Anatomy of A Disappearance, Hisham Matar

This novel is about an author’s incredible restraint. Hisham Matar, who has in real life suffered a publicly documented tragedy – the loss and disappearance of his father – doesn’t in 246 pages mention the word Libya, the true source of his grief and misery. Easily, he can blame, accuse and point the finger; but rather, Matar in this novel reclaims the personal, ignores the current political and rises above the sordid history.

Insisting his work is fictional, an adolescent Nuri loses his mother first and after experiences the unusual vanishing of his father. Alongside, there is a racy and competitive love triangle interwoven in the tale – between father, son and the amorous interest Mona.

Though one is transported to the background cities of Alexandria, Egypt, Geneva, Switzerland, Paris, France and London, England, the protagonist’s country of origin is only referred to as a place of waterfalls, pomegranates and palm trees. Matar also cleverly fabricates the political tale: “Our King was dragged to the courtyard of the palace and shot in the head.”

Throughout, Nuri struggles to make sense of his life, his young sexuality and unusual family circumstances. Living at first in exile with his father, he is clearly in the shadows of the man who holds incredible charm and intellect, wealth and a certain political persuasion. But after there is also a great betrayal.

After the father’s disappearance, there is even more anguish, confusion, loss and the sense of unrequited grief: “Relatives and neighbours who might have filled the chairs in the hall if father had died were silent in the face of his disappearance.”

Not to spoil the intricate plot that is well paced and engaging, I recommend this book over Matar’s first – “In the Country of Men.” This one flows much better and reads as a stream of poetic consciousness. But the fine line between fact and fiction is taken to the limits once more. Maybe Matar wants to be timeless. But, as the voice of the father, Kamal Pasha el-Alfi, says: “You can’t live outside history. We have nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary!”

Note: This article was first published circa March 2012

Hurma, Ali Al-Muqri

A childhood memory urged me to pick up the novel titled ‘Hurma’ by Ali Al-Muqri. I first heard the Arabic word ‘hurma’ being used when I was a young girl on a mini-pilgrimage to Mecca circa 1995. It was being shouted out by an ugly old male guard who was holding a long wooden stick in his hand to usher the women as to where they can stand and pray around the Kabaa. I didn’t know the meaning of the word; but, whatever its definition, I sensed it held negative and oppressive connotations due to the guard’s aggressive physical stance towards us.

Curious to open the book to enter the world of a so-called female protagonist, I had hoped for an enlightening read into the character, the reality and psychology behind such a woman. I also wanted an insight into the cultural beliefs and attitudes that manifest in the society she inhabits. And, for sure, I was not at all disappointed. In truth, I was so astonished by the tale that I had to read it twice just to make sure that my eyes were not deceiving my mind.

Hurma the character is not even identified by a proper legal name to distinguish her from others as an individual human being. Even when all this young girl desires is to please her father, brother, husband and culture, she ends up pleasing nobody. From the age of eight, she is given the burka to wear with only two small slits for the eyes and is ordered about by everyone. She is also forcibly made to live in the shadows of existence and moves about only as an invisible black blob. Even so, without having any autonomous personal agency, she manages to find herself in very odd and dangerous predicaments.

Starting out in Sana’a, Yemen sometime circa Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Guantanamo and the war in Chechnya, Hurma is subject to extreme religious indoctrination that she cannot but blindly follow. Her brainwashing is complete when she is a student at the Islamic Scientific Academy, where she comes to naïvely dream of becoming a female warrior to fight in jihad against ‘the heathen crusaders, the communists, the Jews in Palestine and infidels in general’.

It is during her time there that we are introduced to some of the preposterous religious arguments proposed by her Islamic lecturers and noting their general obsession with sex and how to limit and deny the female any known freedoms. With straight faces, they debate whether or not it is a sin for a woman to see dogs and chicken copulate or if it is halal for a woman to handle bananas and cucumbers! All the while, of course, they don’t question themselves as men nor do they admit to their own evident impotence and sexual perversions.

“We know that a woman remains a hurma even in death. She is mentioned by name only when this is unavoidable, because to mention her is an act of immodesty, and modesty is a part of faith. A man without faith is a man without modesty. A man who talks about his hurma has lost his modesty and therefore his faith.” (Page 80, a quote from Hurma’s Islamic professor).

Being so manipulated, Hurma is predictably married off to her brother’s friend. An extreme political-religious character, he carelessly takes her with him to the ends of the earth in his own longing for martyrdom and jihad. Making her a member of a mujahedeen cell in Yemen, eventually he uses her as a mule to carry gold, cash and explosive ingredients. Again, unwittingly, she ends up travelling through Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and Iran and being exposed to the reality of holy war on the frontline.

All the while, however, we know as readers that Hurma carries a deep guilty secret and a sincere longing for something else that is rather different from the jihad that her husband offers her. But I won’t spoil that great surprise for you.

I also won’t spoil the incredible ways in which Al-Muqri reveals the deeply set contradictions of the irrational and violent ideology that not only oppresses women in the name of Islam, but also tends to lead the men to pursue goals of self-annihilation and suicidal missions. For the author is denouncing, ridiculing and exposing all the weaknesses of their arguments and turning them on their ugly head to expose the faults and sorry end results through one gullible person’s experience. It is no wonder that Al-Muqri received threats to his safety after publication of this book and had to go into hiding.

Some of the scenes will actually have you laugh in utter and absolute disbelief and do be prepared for the liberal use of sexually explicit content throughout the story. Just to mention one of the most memorable scenes, we find Hurma alone in a room in Saudi Arabia and watching an Islamic television programme, where the show is debating a notorious fatwa that was issued by an Egyptian Sheik who had belonged to the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. This was a true event where the fatwa was publicly brought to light; although, eventually, it was rejected and thrown out.

The Sheik had ruled that if a woman must, for some unavoidable reason, spend time in the presence of a man who is neither her husband nor a close relative – which is of course prohibited by Sharia – then it’s possible for her to suckle this man, thereby creating a kinship bond between them and making it permissible for them to mix! There is a whole passage following this in which the details of how to manage such a fatwa are discussed and the reader is left in hysterics.

I won’t say much else about the plot’s development nor will I elaborate on the other highly colourful personalities in the tale whose personal journeys closely intersect with Hurma’s but that are also so very different. I highly recommend this book as it addresses the inherently insane psychology that masquerades as religious dogma; and, also, because it artistically explores the controlled belief system that ultimately negatively impacts on both of the sexes.

Al-Muqri not only plays on the irony of what the word ‘hurma’ means in Arabic – it means ‘sanctity’ – and how that has come into use, misuse and abuse; he, also, fully delves into the crazy world where such logic is imposed and showing us all the inevitable disturbing consequences. He is also leading us as observers to consider our individual and collective responsibility when it comes mainly to the treatment of women.

If you are, like me, ready to read with an open mind, then by the end you will be dying for Al-Muqri’s other works to be translated into English.

You can purchase ‘Hurma’ by Ali Al-Muqri at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hurma-Ali-al-Muqri/dp/1850772770

Note: This review was first published circa September 2015

I Killed Scheherazade, Joumana Haddad

If Jasad, the erotic magazine published by Joumana Haddad was “to create a cultural body for our Arab bodies and to inquire intellectually into the consciousness of the body and into its unconsciousness”, then the book I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman is purposefully about the freedom and the liberation of the Arab mind that is “in crisis” – or, at least, according to Haddad.

In fact, she does not waste time on pleasantries or niceties, beginning the first chapter by the strong indictment and condemnation of the Arab culture, psychologically diagnosing it and its people with a core schizophrenia and an advanced level of hypocrisy, all down to the religious and political elements that repress and oppress any form of novel expression or creativity, that she herself won’t suffer.

But I would, playing devil’s advocate, go as far as to extend her metaphor and challenge that if, truly the general Arab is schizophrenic, then the Middle East must be the bigger or greater asylum, where the insane happen to rule and the sane can easily go mad. Are we Arabs then all committed in this way? I believe that Haddad would very happily reply yes to this question.

To further quote: “The Arab majority depends upon a web of comforting lies and illusions. It means that your life and your stories must be repressed, clamped down and encoded; rewritten to suit the vestal guardians of Arab chastity, so that the latter can rest assured that the delicate Arab ‘hymen’ has been protected from sin, shame, dishonour or flaw.”

For Haddad is not just “angry,” but “livid” I would say, at not just the Arab man and his total but by the Arab woman herself (and her total) who is often times “her own best adversary, often a conspirator against her sex. . and (who) is excellent at innovating ways to humiliate the woman, to frustrate her and annul her own identity and role.” And why should the artistic voice be silenced, whichever sex? – “Is there a more whorish act than depriving an Author of his or her words?” Haddad herself won’t bow down to any censor or pressure.

The book is then structured parallel to Haddad’s journey, from childhood days – when at the age of twelve she first began her love affair with Literature, reading all of the philosophic Western texts in French – to her love-hate relationship with Beirut, Lebanon and its war days, onto becoming a poet, a woman and her provocation of Allah, as well as the real reasons for starting and continuing with Jasad.

The writing itself is very raw and passionate and, of course, seductively confessional. Her main upset though – and to reiterate – is on the subject of being an Arab woman and on being an Arab writer and intellect, living and breathing within the confines of an Arab country, where there is still – I would say – the incidental philosophic pleasure and the circumstance of having to undergo an adventure to remain true to one’s authentic self and to realise one’s existential potential.

But that is where I felt that Haddad perhaps doesn’t acknowledge how privileged an entity she really is and that she would never be the norm in any culture. For to have come to her autonomous position, one must have already had access to and interest in the complicated texts that permeate her verse and the ideas, theories and concepts that to a general Arab audience are still most likely to fall on deaf or dumb ears, purely for the fact that they are of a Western disposition and of a politically liberal and secular temperament.

Not that I don’t applaud her efforts to call for change or her attempts to come clean with very brave private admissions. Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! For your copy, you can contact Saqi book publishers.

Note: Article first published circa September 2010

Najwa Benshatwan: Libyan Female Author ‘Under The Radar’

An ugly shadow side of Libya’s history is that it was a slave market route for centuries under Ottoman rule, way before the Italian occupation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951. Growing up in Libya, children might still hear stories from elders about the black maids who used to work in their household or about distant cousins in Africa who carry their same recognisable surnames.

There would be no elaboration on the reality of the trade that used to buy, sell and barter human beings and rarely admission of how the ancestors may have been involved in the mistreatment of those held captive. Few Libyans have the courage to revisit that period with its many ghosts or to bring up the racism issues that still persist in the culture.

Not up until now that the talented author Najwa Benshatwan has taken the task to heart by writing a novel so powerful, beautiful and so sensitively fashioned in the narrative voice of the slaves. She has creatively wrapped it up into a love story that touches upon the era and the taboo subjects that have never been exposed before.

Shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, ‘The Slave Pens’ has yet to be translated into English. Already, Benshatwan is being courted to turn it into different languages and to adapt it into a TV series or a film. This new positive intrigue by the literary world has been unexpected – as she has already successfully published two other novels and collections of short stories – but very much welcome.

For the Shubbak Festival 2017, I spoke with Benshatwan via Skype and we conversed in the Libyan dialect. She opened up not just about the book that will undoubtedly transform her artistic destiny; but, also, on the challenges she faced as a budding intellectual during the oppressive Gaddafi regime, how she managed to overcome obstacles put in her way and how she is now content to be in Rome, Italy where she can pursue her work without complications.

Najwa: “For a long time, I felt buried in Libya. Born in 1969, I was of the generations that were denied the right to learn European languages at school and it is still a source of anger for me that I don’t’ speak except very basic English. When I was young, my talent as a writer would be denied as my homework at the age of 11 became a source of suspicion amongst teachers, who could not believe that it was my work and not that of an adult.

“Later on when I went on to university in Benghazi, it was my beautiful handwriting in Arabic that was a problem. To trick my examiners not to recognise my paper, I forced myself to write with my left hand so they wouldn’t know it was me. I did also learn braille and sign language for a brief period when I specialised in working with deaf and blind children.

“In terms of my literary ambitions, under Gaddafi there was no intellectual freedom and I was always worried about not just the state control but family and societal controls too. It is only now in ‘The Slave Pens’ that I am much older and more confident that I can safely explore things like love and sex for example.

“So I turned to short story fiction and utilised symbolism when dealing with Libya as the essence and background of my tales. But I was careful to enter only competitions judged abroad and they were one way to gain recognition. But my work came to the scrutiny of the Libyan authorities who tried to lure me to write about the regime and its ideology which I refused to do.

“The situation worsened when I got arrested and charged for writing against the state with the publication my short story ‘His Excellency, the Eminence of the Void’. Afraid and terrified to spend a night in prison with criminals, I travelled all the way to Tripoli where I spent four hours under interrogation knowing that the maximum sentence could be execution.

“Although I was not convicted, they wouldn’t leave me in peace, making my life hell and sending spies at the university where I was teaching and forcing me to attend political events. It was like cat and mouse that I stopped publishing my work and planned to save up enough money to be able to make an escape.

“But things changed with the February Revolution. I had naively believed in the rebel fighters and the struggle so much that I gave them my savings. Then sadly realising that there would be no security in Libya, my next chance to leave came when I got accepted to study in Italy where I have been for the past four years.

“My time in Italy has not been easy. I have been lonely and had to face dire economic circumstances and the psychological turmoil that entails. I had to take all sorts of jobs to survive and it took time to learn Italian before I could complete my doctoral degree at La Piensa University in Rome.

“I wanted to dedicate my thesis to the slavery and human trafficking under the Ottoman period and the Islamic Empire because I was haunted by a black and white picture that I had seen in an Englishman’s traveller book… although I cannot remember the name of the book or the Italian photographer who must have captured the image around early 1900s.

“It was of two black women slaves with a boy and a child. When I asked about the scene, I was told that the quarters where they used to live were commonly referred to in the local dialect as ‘pens’ in the way of an animal’s pen. I had the photo scanned and put as my screensaver since 2006.

“For years I couldn’t steal myself away from the characters and my imagination became immersed in contemplating their lives… that is what urged me to write and finish the novel. My hope for it is to be a wake up call for Libyans to learn from past mistakes and acknowledge how black slavery – both past and present – has impacted on our society, from the economic to the social, political, cultural, psychological and mental aspects.

“Overall I am happy to have explored this subject and I am proud to be the first Libyan woman to be shortlisted for the IPAF. I can now finally be able to dedicate more and more of my time to just being a writer.”

Benshatwan is scheduled to participate in the ‘Under The Radar’ talk that is part of the Shubbak Literature programme at the British Library.

This interview article was written in collaboration with the Shubbak Festival 2017. 

You can see the full Shubbak Festival programme at: www.shubbak.co.uk

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