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From the book’s dedication to the unpublished “female raconteurs [who] .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.
March 8, 2015
Reese Erlich is a foreign correspondent with GlobalPost and reports regularly for National Public Radio (NPR), the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), and Radio Deutsche Welle. His reporting has earned him multiple awards over the years. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared September 14, 2010, “Reese Erlich Day” in honor of his investigative work. “Mr. Erlich,” the resolution read, “exhibits the finest qualities of…reporters willing to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
He is also a friend of mine. We met in the home of our mutual friend Stephen Kinzer in 2009. Kinzer wrote the Foreword to Erlich’s book Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba and hosted a gathering in his home in Oak Park (just outside of Chicago) in Erlich’s honor. It was a fabulous evening, and Erlich and I stayed in touch. A few months later he was in Iran, reporting on the historic protests that convulsed the Islamic Republic following its June presidential election. He wrote some of the very smartest stuff about those dramatic events. Erlich is a dyed–in–the–wool New Leftist who cut his teeth at Ramparts, the iconic magazine of1960s radicalism, took many of his fellow leftists to task for the utter myopia they displayed amidst the events in Iran that summer. His essay “Iran and Leftist Confusion” was bang-on and desperately-needed. He also provided a healthy corrective to the pervasive narcissistic blather about Iran’s Green movement being a Twitter revolution.
A couple years on, when his book Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire came out, I set up an event for Erlich at Chicago’s No Exit Cafe. And in 2013, when Erlich and Norman Solomon (his co-author on the 2003 book Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You) did a speaking tour to mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, I set up an them for them in Denver.
In Erlich’s latest book, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, he is critical of me and my colleague Nader Hashemi for advocating humanitarian intervention to end the criminal starvation sieges in Syria. He reached out to me before the book went to print, asking me to read this section and send him feedback. We had sharp disagreements about Syria, but I appreciated his spirit of generosity and friendship. In this same spirit, I was happy to host him once again in Denver for a talk on his new book. But I was also keen to sit him down for a critical exchange about his book for the video series that our Center for Middle East Studies produces.
Our conversation reflects both my deep respect for Reese’s work and also my serious disagreements with him. It is a spirited and critical (in the best sense) exchange between two leftists with different perspectives on one of key issues of our time.
In the Emperor’s New Clothes, only the little boy can say that the emperor is naked. The good news about yesterday’s speech by Netanyahu to a joint meeting of Congress is that lots of media are taking on that boy’s role, and pointing out the nudity: exclaiming over the fact that a foreign leader came into our house of government to try and overrule our president on foreign policy. Chris Matthews was especially forceful, describing it as a takeover. While a New York Times article said that Democrats have to choose between “loyalty to the Jewish state” and the president.
But journalists have a bigger job than merely exclaiming. They must explain to readers why this outrage took place. Why did Netanyahu get this platform? The answer is the power of the Israel lobby inside our politics. And while there was some talk about the Christian Zionist component of the lobby compelling Republicans to show up, no one could explain why so many Democrats– about 175 of them– sat still for this insult to the president. They did so because of the importance of the Jewish part of the lobby inside the Democratic Party, epitomized by Alan Dershowitz in the gallery. This was surely obvious to viewers. But the media were silent on that score.
Here is some of the coverage I’m talking about. A piece at the New York Times saying that Netanyahu had issued an effective policy challenge to Obama pointed out the strangeness of the spectacle–
Mr. Netanyahu’s hotly disputed address constituted a remarkable moment in Washington: a foreign leader taking the podium before members of the House and Senate to argue strenuously against the policies of the sitting American president. In doing so, the Israeli leader was essentially urging lawmakers to trust him — not Mr. Obama — when it comes to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon…
Times reporters Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear then openly spoke of Democrats whose “loyalty to the Jewish state” is competitive with their support for the president:
For Democrats who have long viewed themselves as supporters of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu’s speech sought to impress upon them the likelihood that they will eventually need to make an awkward, painful choice between the president of their country and their loyalty to the Jewish state.
Why is that choice awkward and painful? I would like to hear why those Democrats feel that “loyalty.” Why aren’t we hearing about Haim Saban and other leading funders of the Democratic Party? Why aren’t Chris Matthews, Jon Stewart, Anderson Cooper and Chris Hayes interviewing John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the scholars who wrote the book The Israel Lobby?
Stewart did a lot of Jewish shtik about the Netanyahu speech yesterday. He called it the longest blowjob a Jewish man has ever received. But he tried to put it on the Republicans– “the state of the union speech the Republican wanted.” Hold on. As the Times informed us:“Some Democrats who are strong supporters of Israel praised Mr. Netanyahu’s speech.”
Stewart briefly hinted at the power of the lobby when he played Obama’s rather-restrained response to the insult:
[whispering] That’s how powerful Israel is. Their prime minister comes here, publicly slaps Obama in the face and the president’s response is, That’s OK, in fact, everyone should know, I’m buying him gloves, so when he hits me, it doesn’t hurt his hand as much.
Good that Stewart got in US aid to Israel.
Respecting the Israel-loving climate on the Democratic side, Chris Matthews was very careful about the speech. He praised it lavishly as a masterful performance. And then he blew his top. First yesterday afternoon:
This man from a foreign government walked into the United States legislative chamber and tried to take over foreign policy…. He said you should trust me, not your president on this… I’m the man you should trust, I’m your true leader on this question of U.S. geopolitics….
It was a startling situation… It’s a remarkable day when the leaders of the opposition in Congress allowed this to happen. Think it through, what country in the world would let a foreign leader come in and attempt to wrest from the president control of U.S. foreign policy? And that’s what the applause was about today…. This was a takeover attempt by Netanyahu with his complying American partners to take American foreign policy out of the hands of the president.
Last night on Hardball, Matthews also blew up– and asked the all-important Why? question:
Can you name another time in American history that we have invited someone into the US Congress chamber to criticize a president’s foreign policy? I can’t think of one. I’ve never heard of that done before. Has it ever been done before? Why now?
Why do we break a tradiiton”? Why do we do something all of a sudden for the first time in history let someone from a foreign government come into our governing chamber and tell us the president is wrong?
No answer to his own questions.
The New York Times was also opaque. Its editorial board exclaimed over the spectacle but then had no words to explain it.
With Republicans and most Democrats as his props, he entered the House of Representatives to thunderous applause on Tuesday, waving his hand like a conquering hero and being mobbed by fawning lawmakers as he made his way to the lectern.
Even Washington doesn’t often see this level of exploitative political theater; it was made worse because it was so obviously intended to challenge President Obama’s foreign policy.
I suppose I should be happy that the press is at least exclaiming over the outrage, and that it’s now obvious to Americans. The Democratic lib-left is now taking on the Israel lobby, though not by name. Stewart castigated Netanyahu for pushing the Iraq war 12 years ago, and Matthews went further, saying that Netanyahu had worked with the US neoconservatives:
Let’s be honest here. Bibi Netanyahu would have a chunk more credibility on this peace-and-war issue if he hadn’t been blowing his bugle over the heads of the Bushes and the neo-cons as we rushed into Baghdad.
His complaint about Iran’s grab of other countries would have more blare to it if it hadn’t been that he, Bibi Netanyahu, had not been totally “in” on the war that turned Iraq into an Iranian pawn.
Dana Milbank in the Washington Post called out Netanyahu for all but committing the Congress to go to war.
[Nancy Pelosi’s] agitation was not difficult to comprehend. It’s a rare thing for Congress to declare war — and rarer still to do it at the request of a foreign leader.
It wasn’t literally a war declaration, of course, just symbolic applause from Republicans, and several Democrats, for Netanyahu’s bid to scuttle U.S. negotiations with Iran.
So that’s the plus side of the coverage yesterday. The political dynamics are so obvious that the American people are feeling outraged. A friend writes from abroad:
Yesterday, the US was not only publicly, but globally insulted…. Now that the dual loyalty business is out of the closet, I hope the US won’t return to its usual induced coma.
Commenters on the New York Times editorial are clued in to the whole charade. ScottW:
That is Bibi’s stick and it never changes. Iran is the boogeyman and while Israel has untold numbers of nuclear weapons, has never signed the nuclear nonproliferation agreement, and permits no inspectors in its country, the Iranian’s somehow pose a greater threat. Pure baloney.
The congressmen who gave Bibi an ovation for a speech that offers nothing new, only the old, is disgraceful. Are they trying to placate the Jewish Lobby in hopes of securing hundreds of millions in donations?
Fortunately for the process, neither Bibi nor any of his cheerleading representatives are involved in trying to reach a deal with Iran that will bring us into the 21st Century.
If this doesn’t prove to the world that the United States is nothing more than Israel’s puppet state I don’t know what will. Remember this is the guy who appeared on all the Sunday morning blab fests telling us about Saddam’s WMDs prior to our adventure in Iraq.. The paranoia, ignorance, and xenophobia displayed by the republicans can all be traced to their master “President” Bibi. I’m ashamed of my country today because of this disgrace.
Every Congressman who contributed to Netanyahu’s photo op and campaign rally from within our hallowed hall did a disservice to our nation, our presidency, and our voters. We need their names and we need them held publicly accountable for their choice.
Wow. Looking at that picture, I’m hard pressed to believe Netanyahu is not the American President, and those beaming congressmen are not reprensentatives of the American people.
The NSA should be alarmed at this enormous influence of a foreign country on our legislative body.
Thanks to Susie Kneedler for pointing out all the progress.
The long essay below was contributed by friends of the blog Peter Harling and Sarah Birke. A previous essay from a year ago can be read here.
They will say, “Our eyes have been deceived. We have been bewitched.”
Surat al-Hijr (15:15)
One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. Even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has made forays into our collective psyche, where its brutality and taste for gory spectacle is a force multiplier. Perhaps more than merely evil, the Islamic State is diabolical: like the Satan of scripture, it is a creature that is many things to many people, enjoys a disconcerting allure, and ultimately tricks us in to believing that we are doing the right thing when we are actually destroying ourselves.
This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts.
The semantics deployed in response to it are telling: each party projects its own national traumas and anxieties. In the West, the threat posed by Islamic State has been equated with anything from Auschwitz to the genocide in Rwanda to the siege of Sarajevo, even though none of these precedents has much in common with the phenomenon at hand. Among Muslims, the comparisons tend to point to Islam’s early traumas – Sunnis refer to the Khawarij, Islam’s first radicals, while Shias draw comparison with the Umayyads, the Sunni dynasty whose rise the partisans of Ali opposed. These sectarian-tinged views duel with the Islamic State’s own depiction of itself as the embodiment of pious, brave, ruthless and egalitarian comradeship – a utopian image of early, conquering and united Islam that it cultivates meticulously (and which works all the better the less versed in Islamic culture its audience actually is).