Book group meetings always start slowly. This makes sense. Reading is private, something one does in bed, or on a quiet porch or park bench. Even if other people are physically nearby, a reader is alone, equipped only with his or her intelligence, imagination, memories, moral sensibility, desires, aspirations and fears. It is no surprise that people are generally shy about articulating how they feel about what they read.
At the most recent meeting of Kutub, a book club that meets monthly to discuss works by Middle Eastern authors at the Third Line gallery in Dubai, this natural reticence was probably intensified by the setting. The group sat around a table in the middle of the gallery’s first room. The table was much smaller than the room, which was otherwise bare, and it felt as if the club was meeting on a stage.
The walls were covered with Martin Parr’s close-up photographs of the conspicuously wealthy, all of whom looked not only rather garish and silly, but also completely unaware of just how garish and silly they looked – a less than perfect backdrop for encouraging speculative conversation.
But a real discussion was soon underway, thanks in large part to diligent prodding from Katrina Weber, who coordinates Kutub for the Third Line. The book was Hoda Barakat’s The Stone of Laughter, a grim coming-of-age story about a young man named Khalil living in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. It won the Al-Naqid award for a first novel in 1990.
It is also a deeply unhappy and unhopeful book. Over half of the people at the table confessed that they had not finished it because it was too relentlessly depressing. Some had skipped to the end to see if things improved (they do not). One woman noted that her friend, a frequent Kutub attendee, hated the book’s bleakness so much that she had stayed at home.
A few readers wished they had known more about the Lebanese civil war – or Lebanon, for that matter – before reading the book. “I feel like I missed a lot of subtlety,” confessed one American. This led to a broader discussion of Lebanon and whether people there “have a good time no matter what” or “don’t know how to take problems seriously”.
“Hey,” interjected one woman, “is anyone here Lebanese?”
A young couple raised their hands. Others brought up Lebanese friends who had moved to Dubai or elsewhere to escape the civil war. The discussion began to meander pleasantly between Barakat (did she get the “male voice” right?), previous months’ books (were any this depressing?), life across the Middle East and life in general.
Later, as the meeting wound down, the woman whose friend had stayed at home shook her head and smiled. “She should have come anyway. Whether she liked the book or not, we’ve had such a wonderful talk.”