Hoda Barakat’s Sayyidi wa Habibi: Book Review

Sayyidi wa HabibiHoda Barakat’s Sayyidi wa Habibi: The Authorized Abridged Edition for Students of Arabic. By Hoda Barakat and Laila Familiar. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi, 102. ISBN: 9781626160026.

Hoda Barakat’s Sayyidi wa Habibi: The Authorized Abridged Edition for Students of Arabic is a welcome addition to Arabic language pedagogy materials. This publication features Laila Familiar’s abridged version of Hoda Barakat’s fourth novel, Sayyidi wa Habibi (My Master and Lover), which was originally published in 2004. The abridged version, which is close to a third of the novel’s original length of about 200 pages, has been reviewed and approved by the author. The language has been expertly simplified without sacrificing the beauty and ambiguous qualities of the literary text. Many of the phrases are left intact and the abridged version maintains Barakat’s direct yet haunting prose.

Sayyidi wa Habibi is set during the Lebanese Civil War. Like many of Hoda Barakat’s novels it is narrated from the perspective of a male character who has been marginalized by the war raging around him. Wadie recounts his childhood, the death of his mother, and a close childhood friendship. As Wadie grows into adulthood he enters the drug trade, an arena that helps him accumulate wealth but situates him at the margins of a society dominated by the factions and militias of the war. A betrayal pushes Wadie and his wife Samia to depart for Cyprus, where Wadie suffers a psychological breakdown. Here, Samia takes over the practical aspects of life and, eventually, the narrative itself. Sayyidi wa Habibi offers a beautiful portrait of masculinity, friendship, and love during times of war. For language learners, the abridged novel and its pedagogical materials offer a range of opportunities to engage with a serious work of literature and the questions that it raises.

The book contains a wealth of pedagogical materials to guide reading comprehension, in-class discussions, and writing assignments. The materials are broken up into weekly assignments over the course of a semester but the pace could easily be adapted for intensive courses or independent learners. For building vocabulary, the text includes footnotes with translations of more difficult words and space for a personal vocabulary list. The exercises at the end of the book are designed to deepen comprehension and create a space for reflection and expression through writing and in-class discussion. The website hosted by Georgetown University Press is a nice additional resource. From here, it is possible to stream audio-files of Hoda Barakat answering questions about the novel and reading chapters of the abridged version.

The abridged version of Sayyidi wa Habibi joins a modest number of literature-based Arabic pedagogy materials. Another recent addition to this field is Mastering Arabic through Literature by Iman A. Soliman and Saeed Alwakeel, the first volume of a four-part series. This 2014 publication contains four unabridged short stories (by Mahmoud Taher, Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idriss, and Tayeb Salih) with exercises and vocabulary lists to guide study. Other publications worth mention include Ḥikāyāt Kalīlah wa-Dimnah li-ṭullāb al-lughah al-ʿArabīyah (Tales from Kalila wa Dimna for Students of Arabic) by Munther Younes and Anees Rabie, which contains abridged and simplified versions of the classic Kalila wa Dimna tales; Arabic Stories for Language Learners: Traditional Middle-Eastern Tales in Arabic and English by Hezi Brosh and Lutfi Mansour, which features sixty-six abridged tales and a CD for practicing listening comprehension and pronunciation; and Modern Arabic Short Stories: A Bilingual Reader (2008) edited by Ronak Husni and Daniel L. Newman, which presents unabridged short stories with English translations, biographies, and background context.

Taken together, the increasing variety and number of literature-based Arabic language pedagogy materials can translate into more and better ways to integrate literature into Arabic language courses. The abridged version of Sayyidi wa Habibi is a particularly appealing addition to the field because it makes an entire novel accessible to students at a level where reading a whole novel might appear daunting. The book showcases a pedagogy where language building skills, literary analysis, and humanistic inquiry build productively on each another. As such, this is a book that is to be highly recommended to language learners and instructors alike.