Arab Woman Writings and Wars: Huda Barakat’s The Stone of Laughter in Focus

Women’s war literature allows the intolerable to be written because women writers often do not take part in wars with arms but rather with their pens, their voices and their intellects. In fact, women writers subvert history to create their own world and their own records. In this respect, contemporary Arab women authors have shown a big interest in writing novels, poems and short stories that lucidly portray the transformations war brings, and they have also shown a genuine capacity of subverting moments of war and transforming war time into moments of creation and metamorphosis. The present paper unveils Arab women writers’ exceptional capacity in re-creating history through their literary writings through an in-depth analysis of Huda Barakat’s The Stone of Laughter which represents a vivid depiction of the Lebanese Civil War where Barakat artistically recreates this war by subverting its history.

Key words: Arab women literature, Lebanese civil war, war literature, androgyny.

The Body of the paper

Women’s war literature is subversive and rebellious in many ways because of many aspects. In fact, women writers use their pens, their voices and their intellects to unearth hidden truths of the dreary war while they stand on the threshold of a nation under siege or in war to vividly and impartially depict war events. Arab women literature dealing with wars and conflicts is viewed as an authoritative tool against the violence of war and as a passive resistance. Contemporary Arab women writers have shown an exceptional singularity in writing novels, poems and short stories that lucidly portray the transformations wars bring.

The Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian women authors have managed to develop war writings that incorporate both writing as resistance, and writing of methods of resistance, i.e. for these authors, though writing about the conditions of war may be viewed as an act of resistance itself, there is always another dimension of resisting against the internal oriental10 views and perceptions regarding the Arab woman.

When reading novels by Lebanese women authors, we may perceive, instead of a depiction of war events, an embodiment of a struggle with the norms of gender uncovered through circumstances of war, and this is what we will try to argue later in this paper through the analysis of Huda Barakat’s The Stone of Laughter ( حجر الضحك),
The experience of war, though it may initially seek to reaffirm established gender roles, ends up blurring and even annihilating the definiteness of just these roles. War in this instance provides the arena for actions to be detached from their supposedly feminine or masculine matrices and observed differently. (A. Valassopoulos, 56)

Arab women writers, who have witnessed moments of wars and conflicts and who have decided to transmit their experience to their readers through their writings, may have felt an anxiety to express their own identity as being Arabs and women at the same time; this may seem more restrictive than liberating. Most of the contemporary Lebanese novelists’ writings, for example, reveal the need to consider not only what constitutes them as Lebanese but also how the war (the Civil War) refines their gendered position within their society. Hanane Sheikh’s The Story of Zahra ( حكاية زهرة), Etel Adnan’s11 Sitt Marie Rose ( الست ماري روز) and Huda Barakat’s The Stone of Laughter ( حجر الضحك) are instances of the creative literary productions a war can give birth to with the ‘fingers’ of an Arab woman.

Huda Barakat is among those talented Arab women writers who have changed the cliché about weak and narrow-minded Arab women. Barakat is an admired Lebanese novelist who lived much of her life in Beirut and later moved to Paris, where she now resides. Her works, written in Arabic, have been translated into many languages, including English, French, Italian, Turkish, Dutch, Greek and German. This novel was a great success as much as her late novels أهل الهوى , Lovers (1993), حارث المياه The Tiller of Waters (1998) and سيدي و حبيبي My Master, My Lover (2005). The Stone of Laughter, written in Lebanon under the striking echoes of the bombing and the explosions, has stimulated her literary talent.

The Stone of Laughter is a novel of war, i.e. a genre of novels that relies on the events of a given war; a war novel is a literary production in which the primary action takes place in a field of armed combat or in a domestic setting where the characters are preoccupied with the preparations for, or recovery from, war. It recounts an original extraordinary experience that an Arab woman writes about war in a work of fiction the way Huda Barakat did in this novel. Huda Barakat says:
I write of wars because I have no power; no arms or soldiers. I belong to the dark dampness and to the forgetfulness of those making history in the street…Under the boots stepping over my head, I still write as if I am an empress or a dictator. ( Faqir, V)

This novel was described by Edward Kharrat5 as “the best novel written about the Lebanese civil war.” حجر الضحك (transcribed as [ħadzaru əđaħIk]) deals with the struggle of Khalil, the protagonist who embodies the psychological and physical metamorphosis caused by the war, to resist taking part in the fighting and to define his identity in alternative terms. In a complex, but genuinely personal narrative, Barakat represents two figures that are marginal to the war: an androgynous male and heterodiegetic narrator [see later sections in this chapter] whose voice is often interwoven with Khalil’s, but who shows up at the very end of the novel.

The story reveals the terrible effects and changes a civil war gives birth to and it transgresses many historical records of the Lebanese Civil war. The story focuses more on how people in such circumstances submit to a metamorphosis at different levels: psychological, physical, social and spiritual. What the novel truly carries to the reader is nothing but the moaning and the yelling of people who died twice and in one day out of bombings, fear and hatred rather than revealing false facts about the war itself.

The Stone of Laughter describes the city of Beirut under bombardments and explosions. It represents to what extent war can change the inward and the outward stability of people; this is represented in the process of metamorphosis Khalil goes through. By the end of the novel, the narrator puts an end to two confusions: one about herself when she manifests her identity to the reader, and the second when she explains how “her” Khalil has changed from how he was to “a man who laughs.”²

The novel exposes Khalil’s metamorphosis in two sections: a pre-hospital section and a post-hospital section. First, Khalil maintains his integrity as a subject, but undergoes as a result an increasing social isolation and a self-loathing that he faces due to an inward struggle between two ‘Khalils’: a Khalil who is socially a coward, anti-war man, and another Khalil who is biologically, but peacefully, womanized [it announces the concept of ‘androgyny’ that will be explored in a coming section]. This struggle and constant confrontation threatens Khalil to destroy him from inside. In the second section, Khalil has a surgery to cure a serious ulcer, and it is only in the hospital that Khalil perceives life and death. He describes the surgery room as “this little paradise”. It is only in hospital that Khalil knew what life is because he was about to die “all these years that are called a life are nothing but nonsense, a folly, because they lack your dying for you to know” (Barakat, 168). After the surgery, Khalil determines to survive no matter what. The following diagram recapitulates the two phases of Khalil’s metamorphosis:

Figure 2.1: The two phases of Khalil’s metamorphosis

The diagram summarises the process of self-destruction and distortion that Khalil undergoes all through the novel. The ulcer surgery is a turning point in Khalil’s life; by experiencing a state of coma (intensive care) and being saved from death, Khalil came to know what Life means. The colours used in the diagram are used deliberately to reflect each phase in Khalil’s metamorphosis. As for the pre-surgery, the pink colour represents Khalil’s state of being “womanized”; it is a nuance that pink is women’s favourite colour, yet there is another colour that is grey: grey represents haziness. Khalil, in this stage, experiences a critical state of confusion. On the other hand, the post-surgery phase is represented by two colours: black and red. These two colours reflect the self-destruction Khalil submits to after getting rid of his feminine part. Black represents death and adversity, and red represents blood and suffering.

Furthermore, the geometric shapes used in this diagram also have shades of meanings. The triangle, used in the pre-surgery phase, represents the state of tidiness and well-organized Khalil lived in. In psychology, triangles reflect orderliness and “self-centredness.” ( On the other hand, the rectangle, used in the post-surgery phase, represents incredible mess, inquisitiveness and courage during periods of change, and this is exactly what Khalil underwent after he had left the hospital.

For Khalil, knowing life means knowing death, and this is exactly what people in moments of war (and civil wars particularly) experience. Khalil represents those thousands of Lebanese people who lived a war that was ‘civil’, a war in the streets of Beirut and other Lebanese cities, a war that killed and gave life. This absurdity in perceiving life and death was, and is, common to people living under daily explosions, bombing, car crashes and everyday death, so life and death incongruously are alike.

In the very final pages of the novel, Khalil is totally masculinised after he knew how to hate, how to end others’ lives and how to identify himself as a ‘brave’ man who is no more against the horrors of the bloody war; all these self-achievements are at the price of destroying the peaceful feminized side of his psyche. Khalil violated the ‘divine’ femininity inside him in order to fully participate in the fighting, and became actively involved in smuggling weapons to the country and storing them in his building. Khalil is no more a ‘womanized’ man who cries, but rather a ‘masculinised’ male who laughs. The novel begins with the following sentence: “Khalil’s legs were not long enough” (Barakat, 3) because he was a female portrait, and it ends with these words “Khalil is gone, he has become a man who laughs” (Barakat, 209) because he became a masculine portrait.
The narrative order in The Stone of Laughter relies on the events of the Lebanese civil war. In fact, the narration in this novel does not follow a chronological order, but rather a repetitive rhythm which is the outcome of the rhythm of the war. The recurrent use of words like: bombing, explosions, death, bombardment, noise, and diacritics like the three dots of suspension “As the bombing and counter-bombing grew more intense, the newspaper seemed more and more like a huge, buzzing hive. […] The random bombing was not altogether random… everyone knows the newspaper will not be bombed for there are rules, there is a method in all mayhem…” (Barakat, 36-37) unveil a fracture in the narration and create a disruption in the narrative.

The narrative in this novel is of a specific nature in the sense that it is not continuous but rather disrupted and interrupted. There are no shifters8 of time and place:
Khalil’s room was as it had always been. Nothing had changed at all… perhaps it was the body living in it that had changed… it had become heavier, weightier, more firmly attached to what was behind the door… when he knew that Naji was coming, when he expected him to visit, Khalil’s joy was mingled with the sense of defeat. (Barakat, 22-23).

The shifters of time and place in this novel are replaced by either the three dots of suspension or moments like: “before the bombing”, “after the bombardment”, “during the explosion”…, so here again lies the impact of the Lebanese civil war on people’s life. It hashes the normal tense to have its own notion of time, and this is how events are constructed in a rhythm.

Besides, there is a weird extensive use of the expression “as if”: “… it was as if he wanted to provoke her to talk to answer back […] seeming at the same time unperturbed by his abusive words…or as if she understood and was encouraging his rapture.” (Barakat, 76). The extensive use of this expression inspires the reader that things in moments of war and conflicts are not what they are but they seem to be what they are. In the coming sections, we will explore the peculiarity of the narrative technique and the chronotopes in the narration.

The Stone of Laughter responds to an elementary morphology, i.e. it goes from an initial state to a final state, from a rising action, to a climax and finally to a dénouement. It traces the life path of Khalil, the young intellectual Lebanese, and it embodies the deep, awkward influence war does have upon people’s psyches, bodies and life.

The narrative in this novel relies on war. In fact, narration, whether of a chronological or a logical concatenation, follows a repetitive rhythm that suits the mood and the atmosphere of a bloody war. There is a regular use of expressions like “explosions”, “bombing”, “bombardments” and “car crashes”; these expressions are repeated all through the sections of the novel as if they are fixed landmarks. Every action, every shifter (of time or of place) and every evolution in the process of the protagonist’s metamorphosis are systematically motivated and circumstanced by the war events.

There is a recurrence of a lexical field relying on war episodes; this recurrence helps create a fracture in the narration. The visual diacritics10, i.e. the three suspension dots are also there to reinforce the disruption of the narration; the extensive use and appearance of the three suspension dots may have two interpretations. They can be considered as recurrent moments of silence imposed on the narrator (or the writer herself) because of a sudden happening like a car crash or an explosion; they also can be considered as substituent of time shifters or place shifters as well. All in all, the exaggerated use of these diacritics neither disturbs nor deteriorates the style of the writer; on the contrary, they burst two curiosities: the curiosity of the reader to decipher the shift from one situation, or one scene to another, and the curiosity of the critic to decode the meaning of these silences regarding the state of war and the state of writing.

The disruption and interruption of the narration might be considered as the outcome of the war circumstances. Whether done on purpose or being an unconscious reaction towards war events, the disrupted narration of The Stone of Laughter reflects the instability of the writer, and hence the instability of people living the same conditions as this novelist. As already mentioned, Barakat started writing this novel by 1990, i.e. on the eve of the Lebanese civil war; this might have had a strong impact on the narrative flowing of this novel. However, we might as well suggest that Barakat has innovated such a narrative technique to back up the main theme of the novel, i.e. the metamorphosis of Khalil, and to represent the dreary psychological, physical and social ruptures war can cause.

The fractured, disrupted narration woven around Khalil, the androgynous protagonist, responds to the disturbed, disrupted life the Lebanese people experienced during the civil war. It is indeed original and peculiar from the part of Barakat to represent such ambiguous moments through a disrupted, interrupted narration that has allowed her to voice her opinion against the war makers without saying a single word, or express it with an unsettled form of speech.

The Stone of Laughter is distinct from different perspectives, and one of these angles is the notion of time. Nothing, in this novel, allows the reader to determine the time period separating the initial state and the final one. All the temporal indications used escape the chronological linearity (as we have seen with Ricoeur and Bakhtin). There are some expressions and signs like: “this season…” (p 23), “this morning…” (p 50), “one month later after the death of Naji …” (p 76), “after two days…”… etc; such references to time do not draw a well-determined temporal framework. All they do is to inform the reader that the narrative stretches over several months, and that the story takes place while the country has been going through a bloody war for several years.

Therefore, there is a narrative anachronism that evokes past events; the latter helps instruct the psychological formation of the protagonist, Khalil. There are also flashback scenes that describe Khalil’s relationship with Naji, Nayef, Yusuf and the bride. All these scenes seem to be ordinary, but what mostly grabs our attention is the acting time that is modulated and identified by war events, and is contributing to the organization of the repetitive rhythm of the novel.

With space, time is the second concept that allows us organizes our perceptions into a representation of the world (Goldstein, 2003). Thus, it is impossible to imagine a shift of places or a mutation of characters outside time. The Lebanese war, in this work, has modified the common space known to all human beings to renovate its own spatial time: “it hashes” (تفرم) the chronological time to have its own as well. It is this time fabricated by war that prevails and rhythms the narrative in this novel. The shifters of time in this novel are replaced by either the three dots of suspension, moments like: “before the bombing”, “after the bombardment”, “during the explosion”…, so here again lies the impact of the Lebanese civil war on people’s life. It hashes the normal tense to produce its own notion of time, and this is how it is implemented in this novel.

The repetitive cycle of the war fragmentizes time into a succession of repetitive durations that deprives the time of its value of evolution; this is why, we notice the absence of chronological landmarks that indicate the evolution of fiction. Whether time or space, all stand under the one landmark that is war and all its signs. Time, in moments of war, is determined, not by hours or minutes and seconds, but by moments preceding the bombing, moments during the bombing and moments following the bombing. Such a peculiarity of perceiving time is specific to people living under violence and bombardments which are experienced as lulls of survival and expectations of death. Hanging between these two states, time is not felt as a progression of life but as moments devoid of meaning.

Akin to time, space is also hashed and altered by war events. Modelled by war, the space, described by the narrator of this novel, exceeds its ornamental role to function as a signifying agent. The actions and the events described in the novel take place in a region in Beirut, notably “the Western area”. There is no description of the settings or the landscapes of the city that appears in the fiction. About Beirut, there is a little passage in which the beautiful city is described as being hypertrophied under the bombing because it contrasts with such a violent war (20).

This allusion to Beirut has as an immediate objective to pave the way in the fiction to move to a more restraint space, that of the building where Sitt Isabel’s apartment is situated as well as Khalil’s room. These two spaces, i.e. the building and the city of Beirut, are opposed to one another: a building that is well-identified and described facing a city that is anonymous and strange; this confrontation is symbolic: the well-indentified building represents stability and strength (“توحي بالإقامة”)i while the anonymous city represents the transition and the temporary (“توحي بالعبور”)ii . The former symbolizes the shell in which Khalil was long isolated and protected to keep him safe and secure, whereas the latter symbolizes the outer space in which the whole process of Khalil’s self-destruction takes place.

Khalil keeps moving in the space allowed to him in the novel moving to and fro: his room, Sitt Isabel’s apartment, the lift shaft, his friend Nayf’s apartment and “the newspaper”. The other important space that represents a salient setting in the novel is the hospital and the surgery room. This space represents the turning point in Khalil’s life and his process of self-destruction. The outer space is reduced against the inner space, and this may refer to the inner state of Khalil regarding his outer state: Khalil as a biological creature and Khalil as a social individual.

Each space and every setting in The Stone of Laughter is described to be invested in the transformational operation and self-destruction process of the protagonist. In the pre-hospital phase, the space limited in Khalil’s room is described as tidy, well-organized and neat to reflect the inner state of Khalil who was happy with his world. However, in the post-hospital phase, the same room is described as anarchical, untidy and “as if it were deserted for years” (p 72). The setting, in this novel, metaphorically refers to the physical and psychological mutations Khalil submits to, and it adheres to the rhythm of the narration.

War is not only utilized as a factor of destruction and distortion, but also as a re-determiner of the two elements of fiction: time and space. War determines its proper laws of time and space according to its circumstances of killing, murdering, bombing and death. This war turns life upside down and allows anarchy to prevail over the normal order of life. This anarchy and disorder contribute to the metamorphosis of Khalil, the protagonist, to his self-identification as being part of the war and to his gender-identification as being no more a womanized, peaceful guy. The following section is devoted to the analysis of Khalil as a androgynous character and why Barakat chose this technique to reinforce the thematic of her novel.

By analysing Huda B arakat’s The Stone of Laughter from different angles, in terms of characterization, themes and narration, we allowed ourselves as well as the readers to spotlight the power the Arab woman writer has to represent in a genuine way the horror of war and its influence on people living under daily bombardments and explosions. In the case of Huda Barakat, we have noticed such peculiarity when having exposed how she has re-conceptualized the two chronotopes of time and space, and how she has ‘fabricated’ an androgyne character who is different from those androgyne archetypes in the writings of Shakespeare, V. Woolf or of any other Western writer.
In fact, war represents the central character of Barakat’s writing and this is what has given birth to both the creativeness and the rebellion of Barakat’s literary style, a style that subvert time, space and war itself into fiction that primarily voices the agonies and the pain of people in time of wars.

Books by Huda Barakat
حجر الضحك ) 1990 ( رياض الريس للكتب والنشر-بيروت
The Tiller of Waters, translated into English by Marilyn Booth, The American University in Cairo Press, NY, 2001.
أهل الهىي ) 2002 ( دار النهار للنشر- بيروت
سيدي و حبيبي ) 2005 ( دار النهار- بيروت
The Stone of Laughter, translated into English by Sophie Bennett, (2006), Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.
Reference Books
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2. Bakhtin, M.(1981), The Dialogic Imagination, Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.
3. Bauer, M. and Mckinstry, J. (1991), Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic, State University of New York Press.
4. Cohen, D. M. (2005), Arab Women Writers: an anthology of short stories, State University of New York Press.
5. Constance, S. R. (2000), On the Winds and Waves of Imagination: Transnational Feminism and Literature, Routledge.
6. Irigaray, L. (1997), “The Other: Woman.” Feminisms, Eds. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires. Oxford University Press.
7. Kristeva, J. (1991), Strangers to Ourselves, (translated by Roudiez L.). New York: Columbia University Press.
8. Singer, J. (2007) Androgyny: The Opposites Within, Ibis Press / Nicolas-Hayes. 9. Golley, N. A. (2004), Is Feminism Relevant to Arab Women?, Third World Quaterly, Vol. 25, No. 3., pp- 521-536, Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
10. Lionnet, F. (1993), “Geographies of Pain: Captive Bodies and Violent Acts in the Fictions of Myriam Warner-Viera, Gayle Jones, and Bessie Head.” Callaloo. Winter, Vol. 16, No. 1: 132-152. 11. Malti-Douglas, F. (Jan. – Mar., 1998), Men, Women, and God(s): Nawal El Saadawi and Arab Feminist Poetics, The American Oriental Society Journal, Vol. 118, No. 1, pp. 98-100.

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