Hoda Barakat’s The Kingdom of this Earth turns to the history of Lebanese Maronite Christians, from the Mandate period to shortly before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in the mid-1970s. This scene, occurring very early in the novel, precedes a tragedy that will mark the family at the centre of the story, whose history of village pre-eminence puts them at the centre of local rivalries around class, land ownership, water rights, and gender politics. The ancestral past remains part of the present, as the children of Muzawwaq struggle to make their future in a society of close ties and deep rifts.
— M. B.
A shower of wet snow. The snowflakes were beginning to stick, forming white patches that spread and thickened across the terrain. The horizon line between the greyness of the skies and the white ground was blurred now.
The bitter edge of the blustery cold softened as the fog dropped over the land, thick as a felt saddle blanket. The mountain paths and ravines were no longer distinguishable, making it impossible to guess how much distance remained ahead. Features of the landscape known popularly as the Frenchmen’s Chamber, Deaf-mute’s Crevice, St Severin’s Elbow, the Cross of the Sacred Heart, had all vanished. After Patriarch’s Point the entire expanse of these heights was submerged in the sour gummy milk. Overhead, winds whirling and pounding as though powerful water currents were ravining the skies changed course suddenly, a fierce onrush whipping across the ground to prevent him moving forward.
He got off his horse. He pulled the saddlebags of lentils off the horse’s back and tossed them to the ground but he kept the sacks of wheat and hay where they were. He opened the blade of his penknife and slashed open a sack of hay, bringing it up to the horse’s head. But his beloved horse didn’t plunge her snout into the sack. She would not eat. Mubaraka, eat! For the love of the Virgin, eat – it will give your legs more strength. We don’t have a choice, Mubaraka. We have to go on.
The horse stared steadily ahead as though she were deliberately ignoring his words. Her head was as cold as were his fingers stroking her forelock. She whinnied and jerked her head away from him. Angry at him she might be, but she would never abandon him.
You’re as blessed as your name says you are, Mubaraka. I couldn’t stay overnight there. I could not stay in Bou Ali’s home. You know how much I love him, that Bou Mansur. You know it – I can tell, because as soon as we leave this summit behind to start our descent to Ainata Village your pace picks up until you are swaying and prancing, when no one has even begun to urge you on! You know how he adores you, how he kisses your neck and brings you fresh hay sprinkled with sugar.
Even Bou Mansur’s wife had showed some resistance to her husband’s ways. Or at least her hesitancy. And you know what a good, decent woman she is, Umm Mansur. He would start propositioning her until her cheeks glowed blood-red. The Lord receive our prayers, she would say to him. Break the power of Satan, my dear cousin, husband of mine.
Ever since that moment when Bou Ali pulled the goat out of the herd and began slaughtering it with what seemed vicious intent in front of his mother, his voice loud with a crude oath, Muzawwaq, knotting his eyebrows, had expected something bad to happen. It was an evil omen. There was no cause to prepare such an elaborate welcome. It had been a month or so ago that Muzawwaq had visited his partner Raji Abu Ali, also known locally as Bou Mansur. He had ribbed the man, reminding him to be fair over the season’s take of lentils and wheat. He had been trying carefully to sweeten his warning to Bou Mansur, that the fellow must not cheat too much.
Thanks be to God for such abundance, he said. Mubarak ism al-Adhraa, blessed is the name of the Virgin, her bounty has flooded over her servants. The yield of fodder this season will last us for two years. Even if the Lord inflicts a bad season on us in the coming year, making us pay for our errors and sins, we will have some time to let our remorse get the better of us, it will drive us to seek the Lord’s forgiveness.
Bou Mansur began laughing. His little trills of laughter punctuated by throat-clearings suggested to Muzawwaq that he had gotten the message. So why, then, on this day had he insisted on attacking the goat, cruelly, providing a repast that need not have happened? It didn’t require fresh meat for Umm Mansur to lay a table bursting with delicacies. That was the way this generous, upright woman always did things.
This year, Muzawwaq said, we’ll distil our arak together. Near the springs. No need for two stills. I have enough anise to satisfy two entire villages. He’d seen that Bou Mansur seemed confused and embarrassed. He wanted to make the man comfortable. To encourage his conversation.
No, no – we’ll make the arak at mine.
Mine or yours?
The vineyard is closer to here, said Bou Mansur. And either way, it’s your land.
Everyone was silent. Even the little ones.
What do you mean – how can the vineyard be closer to here than it is to the field near the spring? Muzawwaq asked.
Raji Abu Ali emitted a burst of his signature short sharp laughs. Bou Saba, he said, his voice thin, you are the crown on our heads. You are the wise counsellor we always come to for advice. You know that if you demanded one of my sons I would slaughter him for you on the lintel without even asking why. The flesh my shoulders carry is only there because of your bounty. But let’s shatter this evil. The eye cannot protect itself from the sharpness of the awl.
Sweat broke out on Muzawwaq’s forehead and he stepped back from the hot woodstove. What’s an awl got to do with it? What are you talking about now?
You’re a fellow who always wants peace with others, when you’re the bravest of all, said Bou Mansur. All your life you’ve told me to keep myself away from problems and fights.
This was serious. Muzawwaq could see that. He took a deep breath before speaking. Bou Mansur, I tried to break the evil and then I did my time in Baalbek prison, reciting my rosary over and over, one ‘Our Father’ after another. We’ve talked about this before. I couldn’t cut off the waters coming up from my spring, I couldn’t block it from the lower land just because the Bek wanted to punish the sons of Ibn al-Dabbak. When I came out of prison I kissed the Bek’s sleeve. Do you know what he said to me? Muzawwaq, we’ve turned the page. And me, I didn’t despise the Bek not before, and not after, I didn’t even despise Monsignor even after the rash things he said, those painful, unfair words.
His six children behind him, Muzawwaq had stood in front of the house in the Ainata fields, gazing down at the fields the Dabbak family farmed, the rows of yellowed crops. Beneath the scrawny seedlings the land cracked with thirst. Nothing had ripened. Ibn al-Dabbak had bought his piece of land bit by bit over the years from Muzawwaq’s father. He was a poor man, the son of a muleteer. His wife died of malnutrition not long after the Great War, even though no one in our region was said to have died of hunger, even with the swarms of locusts in those years, as much as they had been turned back by the blessed hand of the Virgin Mary. Hanna, Muzawwaq’s father, had given the young Ibn al-Dabbak a very hard time, all but hitting him in front of everyone at the burial service for his children’s mother.
Leaving the graveyard, he said to the younger man in a voice loud enough that all could hear, Why, people like us feed strangers and wayfarers!
She was sick, the man said. We had food.
Hanna almost slapped him, he was so angry. Everyone could see how thin the woman was, her body as skeletal as the corpses people found by the roadside all over, during the War.
Hanna’s words to him were rough, and accompanied by a shove. Why didn’t you come to me? The man started to cry. Dry up your tears, Hanna said. I don’t want the rest of the money you owe for the land. It’s yours, on condition your little ones come up every evening for a meal in the house.
Some months later, Ibn al-Dabbak died. His children, who were still young, came up to the house. Not only in the evenings, now. They came up to the house, and they stayed.
This is an extract from Hoda Barakat’s 2012 novel The Kingdom of this Earth.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the 2017 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director for the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Marilyn Booth is the Khalid bin Abdallah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World, Oriental Institute and Magdalen College, Oxford University. Her most recent scholarly book is Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces: Writing Feminist History in fin-de-siècle Egypt (Edinburgh, 2015). She has translated numerous novels, short story collections and memoirs from the Arabic, most recently The Penguin’s Song by Lebanese novelist Hassan Daoud (City Lights Books, 2015), and No Road to Paradise, also by Daoud (American University in Cairo Press, 2017), winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal.