Zantedeschia 2

Zantedeschia 2 by Boo Beaumont

It was winter. Lying in bed I watched us crack. You packed your bags, but left the black wedding suit labelled ‘Next’. Your manhood’s paraphernalia: cufflinks, ties, boxer shorts, the watch I bought you, cards, anniversarial vowing of undying devotion and my love for lemons that perhaps rubbed on you.

They brought me so far: watching flames in the fireplace tilting this way and that in his cottage, funereal music, phone calls through crackling lines, e-mails, freesias, endless cups of English tea, Farsi fereshteh, Palestinian fatit humus. ‘Have a warm soup dear! Keep calm and put the kettle on!’

It is autumn now. I stand on the wet grass with the viaduct behind me, each arch lit a different colour. X-Rayed flowers projected on the sandstone wall and round-headed sashes of the church.  Austere into sublime. We look, but don’t see what lies beneath a face. Images of inners exposed melt into each other.The scan shows how they regroup, disperse, tear, mend. Petals pulsate and reach out. The stoma and grana capture light, turn it into energy. Nectar.An eternal call answered. Breathe out! Cells dancing to the music of be. Soundtrack cyclical. A libretto without a tenor. Flora in f major. Life.That you could not pack.

This piece was inspired by Boo Beaumont’s Metamorph, Durham Lumiere 2011. See more of her work HERE

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.

Marginalised, Demonised Revolutionaries

Adam Shatz concludes his article in the LRB by saying ‘if the Egyptian movement to be crushed it will be, in part, because of the conviction that ‘we are not them’.’ Egyptian men and women, Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed as other and inferior for so long that their uprising took the world by surprise. Neither the think tanks in Israel or USA predicted the spread of mass civil unrests in different parts of the Arab world. The lack of respect for Arabs and Muslims in the corridors of power and the way they are daily reduced and deformed on the pages of newspapers are some of the reasons behind that.

In 2007 The Guardian’s research into one week’s news coverage showed that 91% of articles in national newspapers about Muslims were negative. The London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who commissioned the study, said that the findings were a ‘damning indictment’ of the media and urged editors and programme makers to review the way they portray Muslims. Livingstone said. ‘I think there is a demonisation of Islam going on which damages community relations and creates alarm among Muslims.’

According to Sander Gilman ‘such images both result from and result in action. Our fantasies about difference, our anxieties about our status, can result in medical theories about the Other which relegate human being to the status of laboratory animals (in Auschwitz or in the America South); in racial theories that reduce the other to the status of exotic, either dangerous . . . or benign.’ Writing of stereotypes and pseudoscientific theories that were commonly used in colonial discourse turned ‘Muslims’ regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture or language into laboratory animals and made places like Camp X possible, where the suspects, who were never put on trail and found guilty, are treated like animals.

Muslims are perceived as either ignorant and rich or bloody thirsty terrorists. Arabs, marginalised, demonised, racially abused in the West, treated as backward by many of the Israelis revolted against their oppressors. Egyptians got sick of their corrupt, brute dictator who doesn’t allow free speech, elections and tortures and imprisons and even ‘disappears’ his political opponents

The initial reaction by the BBC was to ignore the news in Cairo, concentrate on Sharm el-Sheikh and British tourists and the whole ‘Egypt conflict’, as they called it, would go away. Many western commentators and journalists stated that the Egyptians and are not ready for and/or deserve democracy. The arguments can be summarised as such: democracy is for white people, Christians, Jews and Israelis and Muslims and Arabs do not deserve it. Cohen, cited by Adam Shatz, and some websites like Israel National News referred to the people in Tahrir Square as ‘mob’ conjuring up images of the dangerous and unruly Ottoman savage outside the walls of Vienna in 1529. Richard Cohen argued in the Washington Post that the west had to choose between two alternatives: human rights or history:

Those Americans and others who cheer the mobs in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, who clamor for more robust anti-Mubarak statements from the Obama administration, would be wise to let Washington proceed slowly. Egypt and the entire Middle East are on the verge of convulsing. America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same.

If 9/11 hardened the Muslim Christian binaries and turned Arab dark features into triggers for alarms everywhere, at shopping centres, trains stations and airport 25/1 in Egypt softened those binaries and blow up static, ahistorical and clichéd representations of the Arab. The cracks between western propaganda and reductionism, for most of the reports in the British press were found ‘inaccurate and alarmist’, and flesh and blood Arabs and Muslims began to show. Egyptians, who have similar dark features to Mohammed Atta, proved to be genial, peace loving, press savvy, able to use social networks for maximum effect and steer media representations of their civil disobedience. Aljazeera’s live coverage is punctuated by the crowds shouting silmiyyeh ‘peaceful revolution’. Suddenly a shift in paradigms occurred and was reflected in the tone and content of the coverage. The fossilised image of the evil Muslim that can be traced back to the defeat of Moors in Spain and beyond was shaken. For the first time in a hundred years or more Arabs began to respect themselves and make their own history not Cohen’s. As a result some of the writing in the press on the revolt was tinged with admiration on this side of the divide. New formations are evolving in the western mind and psyche as we speak. This is one of the many triumphs of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. It also shows that peaceful resistance and dialogue are far more superior weapons to violence and terrorism.

The Egyptian Malaise

One way forward is for the state to deal with its people as full citizens regardless of their religion and honour their rights. Liberation, equality and democracy are interconnected. They have in common a concern with emancipation. The Interior Ministry said a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible. The circumstances of the attack, compared with other incidents abroad, “clearly indicates that foreign elements undertook planning and execution.” An al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq issued a threat against the Church in Egypt in November. A statement on an Islamist website posted about two weeks before the blast called for attacks on Egypt’s churches, listing among them the one hit. No group was named in the statement.

Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, said: ˜We are concerned that incidents of violence and terror against Christians in Egypt are increasingly spiralling out of control. They continue to go unchecked and unresolved, and their perpetrators are not brought to justice. This passiveness has sent out the message that Christians in Egypt are an easy and legitimate target. Today’s event demonstrates this and puts matters on a wholly new level.”

According to a report by the Freedom of Religion and Belief Program – Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, “˜The judiciary, particularly sitting judges, does not often hear cases of sectarian violence, and it is extremely rare for such crimes to be referred to trial. On the other hand, the Public Prosecutor’s role in dealing with the violence is shameful: although Egyptian law gives that office the prerogatives of investigating judges authorized to conduct immediate, independent investigations to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice using evidence of their crimes to protect society from lawbreakers, the Public Prosecutor’s Office tends to aid the security establishment in imposing “reconciliation” procedures, even when these are against the law . . . At other times the Public Prosecutor conducts investigations for show that lack all evidence, which means that either the perpetrators are not identified or they are acquitted if they are referred to trial.” These shambolic procedures are not unique to cases of sectarian violence or Egypt and can be found in other Arab countries when dealing with civil unrest.The issue here is not who is responsible, but how the Egyptian government will deal with the attack and the perpetrators. Will they be imprisoned and tortured in the dark without public trial or will they be brought to justice? Will the affair be wrapped up and dealt with through archaic “reconciliation” rituals or conducted under the gaze and scrutiny of the national and international media? Will those responsible be held accountable and penalised openly, an example for others who contemplate such criminal acts?

Moreover, the growing problem of sectarian violence in Egypt cannot be dealt with in isolation. It is part and parcel of the states flagrant disregard for the International Bill of Human Rights and other human rights treaties, which Egypt is a signatory to. The state stopped applying such laws and treaties since it imposed emergency law  Egyptians are living under Emergency Law since, except for an 18-month break in 1980. The law has been continuously extended every three years since 1981. Under the law, police powers are extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship non-approved political organizations, and unregistered financial donations are formally banned. Some 17,000 people are detained under the law, and estimates of political prisoners run as high as 30,000That has to change for terrorism whether home-grown or foreign to be uprooted. Al-Qaeda feeds on anger, frustration and resentment.Terrible incidents, like the Alexandria bombing, show the need for Egypt to move towards participatory democracy and respect for human rights. This would deal with the causes rather than the symptoms of terrorism. The shock and anger of the people on the street will no doubt turn into healthy opposition to the defunct establishment as it did in the past. Perhaps the lives of those who were killed in Alexandria would not be lost in vain. The attack might strengthen the Egyptians resolve and unite them. And this would show not only in opposing terrorism whoever its sponsor is and challenging those who are determined to splinter Egypt, but in voting out Mubarak in the next round of elections. A legitimate regime in tune with the needs of the people will be better equipped to snuff out terrorism and sectarianism.

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 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

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, 2002.
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.