Tang of Orientalism

In his book blog “Beat and dust: Tangier’s tang of history“, published in the Guardian newspaper, 23 November, 2010, Sam Jordison explores the counter cultural heritage of Tangiers, which was once a hub for experimental writers Like Paul Bowles, Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs, Kenneth Williams and Andre Gide.

The writer has read some of the literature set or written there and went to Morocco to look for that fictitious landscape, the Tangiers of the mind. There is so much to take issue with in his colonialist, eerie piece, but I will concentrate on the following extract:

˜Then there’s the Hotel el-Muniria, where Burroughs did most of his work on the Naked Lunch. When I visited, it was shuttered up. It looked like a place that has never really seen better days and may not see many more days of any kind at all. But the fact I couldn’t get in didn’t matter: there was more than enough atmosphere just from walking down the street, with its tang of urine and fear, and dark corners that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up even in the midday sun. The place hummed with the paranoia and disgust of Burroughs’s sick masterpiece, which made me feel better equipped to understand the state of mind that could produce such a book.”

My experience of Hotel el-Muniria is totally different. The fact that I could get in did matter because I wouldn’t have slanted it without experiencing it first. We arrived in the afternoon, siesta time, and the place was quiet. There was a magical hush in the garden yet we were welcomed warmly by the receptionist and waiters. I still remember clearly that view. How rich was the architecture and the interior design! How beautiful the tea glasses and how delicious the gazelle horns! How unique their civilisation! The air was warm when we walked out and laden with the scent of mint, dates and orange blossom. The streets were welcoming.

There was no tang of urine or fear and the place did not hum with paranoia or disgust. The paranoia experienced by Burrough was not related to the sedate landscape and its people, but to the amount of drugs he had injected and smoked. My copy of the Naked Lunch, given to me by playwright Trevor Griffiths, is old, published by Corgi in 1968. The book is structured as a series of loosely-connected vignettes. The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the US to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone. The vignettes (which Burroughs called “routines”) are drawn from Burroughs’ own experience in these places, and his addiction to drugs, heroin, morphine, and while in Tangier, ˜Majoun”, a strong marijuana mixture. The image of Morocco portrayed by Burrough is mostly a product of a drugged mind and unrelated to its complex reality then.

The location and the Moroccan people are incidental to Burrough and Jordison. The writing is mainly preoccupied with the self. The Moroccans, although the villains of the piece by implication, are consequential and neither the subject nor the object of the blog, which belongs to a long tradition of representing the other to consolidate your own subject status. The dominant subject in the above passage is built on conceptual binary of verbal fluency-power versus mutism-subalternity.

The Moroccans were muted and cannot speak in a way that would carry any sort of authority or meaning for Jordison without altering the relations of power/knowledge that constitute it as subaltern in the first place. The subaltern is invisible to the writer therefore it was˜disappeared”. The country of Morocco and its people are irrelevant and are neither the subject nor the object of Jordison’s blog. The ˜cruel” landscape was conveniently depopulated so he could represent it freely and to his own ends. The inability to see the native or engage with him/her reeks of Orientalism. Plus plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

One Day the Baby Girl will Stop Crying

Honour killings are the killings of women for deviation from sexual norms imposed by society. Families in different parts of the world associate their honour with the virginity of their unmarried daughters and with the chastity of the married ones. Most female violators of the honour code are killed instantly by their male relatives on the strength of a rumour. Honour crimes have been reported in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda and the United Kingdom. Most crimes, however, often go unreported so it is difficult to determine the actual number of victims in honour killings. The United Nations Population Fund estimates as many as 5000 females are killed each year.

In pre-Islamic Arabia female infanticide was widespread. Female babies used to be buried alive in the sand for socio-economic reasons until Islam came and put an end to it. And although the Qur’an in the following surat condemns this practice it has survived for centuries and kept resurfacing: ‘When the female (infant), buried alive, is questioned for what crime she was killed.’

An average of 25 females are killed every year in Jordan in crimes of honour and an average of 27 adult females commit suicide, which professionals argue are crimes of honour in disguise, where the victims are forced to commit suicide. In 1993 for example the total killings in Jordan were 96 and 33 of those were related to honour. So one thirds of killings in Jordan are honour crimes.

Chastity can be achieved through purity of breed, which is seen as synonymous with the purity of females. “In Arab Muslim culture, the honour of the patrilineal group is bound up with the sex organs of its daughters and a specific term ‘i’rid’ combines the two.” Girls or women can sully their family’s honour and destroy their reputation until they get married and become the responsibility of their husbands. Women who are suspected of “immoral” behaviour usually end up dead, even though most of those who get examined by forensic scientists are found to have been sexually inactive.

Although relating women’s honour to their suspected sexual behaviour is a worldwide phenomenon, imposing a legal penalty for any deviation from the norm survived in Mediterranean societies and a number of Islamic countries such as Pakistan. While most countries, however, have abolished laws related to such crimes, a number of Arab and Muslim countries still maintain specific articles in their penal codes, which justify honour killings. The laws crime down honour killings so judges hand out light sentences a maximum of six months in prison, for example. Honour killings go virtually unpunished, which encourages the surveillance, policing and killing of females in Jordan today.

If the woman hands herself to the police she ends up living for the rest of her life in “protective custody”. The state can protect her inside the prison most of the time, but cannot do anything about angry male relatives outside the prison. I read once in the early 1990’s that a Swiss organisation approached the government to smuggle out victims to Europe to give them a profession and a normal life under a different name. There was an uproar in Jordan and opponents argued that Westerners were planning to kidnap our daughters and force them into prostitution on the streets of Europe. So the whole proposal was nipped in the bud.

No linear narrative can tell Salma’s story in My Name is Salma. She manages to escape from a Jordanian prison and sails away towards another type of prison, where she ends up an asylum seeker on the streets of Exeter. She arrives on the shores of Britain totally unequipped to face an alien society, which is suffering from post-empire depression, and learn its languages and subtle codes. On the way to her destiny she meets people who are considerate, others who are exploitative, Christians who are either fundamentalists, applying the letter of the Bible, or imaginative and compassionate. Although this mirrors her own experience of religion she is full of doubt and dissent. Throughout the novel she observes Islam being practiced from the outside, but she never practices herself because after the loss of her daughter she comes to the conclusion that religion does not offer any consolation.

If strict penalties are in place for sex out of wedlock in Jordan it is encouraged in the UK and without it she might not enjoy any intimacy or human contact. Salma is torn and is always trying to forge a new identity for her self, negotiate a new path. She ends up in a new country with a new identity, but with the same old, torn heart. It tugs her back to Jordan, to her daughter. She has no doubt that her daughter will be lynched eventually and that she has to save her somehow.

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 all 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 women, who were senselessly murdered. One day the spirits of the unknown victims shall return home 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 could 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 the victim was left for four hours to bleed to death before her father called an ambulance, she was pushed off a high cliff by her aunt, that one set fire to herself in the bathroom, it was suicide. The sound of keen fills the deserts, plains and hills of Jordan. Wherever black iris grows you would find them.

I shall kneel down to mark their graves and name names.

One day she, ‘the baby girl buried alive’, will stop crying.

Why Write?

I write to bear witness and do justice. I also write to ward off fear, to exorcise it. Writing is a futile attempt to empower myself. The journey was and still is long, hard with no arrivals, but it is also rewarding and full of little surprises. Recollections in disquietude rather than tranquillity. A jasmine tree in a hostile garden. Torture chambers and tunnels in the Arab world. Racism and misrepresentation in the West. Sipping mint tea with my mother under a large trellis wrapped up with vines. The haunting faces of the maimed, the displaced and the missing. Clouds of perfume in a blossoming orange orchard. Not exactly that, but much more than that or much less than that.

Then there is the heart, the strongest weakest muscle in the human body pumping out grief joy. Thud Thud bereavement. Throb throb pain. Thud thud health. Throb throb loss. Unconsolable. Just a muscle with chambers, valves, arteries and veins it quivers in a pool of warm blood. It starts beating then suddenly it stops. Wheezing. Death rattle. A cold tart liquid oozes out.

Looking at the blossoming Iraqi winter jasmine in my garden I said, ‘But this is not what I intended. This is not what I meant. It is not it at all.’

©fadiafaqir 2007

For Mai Ghassoub and Julia Darling

On 17 February my dear friend Mai Ghassoub passed away. On the 1 March she was cremated in London and the service was beautiful, dignified and fitting for her. I kept thinking that the coffin was too small for her generous heart. I shall miss her, her smile, her vivaciousness and her polyglottal and limitless knowledge. We were bookish, you see, always reading around. Whenever we met her first question to me was, ‘Waynk: where have you been? And what is your next novel?’

Unbroken Mirrors

We shall meet somewhere kind
A sea-side café in Beirut or Whitley bay
In a still frame
Enveloped by perpetual luminous light
At an endless sa’at ‘auns: an hour of conviviality
In a cloud of orange blossom perfume
Your fine hands captive, but flying
Your eyes listening
You are the one who loved most

I am the one who saw least and regretted first

We shall meet somewhere
Where our limbs are safe
Where the Green Line* is just a colour
Where words are free
And static* ideas are obsolete

Your eyes listening
You are the one who loved most
I am the one who saw least and regretted first

We shall meet somewhere
Where our limbs are safe
Where the Green Line* is just a colour
Where words are free
And static* ideas are obsolete
Somewhere, my friend, east of the heart,
Where our reflections are complete
And the Arabic coffee is extra sweet


* The Green Line used to separate east from west Beirut during the Civil War
* Referring to Adonis’s book The Static and the Dynamic

5 March, 2007

Whidbey Island Blues

Grandma Shahrazad
‘Get up girl and learn the names of trees:
Look how clever the mouse is!
It is hiding from the fire in the Douglas fir cone.
The western red cedar’s scales are intertwined.
The Lebanese cedar is taller and finer.
Minor differences, same tribe.

Whenever you are homesick
Run your fingers on the silky leaves of the vine maple then look up
Shreds of Andalusian sky flickers between the see-through leaves.

Out write the sword fern!

Don’t be brittle like a willow tree!
Girl, the red alder seeds float to survival.
Hagar must find water!

When your soul is under siege
Go to Cedar Deep! Hum and hum
Until the currant flowers
The robins, finches, singing sparrows, and even whales return,
Until the dark winter wrens fly away!

And, yes, whatever you do do not write about daffodils and clouds!

When missing grips your heart
Stick a white dogwood flower in your hair
And look towards the curvaceous harbour and the native mountain!
Her stolen spirit will tingle her way back to you.

When all is said and done girl
Lay your head on the dry leaves and scales and let go!
Fill your heart with the scent of nearness!
Turn your head not!
Fear not!
Women you have never seen or heard will deliver you.
In *Hedgebrook it is easy to die.

*Hedgebrook is a retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island, Seattle, USA

Back to School
He dressed me in orange,
Sat me down,
Pointed at the board
With a red laser beam
And said, ‘Repeat after me!’
I could not say it.
So he prodded me with his pointing stick.
The word looked unfamiliar,
A glimpse of a distant past.
I cleared my throat,
Forced my jaws open,
Twisted my tongue
And repeated after the American GI,

The Peace Wheel
My father used to read verses from the Qur’an,
The ‘I seek refuge’ then blow on my face
To ward off the evil eye ‘mine and theirs’.

I filled my ribs with the wind of love
And blew and blew,
Like wounds wars healed,
Borders turned into tourist attractions,
Poverty became just a memory.

Displaced, Arab I stood in *Langley Park
And blew and blew until
The peace drum started spinning,
A confetti of prayers swirled to the sea,

Hearts and sand dunes shifted,
Until the baby girl stopped crying.

* The Peace Wheel is a drum full of prayers located in the centre of Langley Park, a town in Whidbey Island, Seattle, USA

Arab Coffee in Indianapolis
(For my brother Salah)
My Circassian mother crosses seas on your high cheek bones
Then you tell a sassy joke and Eman like a jinnee appears
When you say ‘no really?’ Wafa’ smiles
You savour your coffee just like Ekhlas

I search for traces of home in your face
For the familiar to prop up my heart
With the coffee I drink your face
Like my Bedouin ancestors dry yoghurt
I store your voice, almond-shaped eyes, your aging hands
In glass jars made of blue Hebron glass

I am the one who loves first
Sees least and regrets most

A demi tass lined with mouldy coffee grains
Roof and sky close in
Lightening the only cracks in Indi darkness

Suddenly like fireflies the jars glow

*Wafa’, Ekhlas and Eman are the names of my sisters.
Indianapolis 15 May, 2005,

The Pump House,Hedgebrook, Whidbey Island, Seattle, USA
May 12-20, 2005

Dedicated to:
Alia Mamdouh, Raja’ Alem, Shadia Alem, Suhair Hammad, Ibtihal Salim and Chomin Hardi.
Justine Barda, Jacinda Denison, Beth Bradley, Kim Berto, Jess Dowdell, Barton and Gretchen Cole, and Billy Pape
The Arab American Community Coalition and the members of the Women Writers of the Arab World Steering Committee