Wednesday, March 04, 2009

EAILF Women Writing From the Arab World

Women Writing from the Arab WorldMansoura Ez Eldin, Haifa Bitar, sahar el-Mougy and Rajaa al-Sanea with Hani Nakshabandi
“What are the implications of being a writer for Arab women? Can one speak of women’s literature as opposed to men’s literature?”

Before I begin to share my notes I need to say two things. First this was the session I was most looking forward to. This stems from my education – I went to Mt. Holyoke, all women’s university which has made me more acutely aware of women’s issues and struggles from the past to the present day. This awareness brought me to one of the cross roads of my life – move to England or remain in Boston and attend Harvard Divinity School to do my masters in theological studies. I wanted to pursue women’s spiritually through history as I felt women experience religion through emotions (they feel it) not analyze it. So a woman of today reading a manuscript from the middle ages will still feel the emotions – it hasn’t dated, it still rings true and speaks to modern women despite the archaic language. My premise was that women’s experience of God has not altered because it is based on the emotions rather than how it works or is implemented. For me this was not to belittle women’s ability to be analytical, but to say that their focus has always been what is truly important and therefore has not dated. (note – I moved to England and have been a very mobile expat since)

The second thing to consider in my notes is that I was listening to a simultaneous translation of the discussion and no matter how excellent - I know that the subtleties were lost. I will simply quote one of Dh’s experiences at a conference in Kazakhstan where the translator translated drilling for oil are ripping from the entrails of the earth (more poetic no doubt but not necessarily the exact meaning).

Hani Nakshabandi opened the session by introducing the panellists. He said he hoped that they would not ‘genderize’ literature. It was human experience – man’s experience, woman’s experience. It was all based on perspective and the author doesn’t matter. He allowed each panellist ten minutes to state their case so to speak.

Rajaa al-Sanea, the author of the Girls of Riyadh, began by saying there were many differences in the Gulf States.

-culture was controlled by men and fed to children through their mothers
-it was difficult to be free of it and difficult to control because you can’t express it; too many limitations and then there is reputation
-this has led to a certain type of reader; readers looking for novels about women; novels that try to be free – transparent and this varies from country to country
-there is less exposure to men in some of these cultures; not seeing men in daily life; difficult to describe their relationships and therefore must rely on imagination
-women novelist do try but it is difficult without research
-Saudi women excel because they are writing out of their imagination
-they struggle with no liberty of movement
-politics affects the writing
-women are always expressed in novels as psychologically repressed which is probably true
-women try to overcome oppression through writing; it is a way to break through

Of her best seller, Girls of Riyadh, she said when asked that 50% was imagination. She began writing when she was 18 and was published at 22.

Hani, before introducing the next speaker, suggested that women writers were moody (!)

He then introduced Sahar EL Mougy who is an Egyptian author and lecturer at Cairo University. She began by saying that all through history women had been marginalized (here I think the translation may have let me down because I think she meant Arab history).

-women should write of the crisis of culture identity, modernity – adherence; what is the dividing line – keeping cultural identity and moving forward in women’s rights
-women are the carries of the cultural identity and they are paying the price for this role when they try and move society forward.
-women have only written for a century and a half (again I think she meant Arab women)

The next woman to speak was Haifa Bitar from Syria who had written collections of short stories and novels while working full time as an ophthalmologist. She spoke of her impetus to write, a divorce at 25 and her seven year struggle with the church. She fought against the only aspirations allowed for women were children and marriage. This shaped her as a novelist. She described it as being in a small room like a cage and they only way to turn the fear (the cage) into endless space was to write. She also said that writing for her was like having a photocopier for what was in her mind.

The next woman to speak was Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldin, a novelist and writer of short stories. She asked is a novel a work of art or self expression. She said we should judge a novel as a work of art through ideas.

Now here is where my own questions were lost in the translation so to speak as so many ideas were jumping around with what was being said – so I apologize as there is no dividing line here between my own thoughts and what was filtering in through the headphones. These were my thoughts:

My premise has always been that women’s writing is timeless – think Jane Austin (it is more the emotional that still speak to an audience today rather than the social mores she portrayed)

I wanted to ask did they feel it was more important that they wrote social commentary at this stage (which I feel much of men’s writing covers – or should I say fiction targeted male readers covers) or the emotions that the society evokes in women?

I kept thinking that for me great novels speak of emotion and don’t date, but social commentary alone does (then I challenged myself on Dickens etc).

One of them commented that feminist writers should focus on women’s issues – literature is an expression of the human state.

I thought - women write of emotions which transcend time and place – or are you trying to achieve social change or write social commentary.

Ranjaa spoke at the end in English saying that she could not have published without her family’s support, but still had to go to Lebanon to publish. She mentioned that with access to the internet true censorship can never really be in place. Women needed the support of men their society or they would never be able to cross the bridge.

She was asked can a novel change reality? It would be very difficult to effect changes in the Arab world this way as there are not enough readers.

The questions from the audience were fascinating in that they were very different from the ones taking place in my mind. One local woman was offended by how Rajaa portrayed women as not honourable. Rajaa replied that literature must contain both.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the report, I know I lost much of this valuable discussion for which I was very sad. It did highlight to me again how uniquely each culture views the world and the absolute need for respect of these cultures and their perspectives.

So I ask the key question in my head – what is the novel for you as a reader? Should a novel be social commentary and if so does it limit it lifespan and does that matter? Do you prefer Dickens or Austin? (I do know that Austin railed against the condition of women, but is that what most of today’s readers feel – does a young western women reader approaching Austin now even see that side unless it is pointed out to her as he life is so far removed from it? And if a young Arab women reads Austin what does she see or relate to?) Who are the examples that come to your mind? Should we limit this discussion to the form of the novel or open it to all fiction? Here I am thinking of two male writers that I adore – Chaucer and Shakespeare. Chaucer for me was social commentary but done with such humour and insight into human nature that it transcends time. Shakespeare’s emotions are what linger with me although if I put my analytical hat back on (which is very dusty indeed as I have not analysed literature from this point of view since I left university nearly 25 years ago) I can remember the social commentary of his time - then I ask what would he want to think about now – the political question of his lifetime or the emotional struggles we all face today? If you are a writer what do you want your readers to leave your novel with?

I apologize to those of you who may have wandered by looking for a straight out report as the past three have been. For me this couldn’t have been as I have read very little Arab literature (a huge failing on my part), listening in translation, and my own feelings on women’s literature. I also ask for forgiveness for inadequate coverage of the session as you can see from the report my mind was flying off on so many questions.

For tomorrow Penny Vincenzi.

BTW here's the link for Kate Mosse's blog post on EAIFL.


Jan Jones said...

Sounds to me as if these questions and thoughts will remain in your head for a long time, Liz. This has to be good for your own writing, because it expands the space in which you write.

Don't apologise - believe me, I get a far clearer feeling of what the session was like by reading the progress of your thoughts through it than by a transcription of the q&as. Emotion, you see.

liz fenwick said...

Jan - ;-)

Flowerpot said...

Sounds liken there was so much to take in Liz - no wonder your head was buzzing. Mine is just reading that post! Well done and thanks - I'll have to go back and re-read to take it all in...

existential al ain said...

Great overview! Here's an audio of Rajaa actually speaking at the Women Writing from the Arab World event.

Liz Harris said...

A fascinating account of the talk and the thought processes it inspired, Liz.

There's food for much discussion in what you wrote. I sense that you would have loved to have been able to get in a group immediately after the session in order to talk about the points raised, both those raised by the writers and also those generated in your mind by their comments. I should have liked to have been part of such a group!

Nell Dixon said...

Really interesting post, Liz. Sounds fascinating.