Pandemic Journal: Sweet and Sour



Durham, UK
During my daily walks I pass by fields, which are part of Durham’s Green Belt, and farms. I stand by the dry stone wall of Elvet Moor Farm watching nature at peace with itself unlike us. The large open spaces and meadows highlight how constrained we are under the coronavirus lockdown. All you can hear is the rustling of leaves and the singing of birds, punctuated by ambulance sirens. The tranquillity of the countryside is in sharp contrast with a boisterous and unruly virus, racing in the air, looking for a angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor to colonise and destroy.
Spring has sprung unnoticed. In one of the fields the sheep and blackbirds share the feed and eat together in harmony; seagulls land on the freshly ploughed fields, white upon brown, then fly off; and the sunset turns the tops of beach, birch and oak trees into gold. Families cycle together. People wearing masks wave and thank each other for observing social distancing. We inhale the fresh air, which thankfully we still can do, and resisting our primal need for closeness we step away from each other.
When I got home, I sat in the garden sipping tea with fresh mint. I know I am in trouble when I start listening to the Egyptian diva Um-Kulthum and reminiscing about a youth misspent in Amman’s cafes and restaurants. A friend said, ‘You get intoxicated and become amorous and stupid listening to her songs. You could fall in love with the leg of this table.’ We laughed and filled our nostrils with the smell of Turkish coffee with cardamom, jasmine and freshly watered oleanders. We were young and life and oyster were close to each other.
During the 1970’s gender roles were defined and strict, and women should know their place, but we didn’t. We connived to be able to go out for a walk, or a cup of coffee somewhere. In exchange for the coveted permission to leave The House of Bernarda Alba, we did all the chores. These outings were such a treat and a break from our daily routine: dusting, mopping floors, scrubbing bathrooms, preparing breakfast and dinner, cooking lunch sometimes, ironing, and then studying. All had to be done to perfection and elders appeased so we could reach our destination, Jabal Amman, and live it up.
From our kitchen’s window above the sink, I could see the Hejaz Railway winding its way on hillsides, and watch aeroplanes take off and land at Marka Airport. Washing the suds off plates, I wondered where did trains go and aeroplanes fly? What lay beyond the hills? Birds migrated, but to where? Were there other worlds beyond the horizon?
I was a nomad like my aunt and my feet were always itchy. She has style and liked to try new restaurants, so when in 1975 the Chinese expatriate Peter Kwai (Abu-Khalil) opened the first Chinese restaurant, just off Rainbow Street, overlooking the Ahliyyah School for Girls. we were there in a shot. Then I was young and troubled, but sitting in the old stone house, with red lanterns dangling above my head, enveloped by foreign aromas: the smell of chicken cooked in soy sauce, ginger, fried rice, provided a much needed respite. It was a mental escape from the harsh reality. Surrounded mainly by diplomatic core and businessmen we tried chopsticks, sweet and sour chicken, and shredded beef for the first time. Abu Khalil knew that we liked chicken with cashew nuts, and he always served complementary extra portion. It was as close as we could get to a holiday outside the country.
It is now post-coronavirus and the other day I played the gang’s favourite song, Amal Hayati: the hope of my life. I found the lyrics sentimental, even sickly. ‘Take my whole life but let me live through today! Let me stay in the embrace of your heart!’ Seriously?
We lived on a staple of romantic fiction, false premises and promises, and a culture that objectified women. You were a burden and life was a hunting ground. Your raison de d’être was to catch an eligible bachelor. Wearing glasses, having bad posture, and reading all the time, which I did, was frowned upon. ‘You are destroying your looks and you will not get married.’ I ignored the warning and continued to consume my uncle’s library like a woodworm. Fashion had to be followed religiously and time must be spent perfecting your hair, make up, clothes. As for your mind you must leave it be because the more ignorant you are the better. Men do not like clever women. We were high on the ‘happiness ever after myth’ while most of our rights were either non-existent, being eroded or inactivated. We were second-class citizens and big brother was watching us all the time. We got used to being policed and created strategies to get out of the male family members’ curfews.
Having no other option but to survive, we did. Women supported each other in real time and terms, and ‘sisterhood’ then was not incubated in an ivory tower, but the grass-root grew it organically. In our neighbourhood the women’s subculture was that of solidarity. We rallied round the weakest and most vulnerable among us: those who were ill, were beaten by their husbands, or in financial need. We shopped for them, sent them food, took care of their children until they got back from health clinics.
The equivalent of a ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘put the kettle on’ were endless cups of Turkish coffee. You put some ground coffee with cardamom in a dallah, bring it to the boil, skim the surface, boil it again then pour it in demitasses. But before that, like red Indian smoke signals, you spill some on the cooker hob, so the aroma fills the air, travels in the breeze to the women’s noses, inviting them to your courtyard. Then the daily group therapy begins, chats about the price of lemons, exchange of recipes, recommendations of Indian films that really make you weep, description of the dreams you had the night before. ‘All will be alright at the end,’ we say and drink a glass of water, indicating that we are ready to leave. There was cooking, cleaning, laundry, teaching of children, and gardening to do.
Cliché alert! We cannot walk by, above, or below the coronavirus. The only way is through it. There will be loss, pain, and questions to be asked. Will the shift in our priorities remain unchanged? Will our identities metamorphose? How will we evolve as a human race? Will we respect nature and harmonise with it? All will be clearer in the fullness of time to those who remain alive. However, if you are born a woman in a male-dominated society, and you survive that and even prosper, your life skills are robust, and a pandemic is passable.

Copyrights © 2020 Fadia Faqir. All rights reserved.


A Wild Patience has Brought my Sister so Far

Eman book

In 1999 I began writing an article about women’s psychological health in Jordan. Finding data in a conservative society was extremely hard. One of the top psychiatrists in the country agreed to be interviewed and he said, ‘To be brief: about 40% of men are schizophrenic and 50%of women are depressed.’ But to find case studies and write a robust academic paper was impossible.
Like American women in the 1950’s, when the number of housewives on tranquillisers was on the rise, many Jordanian women are unhappy or even depressed. They are finding it difficult to be ‘perfect housewives’ and conform to assigned gender roles. Many are trying to break out of the constraints of an unbalanced domestic life within a male-dominated society. Due to their dissatisfaction divorce rates are rising in changing society. Power structures are shifting.
The Black Jasmine: my Journey with Depression, written by my sister Eman Faqir, is ground-breaking because it tackles these issue head on with extreme honesty. It is an autobiographical text about suffering from depression most of her adult life. She briefly describes her journey from diagnosis, to taking a cocktail of different antidepressants and tranquillisers, to submitting to electric shock therapy. Admitting to having depression and seeking treatment for it is mundane in western societies but is an act of bravery in the duplicitous and hypocritical Jordanian society.
In one of the chapters she talks about her list of phobias: speaking in public, agoraphobia, claustrophobia etc. This develops into finding communication with other people draining. The life of the depressed person is a lonely one. ‘I sit on the sofa folding the laundry, which I waited so long for it to dry on the balcony because autumn has started. The sky is cloudy, and the cold wind carried distant barking to my ears and tossed dry yellow and red leaves into the sitting room. I don’t like this season with all its yellowness and dryness. When I was young, in my twenties, I used to love autumn and winter, and consider them the seasons of romance. I played songs about autumn leaves, rain, snow, small cafes. I would listen to Julio Iglesias’ song ‘Autumn Leaves’ sitting by the window and gazing at the sky. Life was full of promise then. Regrettably events knocked all romance out of me and replaced it with realism and depression.’
One poignant chapter is about people’s reaction to her depression. She lists the types of reactions she gets, which were mostly negative and accusatory. Many told her that her depression is due to her lack of belief and piety. Some said that she should exercise more and eat healthy food, others used stronger terms like ‘pill-popper’ and ‘self-inflicted’. Many stopped communicating with her afraid of catching her depression as if it were contagious. This reminded me of Susan Sontag’s book Illness as a Metaphor, which deals with the stigma surrounding illness. The ill deserve their illness because they are not passionate enough or for some reason brought upon themselves.
The book is simple, honest, and does not expose all the causes behind her depression, apart from her son’s diabetes and the collapse of her business, yet it is pioneering. Although it is a summery it is an act of bravery in a society that oppresses and terrorises women. Jordanian women must remain sweet and silent, but Eman Faqir is one of the few who spoke out. This is the tremor before the earthquake. Watch out for her next book.
•  Title echoes Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far’

الصبر(الجامح – الوحشي) قد أوصل أختي إلى هنا

في عام 1999 بدأت في كتابة مقالٍ عن الصحة النفسية للمرأة في الأردن. وقد كان العثور على بياناتٍ في مجتمعٍ محافظٍ لأمراً في غاية الصعوبة. في حينها، وافق أحد كبار الأطباء النفسيين في البلاد على إجراء مقابلةٍ وقال: “باختصار”  حوالي (40%) من الرجال مصابون بالفُصام، و (50%) من النساء مصاباتٍ بالإكتئئاب. ولكن العثور على حالاتٍ للدراسة للتمكّن من كتابةِ تقريرٍ أكاديميّ متين كان أمراً مستحيلاً

مثل النساء الأمريكيات  في خمسينات القرن الماضي، عندما كان يتزايد عدد “ربات البيوت” اللاتي يستخدمن المهدئات، فإن العديد من النساء الأردنيات تعيساتٍ ومكتئبات. حيث يجدن صعوبة في أن يكونوا ” ربات بيوتٍ مثالياتٍ” يلتزمن بأدوار جندريّة كرّسها المجتمع. يحاول الكثير منهنّ الخروج من قيود الحياة المنزلية الغير متوازنة في مجتمعٍ يهيمن عليه الذكور. لذلك سترتفع عدلات الطلاق بسبب عدم الرضا مما سيعمل على تغيير المجتمع لأن هياكل السلطة تتغير

تعتبر رواية “الياسمينة السوداء: رحلتي مع الإكتئاب” التي كتبتها أختي إيمان الفقيروالتي صدرت عن الآن ناشرون وموزعون، رائدة لأنها تعالج هذه القضية في أمانة قصوى.إنه نص للسيرة الذاتية حول معاناتها معظم حياتها من الإكتئاب. حيث تصف بإختصاررحلتها من التشخيص الى تناول كوكتيل من مضادات الإكتئاب والمهدئات العصبية الى الخضوع للعلاج بالصدمات الكهربائية. إن الإعتراف بالإكتئاب والسعي للعلاج لأمر شائع فيالمجتمعات الغربية، ولكنه لعمل شجاع في مجتمع  تسود به المعايير المزدوجة و يعم به النفاق

تتحدث في أحد الفصول عن قائمة الهلع  (الفوبيا) الخاصة بها: التحدث في الأماكن العامة، اضطرابات القلق والخوف من الأماكن المغلقة…. الخ. ويتطور هذا الى حد تجد به التواصل مع اشخاص أخرين مرهق ومتعب. إن حياة الشخص المكتئب تتسم بالوحدة. “أجلس على الكنبة، أرتب الغسيل الذي انتظرته مطوّلاً ليجف على الشرفة، لأن الخريف قد بدأ. السماء ملبدة بالغيوم، وقد حملت الرياح الباردة نباح كلبٍ أسمعه من بعيد  وقذفت أوراق الخريف الصفراء والحمراء الجافة الى غرفة الجلوس. أنا لا أحب هذا الموسم بكل لونه الأصفر وجفافه. عندما كنت صغيرة, في عمري العشرينيّ، كنت أحب فصليّ الخريف والشتاء واللذان طالما اعتبرتهما موسميّ الرومانسية. كنت أبحث عن الأغاني التي تتعلق بأوراق الخريف والشتاءِ والثلج والمقاهي الصغيرة. حيث كنت أجلس بجانب النافذة و أستمع الى أغنية  “أوراق الخريف” لخوليو اغليسياس وأحدق في السماء.عندها كانت الحياة مليئة بالوعود. مع الأسف الحياة قتلت كل الرومانسية في داخلى واستبدلتها بالواقعية والإكتئاب

ومن أحد الفصول المؤثرة هو حول ردود فعل الأشخاص الاخرين على إكتئابها، فقد سردت فيه أنواع ردود الأفعال التي تلقتها، والتي كانت أغلبها سلبية وتوجيه الإتهام إليها. فقد اخبرها الكثيرون أن سبب اكتئابها يعود إلى إفتقارها للإيمان والتقوى، وقال البعض أنها يجب أن  تقوي إيمانها وتزيد من ممارستها للرياضة وبأن تتناول طعاماً صحياً. بينما استخدم البعض الآخر وصفٍ أكثر شدّةً مثل ” مدمنة الأدوية” و”المحبحبة” و “المسبّبةُ ذلك لنفسها”. لقد توقف الكثيرون من التواصل معها خشية الإصابة بالإكتئاب كما لو أنه مرض معدي. وقد ذكرني هذا بكتاب “المرض كمجاز” لسوزان سونتاج، الذي يتعامل مع وصمة العار المحيطة بالمرض. حيث أن المرضى يستحقون مرضهم لأنهم ليسوا أصحاب إرادةٍ أو شغوفين بما فيه الكفاية، أو لسببٍ ما كانوا قد جلبوا المرض لأنفسهم

الكتاب بسيط وصادق، ولا يكشف جميع الأسباب الكامنة وراء إكتئابها، بإستثناء إصابة ابنها بمرض السكري وهو صغير وإنهيار أعمالها، إلا أنه رائد. وعلى الرغم من أنه موجز/ مختصر إلا أنه عمل شجاع في مجتمع يتم فيه قمع كثير من النساء وترويعهنّ. يجب أن تبقى المرأة لطيفة وصامتة ولكنّ إيمان الفقير هي واحدة من القلّة اللاتي تحدّثن

هذا الكتاب هو الهزة ماقبل الزلزال. إنتظروا كتابها القادم

Arabs Writing in English

The full text of Hani Bargouthi’s interview for 7iber.com:

1. Could you walk me through the process of deciding to write your novels?

The creative process is complex and has a mystery to it. You do not ‘decide’ to write your novels. They come to life on their own volition. Issues germinate and at one point it becomes necessary to express your enthusiasms through the medium of fiction. Each novel tackled questions that I was grappling with or exposes an injustice through a medium that hopefully humanizes and beautifies.

2. Where did choosing to write in English fit into the process? Why did you decide to write in English, despite the subject matter mostly being Arab countries, characters and storylines?

I didn’t choose to write in English. The British Council gave me a scholarship to do an MA in Britain, and as a freelance journalist then the idea of doing a creative writing degree was appealing. I wrote my first novel in English and then went back to Jordan, studied Fusha Arabic and was determined to write in my mother tongue. But in the 1980s oppression was the order of the day at every level whether political or personal. I could not breathe let alone write.  Let me quote Sartre, ‘The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy.’ One of the prerequisites for writing is freedom. So I decided to go back to the UK and do a Ph.D. in creative writing. After that – as Conrad said – English became a capability.

3. How did writing in English affect the publication process, and was it easier to find a publisher in English than it would have been to find an Arab one? Did this contribute to writing in English?

Actually it is very easy to find a publisher in Arabic. All you have to do is pay them and you get published. This is how most publishing houses in the Arab world function: authors pay publication costs.

In Britain the story is different. Publishing is on merit only and you cannot buy your way into it. I wrote because I was silenced by my society and finding a voice in whatever language was essential for my survival. I honestly didn’t expect to be published or catered for an audience.

4. Did you find it easier to write in English considering some of the subject matter being taboo?

Yes, at the beginning. In Nisanit I was free to write whatever I wanted and because of that newly-found freedom the text is full of four-letter words. Fusha Arabic, which is a product of a male-dominated culture, is masculine and riddled with taboos. So I took refuge in another language and wrote about sensitive issues. But after writing in English for a while I discovered its own restrictions so each language has a cultural residue that comes with prohibitions and etiquettes. A skilled writer navigates through all of that.

5. How do you feel the work’s publication in English has affected the size and type of audience?

There is no doubt that if you write in English your audience is international. My books were published in eighteen countries and sold well in Australia, the USA, India etc. That wouldn’t have been possible if I wrote in Arabic. However more and more Arabs read and the audience in the Arab world now is considerable.

6. Would you be open to your work being translated to Arabic? How involved would you like to be in the process?

I was translated into Arabic. The Arabic translation of My Name is Salma went into a third edition, which I am really pleased about. I was completely engaged in the translation process and oversaw every word, every sentence.  By the way the translation is faithful to the English original and not a single word was omitted or idea censored. Willow Trees Don’t Weep is being considered for translation into Arabic.

7. Given the subject matter, how do you think people would have received the work had it been written in Arabic instead?

Judging from the reviews and my engagement with readers of the Arabic translation the reaction is overall positive despite the controversial subject matter. The Arab world is in turmoil and readers are eager for literary works that tackle taboos and sensitive issues.

8. Do you feel that the Arabic language is equipped to cover all the topics discussed in your work?

Now I think it is. Language is just a tool and if you master it you can create whatever you want: feminist, dystopian or magic realist novels. But women, for example, have to expose its misogyny and purge it first.

9. Will you continue to write in English?

I don’t know where the journey will take me after finishing Petra Mon Amour, the novel I am working on. Will it take me back to writing in Arabic, my mother tongue? Who knows? Watch this space.

Is the Arab Spring Leaving Women in the Cold?

Women’s contribution to the popular protests that swept the Arab world is energetic and inspiring. Some of the bravest people in the Arab countries battling for a democratic future are women. They are doctors and lawyers, writers, human rights activists among others.

In Bahrain women, including doctors, university professors and students, have been kidnapped or arrested and tortured by the Bahraini security forces since the beginning of the latest uprising in February this year. The image of the silent and oppressed Arab woman was totally shattered when the Bahraini 20-year-old woman poet, Ayat Al-Qurmuzi read her poem in Tahrir Square. It was an amazing act of courage and defiance. She called for the king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s resignation and openly challenged his oppressive rule. She called, ‘Bahrain is owned by Al Khalifa. It is my Bahrain.’  She heard that the authorities are looking for her so she went into hiding upon her return to Bahrain. The security forces coerced the Qurmuzi family into disclosing her whereabouts. On 31 March she was arrested and the family heard no word from her since. Her mother, devastated, recorded a heart-rending plea for her release on YouTube and it went viral. She also spoke to the international media begging for mercy. She, like many other Arab mothers, was pushed into activism and visibility by her plight. When the family started searching for Ayat the police told them they had no information about her and tried to force them to sign a letter stating that their daughter had gone missing. In mid-April, an anonymous call was made to the Qurmuzi family informing them that Ayat was ill. Doctors confirmed later that Ayat had gone into a coma after being raped for several times. Eventually, the physicians’ efforts failed to save Ayat’s life and she died at the army hospital.

Similar to Bahraini women Libyan women work side by side with men to keep the revolution alive, society and economy functioning and uprising visible. Women are fighting on the many fronts, organising popular committees, feeding the family and nursing the sick. They also address the public in Benghazi and aid the herds of international media. On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of women took to the streets in Benghazi to call for freedom, to clamour for peace, and to honour their dead. There is no doubt that women in Libya are the backbone of the revolutionary movement.

In some cases they are perceived as the instigators of the uprisings. In Egypt shortly after the ousting of Ben Ali a 26-year old Asmaa Mahfouz, a computer company employee and now a prominent member of Egypt’s Coalition for the Youth Revolution, has been credited with having sparked the protests that began the uprising in January 2011 in Cairo. In a video blog posted on facebook on January 18, she urged Egyptians to fight for their human rights and to voice their disapproval of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. IShe challenged Egyptians to take to the street by saying, ‘If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25th. Whoever says women shouldn’t join protests because they will get beaten let him have some honour and manhood and come with me on January 25th. To whoever thinks it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people I say, “You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president or any policeman who beats us in the streets.”’ She appeared wearing the veil and her message was in harmony with her prescribed role as a Muslim woman.

The same tactic has been adopted by 30-year old Yemeni activist Tawakul Abdel Salam Karman. Karman is a journalist, staunch defender of freedom of the press, an advocate for human rights, and a member of the Islamist party Islah. On January 23, Yemeni officials detained Salam Karman for leading protests at the university in Sana’a in support of the Tunisian revolution and calling for the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over thirty years. As a result of violent street protests that erupted against her arrest, the government soon released Salam Karman from detention. She is now a key figure in a revolution that has yet to run its course.

Bringing to mind The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo or the disappeared in Argentina hundreds of Syrian women marched along the country’s main coastal highway to demand the release of men seized from their home town of Baida, where the police beat and kicked handcuffed detainees on camera recently. This is one of many organised protests by Syrian women.

Many Arab women activist appear wearing the hijab and although their messages are beamed through modern modes of communication and have a reformist agenda they are clothed literally and metaphorically in traditional dress. Women’s movements in the past were led by secular feminist. This tactic of subverting and reinventing ‘traditional’ expectations of womanhood in the service of revolution can be found in number of women’s movements in the region. It is a point of departure for Arab and Muslim women.

Whatever their tactics Arab women play a crucial role in revolutions sweeping the region, but alas most of their menfolk are not supportive of them and do not see the ‘women question’ as crucial. Not one single slogan in all the uprising is about the inferior position of women or is calling for parity between the sexes. Men still see gender-equality lower down the scale than sovereignty and democracy and some believe that women are inferior. Many historical, religious, political and social reasons are behind the widespread belief that Arab women are ‘lesser beings’, weak and impressionable, therefore, cannot be trusted with the grave responsibilities of full citizenship and leadership.

During the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt women were seen as figureheads and sometimes used as mascots to mobilise men, but when the dust settled many were asked to go back to the kitchen where they belonged. An Egyptian woman, who took part in the uprising in Tahrir Square, was worried. ‘The men were keen for me to be here when we were demanding that Mubarak should go,’ she told Catherine Ashton in Cairo, ‘but now he has gone, they want me to go home.’

And the domestic sphere is where the problem for Arab women really lies. After demonstrating in the streets women went home to archaic familial hierarchies. One of the most important institutions in the Arab world is the family, where patterns of oppression are normally produced and reproduced. Hisham Sharabi argues that the extended family is the predominant model in the Arab world, which is normally ruled by the father, who perceives his children as an extension of himself.  The Arab child is oppressed by his father and is over-protected by his mother. ‘Paternal domination can only be disabled by women emancipated through a complete restructuring of the nuclear family.’ Drawing women into active participation in decision-making bodies starts by changing the family structure to become more egalitarian. This will gradually be reflected in other institutions in society. As familial structures are revised, then other societal structures will follow.

Moreover, all citizens of the Arab world (male and female) have obligations towards the state, but do not enjoy many political, civil and social rights. Females are still less equal than their male counterparts. Arab women are second-class citizens, dependent and subordinate. Some women in Jordan were energised and inspired by the uprisings and decided to divorce their abusive husbands only to find that the whole system is tipped against them. Similar to many other Arab countries, women in Jordan cannot pass on their citizenship to their children or husbands; they are still discriminated against by the legal justice system and the judiciary; they need permission from their legal guardians to choose their place of residence or join the labour market. Their right to divorce is still not included in the Personal Status Law, which is mostly based on selective interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith (prophet Mohammad’s saying and deeds).

The recent remarks made by President Ali Abdullah Saleh condemning women’s participation in public protests as being un-Islamic reflects the secondary status of women. Yemen’s conservative customs concerning women, for example, are not legislated as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Sex discrimination in Yemen is sanctioned both by law and in practice. The Personal Status Law calls for wife obedience, allows marital rape, reinforces stereotypes about women’s roles as caretakers within the home and severely restricts women’s freedom of movement.

Throughout the Arab world fundamental issues, therefore, related to women and their rights have yet to be addressed. Although the picture is still grim the possibilities and challenges are endless in this period of transition. Traditional forces, whether secular or religious, might curtail the role women could play in future democracies.

Although equal rights for all citizens is a by-product of democracy the road to achieving that in the Arab world is long and winding and the future is unknown and unmapped. If traditional forces, regardless of their beliefs, triumph then women’s rights will be last on the agenda and will perhaps be traded off in brokering for power. In every Arab country there is what Leila Ahmed dubbed ‘Establishment Islam’. It is a technical and legalistic version of Islam that largely bypasses its ethical thrust and humane and egalitarian spirit. There are many manifestations of this narrow and selective interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith. For example, Saad al-Husseini, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, its highest executive body, stated that while the ‘Freedom and Justice’ party’s new platform must still be approved by the Guidance Office and its Shura Consultative  Council and will adhere to the Ikhwan’s position on the presidency. Many members of the MB argued that a woman cannot hold final power over a man nor a non-Muslim over a Muslim. In other words neither a Coptic Christian nor a woman could run for president of Egypt.

Some Tunisian Islamic parties are making similar noises, although much more subtle and less pronounced. A majority of Tunisia’s High Commission, which is responsible for planning the July 24 elections in Tunisia, voted to ensure parity between men and women in the membership of the National Constituent Assembly.  Electoral lists will have to adhere to parity between male and female to be accepted. However, Islamists, who are becoming more vocal in post-revolution Tunisia, pointed out that women should earn their political rights by merit and should not be granted automatic access to political positions by applying positive discrimination. The debate is heated and the jury is out on this issue. Khadija Cherif, a long-time feminist activist, said to NPR that the return of Islamist parties to Tunisian politics could pose a threat but women will remain vigilant. ‘The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we’ve never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society. We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics.’ Even if the next elections bring in Islamic parties, their manifesto has to be inclusive and egalitarian otherwise women’s space in the emerging democracies will be defined and restricted by religion.

Despite all the challenges women continue to be political within an undemocratic and mostly authoritarian context. They are calling for a form of democracy in which they can play as great a role as men. However, there are worrying signs that this may be denied to them. Tackling women’s rights is a key to unleashing liberal and modernist forces in the Arab world, but old practices and prejudices prevail. For example, the position of Islamist in Tunisia, or virginity tests conducted on arrested female demonstrators in Egypt, or the mercurial position of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on women’s presidency. The eradication of discrimination – whether on grounds of gender, race, religion or sexuality – is the only road to full citizenship rights. Participatory democracy requires not only the right to form political parties and freedom of expression, fair elections, but a generosity of spirit and a willingness to view one’s fellow citizens as fundamentally equal.

The fact is that participatory democracy cannot be achieved without elevating women to the status of full citizenship. Democracy, women’s liberation and equality are intimately connected and both have in common a concern with emancipation, freedom both personal and civic, human rights, integrity, dignity, equality, autonomy, power-sharing, liberation and pluralism. Women’s emancipation leads to emancipation of other groups within the political polity. No future state can be called democratic if personal and group freedoms are limited. The Arab spring will not endure and the shoots planted will not grow without liberating ‘the last colony’, Arab women, and empowering them.


1. More than any other novel I can think of, The Cry of the Dove is suffused with the tastes and scents of food, herbs, trees, and flowers—often overlooked aspects of the natural world that affect us on a day-to-day basis. In the novel, all of the most poignant moments and many of the descriptions of women are focused around specific foods, beverages, and landscape elements, rendered in wonderfully evocative language: lavender, ripe olives, orange blossoms, jasmine, sage tea, lentils, frozen fish sticks, biscuits, spicy ghee butter sandwiches, cardamom, fresh coffee beans ground in a sandalwood pestle and mortar, fish & chips, orange juice, French strawberry jam, English cream tea, falafel, grapes, goat’s cheese, tomatoes, peaches, melons. Most of the chapter titles also refer to foods, scents, and flavours: Vines and Fig Trees; Lilac or Jasmine; Peaches and Snakes; Butter, Honey and Coconuts; English Tea; Milk and Honey; Dal and Willow Trees; Turkish Delights and Coconuts; Lemons and Monkeys; Musk Roses and Dogwood Trees. Was this done consciously? Why? What does this tell us about Salma? About England? About Hima? About being a stranger in a country? What do these beautiful sensory details add to the progression of the story and to the development of the themes?

It was done consciously to create a clear sense of Hima. It also tells us that Salma is in harmony with the natural world. Growing up a Bedouin farmer in Hima, she was always very aware of her natural surroundings. This richness is not reflected in the urban environment in which she finds herself in in England, and the lack intensifies her sense of loneliness. Also, the chapter headings were meant to draw the reader’s attention to specific points in the narrative and evoke a sensory reaction that would give a certain flavour to each chapter.

2. One chapter is titled Milk and Honey. The Levant has been known as “the land of milk and honey” for around two thousand years. Salma says that she “expected to find milk and honey streaming down the streets.” What is the significance of “milk and honey” in The Cry of the Dove?

This image is taken from the Qur’an and is used to describe Muslim paradise, where rivers of milk and honey flow. So Salma is pursuing not only material gain, but a dream of happiness, wholeness and access to paradise. It is a tall order, of course, and life takes Salma in a tragically different direction.

3. While many of your Western readers have some knowledge of Muslims and the Middle-East, many of us do not know much about the Bedouin in particular. Can you tell us about them? Why did you decide to make Salma Bedouin?

I spent part of my childhood with the Bedouin, who were semi-nomadic then, herding the goats and sheep, reaping crops and traveling to the wheat-threshing floor. My second novel, Pillars of Salt, was written to document that magical landscape and to preserve the Bedouins’ noble way of life, which is fast disappearing. The Bedouin live a simple, pure, yet regal life and because I lived with them they are part of my mental landscape. Salma embodies all the characteristics of the Bedouin—on the one hand, the landscape and the people are wonderful, and on the other, traditions like honour crimes are widespread. This paradoxical setting keeps the novel from becoming a one-sided Orientalist narrative.

4.I think I can say that being a shepherdess is also quite an unfamiliar concept to Western readers. Are many women in the Levant or among the Bedouin shepherdesses, or is Salma a rare case and thus an outsider not only in the Western world but even in some parts of the Middle East?

I lived with the Bedouin when I was young and women shepherdesses were quite common. At that time, the Bedouin were still primarily nomadic, taking their herds to meadows. They are mostly settled now and it is harder to find shepherdesses unless you travel deep into the desert.

5. In effect, Salma’s desperate last actions negate all the time, money and emotion many people have exerted to save her from an honour killing and help her make a new life—Miss Nailah, Khairiyya, Miss Asher and the Little Sisters, Minister Mahoney, Mrs. Henderson, Parvin, Max, Gwen and John. Some of these people even risked their own lives to help her escape. What does Salma’s decision to return to Hima alone mean? Was saving her in the first place interfering? Or was not enough done to make her forget her past and fully embrace her new life? Or was it “fate” and the call of her lost daughter that she couldn’t ignore?

Salma had to go back to save her daughter. The tug of the past was so strong that all the investment in giving her a better life could not combat it. Salma took one step forward and two steps back. She wanted to look for her lost daughter. Call it “fate” if you like, or Bedouin justice.

6. Is it common for women who have been saved by outsiders from an honour killing to return voluntarily to the place where their lives are in danger?

Women who are victims of honour killings simply die. It is rare for women who are accused of tarnishing the honour of their community to leave their countries. Most Western countries, for example, still do not give asylum to victims. So the second part of the question is irrelevant. I created Salma and sent her back to show how entrenched concepts of honour are in some societies.

7. In the UK The Cry of the Dove is published as My Name Is Salma. What is the difference in the significance of the two titles?

“The Cry of the Dove” was born because I used the lyrics of Prince’s song When Doves Cry. Then I had to take them out because of copyright rules. “My Name is Salma” is closer to what I intended to say. Salma uses different names, but when she is being truthful and closer to herself, she says, “my name is Salma.” Elsewhere I wrote:
Today, victims of honour crimes are dumped in unmarked graves without any funeral services. Their families bury their life histories with them and repress any acts of remembrance. This novel celebrates the life of one of the faceless victims of honour crimes and is a humble attempt to give her a name, a voice and a life. One day the civil code which allows such crimes to be committed will be replaced by a humane and egalitarian law. We shall call it Salma’s Law, to commemorate the innocent victims of honour crimes. One day we shall build a mausoleum in the centre of many capitals and inscribe on it the names of the women who were senselessly murdered. One day the spirits of the unknown victims shall return home, to where they belong, shall return to our hearts and minds.

In the meantime . . . whenever the Jordanian breeze hits my face, a sudden chill runs from the roots to the ends of each hair on my body and my chest collapses as if I were drowning. I can hear all the innocent victims calling me; their cries of pain rend Bedouin garments. This one died of three shots in the head; that one of twelve stab wounds—and she was left for four hours, bleeding to death before her father called an ambulance; this one was pushed off a high cliff by her aunt; that one set fire to herself in the bathroom, it was “suicide.” The sound of keening fills the deserts, plains and hills of Jordan. Wherever black iris grows you will find the victims. I shall kneel down to mark their graves and name their names.

8. Parvin seems to have a much easier time adjusting and integrating. Why is this?

Parvin is a second generation immigrant who is familiar with the rules of British society. Salma arrives late in life and tries hard to understand her alien environment. So Parvin guides Salma into the maze of British society. It was important to show the contrast between different immigrant groups.

9. Although Liz and Salma are very different in many ways, they both suffered tragedy in love at a young age—tragedies caused by their own families. Did you intend this parallel? Did you intend a general comment about the destructive effects of strong family or cultural traditions clashing with passionate young love?

Yes, I wanted to show that traditions, whether they are in England or the Arab world, are a straitjacket and can cripple the individual. The parallels between Liz and Salma were intentional and also an attempt to humanize Liz so the reader is not quick to condemn her. This novel is an attempt to humanize both the Arabs and the British.

10. Salma is brought to life so vividly in The Cry of the Dove. I’m just the reader and I find it hard to believe she’s “gone” (and the book finished!). How do you create your characters? How do you relate to them? Do you miss them once you’ve finished a novel?

It is similar to childbirth—painful, emotional and a sort of exorcism. As Flaubert said of Madame Bovary, “Salma, c’est moi.” She is part of me, yet not me. We have two things in common: our sense of loneliness in an alien society and a deep sense of loss and yearning for our child. I lost custody of my son when he was thirteen months old. So, like Salma, I thought of him, pined for him, looked for him everywhere. That is where the similarity ends. However, I miss Salma terribly.

I am writing a new novel entitled At the Midnight Kitchen. In it, a group of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions live next to one another in a block of flats in Hammersmith, London. There is violence, self-hatred, guilt, pursuit of redemption, compassion, humour and forgiveness. I am reluctant to finish it. I don’t want to say goodbye to my characters. It is a strange feeling. You want to keep the baby inside you rather than give birth to it and leave it fending for itself.

Women’s Autonomy and Inheritance Rights

How can a property own a property? Haw can the last colony in the Arab world, namely women, have autonomy and sovereignty? How can Arab women reverse years of misogynistic interpretation of the Islamic canons? How can victims of domestic violence have rights to housing, owning property or inheritance? How can Muslim women today challenge the misogynistic Islamic interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunna, the traditions of the prophet, which are intended to maintain male dominance? If Islam has functioned for centuries under patriarchy how can we restore its ethical and egalitarian thrust?

Women’s property, housing and inheritance rights are organically related to a web of societal, religious and political structures that enforces women’s second-class citizenship. These structures and practices, which are difficult to challenge and change, are behind the discriminatory and oppressive laws such as article 340 in the Jordanian Penal Code, and the laws of inheritance, which are complex, multi-layered and organically related to the position of women in Arab and Muslim society and cannot be examined except as a trajectory. I believe that we will not be able to find a way out if we restricted ourselves to studying the Islamic Shari’a law and its decrees on women’s inheritance.  The two most important factors, which influence women’s right to inheritance are related to the undermining of women’s autonomy, namely violence against women, and to the time bound religio-historical rational behind the Islamic laws of inheritance.

Violence against women:

When Maha refused to give up her inheritance her mother was the first to rebuke her saying that she will destroy her brother’s livelihood by dividing the land between them. The land will also go out of the hands of the family and clan and become the property of the opposing tribe of her husband. Maha insisted, but she was subjected to systematic harassment, bullying and beating then finally they held a gun to her head and she signed away the deeds. Maha’s husband was not impressed and decided to get married to another woman and Maha decided to roam the mountains until people said that she had gone mad. Last time I saw Maha she was totally broken. This is a true story and I do wish that it is an isolated incident. My research shows time and time again that women are perceived as the property of men, as second-class citizens, residing in the domestic domain, which lies outside the arm of the state and the international community.

In Jordan under what Brand describes as ‘managed liberalisation’ there is a serious confusion over not only the position of women in society, but also over issues related to civil rights and equality of all citizens regardless of their gender. There is an urgent need for an open and honest debate to examine the confusing and dangerous vocabulary used in discussing women, redefining and clarifying such words as ‘modern’, ‘traditional’, ‘free’, ‘liberated’ etc. This debate cannot even begin if it were confined to issues related to women’s position in society, but it has to examine questions related to social justice, democracy and respect for human rights of all citizens.

In neo-patriarchal Arab society masculinity, on the one hand, is often praised and exonerated. Popular culture is full of sayings, signals and proverbs which glorify men, their masculinity and image. Through ideologies and social constructs, through the lack of civil and criminal remedies and their interpretation, which often fails to give women adequate protection, we find that male violence is frequently, if covertly, legitimated. Men in general, but specifically within Arab-Islamic culture, are considered to be guardians of their female relatives and are given the right to police and chastise them.

Femininity, on the other hand, is socially constructed in such a way to favour good sweet maids, who conform to accepted gender models. They must be passive, selfless and above all sexually pure or chaste. This image of docile females can be found in a myriad of culture products starting with educational material all the way to books exonerating the chastity of Muslim women body, mind and soul. Fredrick Engels wrote, ‘In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore the paternity of the children, she is delivered over unconditionally to the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his right.’ So property is not entitled to own property. Sweet maids do not argue with their brothers over inheritance and other economic rights. The language of commerce is perceived to be quintessentially masculine.

These ideas and images endured and remained powerful in contemporary Jordanian society mainly among the young, uneducated and those who live in densely populated areas. 72.3% of the perpetrators of violence against women are in the age-group 19-30, 32.4% of perpetrators are either illiterate or had some primary education, 46.3% of perpetrators live in traditional heavily populated areas, where housing lacks basic hygienic services and where families generally have little respect for social values and the law. So where they are most vulnerable economically and socially women not only have few rights they also believe that the policeman and legislator will not protect them when the chips are down.

The issue of violence against Jordanian women, which occurs within the domestic sphere, is perceived to be both private and unimportant. Although some women’s groups and private lobbies are pressing for changes to laws and the way domestic violence is dealt with and penalised, many sections of society believe that the matter should be kept private despite the fact that personal abuse of women was recognised in 1993 by the Vienna World Conference as a human rights’ issue. The formal expression of this commitment can be found in the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW), which accepts that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, and article (5) of The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly.

The religio-historical dimension:

Islam guarantees for the woman a share in her relatives’ inheritance specified on the basis of her degree of kinship to the deceased. The Qur’an does specify that a sister inherits half of the amount her brother inherits, but also specifies that other females of different degrees of kinship may inherit more than other males. Nevertheless, given the Qur’anic specification, it appears that the male sibling inherits double the amount inherited by his sister, but there is one important difference between her inheritance and his.  The amount inherited by the sister is a net amount added to her wealth.  The amount inherited by the brother is a gross amount from which he will have to deduct the expenses of supporting the various women, elderly men and children in his family, one of whom may be the sister herself. Even if the sister is wealthy, she is not required to support herself.  Her closest male relative has that obligation, which she may waive only if she so chooses.  Consequently, the net increase in the wealth of the brother is often less than that of his sister.

Male-Dominated readings of Islam in the Middle Ages gave birth to ‘Establishment Islam’, with it’s technical and legalistic version of Islam, a version that largely bypasses the ethical thrust of Islam and its humane and egalitarian spirit. Patriarchy using the interpretations of the dominant Islam, however, has simplified the inheritance picture drastically.  Many Muslim women receive no share of their inheritance at all.  Some are forced by their own families to turn their inheritance over to their brothers.  Worse yet, many brothers take the inheritance and disappear from the lives of their sisters who have no closer male relative obliged to support them or capable of doing so.  In the past, Muslim courts prosecuted such behavior and compelled the brother to support the sister.  Today, many injustices go unnoticed, and the balance of rights and obligations in the Muslim family has been upset.

The administration of the Shari’a laws on inheritance emphasise the provision that male heirs be given a double share under the faraid distribution, without emphasizing the rationale behind this rule. The man has the legal responsibility to provide maintenance for all the female members of his family. Today, however, many women have to earn a living and contribute towards the family expenditure and many households have a female head. Moreover divorced or widowed mothers often have to provide for their children without assistance (or adequate assistance) from the father or male relatives, who should have provided for her and her dependents.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, women had no inheritance rights and Islam introduced the rule to curtail men’s economic power. The affirmation of women’s right to inherit and control property and income without reference to male guardianship fundamentally qualifies the institution of male control as an all-encompassing system. Lack of historical understanding and misconceptions regarding such issues as men’s double share of inheritance, have led to seeing such provisions as divinely ordained rights conferred upon Muslim men, instead of as divinely ordained limitations upon male rights that had been previously conferred by the patriarchal pre-Islamic society. So the divine law clearly tilts towards equality between the sexes and protection of the weak and vulnerable.

The great Muslim reformist Asghar Ali Engineer wrote, ‘Life is normally governed more by sociological than theological realities and the law of inheritance, as far as the women are concerned, was observed more in the breach rather than the observance. In the name of Islam what is being defended are the male privileges which become part of the Islamic Shari’a law not because but despite the Qur’anic provisions. Also the Shari’a as formulated by the early jurists should not be treated as final, and wherever necessary, should be reinterpreted and even reformulated.’ So the need for ijtihad, reinterpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunna and intellectual reasoning, and tajdeed, renewal, has never been greater.


  • Address the lack of civil and criminal remedies and their interpretation, which often fail to give women adequate protection. The state and the international community must protect the autonomy and sovereignty of both urban and rural women by clamping down on domestic violence. States must be urged to monitor incidents of violence against women, legislate against them, simplify the procedures of reporting them, and educate the police and other professionals, who deal with such issues.
  • Challenge wide spread cultural signals that glorify and legitimate male supremacy and violence.


  • Reject binary thinking, which separate between the private and the public spheres. A new concept of citizenship might challenge the political exclusion of women by the nation-state. A multi-layered conceptualisation of citizenship to loosen its bonds with the nation-state, so that citizenship is defined over a spectrum that extends from the local through to the global. A different concept of citizenship might bring domestic violence, property and inheritance rights out of the private into the public sphere, where it is placed within the scope of legal regulation and universal declarations and conventions of human rights.


  • Most women in the Arab and Muslim world are not only ignorant of their inheritance and other economic rights they cannot find the vocabulary to articulate such rights. So the vocabulary has to be claimed, neutralised and disseminated among women to feminise the language of property and commerce. It is important to urge Arab countries to introduce financial management subjects at school, which will also cover women’s economic rights.


  • If the Islamic Shari’a will remain the law of the land then I recommend choosing one of the following strategies:


The traditionalist approach:

  • To educate women concerning their right to inheritance and encourage Muslim males to consider alternative strategies sanctioned by Islamic jurisprudence relating to property and income such as hibah (gift), wasiyah (testamentary disposition), amanah (trust), and waqaf (endowment) to provide for the weak and the poor in their family.


  • To convince women to claim what the Shari’a has entitled them to and provide a mechanism for claiming financial maintenance from male relatives.


  • To encourage women to negotiate with male heirs if they feel that they deserve a larger share of the inheritance.


The reformist approach:

    • Organise a conference at al-Azhar Islamic University, Cairo, to look at the Shari’a initiate a radical revision of Islamic edicts concerning inheritance and to re-examine Islamic scholarship relating to Islamic jurisprudence and the Sunna, the traditions of the prophet, with the aim of reforming the Shari’a provisions. The reform has to be in harmony with Islam’s ethical vision, which is uncompromisingly humane and egalitarian.
    • The Shari’a as formulated by the early jurists should not be treated as final, and wherever necessary, should be reinterpreted and even reformulated in the light of the societal and economic changes. If women are heads of household and/or sole earners surely their share of inheritance has to be revised accordingly even if on case by case bases.
    • To document any ijtihad in the Muslim world that favours changing women’s inheritance rights and disseminate the information widely, especially among the judiciary.
    • Women’s involvement in ‘Ilm al-Fiqh, the knowledge of jurisprudence, was documented by male scholars when writing on Islamic sciences. Muslim women have been involved in the studying and teaching of Islamic sources, such as: Bint Al-Shati’, professor of tafsir in Egypt and Morocco who died recently, Zainab Al-Ghazali, the leading Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who published an interpretation of the Quran in 1994 and her own autobiography, Rifaat Hasan, Aziza al-Hibri and Fatima Mernissi. Interpretation of textual Islamic material cannot be complete without a complex interaction with the Sunna, a thorough understanding and critical reading of the fiqh, and a continuous process of ijtihad, interpretation and measured reasoning, and tajdid, renewal, to place the divine and timeless within the relative and time-bound. If these preconditions are going to be met it is important to encourage women to join Islamic universities and to train to become mujtahidat, interpreters and reforms. This might lead to an initial period of conservatism followed by an opening up of possibilities for Muslim women not only concerning their inheritance and property rights, but also other thorny issues such as qawama, male guardianship, and wadhrubuhunna, women’s chastisement.