Month: July 1991

The House of Songs

There was, there was not, at the oldest of times a country which extended from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. In that country, which I shall call Baghdad for the purposes of this narrative, Islam was the predominant religion.  Islam, or that particular interpretation of the hadith and Qur’an, perceives a specific role for women which in practice places them at the bottom of the social hierarchy – “men are superior to them by a degree”1 . Islam identified women with chaos, anti-divine and anti-social forces. To contain women’s power, a system of segregation and confinement was superimposed on the many and diverse societies in Baghdad.  The unchecked rights of men, polygamy, divorce, and even beating, were all strategies to subjugate women.  A true Islamic Baghdadi house was a house where men provided for women, protected them and policed them.

There was a story-teller in Baghdad called Shahrazad. Committing her life to telling tales in such hostile surroundings, she entered into a conflict with the religious and political orders. Becoming a woman writer in Baghdad was to face a double challenge as there was a consensus in that land that denied woman a voice. Although writing in Baghdad was not a respectable profession and was considered by the men of religion as an act of subversion, many women, like Shahrazad, chose writing as a means to freedom by taking sides in the social and political struggle.  But these women were writing in societies which forbade any discussion of sex, religion and politics in the classroom.  As a consequence, they experienced slander, banning and imprisonment.  To cross the defined border and encroach on traditionally male space was to risk being accused of becoming a loose women, a whore, a belly-dancer. In most Baghdadi countries, women’s writing was read as autobiographical.  Many women writers like Layla Ba’labakki, Zabia Khamis, Suhair al-Tal, Nawaal el-Sa’daawi, were held legally responsible for their creations.

Shahrazad suffered the consequences of living as a woman in a conservative Muslim society.  When she became a reporter with a local newspaper, she was asked to cover “women stuff”.  When she moved on to other areas like politics and economics, many of her articles were censored.  Political, social and religious censorship was the Baghdadis’ daily nightmare – their strait-jacket.   Commenting on the question of freedom, Margaret Walker writes, “Without freedom personal and social, to write as one pleases . . . the writer is in bondage.”2 In Baghdad Shahrazad had no social, religious or political freedom – she was in bondage.  Returning to the house of obedience before sunset prayers, she was forced to wear the veil and could not criticise the regime.

Shahrazad watched her mother sadly, a mother who spent most of her life in the house – the domestic world of most Baghdadi mothers, in a land without peace.  She continued her daily work, trying to keep the household together, while waiting for her husband and sons to return from the front line or the chambers of the secret police. She suffered bereavement in silence. She strove to keep the morale of the family high, to stabilize the home, as war followed war.  Regimes that neither Shahrazad nor her mother had voted for or supported, took whole nations to war destroying generation after generation.  Through their windows, they watch, bewildered, as the funeral procession passes, the coffins streaming down the street.

Shahrazad did not want to be like her mother. She would shake her stick at what Ian McEwan describes as the “monochrome, the monological, the monotheoretical, the monotheistic”3 . When faith is presented as all or nothing, when two plus two no longer equals four, when singing is no longer a means of deliverance, the writer must decide: to follow the men of religion, to be a clown of the court, or to write the truth of her heart. Shahrazad wanted to safeguard her integrity, and the purity of her tales. She wanted to look at her face in the mirror without seeing an ever-running, red tear.  She wanted freedom, to teach her children songs of peace, so she left Baghdad.  She refused to let her song be silenced or distorted. She would sing loud and clear and so she crossed from one language into another, committing herself to a life in exile.


Exile is a sad country.  In exile the rift between the rural image of the homeland and the western city cannot be healed.  It is a severing from home, Eden, childhood; a sense of loss, displacement, uprootedness. In exile, nostalgia becomes a form of loyalty to the house in Baghdad, to the garden with its tall palm trees, to the mother’s headscarf, to the past, the village; all are images held still in a medium which beautifies.

In exile, you quickly develop a double vision, where images of the streets of Basra merge with those of Kentish Town.  You begin looking forward at the country of adoption while always looking back at the country of origin.  You check your position at every junction.  You adjust your mirrors, your sense of belonging, and drive on exploring a new map.   You keep examining and re-examining your loyalties to both the still picture in the mind and the present living landscape.  You no longer take things at face value.  Doubt, dissent and questioning become part of your life.  You become a hybrid, forever assessing, evaluating, accommodating.

Exile is a sad country.  The first cultural shock comes when you fail to recognize the truth of your experience in the Western perception of it.  You feel out-numbered and out-organized by a culture which validates and enforces the supremacy of everything that is Christian, western, white, written. At the least provocation, distaste for immigrant culture comes to the surface.  What you have left behind in your country of origin becomes clear: dictatorship, fundamentalism and the mutilation of the mind.  But you cannot fight the authoritarian sultans and mullahs without fighting reductionism, colonialism and misrepresentation in the western media.   In your country of adoption, you suddenly realize that – to use the words of Fred Halliday –  you have to “turn a critical face both ways, towards the country of origin and its traditions and the country of reception.  The challenge, the alienation, the “offence” are two-sided.”

In this multi-cultural, multi-racial society Shahrazad, the daughter of the vizier, became an emigre wrapped in her raincoat, untouchable, without background or history. She stood outside the circle with the “miscellaneous whining coloured” who are denied access to the circle where, as Edward Said writes, “stand the blameless, the just, the omnicompetent, those who know the truth about themselves as well as others”5 .  She began asking herself: Who am I?  Where do I belong?  Where is my fatherland?  What is my mother tongue?  To whom should I tell my tales?

When she first arrived in her country of adoption, she was given a simple answer to her questions – the cricket match test.  After filling in endless forms as the immigration officer checked the reams of black lists, she was asked, “If we play cricket against Baghdad, which team would you support?”  She found no words in any language to answer his question. She stood there opening and shutting her mouth like a fish. Would they open her heart? Open heart surgery?  Probe into her immigrant’s heart and see what is etched there.  The house of obedience which Shahrazad had left behind rose again as the house of confinement.

The real test for Shahrazad came the year of Desert Storm. This was not cricket :  her country of adoption began a war against Baghdad.  Day after day she watched the bombs falling on her people. Some of her Baghdadi friends who had escaped the sultan’s secret police were detained and imprisoned. Other Baghdadis, who had lost members of their families, had to go through the agony of watching the western media coverage of the war. Baghdad was destroyed but the sultan lived on. This operation, launched in the name of ‘law and order’, left nothing but disorder and destruction.

Are there any bandages for the eyes, the ears and the heart? The causalities along the Basra road were buried in the sand :  almost a generation of Baghdadis was “neutralized”, many of them peasant boys coerced into conscription.  The poet Tony Harrison writes:
“So lie and say the charred man smiled
to see the soldier hug his child
This gaping rictus once made glad
a few old hearts back in Baghdad
hearts growing older by the minute
as each truck comes without me in it”6

Shahrazad had met the “old hearts back in Baghdad”. For her they have faces, they have names. She sings their songs, understands their sadness, laughs at their jokes. But they said they would kill them and they did – the soldier’s bodies on the Basra road – but the old hearts remain.

She tried in the name of understanding and assimilation to join the majority of the public who gave their stamp of approval to Desert Storm.  But there was another wind, blowing strongly from Basra, carrying the smell of ripe dates and the memory of her mother’s patient eyes.  She could not join the chorus of those who said, “I love you” to the war machine. Shahrazad the story-teller, the daughter of the vizier, became an embittered emigre. She buttoned up her raincoat, standing in silence on the outside.  The walls of the house of confinement were closing in. Exile stops being a rift and becomes a wound.  Mahmoud Darwish describes this state of siege:
Out of the window of this last space.  Our star will hang up mirrors.
Where should we go after the last frontiers?  Where should the birds fly after the last sky?7

She vowed to tie her tongue with the same yellow ribbons that were tied round the old oak tree to welcome the allied forces back home.  May this tongue never utter another word in English, the language of her coloniser and invader.  The English language is contaminated, corrupt, full of “neutralizing “, “terminating”, “taking apart”, “knocking out” and “cleansing” hostile targets.   Shahrazad felt betrayed by her first love:  the  English language.   It was no longer the clear, sharp, crisp language which she had pursued the way her bedouin ancestors used to pursue fresh water.

She remembered the language she had fallen in love with when she was young.  Her first experience of the English language in secondary school was memorising Shakespeare’s poems and listening to the radio.  One of the things she had to do to join the secret Society, a local adolescent group, was memorize English songs.  She learnt by heart Love Story and Nights in White Satin, put on a tee-shirt, worn out jeans, pinned the sign of peace on her chest, put a flower in her hair then – yeah man – was given membership.   She sang in English, “Imagine there’s no countries.”

“May my tongue never utter another word of English”, she said. She wanted to follow Ngugi’s example – “to resolve the question of language, which was clearly inseparable from the question of to which tradition I would reconnect myself”8 and in his defiance of the intended detention of his mind and imagination he decided to write in Gikuyu.  He argues that the colonial system imposes its own language on subject races and then the acquisition of their tongue becomes a status symbol. The alienation from the mother tongue, and adoption of the thought process and values of the colonial system distance you from the masses of your country.  Ngugi decided to communicate with the people he left behind in Gikuyu, the language of his new commitment.

Shahrazad felt besieged by a culture which validates and propagates everything that is Christian, western, white, written.  With images of Alhambra, when Islamic culture was the bearer of science and art, sliding across the English horizon, she raises her raincoat’s collar, and walks on.  She had decided to decolonise the mind and the tongue.  She had vowed not to utter another word in English. The house of confinement became a ghetto where you shut your ears, eyes, mouth and heart to the host society, like the three monkeys.

Her decision was reinforced by the misrepresentation and hostility which reached unprecedented levels during the war.  The west was trying to penetrate Baghdad for political and economic reasons.  The conflict or quest for oil, territorial expansionism and the multinational corporates bid for hegemony produced a dominative knowledge where the opposition was portrayed as ignorant and backward, Baghdadis tarred with the same black brush, justifying the violence that followed.

The western media, the so-called fourth authority, paved the way for military action by presenting Baghdadis as either dark, incomprehensible terrorists, or stupid, medieval and rich. They were classified into two groups: one to be fought and “neutralized”, the other to be outwitted and conned.  Baghdad became “Arabia”, an extension of the desert so romantically and faithfully portrayed by Lawrence of Arabia and his predecessors.  From a hazy, soft focus painting on the mantelpiece, “Arabia” became part of the West’s daily television time.  For the vast majority of Baghdadis the romantic vision of Arabia belonged to the colonial past, together with the books of Burton, Doughty and Lawrence.  But for the foreign media, that “Arabia” of the mind still existed and was in constant conflict with the present-day realities of the region.  Instead of challenging the handed down misconceptions most of them were actively consolidating myths of a former age.  Western photographers used the camel to reconcile this myth of “Arabia” with the realities of Baghdad at war.  Young, closely shaven white soldiers, in sun-glasses were photographed against a backdrop of camels, thus reconciling “Arabia Deserta” with images of an advanced western world.

Fleet Street obligingly worked on the image of the sultan who until recently was the bulwark of the west.  He began  growing horns, exhaling smoke and stood high, threatening “democracy and our way of life”.  The sultan was inflated until he was so big that his people became him. The Baghdadi people disappeared off the scene – journalistic “collateral damage” of the first kind.  You heard the thunder of war, the turkey shoot, but nothing about the defenceless opponents of this mighty war machine.  It was a false war which bore a false victory.

Shahrazad was screaming against this latest military adventure, but few people heard. Deafness9 , which was so eloquently described by John Berger, became endemic.  She looked around her, tried to communicate, but got no response apart from polite smiles and small talk.  Where does the bird fly after the last sky?  Exile became a sentence of solitary confinement.

Shahrazad remembered why she had committed herself to living in exile in the first place.   She wanted to safeguard her integrity and the purity of her tales.  She wanted to teach her children songs of peace – she would sing loud and clear. She had emigrated in pursuit of democracy and freedom of expression.  She left Baghdad when she read Sartre, “one does not write for slaves.  The art of fiction is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy.”10 Freedom of expression, and democracy which she had pursued were under threat.  The moment journalists put on army uniform and began parroting the generals, freedom of expression began receding.  Censorship, the corruption of language and the compromise of some journalists, academics and commentators brought back bad memories. That, after all,  is why she had left Baghdad.  But the dream she had pursued had been shattered. The house of obedience became a house of confinement,  then a ghetto and was slowly becoming a mental hospital.

When you fail to recognize the truth of your experience in the Western perception and  representation of it, when you realize that you are – after all these years of living in exile – still dark, incomprehensible, untouchable, completely surrounded by high white walls: you have very few options left.  You become the dark, invisible and ignorant immigrant you are cast as; ever-grateful to the host country for allowing you to step on its soil.  You begin shrinking in order not to occupy more space than you should.   You embrace your inferior position whole-heartedly and bowing becomes part of your life.  It is better for a westerner to direct a film about Baghdad, no matter how distorted the characters are, than neglecting the culture altogether.  In short, you become a coconut: white in the inside and black on the out.  Hollow on the inside with no spine, substance or colour. Exile becomes the country of coconuts and slavery.

Or you see Ghandi, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sheltering Sky, Harem, Jewel in the Crown  and refuse to accept these distorted characters as your representatives.   You become so embittered and anguished over seeing yourself mutilated every day on screen that you build a castle around your immigrant heart and refuse to have anything to do with the host society.  Like moles you live underground, in the darkness.  You decide that your native Urdu, Swahili or Arabic is better than their snobbish English.  You impose values and ideas on your children long since discarded in your country of origin.  Anger and bitterness feed your fundamentalist and puritan ideas.   The only self-defence open to you is to shrivel, wrap yourself in black, and hide in the mosque.


But Shahrazad, the oriental story-teller, the immigrant daughter of the vizier, turns her face towards a sky beyond the last sky, and sings with Maya Angelou:
“You May write me down in history
with your bitter, twisted lies.
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”11

Shahrazad, like many other writers in exile, would shake her stick at misrepresentation, reductionism and ignorance. She, the deaf, mute, ignorant native, announces that she has arrived – the character backdrop of a foreign landscape faithfully and romantically described in travel books.  “I am here,” she says, “the native who never wrote about you behind your back”.  She tries to imagine herself in western works :  The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Cry Freedom, Heart of Darkness.  She watches  films made by the host society, like The Sheltering Sky and argues that the vast majority of Baghdadi women have professions other than the oldest one, Baghdadi men are not lascivious beasts and the societies of that land have changed since the western observer first landed.  The black experience does not need a white middle man to represent and legitimize it.  She begins to talk herself into being; to paint her image into existence, to write herself into their literature.

She realizes that Baghdad will be built again by its own people, that palm trees out-last storms, and that brave spirits shall overcome. She unties her sore tongue and begins singing in whatever language comes first.  She admires Ngugi, but finds herself standing up and walking out of his puritan camp.  She joins the camp of Chinua Achebe where “to throw out the English language in order to restore linguistic justice and self-respect to ourselves is a historical fantasy . . . we needed [the English] language to transact our business, including the business of overthrowing colonialism itself in the fulness of time”12 . The reconciliation with the English language takes place despite her ambiguous feeling towards it.  She should celebrate her uniqueness in English, and describe her new world in order to understand it.  She should write her colours back into the predominantly white tapestry.

She sings with Achebe “The Song of Ourselves” celebrating differences and similarities, rejecting absolute truths about herself and others, welcoming disruptions of linear narratives, embracing debate, uncertainty and dissent.  Standing outside the whale, “in this world with no safe corners”13 , she sings for bridges, those destroyed and those to be built.  The truth is that there is no house apart from the fragile, strong house of writing, the house of song.  The song which delivered Shahrazad in the past will deliver her again. She, like many other immigrants and exiles, will survive by building a house of songs.  Shahrazad, the immigrant daughter of the vizier, the oriental story-teller, becomes a phoenix, a beautiful, colourful bird of survival, forever flying beyond the last sky.

1 The Qur’an, Surat “Al-Nisa”.
2 Margaret Walker,  “On Being Female, Black and Free” in The Writer and Her Work, ed., Janet Sternberg, W. W. Norton, New York, 1980.
3 Ian McEwan, New Statesman, 3 March, 1989.
4 Fred Halliday, “The Struggle for the Migrant Soul”, The Times Literary Supplement, 14-20 April , 1989.
5 Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile”, Granta 13, Autumn 1984.
6 Tony Harrison, “A Cold Coming”, The Guardian, 18 March, 1991.
7 Mahmoud Darwish, “The Earth is Closing on Us”, translated by Abdullah al-Udhari, in Victims of a Map, Al Saqi Books, London, 1984, p.13
8 Ngugi wa Thiong’s, “The Language of African Fiction”,  in Decolonising the Mind.
9 John Berger, “In the Land of the Deaf”, The Guardian, 2 March, 1991.
10 Sartre, “Why Write?”, in 20th Century Literary Criticism, ed. David Lodge, London. 1972, p.371.
11 Maya Angelou And Still I Rise, Virago Press, London, 1986.
12 Chinua Achebe, ” The Song of Ourselves”, Newstatesman and Society,  9 February, 1990.
13 Salman Rushdie, “Outside the Whale”, Granta, 1985.