Showing posts with label arabic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label arabic. Show all posts

Saturday, August 5, 2017

WITMonth Day 5 | The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

You know those books that you almost don't want to read because of how they suddenly seem to represent everything that's going on in your life? Like when you were a child and suddenly the protagonist of the book you were reading was struggling in school like you were, or finding a book about losing a parent just as your close friend was dealing with her grief. Sometimes books just seem too real, and goodness if Basma Abdel Aziz's The Queue (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette) didn't feel exactly that.

It's been a few months since I read The Queue, a few months in which it's remained an itchy little reminder in the back of my mind. This is unsurprising, of course - the political climate of late has been so turbulent, so virulent, so baffling that it's hard not to strongly relate to a novel that details the pervasive, insistent, cancerous growth of authoritarianism. The Queue does so from a very specific angle, taking place in a not-entirely-unfamiliar version of Egypt with its own unique struggles (including explicit references to questions of religious purity and specific Islamic values).

And yet somehow, in April of 2017, the novel felt eerily familiar to this reader.

The Queue is not an especially long, heavy, or complex read. Rich with characters as it may be, the story remains focused on a few specific individuals who effectively reside in "the queue" - a long, indeed stagnant and eternal line that is waiting for The Gate to open. The Gate represents the new, authoritarian regime. Unsurprisingly, it remains closed to the public. Even as it demands that citizens acquire specific approvals, documents, and certificates from the Gate in order to conduct normal lives (in some cases, in order to live at all), it remains steadfastly closed, even as it hands down more decrees.

The Gate has remained closed since the Disgraceful Events, when protests against the state erupted. These protests represent both the strength and weakness of the Gate: its strength in eliminating the protesters and convincing the public that these Events didn't occur as witnesses clearly show they did, while also forcing its bunkered retreat. Among the victims of the Events is Yehya, who was shot by government forces. Since the official narrative rejects that the government even needed to use live weapons, the bullet that remains lodged in Yehya cannot exist and thus Yehya's declining health is fictional as well. Yehya's health forms a sort of frame story, guided by the surgeon who initially saw Yehya and identified the bullet that remained within.

Alongside Yehya's story, The Queue introduces additional characters who need the Gate's approval for various issues. One man seeks to reclaim his family's honor, a woman tries to stay afloat as her son suffers from illness, a journalist wanders the queue in a quest to understand their stories... Each story introduces one more small angle of the Gate's authority, from control of the media to control of basic businesses (like the state-run cell-phone provider that doesn't really provide service) to the gradual - and then avalanche-scale - erosion of freedom.

And here was the point at which things began to hit close to home.

A major theme in The Queue is the reliability of truth itself. The truth of the truth. Do you believe what you are told so very reasonably? Do you believe what your own eyes have seen, even if it contradicts what you're being told? At what point is the demand of the state truly too much? At what point is it obvious that you are being truly and thoroughly oppressed? These are not trivial questions, and The Queue doesn't pretend to answer them. It's not about having an answer, it's about the route taken. A small lie enables outright, blatant denials of the truth. This not only echoes the new political climate in the US - a world of "fake news" and alternative facts - but Israel, where journalists are often (quite frankly) so shallow that it is almost impossible to identify truth from propaganda. True, both countries are still democracies (if each severely flawed in its own way...), but it felt like that iceberg tip. Just a little more and things might collapse.

The Queue is a good book. Powerful, cleanly written, thought-provoking. Both Yehya's core story and Tarek's frame are emotionally engaging, while the additional fragments from the side-characters build this world in a remarkable way. Pieces of the plot felt a little thick at times, but the relatively short length of the story keeps the book as a whole from getting bogged down. It is, ultimately, a cool-headed dystopian tale of a world that is actually far too real.

Here, at least, we have one truth...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

When you can't review impartially | Maryam: Keeper of Stories by Alawiya Sobh

This review is one of the hardest I've had to write in a very long time. It's a review tinged with disappointment, discomfort, and uncertainty. I spent a long time wondering whether I should even write a review of Alawiya Sobh's Maryam: Keeper of Stories (translated by Nirvana Tanoukhi). I wondered if I could write an impartial review.

I can't write an impartial review, perhaps, so I will write an emotional one.

I was fine with Maryam for the first 100 pages. By which I mean I was engaged with these mostly tragic-sometimes-sweet fragments about the lives of mostly-Muslim Lebanese women. Maryam is a book comprised of pieces of stories, told ramblingly and often vaguely. The stories seem to overlap, with characters almost interchangeable. It's a book about women, often delving into the rougher sides of things too. Women are explicitly raped (not "hurt" by men; the text is blunt in this truth), women give birth, women befriend women, women fall in love, women are hurt, and so on. It's bleak, but there's a power to it, I suppose.

Except... something happened around 100 pages into the book. Specifically, an anecdote entered the narrative for no discernible reason. A deeply antisemitic, what-the-f***, unnecessary story.

This page-long anecdote is about the "grandfather", who goes to America to find his fortune. While there, the greedy Jew that he works with cheats the business's owner. The owner asks the grandfather to kill the Jew, which the grandfather does by... throwing "the Jew" into the oven. The grandfather is rewarded with gold, because now that the cheating Jew is gone, the bakery will make much more money. An alternative version to this story exists as well, in which it is actually the bakery owner who is Jewish and the American coworker who is burned. But this version is told in a paragraph as the alternative, rather than the page and a half devoted to the version that ends with the greedy Jew being burned in the oven.

I literally had to stop reading at this point. Sitting out on the balcony with my feet soaking up the sun, hands shaking, mouth open, utterly aghast, I set the book aside. I couldn't keep reading for several more hours. I wondered if I was being overly sensitive. I wondered if I was being unfair. I wondered if it was totally unintentional. Perhaps the Holocaust imagery was a coincidence? Perhaps the linkage between "Jew" and "money thieving" was random? Perhaps I was imaging things...

I couldn't read the book in the same way after that.

I started noticing the way Christian characters hardly existed in Sobh's Lebanon. Despite the fact that almost half of the country is Christian or Druze, the novel doesn't seem to see them the same way it sees its Muslim characters, even if it occasionally references the sectarian differences in the country that fuel so many of its conflicts. I started noticing that the narrative frequently references atrocities from Lebanon's wars with Israel (justifiably enough, though it ignores the triggers that led to these wars), but does not even mention Syrian interference in the country's civil war. The book started to feel like a smokescreen, telling one important story perhaps about the struggles of some Muslim women growing up during wars and atrocities and misogyny, but almost deliberately ignoring anything else around it.

Of course, this reading is heavily biased. I'm not going to pretend it isn't. The above feelings were always framed by that one moment, around page 100, with the Jewish worker being burned in the oven. Every time I tried to set it aside, I found myself coming back to it. Why would the narrative include it? What possible purpose did it serve? It had nothing to do with any of our main characters, provided little emotional depth, and served no purpose to the plot. Why was it there? Why was it translated so uncritically? Why should I read a book that has such a blatantly antisemitic reference and not be upset by it? Why shouldn't it color how I read the rest of the book?

I don't have any good answers to these questions.

Maryam has an interesting concept at its core. I loved the idea of telling women's stories in this muddled way. I loved that the focus really was on the struggles many women face, simply for being born female. The writing is dreamy and lovely, befitting a story that encompasses so large a time span with such a vaguely distant style. On a technical level, I can see that Maryam has a lot going for it. But does that excuse the rest? Does that excuse the dropped stories or aimless frame story? Does it excuse the smokescreen and evasion? Does it excuse a totally unnecessary antisemitic scene that is inexplicable and inexcusable and yet... included?

I was ultimately left disappointed and upset by Maryam. Triggered by personal experiences? Sure. Yes. Antisemitism is likely to hurt me more than others, fine. It meant that I couldn't read the story the way that I had wanted to. It meant that I had to reframe the entire story based on identity politics of the ugliest sort. It meant that I had to question whether lovely prose made up for ugly content. It meant I had to challenge my own definitions of ugliness, wondering if perhaps I could set aside my own emotions for the sake of other important aspects. I guess in the end I just couldn't, and I am left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Perhaps other readers will be able to look past what I could not; I remain disappointed, uncomfortable, and uncertain. What a shame.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

WITMonth Day 13 | Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal el-Saadawi | Review

If I had to give Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal el-Saadawi (translated by Catherine Cobham) a one-line review, I'd probably say that it was an interesting (if forgettable) book that didn't really move me much in any direction.

That makes writing a review a bit difficult, particularly in light of the long gap between when I read it and the time of writing this review. I recall the feminist message of Memoirs of a Woman Doctor fairly clearly (particularly the fact that it doesn't always resemble "Western" feminism), as well as the relationship the narrator had with her brother. But that's about it. It's only by browsing now that I recall the narrator's failed marriage, the struggles she has in establishing her practice. The way the role of a woman within Egyptian culture is central to the plot. Even the narrator's musings on the failings of modern medicine in relation to her own desires.

This sort of amnesia doesn't bode very well for this novella. Truthfully, it's not all that good on a technical level. That is... conceptually, it's a powerful, interesting narrative, with a strong message about women's roles and feminism in an at-times unyielding world, alongside a central theme of mother-daughter relationships. But the writing is awkward, the story is that weird balance of not-fully-fleshed and poorly-padded. Parts of it felt like they were written too directly, thoughts to page without any literary adjustments along the way.

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor is a great example of a book that is improved by its context. Under normal conditions, there is little to recommend here (especially since the book is extremely slight, and the font surprisingly large...), yet the content - and the complex world this content lives within - is almost important enough to justify giving the book a second glance. No, it's not particularly well written (though there are a handful of beautiful lines and images), nor is it an inherently moving text. But its position as a frank literary piece chronicling a somewhat unique position alongside a rarely heard feminist worldview makes it interesting. And also, yes, important. Its voice may wobble, but it has something to tell.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

WITMonth Day 16 - Spotlight on Northern Africa

Jumping around continents a bit, but it's definitely time to broaden our horizons a bit. Let's see what Northern Africa's women have to offer, shall we? Note: This list contains books translated from several different languages, as befits such a broad and diverse geographic region.

  • Leila Abouzeid (Morocco)
  • Rita El Khayat (Morocco)
  • Mririda n’Ait Attik (Morocco)
  • Malika Oufkir (Morocco)
  • Amina Said (Tunisia)
  • Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt)
  • Radwa Ashour (Egypt)
  • Hala El Badry (Egypt)
  • Mansoura Ez-Eldin (Egypt)
  • Alifa Rifaat (Egypt)
  • Maïssa Bey (Algeria)
  • Assia Djebar (Algeria)
  • Malika Mokeddem (Algeria)
  • Ahlam Mosteghanemi (Algeria)
  • Leïla Sebbar (Algeria)
As always, this list is woefully incomplete and narrow. As always, compiling this list made me realize how many writers are not translated (and I'll talk about this a bit more in depth later in the month). But once again I find myself thinking, "Well, at least it's a place to start." So... onward we march.