feeling that they hid as much as they revealed.  Perhaps readers with more knowledge of Beirut and the intersecting histories it contains will understand more than I did.   For me, the sense of mystery and confusion that pervades the book is just right.   Although I know little about the explicit location, I empathize because today we all must live and deal with physical and emotional remnants of a breaking and broken world.

The language in book circles around cloth and its title, The Tiller of the Waters.

Planting and tilling the soil are but the weaving of life, the coming and the going, like the movement of a loom, and like the cycle of day and night coming to us in rotation, and like the linkage between sky and earth, life and death.

I strongly recommend this book for those readers who appreciate books with depth and complexity and a sense of what we may never know again.   This is not a book, however, for those who want their stories neat and action-filled.


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