By Al-Mustafa Najjar
In her most recent novel, Al-Rawiyat (Female Narrators), published last year, Syrian novelist Maha Hassan explores the realms of oral and written storytelling through a set of female characters, who are not necessarily connected, but are all obsessed with the art of narration.
From the book’s dedication to the unpublished “female raconteurs [who] . . . lived and died in darkness” to the last sentence highlighting the “emancipatory” powers of writing, a celebratory, almost naive tone dominates the novel.
The first narrator, Abbadon, says she lives two lives: A superficial, “typical” one concerned with the satisfaction of mundane day-to-day needs, and a “rich and dense” one centering on fiction writing. “[I was] born to tell tales,” she says, echoing the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir.
“Telling tales is the only entertainment and pastime she has to pass the days in peace,” the narrator says. Even when someone steals the manuscript of the character’s debut novel and publishes it under their name, she does not seem too bothered.
“What’s the harm? What is important is that my characters have a chance to come out to the world, that tales come out for people to read. What is important is the novel, not the novelist.”
When she grows up, her relationship with her husband reaches a dead-end when she confesses to him that “the only moment I feel the ecstasy that resembles orgasm is when I tell tales.”
Rama, the last of the narrators, lives in a parallel, imaginary world, overflowing with fictional characters. Concerned about Rama’s sanity, her mother tries to “suppress” her imagination by exhausting her with all sorts of physical activities. Rama, who was born in India, inherited from her grandmother “the magical ability to tell stories.” Compared to her peers who find in bedtime stories a passageway to sleep, Rama waits for her grandmother to end the story so that she can deconstruct and reconstruct it from scratch. When she grows up, her relationship with her husband reaches a dead-end when she confesses to him that “the only moment I feel the ecstasy that resembles orgasm is when I tell tales.”
There are many similarities between these two narrators: both derive sexual pleasure out of storytelling. Abbadon says: “A sexual energy is generated inside me when I write.” But it would be a mistake to think that this is what Al-Rawiyat is all about, that the female protagonists are the 21st century version of Scheherazade, who tamed Shahryar after a thousand and one nights of storytelling. Al-Rawiyat is deeper than just a cry against patriarchy, or a manifesto calling for a feminist revolution. Beneath the bluntly “revolutionary” surface of the novel, there is a complex narrative structure threatening to subvert it.
Each of the book’s stories culminates with a twist in the plot that contradicts the narrator’s expectations and thus raises questions about their credibility and familiarity with the stories they tell. While Abbadon finds in Sabato the man of her dreams who does everything in his power to help her write her first novel, we discover at the end of their story that he has been using her for purely utilitarian purposes.
The same is also true of Rama, who realises — albeit too late — that Aravind, the musician whom she thought would liberate her repressed soul, is nothing but “an idiot who lacks imagination.”
“To tell a story is to claim a certain authority, which listeners grant,” writes American critic Jonathan D. Culler in his Literary Theory. Faced with the narrators’ celebratory tone about the ability of storytelling to undermine patriarchy, readers have no choice but to take what they say at face value, and thus submit to their narrative authority.
Unlike One Thousand and One Nights, which highlights Scheherazade’s mastery of the art of storytelling, Al-Rawiyat sheds light on the narrators’ failure to have control over the stories they tell.
However, following the disappointments the characters/narrators face, we start to doubt that they are worthy of our trust. The dramatic twists in the novel implicitly raise questions about the credibility of the narration and whether or not the narrator deserves the authority that the reader grants. Unlike One Thousand and One Nights, which highlights Scheherazade’s mastery of the art of storytelling, Al-Rawiyat sheds light on the narrators’ failure to have control over the stories they tell. The novel does exactly the opposite of what it preaches. Hassan’s female narrators give a fake impression of Scheherazade.
In what seems to be a diversion from the plot, Alice — a PhD candidate in “philosophy and its relation to art” — visits Cairo, having been “possessed with the spirit of Pharaohs.” The chapter overflows with references to the success of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Alice says she “has trust in the Egyptian people. Those who toppled Mubarak are capable of toppling the Muslim Brotherhood, and will not accept a new dictatorship.”
For all the failure that the Arab Spring has proved to be, such remarks — which we now find as either cynical or naïve — are said by Alice with the utmost seriousness. Based on what has been written about Al-Rawiyat in the Arab press, there seems to be a consensus about the chapter’s irrelevance to the rest of the novel. In fact, the chapter is highly significant in that it underlines the discrepancy between reality and narration.
Alice, the narrator, is merely offering her “narrative” of the Arab Spring, which stands in stark contrast to reality.
We all heard about the events in Tahrir Square on television, or in newspapers and magazines. In other words, what we know about the Egyptian Spring is nothing more than “narratives” that express the views of their authors. We are surrounded by narratives. Take newspapers, magazines, TV channels, YouTube and social media; they are all platforms for multiple voices and narratives. But do all of them reflect reality? Al-Rawiyat answers in the negative.
The structure of the novel is confusingly divergent, with the frame narrative resembling a Matryoshka doll that encases four stories. The multiple and overlapping narrative voices mean readers never stop asking: “Who is speaking?” and “What are they talking about?”
Added to this confusion is Hassan’s tendency to give several names to each of her characters. Abbadon is both Miriam and Maha, while Sabato can be Ernesto or Franco. “Our names have no significance . . . We are mere virtual creatures.”
A similar uncertainty surrounds the place in which the novel is set. It is “that big city which resembles Cairo, New York, Tokyo, Paris, London or Beirut.”
Al-Rawiyat is a well-crafted work whose turbulent form gives it the uncertainty and ambiguity of great works, such as Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and Ulysses by James Joyce, novels that raised more questions than they offered answers.
Al-Mustafa Najjar is a Syrian journalist/translator at Asharq Al-Awsat. He holds a master’s degree in Post-1900 Literatures, Theories and Cultures from the the University of Manchester. He is based in London and we still hold out hope that some day he will take over the ArabLit franchise.