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If You've Ever Been Anywhere You'll Know the Scene

Narrative as Travel in Arab Women's Writing

The conception of narrative has always been closely tied to the experience of travel, and the journey - quests, odysseys, and adventures - have always served as powerful masterplots. This chiasm of "travel as writing and writing as travel," is one which Michel Butor outlines in his essay "Le voyage et l'ecriture" ("Travel and Writing") where he argues that "to travel is to write (first of all because to travel is to read), and to write is to travel." Working from this conception of narrative as travel allows for a re-investigation of the quest for personal identity and the motif of the journey in the literature of Arab women.

Orientalism and Travel Literature

In 1925, Virginia Woolf wrote that “excursions into the literature of a foreign country much resemble our travels abroad” and that “in our desire to get at the heart of the country we seek out whatever it may be that is most unlike what we are used to, and declare this to be the very essence.” This desire to “get at the heart” of a country features significantly in the travel literature examined in Edward Said’s Orientalism which argues that Western knowledge of the East was created in a discursive environment.

Orientalist narratives of travel such as Gerard de Nerval’s Journey to the East or Eugene Fromentin’s Between Sea and Sahara, An Orientalist Adventure are landmarks in the story of the West’s fascination with "The Orient." Much has been written about the interconnection between such travel writings, the colonial relationship, and the representations of native women as metonyms for the exotic lands they describe: as women and country become interchangeable, to conquer one is to conquer the other, and to know is to conquer, a dynamic of the colonial resolve which is concisely described in Fanon’s phrase “we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil”.

This colonialist interest in finding the women behind the veil cannot be separated from its interest in and hostility to Islam. Casting women as victims to be rescued from male violence, the colonial fixation on the veil, the harem, and polygamy turned women into symbols of a region and a religion that were at once exotic, violent, and inferior.

Explorations Beyond the Veil

This “finding” of the Other has found renewed expression in recent years, as "Fundamentalist Islam" became the number one enemy for a post-cold war West, and especially in the post 9 /11 period, which has seen a proliferation of texts promising to “unveil” the hidden world of Muslim women. Many of these texts fall under the genre of the travel narrative, and these include the personal accounts by journalists reporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One example is The Bookseller of Kabul, by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad. Another is Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between(2004), an account of his experiences in Afghanistan and a New York Times bestseller, which was followed by The Prince of the Marshes And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq . Tellingly, in a Time article, Stewart is dubbed Stewart of Afghanistan.

Even when these texts are not literal travel narratives, they can be said to follow a similar dynamic in providing the reader with the impression that the book will strip away a veil of mystery to “get at the heart” of an alien world, that the reader will emerge with the knowledge of a traveler, or in other words, that to read is to travel. The effort to “reveal” this hidden world often, and perhaps inevitably, involves the positing of a dichotomy between non-western and western constructs, a dichotomy implicit in the vocabulary of East/West rhetoric itself. However while use of this terminology is to some extent unavoidable, the validity of vocabulary which divides the world into homogonous entities must be questioned to avoid the danger of falling into the superficiality of essentialist characterization. The limitations of this terminology are apparent in the way “Western culture” for example suggests that the West is a stable monolithic entity. Similarly, terms such as Arab and Islamic, which tend to overlap, often seem to be perceived as undistinguishable in the West’s cultural imaginary.

In this sense, to refer to Arab/Muslim women as one group is to some extent simplistic and problematic, conflating as it does a wide variety of ethnic, cultural, religious, national, and professional backgrounds, as well as overlooking differences of class. In this study, the focus would be on Anglophone Arab women, paying due regard to these differences. However, the study would also look at similarities in the strategies these writers employ in “writing back” to the West, examining these strategies against the context of representations of Arab women through history, and comparing modern Western representations with the self-representations of Muslim women.

Stasis and Movement, Victim and Escapee

In recent years, a globalized discourse of the Muslim woman has emerged, which has propagated the neatly packaged image of the veiled oppressed victim and served to provide a justification of wars as the exportation of freedom and democracy. This naturalized category of “victim,” and its wholesale attribution to Muslim and Arab women often relies on a portmanteau of stereotypical images which have dominated Western representations of Muslim women since the 18th century.

Mohja Kahf has argued that the existing “spectrum” for stories about or by Muslim women consists of two Eurocentrically slanted slots: Victim and Escapee. The story of the Victim relies on images which are characterized by their stasis. Whether portrayed as a veiled, silenced victim or as an odalisque, the stereotypical Arab woman is immobile, with the Oriental harem and the Islamic veil synecdochically standing in for her. As the veiled submissive wife, she is a mute shadow at the edges of a portrait, as an odalisque, literally ‘the woman of the room’ she is confined to an enclosed space, as represented in Orientalist paintings such as Matisse’s Odalisque with Left Knee Bent, where as Darraj notes “the woman portrayed sits in one of the rooms of the harem, lounging idly, forming part of the colorful background but not performing any action.” In this storyline, the sequestered victim is immobile; it is the reader/spectator who travels into her room.

In the plot of the Escapee, this is reversed. The heroine flees the restrictions of her country of origin, her religion, or her family in an archetypal travel narrative. However, she is often portrayed as a passive object of violence, and an innate culture, religion and patriarchy are invoked to explain the violence she experiences, historical and political circumstances are obscured and Islam is derogated as a pre-modern and barbaric religion.

Quest for Personal Identity

Given the long history of representation by others, what strategies and techniques do Arab Anglophone women writers utilize? What do they foreground in their presentation of postcolonial experience? How do they negotiate encoding Arab meanings within an alien discourse? This project aims to undertake a study of the trope of the journey in the writing of Anglo-Arab women writers, exploring the efforts of Arab women to reclaim their identities, to write themselves as something other than victim and escapee, to escape the restrictions of a limited repertoire and to correct a historically maligned portrait. The aim is to examine the different ways Arab women represent themselves, and how these representational artifacts are presented to the West.

Life Writing and Cultural Commodification

In recent years, the increasing interest in the stories of Arab women has been accompanied by a proliferation of both fiction and nonfiction by Arab women writers, especially memoirs and autoethnographies. Much has been written about the rise of the Muslim woman’s memoir, and more widely about the autobiographical elements in the writing of Muslim women in general. The increasing popularity, dynamism and ubiquity of writing in this genre by Muslim women has in part been attributed to the characteristics of autobiographical work, which essentially invite the reader into the writer’s private world, promising to reveal what is often unseen and unheard. This quality, it could be argued, can be traced in both fiction and nonfiction, present both in Saadawi's early novel, “Memoirs of a Woman Doctor” and the later nonfiction, “Memoirs from a Women's Prison.”

However, life writing can be easily commodified, packaged, and co-opted into propaganda, as it is manipulated to meet the expectations and assumptions of Western readers. An example of this packaging can be seen in the way the memoirs of the Egyptian feminist Huda Sha'rawi, originally titled My Memoirs, were given the title "Harem Years" when translated into English. However, it would be simplistic to imply that Arab women writers are simply pawns to the demands of a Western market, particularly as some Arab women writers have themselves been accused of limiting their novels to the victim and/or excapee plot, and playing into Western prejudices.

The rapid commodification of life-writing by Arab women is a topic which has recently been the focus of much critical study, examined in books such as Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit, by Gillian Whitlock and Nawar Al-Hassan Golley’s Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies, which examines writing for women as, in Golley’s words, “a process and a quest for dialogue, social change, and the possibility of saying "we" as well as "I."

Time, Space, and Adventures of Everyday Life

This area of research intersects with the scope of this project, in so far as it examines the metaphor of "the path of life" as a central feature of narrative-as-travel in the work of Anglo-Arab women, from narratives such as Fadia Faqir’s The Cry of The Dovewhich is motivated by an actual journey, to the metaphors of travel and quest motifs in narratives such as Ahdaf Souief’s In the Eye of the Sun, which urge the reader to “walk a mile” in the narrator’s shoes, following the story of an Egyptian woman from secondary school through graduate school in England.

Many of the plots of such novels partake in the genre Bakhtin refers to as the adventure novel of everyday life, which has been described as a temporal sequence of metamorphosis linked with identity as part of an idea of development presenting moments of crisis that “unfold[s] not so much in a straight line as spasmodically, a line with knots in it” constituting “a distinctive type of temporal sequence” In this plot, transformation is central, and there are typically two images of the individual – a 'before' and 'after' that are both “separated and reunited through crisis and rebirth”. This analysis suggests that metamorphosis serves as the basis for a method of portraying the whole of an individual’s life in its important moments of crisis, showing how an individual becomes other than what she was.

This synopsis argues that Anglophone Arab women’s writing can be usefully read through theories of travel narratives as texts which are dependent on the projection and experience of a world from a particular perspective, a person moving through space in a certain time, with space becoming meaningful as, in Bakthin’s words, “time becomes endowed with the power to bring change.” The fact that these narratives are characterized by their concreteness, by the level of detail through which they convey the narrator’s experience of the world they move through to the reader underscores the way narrative invites the reader not only to read but to travel outside their world and into another.

Hyphenated Identities

Reviewers of Arab women's books often seem to read their novels as sociological and anthropological texts that "reflect" the reality of the Middle East. Rifaat's Distant View of A Minaret for example, is described on the blurb as being able to "admit the reader into a hidden private world." Carrying the suggestion that the Arab world is a homogenous entity which can be understood through reading a single text, this involves an abnegation of the ambivalent, borderland position of many Muslim women both in the diaspora and in countries caught between Western and Islamic values.

The dual position of many Arab women writers is complicated by the fact that as Golley argues, many of them write both “to the West and…to Arab patriarchy.” Novelists such as Soueif and Aboulela work to dismantle notions of Arab female subservience and dispel the myth of the sequestered Arab woman. For example in Soueif’s first novel, In the Eye of the Sun, the heroine, Asya, is disturbed by the fact that she is perceived as “exotic,” seeing nothing exotic about the fact that she is Egyptian. Similarly in Leila Sebbar’s Shérazade trilogy, the main character befriends a Frenchman with a passion for Orientalist art. However, Shérazade soon recognizes the fantasy he projects onto her and refuses to be framed in a stereotype, declaring: “I’m not an odalisque”. In essence, both Asya and Shérazade refuse to be defined.

At the same time however, as Arab women writers challenge the representations of Muslim women in the West and de-familiarize Western culture, they avoid the romanticization of the East. In their examination of controversial and contentious topics such as honour killings, oppression, women’s rights, and the veil, the work of Arab women writers can be said to be susceptible to “The Color Purple” syndrome, the debate raised by the publication of the eponymous Alice Walker novel over whether and how a black woman writer should address the sexism of black men in the midst of a racist mainstream climate. This aspect of Anglophone women’s writing is amplified by the language they choose to write in, a choice which in some cases leaves them vulnerable to the criticism that they have “forgotten their roots”, a criticism Hind Wassef makes of Souief in her article "Unblushing Bourgeoisie”.

Many of the characters in the novels of Anglo-Arab writers are pulled between the polar forces of East and West, and can only achieve balance when they have carved out a place for themselves in the midst of that cultural intersection. Anglo-Arab writers themselves inevitably move between two worlds, infusing their Anglophone novels with the essence of their native languages and cultures, setting up a dialogics that extends from language to broader issues of cultural contact and creating a transcultural literature which subverts cultural and linguistic identities through the intervention of other models grafted onto older identities, creating not a "synthesis of cultures," but new structures which open up new ways of thinking. This can be seen, for example, in Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad, subtitled A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran, and which in a New York Times review was described as “giv[ing] the reader a guided tour through the underground youth culture in Tehran."

In a sense, this can be related to Bhabha’s description of hybridity as “the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal” which “unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but re-implicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of the power”. The novels of a writer like Ahdaf Soueif for example, can resist submission to neo-colonial hegemony by subverting the hierarchy of the colonizer/colonized, turning her Egyptian postcolonial eye on England’s colonial past and postcolonial present.

Aspiring to an authentically dialogic, hybrid consciousness, and dealing with themes of exile, transnationalism, doubleness, communal identity and cultural dichotomy, the literature of Anglo-Arab women suggests that East/West is often an oversimplification of modern mobility, and that identities themselves are never fixed or isolated, but rather cultural constructs, or to use Miriam Cooke’s term, “speaking positions.” According to Cooke, “[i]f identity is the recognition of sameness with some difference from others, then we have many identities. To retain a sense of wholeness, we usually assert only one of many possible identities, the one that gives authority at the moment of its assertion.  This speaking position is not an identity, but rather an ascribed or chosen identification”

The work of writers such as Soueif and Aboulela not only gives women a voice, but influences literary landscapes, as they describe Arab women who seek to find their own voices, tell the story of their own journeys and take control of their own narrative. As Fadwa Malti-Douglas' observes, “woman's voice is more than a physiological faculty. It is the narrative instrument that permits her to be a literary medium, to vie with the male in the process of textual creation. To control the narrative process, however, is no small task. Shahrazad demonstrates to her literary cousins and descendants that an intimate relationship must be created between writing and the body.” Writing themselves and their characters into the global community, Arab women writers often take the journey as a first step, duplicating, questioning, rewriting or subverting the plots of the Victim/Escapee.

*Working title taken from Zeina B Ghandour’s "Omega: Definitions," in Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women, Roseanne Saad Khalaf (Editor) Telegram 2006.

Proposed Texts:

Aboulela, Leila. The Translator, Edinburgh: Polygon, 1999.

_________ . Minaret. London: Grove Press, Black Cat, 2005

Faqir Fadia Nisanit, London, Penguin. 1990

_________ . Pillars of Salt London, Quartet books. 1996, 

_________ . The Cry of the Dove, Grove Press, Black Cat. 2007 

Soueif, Ahdaf The Map of Love, London: Bloomsbury 1999

_________ . In the Eye of the Sun London: Bloomsbury 1992


Abu-Lughod (ed.), Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. University Press: Princeton: Princeton (1998).

Accad, Evelyne. Sexuality and War: Literary Masks in the Middle East . New York: New York University: (1990).

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. London: Yale University Press (1992).

Amireh, Amal, “Framing Nawal El Saadawi: Arab Feminism in a Transnational World” in Intersections: Gender, Nation, and Community in Arab Women’s Novels, Syracuse: Syracuse UP (2002)

written: 2009
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