The kingdom of this earth

The kingdom of this earth

Publication Date: 2010

Publisher: Dar al adab

Country of Publication: Lebanon, Beirut

Pages: 348

Malakout hathihi al ard

In The kingdom of this earth, Barakat details the lives of the people of Bsharre, a small Maronite community in the Northern mountains
of Lebanon, a fascinating microcosm of rebellious, devout, rude, grand, wild and malicious people. The novel spans from the beginning of the twentieth century until the eve of the Lebanese Civil War (1975).

These mountaineers are fiercely proud of their land, their saints, and almost sacred Cedar trees. Their pride and exclusive lifestyle nourishes recurring lethal conflicts with the Maronites of the neighboring town of Zgherta. This conflict shapes their lives, as well as the face of Lebanon.

With the story of this people, Barakat tackles the broad and difficult question of minorities in the Middle-East and elsewhere: Why are they relentlessly torn? Recluse, or in denial of their being a minority, they resist any national project that does not recognize their differences and their aspirations. Although following the broad lines of Lebanese and world history, with the shadows of Mussolini, De Gaulle and Pétain spread on several of its pages, this novel is however not historical. Religious myths and gossip are deeply kneaded in its story. It is not a sociological novel either. To the contrary. The kingdom is woven by the individual stories of the people of Bsharre, their fantasies, miseries, and accomplishments.

The two main protagonists and narrators, Salma and her little brother Tannous, alternate in telling the story, starting with their father’s sudden death, shortly followed by that of their mother. Salma, the eldest, looks after her siblings, two brothers and three sisters, to the point where, forgetting herself, she never marries. Yet, Salma discovers maternal love and fulfillment with her sister’s children, while Tannous, who also never marries, feels an irreducible void in his life. Gifted with a stunning voice he inherited from the males of his family, Tannous’ destiny is determined by it. The story of this voice’s evolution, suspected at boyhood, discovered in Bsharre’s monasteries, then trained in Syria until it reaches its maturity, to ultimately fall out of fashion and in oblivion in Lebanon, is an illustration of the country’s evolution and its decline.

There also is Najibé, the school teacher, Khalil, who gets drunk on arak, Martha, who dreams of marrying a French officer, the uncle Shehade, gone to Egypt after a movie star, Saba, the eldest bitter and useless brother, and many others. All these “minuscule, sometimes luminous, but most often harsh and gray” stories (Le Monde des Livres, 2012) evolve on the backdrop of an agitated regional and world history. 

Through this tapestry of intertwined stories that Salma and Tannous deploy for the reader, The kingdom of this earth is the moving story of Bsharre. From a small lively and proud town often isolated by its snow storms and extreme climate, it ends up a half modernized, better connected, yet sad village, where lonely Salma and Tannous remember the hopeful days of the past.

Translated by Antoine Jockey

Dieu ne m’aime pas. Sans raison. Je n’ai rien fait qui puisse le mettre en colère à ce point. Dans le confessionnal, le curé me demande de réciter seulement trois fois le Notre Père pour me faire pardonner mes péchés. Cela veut bien dire que je ne suis pas un grand pécheur. Dieu a même laissé mon père mourir de froid dans une tempête de neige hors saison.

Mon père était un homme bien qui adorait la Vierge et jeûnait chaque samedi pour elle. Certes, il vociférait à tout bout de champ. Une fois, je l’ai entendu dire : «J’enc… la barbe de Monseigneur.» Une autre fois, c’était le tour de l’évêque. Et quand Saydé, l’épouse de mon oncle, a dit que c’était saint Élie le Vivant qui avait guéri Saba la dernière fois qu’il était tombé malade, mon père l’a contredite en soulignant que c’était la sainte Chmouné, au couvent de laquelle il était allé pieds nus, qui avait exaucé ses prières. Et la voyant soutenir que c’était saint Élie, la paix soit avec lui, qui avait frappé la maladie de son épée, comme il l’avait  fait avec la démone, mon père a sauté en l’air et s’est mis à lui dire : «J’enc… la barbe de saint Élie. Je te dis que c’est la sainte Chmouné.»

Mon père avait le sang chaud. Malgré sa foi, son calme et sa sagesse, il vociférait et insultait les saints pour vite le regretter et les prier de lui pardonner. Mais saint Élie en particulier ne pardonne pas. Il suffit de regarder ses yeux exorbités sur son image sainte pour savoir qu’il ne pardonne pas. D’ailleurs, il est connu pour son amour de la vengeance. Haineux, il fait toujours payer aux pécheurs leurs méfaits. Son épée est plus grande que lui et toujours souillée de sang. C’est pourquoi personne n’ignore sa fête et tout le monde fonce à son église pour la célébrer, même ceux qui ne l’apprécient pas trop.

[Longer translation excerpt available upon request]

Sindbad, Actes Sud, France, French, 2012

De Geus, Netherlands, Dutch, 2017

Leopard, Sweden, Swedish, 2018

Pandora, Romania, Romanian, 2019

The kingdom of this earth