Heroism and Anti-heroism in Five New Novels by Arab Women
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Five Arabic novels, newly published in translation between 2015 and 2016, are set in and around violent conflicts. Yet even as bombs fall or men bleed to death, the scope for triumph is very small. Instead of being about the great wins of a nation, they focus, for the most part, on how farting wards off a man’s unwanted attentions, or on how to find a good place to pee as you’re fleeing a country.
Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette) is the outlier among them. The only Egyptian novel on the list, this deft political fantasy reads like the lovechild of George Orwell’s 1984 and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy: thousands of Egyptians stand outside “The Gate” in a long queue, their lives frozen by bureaucracy.
Iman Humaydan’s The Weight of Paradise is at a midway point: Mostly interested in individual lives, it also focuses on how they’re caught between state and patriarchal powers. The three other books focus most resolutely on the individuals: Alawiya Sobh’s Maryam: Keeper of Stories tells the story of a few women friends during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war; Sahar Mandour’s contemporary 32 (translated by Nicole Fares) is about women’s lives in an unstable and sometimes-explosive Beirut; and Alexandra Chrieteh’s Ali and His Russian Mother shows our protagonists running away from the 2006 Israeli bombardment of Lebanon’s capital.
The Queue doesn’t center on women alone. Two of its key poles are men: One is Yahya Gad El-Rab Saeed, who needs the government’s permission to get a bullet removed from his pelvis. The other is Dr. Tarek Fahmy, who wants to remove that bullet before Yahya dies of his injuries.
Still, Abdel Aziz fills her book with carefully observed portraits of women’s lives, including moments where women are harassed and sidelined. Abdel Aziz’s book takes a broad look at overlapping power structures: patriarchal, military, economic, religious, and governmental. But throughout, it gives great attention to issues that affect women’s lives, such as how these powers might affect a woman’s choice of what to wear.
In war time, looking smaller
For the most part, the four Lebanese novels don’t offer a big-picture look at power structures. Rather, they give anti-heroic and sometimes claustrophobic looks at individuals.
Alawiya Sobh’s Maryam: Keeper of Stories (translated by Nirvana Tanoukhi), is the oldest among these novels. Published in Arabic in 2002, it was Sobh’s debut. Sobh had been the editor of a women’s magazine, and Maryam is a relentlessly female-focused project, making reference to oral tales, soap operas, vulgar talk, and other “low” entertainments associated with women.
Although it’s set during war, fighting happens at the edges of the story. The book focuses instead on the ordinary cruelties of women’s lives: child marriage, double standards, and a man’s power in the family. Women are always losing out, and yet they continue to resist. Maryam’s mother, who is married young, finds that one of the most effective weapons against her husband’s sexual aggression is a well-placed fart.
Looking further to the margins
Maryam is, for the most part, interested in the lives of Lebanon’s middle-class citizens, not in its more tenuous guest workers, migrants, or refugees. Mandour’s and Chrieteh’s books, which are also set among conflict and bombardment, both advance an interest in young, queer, migrant, and international lives. Mandour’s talky, fast-paced, 32 is set among middle-class Beiruti women, but it also focuses on the life of a Sri Lankan maid, Koko.
Violence is acknowledged, but 32 is not focused on who has committed it, or why, or what the solution might be. Instead: “I look around and see a few occupied tables, but the place is otherwise empty. Why? Oh, right. A bomb went off this afternoon.”
Characters in Chrieteh’s Ali and His Russian Mother are initially casual about Israel’s 2006 bombing of Beirut, but their terrors grow as they flee. Here, we follow mostly half-Lebanese characters who get on Russian transport out of the city.
Our unnamed female protagonist is running away from the bombings when she finds a childhood companion, Ali. Both Ali and our protagonist are decided anti-heroes, unable even to assist one another. The narrative’s wit is in the small indignities, such as trying to find a place to pee. One woman tells our narrator “that she could stand in front of me and hold up a sheet to block the view from the road. I immediately agreed because I was afraid of postponing something as necessary as this.”
Instead of military losses and gains, it’s the sheet that gets attention: “My mother joined me and urinated behind the sheet, as well. She said that this was a rare opportunity.”
The heroism of memory
Iman Humaydan’s Weight of Paradise (translated by Michelle Hartman) is the most recent among the five novels, published in Arabic in 2015. Here, as in The Queue, there are small heroisms, or at least there’s something—outside of themselves—that the characters want to save.
The central protagonist is Maya, who discovers the papers of a Syrian migrant, Noura, murdered in an “honor” killing in 1978. Through Noura’s papers, Maya discovers the loss of a child—one of many children sold abroad during the civil war. Maya then makes an attempt to find the child.
Yet even this small heroism is thwarted. Adoption papers were forged, people have died. So Maya’s heroism is not in finding the child. Instead, her heroism lies in her decision to try, and in her refusal to allow the boy to be forgotten.
All five novels give a slightly different lens on how power affects women’s lives. There is the fight against bigger powers in The Queue and The Weight of Paradise, as well as the smaller and more immediate struggles in the other three novels. Yet all five offer an antidote to the big war novel and its large heroisms. They offer smaller possibilities for life and for resistance.