Copyright (c) 2003 by Hechmi Trabelsi, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadows of his language.--James Joyce, Ulysses
Mixed language [incorporation of the local into language] of the 'middle voice' is central to [Seamus Heaney's] technique, 'that middle voice' being 'the mixed diction which is used to mediate between local and standard language.--A propos of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf
- "Transculturation" was coined in the 1940s by Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz in a pioneering description of Afro-Cuban culture (Contrapunto Cubano, 1947). Uruguayan critic Angel Rama incorporated the term into literary studies in the 1970s. Ortiz proposed the term to replace the paired concepts of acculturation and deculturation that described the transference of culture in reductive fashion imagined from within the interests of the metropolis (Pratt 228). The same term, "transculturation," has been used by Moroccan Abdellatif Laabi and Tunisian-Canadian writer Hédi Bouraoui to denote the subversion of linguistic and cultural identities through the intervention of other models, other figures grafted onto one's older identities in order to create not a "synthesis of cultures," but new structures which allow one to think otherwise (Triki 209).
- Transculturation is therefore a phenomenon of the "contact zone." According to Mary Louise Pratt, thecontact zone refers to the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict. It is also an attempt to invoke the spatial and temporal co-presence of subjects previously separated by geographic and historical disjunctures, and whose trajectories now intersect. The term "contact" thus foregrounds the interactive, improvisational dimensions of colonial encounters so easily ignored or suppressed by diffusionist accounts of conquest and domination. A "contact" perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized, or travelers and "travelees," not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understanding and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power. (Pratt 6-7)The implications/repercussions of transculturalism are thus twofold. First, transcultural writing is an instance of non-European expression developed with European trajectories. It selects and adapts European discourses [on the Periphery] to its own task of creating autonomous decolonised cultures while retaining European values. It represents the dynamics of self-representation in the context of colonial subordination and resistance. Second, it involves partial collaboration with, and appropriation of, the idioms of the conqueror. "Often, these idioms are bilingual and dialogic" (Pratt 4).
- Whereas Pratt's context for the transcultural contact zone is the centuries-old encounter between European colonizers and South American indigenes, the dynamics continue to work within contemporary postcolonial writing. My interest here is studying how the dialogism that allows one to 'think otherwise' operates in the fiction of Ahdaf Soueif, particularly in her first collection of short stories, Aisha (first published 1983).
- Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo in 1950. She is the daughter of Dr Mustapha Soueif, a psychologist, and of Fatma Moussa (Hemdan), head of the Department of English at the University of Cairo from 1972 to 1987, recipient of the State Merit Award for Arts and Literature, and author of an impressive list of books, articles, research papers on the English novel, Arabic and Comparative literature. In 1957, the Soueifs went to Britain on study leave, she to prepare a Ph.D. in English literature, he to do post-doctoral work. Ahdaf accompanied them. The mother completed her Ph.D. and the father obtained a diploma in clinical psychology. In Aisha, Ahdaf Soueif often refers to her childhood days in Egypt and England (see in particular "1964" and "Knowing"), with special emphasis on her Cairene roots. For instance, like Aisha's grandfather, Ahdaf's own maternal grandfather was a merchant and had a shop, which, says Fatma Moussa, "still stands off Attaba Square" (Hemdane). Ahdaf Soueif's upper-middle-class background and upbringing often come through in her writing, particularly when she exposes the trappings of the Egyptian bourgeois lifestyle. The distance between the Westernised, Egyptian elite and the mass of traditional, superstitious people constitutes one of the major themes in her short stories.
- As a young child, Ahdaf thus grew up in both Egyptian and English environments; she learned to read in English, relearning Arabic when she returned to Egypt with her parents. Therefore, the bilingual dialogism to which Pratt refers is part and parcel of Ahdaf's early life, and the experience of crossing cultures also becomes a major theme in her writings. After she graduated in English at the University of Cairo (1971), obtaining her M.A. in 1973 from the American University in Cairo, she left Egypt for England. She was 23 when she went to study for her doctorate in literary stylistics at Lancaster University. Two weeks before she was to return to Egypt, she met her future husband, the poet and biographer Ian Hamilton. Since 1984, she has been living in England, except for two years, from 1987 to 1989, when she taught at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She has kept touch with Egypt through many travels there, mainly to attend literary conferences and meet other women artists. Now living in Wimbledon with her husband and two sons (Omar Robert, born in 1984, and Ismail Richard, born in 1989), she has a full-time job at the Al Furqan Centre for Islamic Studies.
- Ahdaf Soueif might have gone relatively unnoticed as one among the many women writers in present-day Egypt. What has brought her to the fore is probably that she writes in English. This decision increases her international readership, but it does so by putting her reception in Egypt at risk. In Egypt, English is not only a foreign language but also the language of colonial occupation, the language with which her fellow countrymen have had a contentious history. Ahdaf Soueif is certainly aware of this attitude: the high-profile nationalist, Sharif Al-Barouni, the 'hero' of her latest novel, The Map of Love, refuses to speak, or even learn English, resorting to French (to him, apparently, a neutral language) to speak with his English wife. His linguistic anti-colonialism, of course, is ironically undercut by the fact that Egypt has also had a vexed relation with France, as Napoleon's invasion and the Suez Canal disputes attest.
- Ahdaf Soueif seems to have no personal history of opposition to or rejection of English. She is simply more at ease with English, the language of her professional training, "the first language [she] read in." As a woman of two worlds, she is very much "the product of a wrenched history: an Egyptian living in England and writing about Egypt in English," yet she is aware of her paradoxical situation, "conscious of the depth of Arabic, where a word can have certain nuances of which [she] is not aware" (Wassef). She does see the specific danger of being at present the only Egyptian woman writing in English, a foreign language. Worse still, as her detractors often argued, she wrote (in English) about sex: her first novel, In the Eye of the Sun, was originally banned in the Arab world for its portrayal of sexuality. But there is no false apology for not writing in Arabic; as she stated in a 1999 interview, "It is very difficult to explain that this was not a choice, that you work with the tools that are best for you . . . I don't know why, but the fact is that I write better in English than I do in Arabic" (Brooks).
- On the other hand, writing in English allows her to keep a certain distance between her needs as a writer and her "nationalistic" loyalties:"Writing in English definitely gives me more freedom because I can use English in literary terms better than I can use Arabic and so I can make the language do what I want with more ease. I suppose the question of language arises because there are passages in [my] book[s] which are sexually frank. One might ask if I used English so that I could write all those sexy passages which I couldn't write in Arabic. My response would be no because when you translate my work into Arabic or rather 'Arabise' it, I would still keep those passages" ("Two Writers Speak").Though Ahdaf Soueif's command of English is impeccable, ranging from the highly idiomatic to the elegantly formal, she has transfused ethnic, Arab blood into it. Arab people reading her can actually hear the Arabic as it comes through the English words. Even non-Arabophones can sense the presence of another tongue underlying the printed English words. In The Map of Love, for example, the language question is at the heart of the dialogue of cultures that Lady Anna tries to establish through her own life and militancy for the Egyptian cause, underscoring the differences between Egyptianness and Englishness, nationalism and imperialism. In that novel, language is adapted to the characters. When Lady Anna writes, Ahdaf Soueif uses "19th century English. When [she] writes an English character, [she] is English; when [she] writes anything else, [she] is Egyptian" ("Two Writers Speak").
- As will be seen through the analysis of her English, Soueif proves to be quintessentially Egyptian. Though she keeps moving between Egypt and England in her own life and writings, her main concerns are with her native country. She is determined to take advantage of the physical and intellectual distance established between her and her country to probe into what she considers to be of prime importance to the development of Egypt: the defence of the cause of women, what Tunisian sociologist Mahmoud Dhaouadi calls the "other underdeveloped" (Dhaouadi, 2002). It is may be her lack of inhibition, rendered possible both by her deliberate non-use of Arabic, a language that tolerates little deviation from the moral norms underlying it, and by the publication of her works in countries where sexual frankness is very rarely submitted to censorship, that allow her to interrogate the condition of women in the Arab world.
- Such interrogations are often condemned by self-ordained moral censors (whether institutional or not) as a dangerous superimposition of alien ideas meant to destroy Arab social fabric. Ahdaf Soueif confronts these charges directly. Asked if she is a feminist, for instance, she says:"Yes I am. I think that it's sad that a lot of women, particularly Arab women, reject feminism. However, they clearly are feminists in that they believe that women are equal as men and they believe that women should be paid the same amount of money for doing the same job. . . . But [they eschew feminism] because it has been associated with a sort of 'man hating' attitude, not wearing make-up and letting yourself look horrible, being generally embattled and obnoxious, which is not at all what it is about. These are all very superficial." (qtd. in Roushdy)That Ahdaf Soueif writes in English, the language of imperialism and occupation, has allowed her opponents, those she calls the "loony fringe," to take an ideological shortcut and denounce her as "not part of Arab literature at all" and her writings as "immoral, and an insult to Arab women" (Wassef).
- Though Aisha is her first published collection of short stories, it contains the main axes around which her later writings will revolve, including the axis of dialogic language. It is interesting at this level to go through Ahdaf Soueif's favourite stylistic exercise of playing with word etymologies. In her recent novel The Map of Love (1999), Amal (the emblematic name means "hope" in English), coaching Isabel who is learning Arabic, gives the reader a lesson in linguistic différance:-- Everything stems from a root. And the root is mostly made up of three consonants --or two. And then the word takes different forms. Look [...] take the root q-l-b, qalb. [...] Qalb: the heart, the heart that beats, the heart at the heart of things [...] Then there's a number of forms -- a template almost -- that any root can take. So in the case of 'qalb' you get 'qalab': to overturn, overthrow, turn upside down, make into the opposite; hence 'maqlab': a dirty trick, a turning of the tables and also a rubbish dump. 'Maqloub': upside-down; 'mutaqallib': changeable; and 'inqilab': a coup . . .This sort of polysemy -- at once playful and etymologically historical -- provides a key to Aisha. It is obvious that, apart from being a girl's name, with all the resonance from Arab-Islamic history, 'Aisha' contains the root 'aish, life. The whole collection of short stories is in fact a call for life, a new life, after various lives marred in distinctively gendered ways: the disillusion of married life ("Returning", even "The Nativity"), not-always-happy childhood memories ("1964" and "Knowing"), the tricks women are forced to play, often on sister women, in order to accommodate with polygamy (The "Wedding of Zeina" and "Her Man"), the social roles and male-female categorisation imposed by a male-dominated society ("The Apprentice").
-- [. . .] That's really useful.
-- I think so. It gives you a handle.
-- So every time you use a word, it brings with it all the other forms that come from the same root. (The Map of Love 82)
- In Soueif's first published novel, In the Eye of the Sun (1992), the character of Asya is obviously a more developed version of Aisha. Asya, who suffers from her husband's constant indifference to her inner needs and who, wishing to find solace elsewhere becomes "embroiled in a love affair with an uncouth Englishman" (Editorial Reviews), represents not only a shift in word-root ("a-i-s-a" vs. "a-s-i-a") but also a semantic shift. Following the etymological game suggested by Amal in The Map of Love, it appears that the hope for a freer life is transformed, at turns, into cure and therapy, sorrow and grief, patience and determination -- all different meanings pertaining to the Arabic 'Asya'. When one also remembers that Asya was Pharaoh's wife, one realises the universal, timeless dimension of Soueif's quest. The lineage thus established gives back women their legitimacy. At the same time, both Aisha and Asya prove to be the symbols of the eternal Egyptian woman whose subsidiary position, and acknowledged oppression, have their roots in times immemorial. Yet the semantic shift between Aisha and Asya implies that women's condition is susceptible to change. It is to help effect such change that Soueif writes Arab thoughts in English words, setting up a dialogics that extends from language to broader issues of cultural contact and contention.
- Aisha is about an Arab woman, struggling not only to survive, but mainly to carve out a place of her own -- a concern that shapes Soueif's later fiction as well. The whole matter hinges on East/West relations, years after decolonization. The idea is less to write back to the "empire" than to indulge in self-representation, thus inevitably resorting to values that may seem at first to be Western but which in fact transcend geographical boundaries. Soueif's work suggests how transcultural writing can resist submission to neo-colonial hegemony (and, for that matter, neo-nationalist xenophobia) and aspire to an authentically post-colonial dialogic consciousness and, ultimately, to the place it deserves in world culture.
- "Returning," the opening story, sets the tone, style, and theme for the rest of the collection. It offers the portrait of a woman who leaves country and husband not only because she refuses to submit to institutional oppression but also because she expresses female pain and agony in the face of male indifference. The reader is immediately geared to the gist of the narrative: male/female encounters in a society that alienates women who seem, by commonly acknowledged social norms, unwilling to "settle" (19) but who, in reality, have to grapple with the untenable situation of women in a male-dominated society. No one seems eager to know why Aisha and her husband Saif have parted. What is clear is that she has refused to lead a "normal" life. Unlike the veiled women of the beginning of the story, Aisha has existential exigencies which seem to find no echo in a society that does not forgive women who do not wish to "give in," to "come back" (15).
- "Returning" is set in 1978. After a long stay abroad, Aisha returns home as a university teacher. The story begins with Aisha on her way to her old flat; she ignores curious onlookers but notices that a number of women wear the white Islamic head dress (5). While Aisha's observation demarcates her from her older environment, thus reinforcing the alienating effect of homecoming, it also allows her to take up the issue of Islamic fundamentalism that had been raised when she parked her car. Looking for a shady parking place, Aisha had regretted the disappearance of the "green gardens with spreading trees and flower beds and paths of red sand" (3). This is the first opportunity for her to jab at the degradation of the environment and the invasion of disorderly urbanization. Interestingly enough, the construction site, which has replaced the garden, proves to be for 'The Mosque of Ismail.' The collusion between the environmental degradtion and the religion that the builder of the mosque seems to stand for is thus hinted at from the very beginning. Immediately after, the builder of the mosque ("she wondered who Ismail was" ), is conflated with corruption and nepotism. Aisha thus sets herself apart from a religion that neglects people's basic rights to a minimum of comfort in favor of erecting a mosque. The conflation is further enhanced when Aisha realizes that, behind the mosque, another building, "the First Islamic Institute in the Governorate of Giza," is rising.
- The growing number of veiled women, the building of the mosque and of the Islamic Institute, all point to the insidious "Islamisation" of society . . . an Islamisation that Aisha subtly rejects, not through any passionate, political diatribe, but rather through the denunciation of the defacement of the environment. The green trees, the multi-coloured flowers, the red sand are all covered in grey, with "bricks, cement, steel rods of varying lengths and mounds of sand" (4) strewn about the place, signalling desolation and pollution. Not only have children been deprived of a playground but also inoffensive animals, like frogs and crickets, have been dislodged. The ironic stance taken by Aisha alludes, once again, to the collusion between the Mighty of the Earth (the builders of the mosque) and the authorities-that-be in order to impose themselves on both environment and people (4). The impression of desolation is reinforced by the description of the bumpy, potholed road, a miserable contrast to her idyllic childhood days when she was learning to drive a scooter "down a smooth road." The criticism contained in the recurrent, insistent affixation of the "Governorate of Giza" to the destruction caused by the construction of the Islamic Institute becomes even more blatant since the "Governorate of Giza" seems to be keener on taking bribes and granting building permits than on providing welfare to the people.
- The incidental flash-backs stressing the beauty of the past and opposing it to the prevalent hideousness of the present are used to introduce Aisha's past married life, in the very area that now looks so bleak. The public issues that seemed to be on Aisha's mind now give way to more personal, intimate thoughts. The passing of time, signalled by the incessant to-and-fro movement between past and present, is first suggested by the change in Aisha's very looks. Six years before, she had been "wider-opened, open, expectant" (10); she now has a "slimmed face, framed by shorter, more curly, though still black hair" (9). Her seeming serenity has been replaced by doubt, indecisiveness, even some form of guilty nostalgia. Stylistically, then, flashbacks allow narrative form to reflect the dialogic relationship of old and new, of a retroactively imagined purity and a presently experienced corruption.
- Objects play a pivotal role in "Returning." On a formal level, they work like the flashbacks to convey oscillations between present and past fluidly; they also convey ideas that otherwise might need long, retarding narrative digressions. For example, whereas all other objects from her past trigger somewhat happy memories of her married life with Saif, whose conspicuous absence so permeates the narrative, the mirror (the only object designed in the first place to reflect reality) remains cold, un-reflective, and is, tellingly enough, the only item which he had found hideous -- an apt metaphor for Aisha's relationship with Saif. Objects such as the white marble-basin (6-7), the rocking chair (8), and the string of pearls (9) seem to be chosen at random yet they have a definite function in the narrative. The white marble-basin makes her recall hotel bathrooms, where she would lock herself in, "head over the loo, crying, or simply sitting on the tiled floor reading through the night while he slept alone, unknowing, in the large double beds that mocked her" (11) -- female pain and agony met by male sheer indifference. The string of pearls, a present from Saif in the early, magical days of their relationship, she keeps stroking, as one would strike a magic lamp, in order for the happy days to return. The string of pearls has also a metaphorical function, as the pearls signal the passing of time, thereby establishing a meta-narrational symbol as well. The rocking chair, a wedding present from her old professor of poetry, now stands in the flat, vacant, devoid of any magic or poetry. The sofa in the living room (11), with feathers escaping from the seams, reiterates the absence of conviviality. The bookcase (11), meant to bring the couple together through their love of books, yet so telling about their basic differences, is arranged in such a way as to mark their alienation: his books of economics and electronics (archetypally male subjects), hers on art and literature (archetypally female subjects), separated, symbolically enough, by history, i.e. his story, not hers. The music centre (12), the object of his pledge to always love her/keep it, has been replaced by a Syrian tapestry of Antar, the Arab poet-warrior, and Abla, the object of his Platonic love, so aptly paradigmatic of assertive maleness and of coy femaleness.
- In what may be considered as the third structural part of the story, the double time-line accelerates. The rapidity of shifts from past to present and back is striking, sometimes occurring within a single sentence. Most of the action takes place in the flat, that is here and now, with a few reminiscences about cities visited in the past, each epitomizing a stage in Aisha's conflicted relations with Saif. Aisha had wished things could go right, but a wall of incomprehension seems erected between her and Saif, for no clearly stated reason except for Saif's enraging indifference and Aisha's uneasiness with his over-inflated egotism. The inherent, somewhat anachronistic, imbalance in their status has thus no specific geographical borders. It is deeply engrained in Saif, in spite of his "modernity": his comparison with "some medieval knight, be it Arab or Frinji, [who] would have believed in the chastity of his wife weaving in her tower" (13) is therefore far from being anecdotal. The image spares the narrator long unnecessary developments about what really constitutes the central theme of the story. Their last quarrel -- in a cottage in England -- is the clinching episode in their troubled relationship. Fittingly enough, Saif's mythological-literary references signal the end of their relationship and coincide with the return to present reality. The objects that have hitherto triggered memories of the past are now seen as mere, everyday objects strewn over the desk (yet another reminder of Aisha's present preoccupation to collect books in the flat). Aisha has decided not to delve again in the labyrinths of memory: "Not again. Please. Not again. It's now over. Finished" (13). Only the gun (so evidently related to death) reminds her of Saif, or rather his cynical attitude. As if to reassert once again Aisha's desire to return to the present, the doorbell rings and Aisha finds the laundry boy with Saif's shirts.
- Saif's indifferent egotism and self-ordained righteousness make him conceal the actual cause of the problem, thus sparing himself the trouble of solving it. The framed maps of Sinai also serve to give an insight into the real problem of the couple's basic incomprehension: Saif's inability to share. In the same way as he has refused to go back on a trek to Sinai because he has "already done it" (17), he refuses to allow her to be an integral part of his life, be it past, present, or future. His egotism has so much marked their married life that she has been denied even her own past: "His memories were more vivid to her than her own. She had no memories. She had no time to acquire a past and in her worst moments, locked up in some bathroom, it had seemed to her that his past was devouring the present" (17).
- The next objects Aisha comes across are ever so revealing of the past: the fur they bought at Harrods. "His fur" is also hidden away in the wardrobe, covering, overshadowing as it were her wedding dress. The fur was intended for her; it became his. As for the wedding dress, it is hanging "shrouded in a white sheet" (18). Symptomatically enough, Aisha sticks to her decision not to linger on the past any more. The symbol of the death of her marriage is put back where it has been hanging, 'un-shrouded' into a normal cover sheet. Her veil and small, pearl-embroidered Juliet's cap represent the straw that broke the camel's back. It has been left in a cardboard box, in a corner of the wardrobe. The veil and cap are covered with black moths, yet another sign of irremediable death. Whereas Aisha has put back the dress with much care, taking even the trouble of rearranging its train, the cardboard box is burned, thus signalling the end of the marriage and, at the same time, Aisha's resolve to burn the last vessel that could sail her back to her past with Saif. She even sheds the last tears on her ruined marriage, looks at the cold mirror of reality, sees a different person from what she used to be, unmoved by the strings of pearls that used to call back to mind Saif and her past married life, heads for the bookcase, picks out five books on seventeenth-century poetry, and leaves the flat. She turns the key twice, as if once to lock the door to looking back at the past, the second time to prevent further memories from her past from rushing out after her.
- Ahdaf Soueif is intent on placing the woman question at the heart of her identitarian quest. She does so not through a straightforward, didactic political discourse but by means of suggestion, enhancing the 'unsaid' at the expense of argumentation. By refusing to deal with the themes of corruption, or Islamic fundamentalism, or even the feminine condition, in a sociological or political way, Ahdaf Soueif makes the protagonist undergo some form of catharsis, to liberate her from her past (hence Aisha's wish to clean the silver) and thus force her into the present, reality (taking the books she has come for in the first place). The insistence on the present moment, accompanied by Aisha's decision to shut the door on her past, is emblematic enough of Arab women's writing. The past may be glorious; it is not the woman's past. History may be gratifying; it does not really concern women who should think about their present and future rather than a past in which they had no (or so little) part to play. These dichotomies of gender and time involve the dichotomy of East and West, one suggested but not fully explored in "Returning."
- In "1964," the double timeline established at the onset of the story mirrors cultural and geographical divisions. A parallel chronology at once duplicates and echoes Aisha's life: in Egypt, in the "New Socialist" post-1952 era, and in England, in 1964. Aisha is 14, the elder child of a couple of Egyptian academics in England for post-doctoral research (31). Whereas little is said explicitly about her life in Egypt, implications about the past serve a twofold function: they provide the narrator with an opportunity to throw in a few gentle observations on the new post-Revolution bureaucracy, and they add insight into Aisha's character and into the principles governing a young girl's education. This story thus expands the possibilities of transcultural writing, foregrounding travel from East to West as a transformative experience enabling cultural critique as well as personal change.
- An episode on The Stratheden , the ship taking the family from Egypt to England, is revealing about the romantic leanings of a young girl, dreaming of adventures, trying to equal the heroines of her readings ("I understand Maggie Tolliver, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary" ), and about the problems engendered by cultural crossings. When Aisha meets the young Indian boy, Christopher, her "spirit of adventure" leads her to give him her address in London. Aisha's mother cannot help manifesting her racial, intellectual and social superiority vis-à-vis Christopher, the figure par excellence of the alien 'other': he is Indian, Christian, a potential immigrant. In the same way as Ahdaf Soueif uses the Other's language to free herself of monologic discourse, so does she here hint at the possibility (more fully realized in her later fiction) of using the figure of the Other as a mediator against all forms of enclosure and containment, a means to gain access to a plural world. Priding herself on being an Egyptian academic sailing for England for post-doctoral research (a double openness), the mother nonetheless represents the prejudices of her class and upbringing. Her friendliness/tolerance is only a façade; along with her husband, she blames Aisha for giving her address to an undesirable stranger when a letter later arrives:My parents were grave. They were disapproving. They were saddened. How had he got my address? I hung my head. Why was it wrong to give my address? Why shouldn't I know him? How had he got my address? I scuffed my shoes and said I didn't know. My lie hung in the air. Why had he sent me a photograph? I really didn't know the answer to that one and said so. They believed me. 'You know you're not to be in touch with him?' 'Yes.' There were no rows, just silent, sad disapproval. You've let us down. I never answered his letter and he never wrote again -- or if he did I never knew of it." (24-25)
- Prior to this stern, solemn blame, so disproportionate to the almost trivial deed, is another episode, no less important than the 'judgment scene': the opening of Aisha's letter. Though "it never occurred to [her] to question that" (24), because it is part of a young girl's education not to question her parents' decisions, she nonetheless resents it. The tongue-in-cheek, gentle irony of the non-restrictive clause "or if he did I never knew of it" shows disapproval equal to, as quiet as, yet more scathing than, her parents'. The tacit absence of respect by her 'enlightened' parents for Aisha's right to privacy points to the lot of women (be they fourteen-year-old girls or fully grown adults): they will be permanent minors, needing the tutelage of a male-dominated society. Even the mother, in spite of her 'modernity,' abides by such rules, which she must have internalised all her life. Thus on occasion she can serve as a buffer zone between her husband's stern aloofness and her daughter, although the 'buffer' seems devoid of any cushioning capacity. When Aisha decides not to go to school any more, her mother, though highly disapproving, does not voice out her own dissatisfaction with her daughter's decision. Instead, she seems to have no views of her own, to operate as a chamber of echoes, as if the important decisions concerning the children's education are the sole prerogative of the father. She seems content to be the mere vehicle of the father's wrath and disapproval:What on earth will your father say?Such a scene implies that 'modernity' is a hollow concept. The Westernised intellectual bourgeois Egyptian elite seem to be trapped in their own contradictions. Their liberal views give way to their deeply entrenched beliefs in social and gender divisions. Similarly, in "Returning," Saif looks to be the perfect prototype of 'modern' man: he is young, educated, seemingly tolerant. Yet, his upbringing and social status prevent him from making any compromise, from trying to understand what has gone wrong in his relations with Aisha. Western egalitarianism does not extend that far.
[. . .]
He'll be angry.
[. . .] She told my father. She carried back protests, even threats. 'Daddy is terribly displeased with you,' then 'Daddy won't speak to you for weeks.' [. . .] They went against their principles. 'You won't get any more pocket money.' (38-9)
- The curfews and time restrictions the parents impose on Aisha belie their "liberal, enlightened ideology and that of their friends and advisers" (29). Even when they decide to send her to school, it is to a girls' school. They choose her friends: the vicar's children who take her to church, their friends' son David who chaperons her to the theatre. It is out of question that she makes friends with the Teddy boys and the Rockers. The discrepancy between theory and practice, between liberal (Western) façade and conservative (Eastern) attitudes, further reinforces Aisha's alienation. An Egyptian transplanted into an English environment nonetheless severely circumscribed by her parents ("I waited for something to happen obligingly within the set boundaries," 25), Aisha cannot behave like girls of her age. Speaking proper English in a Cockney environment, accepted neither by the white girls nor the coloured ones, a Muslim in a Christian world, she is stranded between cultures. Her dearest wish is yet to integrate, "to merge, to blend silently and belong to the crowd" (30).
- Aisha therefore stages a rebellion in "1964," a miniature version of the anti-colonial rebellions that had rocked the British Empire by 1964. Although she knows her parents would never let her go to the corner café, her love of the magic world of music (the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, Peter and Gordon, Cilla Black, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Dave Clark Five) impels her to break the "set boundaries." Playing the jukebox helps her endure home and school, and it emboldens her to contest her parents' rules. When St. Valentine's Day comes, she obtains permission to go the school dance, a "Very Special Permission" (36) to stay out until 11 p.m. At the dance she realises that the schoolgirls, those very girls who have terrorised her and made her feel a stranger, are no more emancipated than she is. Their encounter with the boys from Wandsworth proves a disaster. Their world of sham and sheer appearances falls apart ("the evening slowly crumbled away and the stars went out one by one," 38). Aisha now knows that she needs neither integration within a world of pretence nor socialisation within an alien world. She simply has to be herself to exist. She thus decides to leave school, despite her parents' disapproval. When she turns fifteen, she is free to do what her heart dictates. To top it all, she discovers her parents' 'forbidden' books and now spends her time relishing music and erotic reading. Aisha has thus made her step in the world: she has won her emancipation, not in the artificial world of school, not in conformity with her parents' conventional view of life. She lives according to her instincts, inhabiting a personal fantasy space beyond East and West, removed from the past and oblivious to the future. If she is not yet a transcultural subject, neither is she yet an independent adult woman. The difficulties inherent in attaining -- and sustaining -- this independence are examined in other stories in Aisha.
- Any competent reader may think that "The Wedding of Zeina" is an echo of Tayeb Salah's The Wedding of Zein. Apart from the aberration inherent in both situations (the village idiot getting married in the case of The Wedding of Zein; here, a totally unprepared 15-year-old girl forced to marry her cousin), very few data coincide. "The Wedding of Zeina" is therefore less of a counter-image, a feminine/feminist response, than a woman's narrative that can stand alone or be best contextualized through other stories in Aisha. For the first time in the collection, we leave the small bourgeois world of an Egyptian Westernised elite and come in contact with the world of the lower classes. Zeina is Aisha's nurse. When the story begins, we undersand that there won't be any romance lurking in the air, no choice left for the bride to choose her bridegroom. Zeina receives the announcement: she is going to marry her cousin. She does not even know what the word "marriage" means or implies. We are fully immersed in a world governed by tradition, made of absolute certainties sanctified by centuries of unchanged practices. All the material preparations for Zeina's marriage have been taken care of by a silent machinery used to preparing girls for their destiny: the bridal box has been ready for years, the room where the couple will live has been painted, the future cooking arrangements taken, the Mashta called, the wedding banquet organised. As for the bride's duties, they need not be negotiated, let alone questioned, especially as her bridegroom is her cousin -- a perpetuation of endogamous, consanguine marriages that have been going on forever, contributing in the mystique of "keeping one's riches to one's own," as the popular Arab saying goes. The bride is there to serve and obey her husband, to cater to his everyday needs (cooking, cleaning), and to satisfy his (sexual) requirements. Zeina is certainly too young and immature to understand it, but her femaleness further locks her in the pre-destined mould where a woman's only possible role is that of a wife and, hopefully, a mother. The interesting thing to note here is the (unconscious) complicity of the family womenfolk. In spite of her tender care, the grandmother cannot but partake in the continuation of a divinely-decreed tradition. The aunt, even harsher than the men, cannot even understand that a girl does not blindly obey what she is told to do.
- Aisha's intrustion into the story, that is, when the time of narration coincides with the time of history, demarcates Aisha and her parents' world from Zeina's. The latter, by virtue of its economic inferiority and subsequent dependence on the former, is deemed vulgar. More important, through the parallel drawn between the room on the roof where Zeina and her husband will live and the room on the roof where Aisha's grandparents used to breed rabbits, the lower classes are animalised. Their ways are therefore not to be followed, their language not to be used. The hiatus thus created between the two worlds frees the superior classes from any bonds with the lower ones. We are once again reminded of the divide existing between the two worlds, co-existing but having nothing in common, not even their humanity.
- When the time of narration takes over, Zeina tells the story of the day before her wedding. She realistically describes how weddings are prepared, but center stage is given to an utterly terrorised young girl, not knowing what is awaiting her. The virginity-test episode, with the din outside, the blood spilled as if to appease the gods, the threatening gun ready to be shot at the girl should she prove not virgin, the quasi-rape of Zeina, not only with the consent but with the help of her closest of kin -- all these elements cement the parallel drawn between Zeina's marriage and a sacrificial act. That the bridegroom is a butcher further enhances the carnal horror of the scene: in order to coerce her into submitting to the 'virginity-test,' he uses the same technique as when he slaughters an animal ("using all his man's strength . . . he threaded one of my arms behind each knee and drew them up to my head", 91). Zeina is the sacrificial lamb.
- Zeina passes the test. It is time to rejoice, to show the world that the clan has done its job. Gunshots echo gunshots, drumming out the message to the rest of the clan, and the world around, that the girl is a virgin. Her husband Sobhi can now take full possession of her. Above all, by keeping the honour of the family safe, she has not betrayed the confidence they tacitly placed in her. Ahdaf Soueif uses typography to underscore family priorities: whereas 'our' and 'honour' are highlighted through their systematic capitalisation, 'daughter,' even 'family' are in lower-case letters. Soueif shows once again that in a society such as the one described in "The Wedding of Zeina," women are first and foremost sexed social beings. They are not self-contained, self-defined autonomous beings. As Simone De Beauvoir has explained,L'humanité est male et l'homme dé ;finit la femme non en soi mais relativement à lui . . . Elle se détermine et se différencie par rapport à l'homme et non celui-ci par rapport à elle; elle est l'inessentiel en face de l'essentiel. Il est le Sujet, il est l'Absolu: elle est l'Autre. (De Beauvoir, 1949:16)
[Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but in relation to him. She determines herself and is different in relation to man; not man in relation to her: she is the inessential in the face of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute: she is the Other.] (my translation)
- With "Her Man," the immediate sequel to "The Wedding of Zeina," the setting has barely changed, but we are taken ten years after Zeina's marriage. Zeina has proved a good wife: "she has done for [her husband] all that a woman could do for a man" (103). Apart from her good physical assets ("young and full of youth and pretty, with eyelashes black as night even without kohl and a face fair and full of light and hair smooth as silk. What thighs. What legs." ), she has given him a son. Nonetheless, her husband takes a second wife. Zeina feels betrayed: she has obeyed her family and her husband, faithful despite other men's advances. Worst of all, the second wife, Tahijja, is a half-idiot (an echo of Tayeb Salah's Zein? yet another intertextual incidence?). Zeina decides to rebel by not speaking to her husband, but unlike Aisha's defiance in "1964," Zeina's rebellion carries heavy consequences.
- Zeina breaks an implicit balance in social relations and hierarchies. For her society, her religion, the division of the sexes is a biological diktat. In Islamic societies, women have been at worst the slaves of men, at best their vassals. The two sexes have never had balanced relations based on equality. Abiding by the rules does not save you from being victimised by these very rules, because the rules are inherently discriminatory. Following Claude Lévi-Strauss's theory, one can venture to say that such traditional societies do not posit society as composed of human beings, but of men and women, with women defined solely in relation to men. Again, De Beauvoir provides a useful gloss:Le passage de l'état de Nature à l'état de Culture se définit par l'aptitude de la part de l'homme à penser les relations biologiques sous la forme de systèmes d'oppositions: la dualité, l'alternance, l'opposition et la symétrie, qu'elles se présentent sous des formes définies ou des formes floues, constituent moins de ph´nomènes qu'il s'agit d'expliquer que les données fondamentales et immédiates de la relation sociale. (De Beauvoir, 1949:17-18)Thus, Zeina's total submission to the social rules imposed on her and her like has not spared her the plague Egypt shares with other Islamic societies: polygamy. In many Muslim and non-Muslim societies, the system pre-dates Islam itself. That it has been sanctified by a revealed religion has had a reinforcement effect and has thus made it seem valid for all times and all places. Zeina's refusal of the system stems not from political or religious logic but rather springs from a feeling of injustice. She does not question polygamy directly; she simply cannot understand the reasons behind Sobhi's attitude. She even at times adopts the commonly shared view that a woman cannot live in society without men, that women's very existence is at once conditioned by, and defined in relation to, men.
The passage from the state of Nature to the state of Culture is defined by men's propensity to think of biological relations in terms of oppositional systems: duality, alternation, opposition and symmetry; whether presented in rigid or in fluid forms, they constitute not so much actual phenomena as necessary beliefs for explaining the fundamental and immediate givens of social relationships. (my translation)
- Zeina's grandmother tries to help Zeina by explaining that Sobhi:[. . .] hasn't done anything that other men don't do. He's still your husband. He hasn't left you or neglected you. He still supports you and brings meat and fruit, even though you haven't been speaking to him. He still holds you dear. But you're hurting his pride and his manhood. Take care what you're doing lest you drive him away. (98)The grandmother makes it even sound as if polygamy is better for women than spinsterhood or divorce: "These things are in the hands of God. Doesn't the Koran say 'And you may hate that very thing which is best for you' " (98). When an opportunity arises for Zeina to trap her rival, she has no hesitation whatsoever. She does not have the (feminist) impulse to establish some form of female complicity or solidarity in the face of a fundamentally unjust and discriminatory system. She reacts as a human being, seeking to re-establish her own rights on what she legitimately considers as belonging to her in the first place. She thus tricks Tahiyya. In a frank (homo)sexual passage, she uses the only weapons left to women to defend themselves in an unfair society: duplicity, cunning. The important element to note here is that Zeina does not resort to petty, inconsequential tricks. She does not "pour salt in her cooking, cut up her clothes, sprinkle dust in her room" (100). She rather aims at what men consider as highly valuable: their honour. In making Sobhi doubt his second wife's morality, she undermines the very bases of a system which places its honour in the containment of, and checks on, female sexuality. One may think that this episode strengthens the prevalent negative image of women in Islamic societies (cf. the Koranic sentence on women: 'Inna keidahounna la 'adhimu,' "their cunning is verily mighty"), but read from the transcultural perspective Aisha establishes, the story continues the theme of women struggling against cultural oppression.
- "The Suitor" developes this theme in a different direction. Aisha is the narrator, and her Coptic friend Marianne is the subject of the story. Both women are relatively young and unmarried, but Marianne is refusing all suitors. To the great despair of her mother, Tante Safi, Marianne, who turns 29 (a very critical age by the prevailing social norms), is imposing conditions almost impossible for potential husbands to meet. Even when the suitor is "respectable and comes from a good family" (48), God-fearing and a churchgoer, well off and with a good profession, she would find fault with his ears, his trousers, his shoes, his "devotion to his family" (48).
- "The Suitor" hinges on the primary problem women in the Arab World are faced with: marriage. That Marianne is a Copt further highlights the fact that the status of women vis-à-vis marriage is not specific to any religion in particular. Rather, it is a cultural problem. In "Returning," there had been no indication that Aisha was divorced; the reader guesses that she is separated from Saif largely because it is her position as a woman without a man that is the real cause of her relatives' concern. In "The Suitor," Tante Safi's worry stems not only from the fear that she might die and leave behind Marianne on her own -- a legitimate enough worry for an ageing mother -- but mainly from family and social pressure. As an orphaned girl, Marianne would be the absolute responsibility of her uncles, of her "clan." Whereas in "1964" the fourteen-year old Aisha is legally a minor and must live under the guardianship of her parents, Marianne is here 29, with a university education, a profession of her own, yet still in need of the tutelage of her agnatic family. The infantilisation process thus leads to the debilitation of Marianne, and by extention, of all other women -- an apt reminder that, whatever their age, women, and more specifically unmarried women, are and shall always be permanent minors. That Marianne is systematically refusing all suitors even raises her uncles' doubts about her moral values, but no one cares to wonder about the real reason behind her actions, which is that she wants modern, Western-style romance rather than a traditional Egyptian arranged marriage. The only thing they can see is that she is turning thirty and that her chances of finding a good 'party' are getting slimmer. As younger cousins are getting married or engaged, the concern turns into disapproval.
- In such a culture, no woman can lead her life freely unless she gets married. In other words, after her (male) relatives have done their part in preparing her for marriage, it is time for some other man to take over. From the protection of her father, uncle(s), elder brother, male cousin(s), the woman must now be taken into her in husband's custody. The collusion between the mother, the uncle, the clan, the church, in a word, society here operates at its best. It is true that, at the surface level, Father Boulos will provide suitors as long as he gets paid for it; it is nonetheless obvious that, in his capacity as the warden of good morals among his congregation, he has to go along the mother's and family's wish to see Marianne married as soon as possible. Like them, he knows that "a woman only starts living after she's married" (48). Should a woman do some wrong, her reputation would be safe only when she has a husband to protect it (58). We have here two components of the famous trilogy (family, religion, nation) at work.
- After childhood (as in "1964"), and women in a situation where marriage has broken down ("Returning"), we have here the situation of a woman before marriage. In the later short stories is depicted the situation of women in marriage, particularly in "The Wedding of Zeina," "Her Man," and "Nativity." The cycle of marriage must therefore be integrated within life cycle. It is made to appear as part and parcel of life, a duty for every woman to carry out. Paradoxically enough, none is a happy, gratifying situation. In all the short stories, women are missing something. They do not seem to belong to what Betty Friedan calls "the feminine mystique."
- When Marianne finally thinks that she has found the man of her dreams, her position is so untenable that it proves a disaster. Engineer Wassef Ghali has all the prerequisite qualities: he is a Copt, fortyish, an elegant man of the world who runs his own firm and has an expensive car. She starts going out with him, going to his flat, and becomes so enamoured that she is ready to do things totally against her strict upbringing and the social norms she instinctively believes in. Though she has kept her virginity for her wedding night, she obeys whatever he orders her to do. When the relationship lingers on without his proposal for marriage, her brother-in-law, who is on the police force, investigates him. Wassef Ghali proves to be involved in some kind of vice ring, keeping three flats for immoral purposes. Four months later, broken and disillusioned, she finally accepts a suitor, a professor of Economics, whose ears she has not even noticed (59). The couple will share Tante Safi's flat; the suitor wants Marianne to leave her job. He represents all Marianne loathed but she does not seem to care any more. The loop seems to be looped. Marianne seems to submit to Freud's alleged proclamation that "destiny lies in anatomy." Her apparent defeat means that she has internalized the patriarchal construction of women.
- In the meantime, the reader has seen patriarchal society (the brother-in-law, the uncles) venting their misgivings about modernity ("What kind of family is this I've married into? Have you no men folk? Have you no respect? You see how it is? You see the company she keeps? [. . .] This is the result of all this 'freedom' and 'going out to work.' She's going to ruin all our reputations. Absolutely. All our reputations . . .") and about the need for women to carry out what they are here for in the first place: to marry ("she was the only woman still unmarried in the family and she was a liability; she was almost thirty; she should choose now, while she still had the chance," ), and have children. Women are eminently sexed, social beings, likely to disrupt social order. We have here the full image of society struggling with its own contradictions: seeking to achieve modernity while refusing to give up (male) privileges, refusing to recognise women as an integral part of society and thus to acknowledge their essential role in the development process. Combatting these attitudes is precisely one of the avowed aims of Ahdaf Soueif's writing.
- The other salient element in this short story lies with the various allusions to the Coptic community. A genuine problem in Egypt since the emergence of religious fanaticism as an offshoot of Islamic fundamentalism, the issue is so rarely raised in contemporary Egyptian literature that Ahdaf Soueif seems to break a taboo. In a non-overtly political way, she highlights the social interrelationships between Copts and Muslims, suggesting the necessity of an open, multicultural Egypt. Soueif grounds her fiction in fact: tt is true that Muslims seem to be more prone to divorce than Copts (44, 49); it is also true that more and more Copts were emigrating, thus diminishing the number of would-be husbands for Coptic girls. It is nevertheless also true that, had it not been for Tante Safi's insistence that Marianne should by no means marry a Muslim and bring scandal to the family, Marianne's situation would not have differed from any Muslim girl of her age and situation. Despite charges that Soueif debases Islam, this story demonstrates her belief that the lot of women in Egypt is not predetermined by any specific religion. Rather, it is the patriarchal structure and organisation of society that subjects women, condemning them to hardships and inequality. Her aim is to propose another image of sexual politics, not to meddle directly with existing cultural and religious politics, the prerogative of politicians and other demagogues.
- Thus Marianne is part of the female mosaic that is Aisha. The stories focus on signal moments in women's lives, lives Egyptian traditional culture maintains must revolve around marriage and its obligations. Even a story like "1964" rehearses a girl's familial duties; Marianne's horrid courtship experiences, Zeina's pre-nuptial ordeals and confrontation with polygamy, and Aisha's own separation from her husband suggest that the cycle of marriage may not be easy but -- as the collection's title attests -- it is part of life. Yet the dialogic relationship among these stories, knit together by Aisha's transcultural consciousness and narrative voice, also suggests that life can, and should, change.
- Within the framework of the double reference (Western values at work in an Eastern society) inherent in transcultural writing, social issues becomes more complex and the relationships vis-á-vis the prevailing values become more ambiguous. 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.
- In the delineation of what Triki calls an "identity of limits," Ahdaf Soueif makes of differences essential constituents of survival. The construction of a new identity has thus to be opened to the "other." Her writings constitute a space of meeting and of transmutation open to plurality -- a plurality of expressive modes and renewed forms, and a plurality of identity. This is a split and demanding identity which chooses to assert itself at the crossroads of cultures, on the border of languages, in the transgression of taboos and oppression from both East and West.
- Hers is an awareness of the multiculturalism that provisionally disowns one's self to listen to and to perceive, beyond differences, a kinship of gestures and of desires. She shows what forms of transcultural expression are appropriate for a creation that subverts the rigidity of identifications. De-territorialized and deprived of their primary function, signs and symbols become potential places of un-expressed investment. It is as if the situation of displacement (living in between two worlds) urges transcultural writers to revisit their culture of origin by the essential questioning of their relationships with their body, faiths, rites, languages. Their bi-culturalism makes them more sensitive to the falsity of labels and references and more prone to crossing of cultures. If colonial ideology issues a sweeping indictment of the non-European civilisations on the one hand, and a "systematic defence of Europe" on the other, limiting "the human encounter between different cultures, traditions and societies" (Saïd 46), transcultural writing can create a counter-ideology. It constitutes a valid approach to achieving a genuinely postcolonial discourse and a workable postcolonial subjectivity.
- De Beauvoir, Simone. Le Deuxième Sexe. Paris: Gallimard, 1949.
- Brooks, Lily. "Lifting the Veil: Interview with Ahdaf Soueif." The Guardian, August 2, 1999.
- Dhaouadi, Mahmoud. Globalisation of the Other Underdevelopment: Third World Cultural Identities. Kuala Lumpur: A.S.Noordeen, 2002.
- Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton, 1964.
- Hemdan, Gamal. "Fatma Moussa, Pioneer of Comparative Literature." http://www.us.sis.gov.eg./egyptinf/culture/html.
- "In The Eye of the Sun: Editorial Reviews." http://www.powells.com/biblio.html.
- Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
- Roushdy, Yasmine. "Yasmine Roushdy met up the Literati in London." Cleo from London, December 1999. http://www.egyptnile/cleo_from_london.html.
- Saïd, Edward. Orientalism. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.
- Soueif, Ahdaf. Aisha. London: Cape, 1983; rpt. London: Bloomsbury, 1995.
- ---. In The Eye of the Sun. London: Bloomsbury, 1993.
- ---. The Map of Love. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
- ---. Sandpiper. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.
- Triki, Rachida. "La Transculturalité dans le Cadre de l'Immigration." In L'Identité: Choix ou Combat? Tunis: Publications de la Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales. Série: Colloques, Volume XV, 2002.
- "Two Writers Speak about their Work: Talks held at the Africa Centre in November 1999." Transcribed by Mureen Ofili. http://www.africacentre.org.uk/habari2.htm.
- Wassef, Hind. "The Unblushing Bourgeoisie." Cairo Times. Vol. 2, Issue 5, 30 April 1998.
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