Saturday, January 2, 2010

Love in the Time of War

I hear, close by, scattered gunshots, yet feel as if they are at a great distance. This war has made beauty, money, terror and convention all equally irrelevant. It begins to occur to me that the war, with its miseries and destructiveness, has been necessary for me to start to return to being normal and human.

Hanan al-Shaykh was born in Beirut in 1945 to a strict Shi'a family, where her father and brother exerted great control over her. After the civil war broke out, Al-Shaykh left Lebanon and moved to Saudi Arabia in 1975, but now lives in London. Despite her conservative background, however, her novels, which focus on the lives of contemporary Muslim women in the Middle East, have been banned in several Gulf countries. The Story of Zahra, first published in 1980 as حكاية زهراء and translated to English in 1994, is considered a classic of women's Arabic literature, but its blunt depictions of drug use, abortion, mental illness, and frank sexuality certainly ruffled more than a few feathers.

Zahra is an outsider: a lonely young woman who just can't fit in. She accompanies her mother to secret meetings with an illicit lover and chafes at the preferential treatment given to her brother Ahmad. Her father is a stern disciplinarian who lashes out at her for picking the pimples on her face and savagely beats her mother when he learns of the affair. A fling with Malek, an older, married man, results in two abortions. Desperate for an escape, Zahra flees to an uncle exiled (for political reasons) to an anonymous African country distinguished only by its perpetually blazing heat and inscrutable natives. Unfortunately, her Uncle Hashem's attention take a sexual turn and she attempts escape yet again by marrying his friend Majed, whom she has only just met.

Through it all, Zahra also suffers from an unnamed psychiatric disorder, which at one point had landed her in a Lebanese mental hospital and subjected to electroshock therapy. Whether it is an organic mental illness (i.e. schizophrenia, clinical depression) or symptoms brought on by environmental influences is left to the reader to decide. Her relationship with Malek was semi-consensual at best, and likely another half-hearted effort to flee from her difficult home life. The two chapters from Hashem and Malek's perspectives make it clear that neither recognizes Zahra as a human being with her own needs and personality. Hashem sees her as a symbol, a blood linkage to his lost homeland. Malek, the son of a cleaning woman, merely wants a middle-class wife and a female body to own and fuck whenever he wants.

Not surprisingly then, one of Zahra's symptoms is her constant desire to claim a space for her own and be apart from everyone else. In Africa, this takes the form of locking herself in the bathroom for hours and even days. After the speedy and inevitable collapse of her marriage to Majed, she returns to Lebanon and sinks into a depression, overeating and wearing nothing but the same housecoat for days. But then the civil war happens, and her parents flee to a far-off village while her brother joins one of the warring factions. Once again, Zahra has a room of her own, which, combined with the social disruption of the war, seems to finally provide her with a liberation of sorts. Maybe she really is crazy: how else can her initiation of an affair with the neighborhood sniper be explained, even with her half-formed excuse that a naked woman will distract him from shooting everything that moves?

And thus, the central irony of The Story of Zahra becomes apparent: that it is the stable customs of peacetime that burden Zahra and the chaos of wartime that gives her freedom.
. . . Was I some vulture become human, or had the devil taken human form in me that hot afternoon when my Qarina [a kinship spirit] called my name? How did I manage to be so relaxed in this war? My days had beginning and end. I felt secure, even though the rockets still screamed and roared with unabating vigor. I was even able to sleep.

The war had become a perpetual, secure stockade, whose walls were, so to speak, decorated with hearts and arrows drawn in blood. Why had I felt no pleasure before, when I lay on everyday beds? Why had I never clawed at other men's backs as I did that of this sniper? I wore no makeup, while the war's eruptions seemed to have erased those on my face.

Zahra and normal Lebanese life were ill-matched. One factor leading to the quick collapse of her marriage to Majed, after all, were her bizarre attempts to fit herself into the mold of a conventional, happy woman; instead, her inappropriate outfits, wild dancing, and over-the-top gestures of friendship transformed her into a caricature and laughingstock. As such, The Story of Zahra raises some disturbing questions. Why is it that Zahra needed a war - the horrors of which she is fully cognizant - to find some measure of peace? What does this say about a tradition-bound society that tries control women's self-realization? And what does this say about the nature of war itself? Zahra isn't the only one suddenly casting off social constraints. Her brother Ahmad likewise falls into looting, mindless destruction, drug abuse, and a complete abandonment of sexual propriety, which, unlike Zahra's experiences (maybe), can hardly be regarded as any form of positive self-development.

The Story of Zahra has been celebrated as a feminist coming-of-age narrative that seeks to subvert traditional notions of female desire and autonomy. But it is also more complex than that. Al-Shaykh also asks us to consider society as a whole, as evidenced, for example, by Majed and Hashem's chapters, which humanize what could have simply been two predatory men. Even if we continue to disagree with their actions, Al-Shaykh wants us to why they, as men in a patriarchial society, behave and believe the way they do. And not only does the reader have to consider human behavior under cultural constraints, but also in situations in which said constraints have disintegrated. Tackling the complex topics of violence, politics, and multiple forms of social repression, The Story of Zahra is far from a black-and-white tale of female oppression and the heights of female liberation. It is a thought-provoking achievement, and one I'll be recommending.

Click here for Richard's review.

I finished this book on New Year's Eve, so I'm not sure if I should count it towards my New Year's resolution to read more female and non-European authors. What do you think? Does December 31, 2009 qualify as "kind of 2010"? This post was published in 2010. Darn, maybe I should've saved this one.


Richard said...

So glad you dug this, E.L. Fay, and I of course agree that it's much more complex than just a "feminist coming-of-age narrative." It was nice to re-live the novel through your review, too! P.S. Thanks for the "link love" as Frances might say--I'll add yours to my original post as payback. :)

Eileen said...

You're most welcome!

I'm actually disappointed with how this review came out. I don't think I scratched the surface enough. There's some interesting stuff going on with the dynamics between the Lebanese expatriate community and the Africans, for example, but I left that out because I couldn't figure out how to integrate it into the review.

Richard said...

I think your review's really good! And while there's always more you could say about an interesting book in a blog post (whatever the length of the post), I kind of like the Ramones-y verse/chorus/verse/song's over sort of structure when I have to write them myself. Comment over!

Isabella K said...

Happy New Year!

I'm very curious to read this, as I recently read Al-Shaykh's The Locust and the Bird (I highly recommend it), which, though based on her mother's life, seems to share many of the same themes.

Interesting questions you raise about the nature of war, or the need for it. I think much of the world, sadly, has a very different relationship to war than you (I assume) and I do -- war, chaos, political turmoil is, if not exactly normal, a familiar constant to so many as a kind of white noise, the backdrop of their existence.

Eileen said...

Isabella: That's a fascinating point. You're right: I think in places where conflict has gone on for years people become sort of used to it and adjust their lives accordingly.

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