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.


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.

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 where is your next novel?’

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
Somewhere, my friend, east of the

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 mirrors are complete
And 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

Lost in Translation: The Arab Book in the Language of the Other

The Arab book is a beleaguered creature,undernourished, undervalued and deprived of the very oxygen that makes it grow and prosper: freedom of expression. In the 22 countries of the Arab world with a combined population of 284 million, a ‘best seller’ may have a print run of just 5,000 copies, as a result of censorship, high illiteracy rates  – about 60 million adults in the Arab world today cannot read or write – and other constraints. Arabs constitute 5 per cent of the world’s population, yet they produce only 1 per cent of the world’s books, 17 per cent of which are religious books. In 1996, Arab countries produced no more than 1,945 literary and artistic books. Translation of foreign works into Arabic lag far behind figures in the rest of the world: according to the UN, ‘five times more books are translated into Greek, a language spoken by just 11 million people, than into Arabic’.

Security services ban, burn or confiscate publications if they perceive them to violate political, moral and/or religious sensitivities. They also prevent the sale of certain books and promote the sale of others. There are 22 departments of censorship at the ministries of culture across the Arab world. Further, it is difficult for books to move easily through Arab borders to their natural markets, which ultimately increases the cost of production and hinders publishing and circulation. Creativity, innovation and knowledge are thus curtailed.

As a result of the economic sanctions against Libya, for example, you cannot buy any book that resembles anything scholarly. Colonel Gaddafi’s The Green Book, however, was on sale everywhere, together with the published proceedings of a conference on The Green Book. Libyan writers have no option but to add their manuscript to the long queue at the Al-Dar al-Jamahiriyya li al-Nashr wa al-Tawzi, a government-sponsored publishing house. They normally wait for long periods, sometimes up to 10 years or more, to get published. Most hapless authors do not dare take their manuscripts out of the queue for lack of other options and for fear of being put back at the end of the queue if they later change their minds.

Jordanian authors submit their manuscripts to the erratic and whimsical censor, who sometimes sends them back with red marks all over and with nuggets of advice such as: ‘kill the main character’. Many authors save up to pay publishers the printing costs of their novels. It is the reverse of what normally happens: while publishers pay to buy copyrights here in the UK, authors in Jordan pay to sell their work to the fat-cat publishers.

There is also the matter of self-appointed censors who initiate witch hunts against authors; the recent court case against Nawal el-Sadaawi. Samia Mehrez, professor of Modern Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo, for example, came under attack for assigning to her class the fictional autobiography of the Moroccan writer Muhammad Choukri, al-Khubz al-Hafi, which was perceived by some students and parents to be ‘pornographic’.

Without any valid travel documents or a visa the Arab book travels West.

The picture is equally grim on the other side of the divide. The Arab world translates about 330 books per year. In 1999, the USA, with a population of 285 million and a publishing industry that produces well over 100,000 books per year, translated 330 fiction and poetry titles. This contributes to the ‘provincialisation’ of Arab and US minds. In the UK, the Arts Council’s budget for translating from all the languages of the world into English is £92,000 (US$156,400); Arabic receives very little of this.

There is also growing suspicion of those who can speak other languages, particularly Arabic. A few years ago, Francis Fukuyama said, ‘The State Department was well rid of its Arabists and Arabic speakers because by learning that language they also learned the ‘delusions’ of the Arabs.’ Primo Levi argued that some people perceive a person who can speak another language as ‘an outsider, a foreigner, strange, and therefore, a potential enemy’.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, some have argued that the Arabic language and the Arabs are afflicted with both a mentality and a language that has no use for reality. In 1988, Edward Said tried to interest a New York publisher in the works of Naguib Mahfouz, ‘but after a little reflection the idea was turned down. When I inquired why, I was told (with no detectable irony) that Arabic was a controversial language’. Even after Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, his publishers felt it necessary to flag that he had been influenced by Flaubert, Balzac, Proust to make him palatable.

Using a West European yardstick, Arabic, an ‘indirect, oral language’, is normally compared to its disadvantage with English, a ‘literate, direct language’. According to one commentator, ‘Arabic lacks logic in the Western popular sense . . . it encourages an emotional appeal, emphasises structure and form, depends on association as a persuasive device, and relies on a generally indirect approach.’ Language is never dysfunctional, it is a tool that merely reflects the development or underdevelopment of the intellect of its user.

The Arab Women Writers series, for example, was a project fraught with difficulties.  The poor distribution of Arab books made them almost impossible to find in the bookshops of Western capitals. After spending almost a year chasing up books, consulting colleagues, publishers and booksellers, five novels by Arab women, who normally get little publicity in the West, were commissioned. The novels were deliberately chosen as an antidote to some of the inferior texts that get translated into English and that normally confirm many of the preconceptions some editors and readers have about the oppressive and illogical Arab. x

The long debate with the publishers began to convince them that a text written originally in Arabic rather than in English does not automatically mean it is inferior. What complicates matters is the small number of editors in Western publishing houses who master Arabic; even some of those of Arab origin are unable to read and understand modern standard Arabic. As for those who studied Arabic at university, many have difficulties reading long Arabic texts to select some for translation. Most editors are also ignorant of the Arab-Islamic culture and must be educated to be able to appreciate and contextualise the books.

Although Arabic ranks sixth in the world league table of languages, with an estimated 284 million native speakers, fewer and fewer people have an acceptable knowledge of it. Arabic generally can be divided into Classical Arabic – our Latin – that is read and written by a small minority; Modern Standard Arabic – an adapted and simplified version of Classical Arabic – and a large number of local dialects. ‘Written, literary Arabic with its grammatical complexities is notoriously difficult to learn. Arabic readers need to master an ancient and intricate blueprint of foreign grammar, syntax and vocabulary.’ This might partly explain the uphill struggle to find qualified and properly trained translators to work with on the Arab Women Writers Series (Garnet Publishing). The quality of the translations, with few exceptions, was poor indeed. Translators, with degrees in translation from reputable universities, did not know the difference between daraj and durj, for example. Not only does the quality of their education leave much to be desired, some Arabic departments are now under threat of closure.

Many Arabs living in the West have decided to cut out the middleman and create ‘an Arab book’ in the language of the other. The reasons behind this decision vary, but it is a by-product of the colonial encounter and, as Salah Trabelsi says, of a rising awareness of ‘multiculturalism that provisionally disowns one’s self to listen to and to perceive, beyond differences, a kinship of gestures and of desire.’ The writing of some Arabs in the West treads the divide between two cultures and, as result, suffers and benefits from occupying such a dangerous site, linguistically and otherwise. ‘Displacement urges transcultural writers to revisit their culture of origin by the essential questioning of their relationships with their body, faiths, rites, languages’ (Trabelsi 2003)

I find it puzzling that the large body of writing in English by Arabs or authors of Arab origin has not yet been subjected to serious study and analysis. Geoffery Nash’s book The Arab Writer in English: Arab Themes in a Metropolitan Language, 1908-1958 is the first serious study of what he describes as the ‘internationalisation of literature’ and its impact on Arab writers. Let me fill this gap and coin a new term: ‘Arabs writing in English’ (AWE). This covers the body of work by Arab writers who write in the English language and whose mother tongue is usually Arabic. It is also associated with the works of members of the Arab diaspora, especially people such as Ahdaf Soueif, who was born in Egypt. As a category, this comes under the broader realm of postcolonial literature, produced in previously colonised countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan and Jordan.

AWE is transcultural writing that problematises social issues, sense of identity and terms of reference. ‘The production of a new discourse defies the constraints and taboos of the culture of origin (such as the sacredness of the Arabic language or the subaltern status of women) by putting it in dialogue with a different culture. The purpose is neither soft-edged amalgamation nor slavish mimicry; instead, it is to propose creative new identities for the individual and the collective subject.’ (Trabelsi 2003)

As an Arab writer, writing about the Arab culture in English, I find myself preoccupied with themes of exile and representation that reflect the condition of an ‘expatriarch’, a writer who has crossed from one culture into another because of her father. This trans-cultural position is reflected in the intricate process through which my writing is composed and through my endless attempts to carve a small territory within the English language for myself. Behind the all-embracing problems of creative duplicity, from a post-colonial position emerges one writer’s struggle to comprehend an alien world and cope with the profound consequences of living a bicultural identity.

When I interviewed her for the East Anglia University magazine in 1988 Toni Morrison said, ‘literature is about to change and it is going to be changed by earnest minorities, that is where the life is, fait accompli. So, your job, my job and the job of women and people of colour is to make sure that they do justice to what is about to come.’ This argument can be extended to include earnest majorities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Post 9/11 and 7/7 translation and dialogue are no longer optional. By definition civilisations never clash, they borrow, converse and learn from each other. In this transnational space with no safe corners the most exciting and necessary literature is born. The site is dangerous, tiring, and stimulating, but there is no other space I rather be. There is no other space that you, I hope, rather be. Your mind cannot pass sound judgements on momentous events without listening to the voice of the other, which is in these dangerous times is no longer a luxury. Literature will bring us closer, will help us forgive, will even console us. To you on all sides of the divide I say today, ‘translate, publish, read and learn or be damned.’

London Book Fair, 7/3/2006

The Arab Human Development Report 2003 (AHDR 2003), UNDP
Benhaddou, Mohamed, ‘Postcolonial Textualization of Arabic’, Political Discurse – Theories of Colonialism and Postcolonialism, May, 2003.
Devlin, Kieron, Mississippi Review.com, 2002.
URL: http://www.mississippireview.com/2002/leilani-devlin
Dilday, K. A., ‘Lost in Translation: The narrowing of the American Mind’, OpenDemocracy, May, 2003.
Castillo, Daniel Del, ‘The Arabic Publishing Scene is a Desert, Critics Say’, August 10, 2001.
Said, Edward, ‘Dreams and Delusions’, Al-Ahram Weekly, 20-27 August, 2003.
Said, Edward, ‘Naguib Mahfouz and the Cruelty of Memory’, Counterpunch, December, 2001.
Trebelsi, Hechmi, ‘Transcultural Writing: Ahdaf Soueif’s Aisha’, Jouvert, Issue 2, Vol. 7, 2003.

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

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.

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.