The Women’s Voices in Radwa Ashour’s Farag: A Feminist Reading
The article was originally submitted to Prof. Amira Nowaira for the Fall 2010 MA Women’s Literature Course, Faculty of Arts, English Department, Literature Section.
By: Kholoud Said Amer
“There is always in her at least a little of that good mother’s milk. She writes in white ink”- Hélène Cixous
Women’s literature and feminist literature are often causes to reflect and ponder on, as well as a reason for confusion, especially with non-literary people. Since they are not interchangeable, a definition of both is perhaps required. Women’s literature has to do with only the sex (in the biological sense) of the author. A special genre had to be specified for writings by women because until fairly recently, only few women made their names into the cannon. There is also this general notion among the public at large that writers are males until otherwise specified. An author can very rarely be a “she”, or at least one does not refer to a writer instantly with this gender specific pronoun. (The argument is of course that “he” is gender-specific as well, but the general public are not convinced with that.)
Feminist literature on the other hand has very little to do with the biological sex of the author. It is any text (and of course anything can be a text) that has a feminist approach, be it produced by a man or a woman. It is a “new writing” of a deconstructive nature that puts the patriarchy and the traditional gender roles into question, or sheds more light on female characters from their own points of view, not the male one as has always been the case.
A third term is also relevant in that context, perhaps more inclined to feminist writing but still not its synonym. Developed by the French feminists (or the “poststructuralist theoretical feminists” as Mary Klages proposed), chief among which is Hélène Cixous who first coined the term in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975), écriture féminine paid much attention to language and the female body.
French feminists, who generally have focused more strongly than British and American feminists on the philosophical dimension of women’s issues have suggested that women (and men) may maintain a connection to their pre-verbal relationships with their mothers and that this connection generates a capacity for a kind of writing (écriture feminine) and thinking that is different from patriarchal methods of writing and thinking. Patriarchal modes generally require prescribed, “correct” methods of organization, rationalist rules of logic (logic that says “above the neck”, relying on narrow definitions of cognitive experiences and discrediting many kinds of emotional and intuitive experience) and linear thinking (x precedes y, which precedes z). In contrast, écriture feminine is fluidly organized and freely associative. Thus, it has the capacity to both reflect and create human experience beyond the control of patriarchy. (Tyson 92)
Elaine Showalter defines this movement as “the inscription of the feminine body and female difference in language and text”. (Showalter 249) Cixous explains “a woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies”. (Al-Assal 38) Sometimes referred to as “white ink” in a reference to mother’s milk, Cixous, surprisingly, believes the term can be (and has been) employed by male authors such as James Joyce. She proposes two aspects that are necessary for women to write écriture feminine. The first is that they must write as an act of defiance, which is inherent in any woman’s writing; in order to achieve equality we must first obtain a voice. The second necessarily aspect is writing individually, that is women must express themselves and their womanhood through their writing.
Cixous had yet another contribution in the theoretical basis of women and feminist studies, that is differentiating between “feminism” as an ideology, “femaleness” as related to biology, and “femininity” which is more of a cultural construct.
Perhaps not her best or most elevated novel so far, but Radwa Ashour’s Farag is perhaps the most popular, and it is definitely one of my all-time favourites.
Ashour is not a feminist writer per se, that is not in the terms of Nawal Sadawi who believe all society’s ills are exercised over only women because of the patriarchal make-up of the society, a “rotten” one to use Egyptian feminists’ own terms. Ashour rather follows the steps of her teacher and mentor, Latifa Al-Zayyat: well recognizing women’s case, but at the same time very cautious not to take it out of the context of the society at large.
…there were always priorities. The liberation of the country came before the liberation of women. I said that I believed that woman’s status was a problem for the whole society, that women could not be free unless the whole of society were free. In a deteriorating society, the situation of women becomes unspeakably worse. As a woman myself, woman’s cause was mine. But I was not totally consumed by this issue because I was interested in my country as a whole, which included all its men and women. (Al-Zayyat 1993 284-5)
Ashour states in a recent interview:
I am not a fierce supporter of feminist literature, but I don’t negate whoever brings it into play. What is important as far as I am concerned is the application: would it be a smart discussion that takes into consideration the artistic and aesthetic values of the text? Or would it be a mere light discussion that categorizes the woman writer and believe women writings should only be a burst of emotions or only be about the writer’s relationship with men? What I mean is that we should widen the scope, not narrow it. (Ashour 2010)
Al-Zayyat wrote of Egypt in colonial and post-colonial periods, when women’s emancipation was yet an issue to discuss and argue about; while the faithful student and the fellow “writeress” (if one is given liberty to coin such a word) Ashour writes of a theoretically progressive society that is not very much so on a second thought. “In fact we work within a culture that a thousand years ago accepted what it does not accept today, for it was leas fearful and more self-confident. Today, we live in a disturbed anxious culture that has no self-trust”, she observes. (Ashour 2010)
Ashour writes from the background of an Egyptian and an Arab. She believes that the main challenge of the Arab woman writer is not the patriarchal culture but rather “an external factor represented in the colonization of the region that had kicked out what remained of the small margin of freedom”. (Al-Assal 184) However, Ashour’s female protagonists, and female characters in general, have a loud and clear voice that the reader can never miss. This is exactly why Ashour is one of the icons of feminist writings. And this is specially highlighted in Farag.
The Harmony of Women’s Voices in Farag
Le Petit Cheval
Le petit cheval dans le mauvais temps,
Qu’il avait donc du courage!
C’était un petit cheval blanc,
Tous derrière et lui devant.
Il n’y avait jamais de beau temps
Dans ce pauvre paysage,
Il n’y avait jamais de printemps,
Ni derrière, ni devant.
Mais toujours il était content,
Menant les gars du village,
A travers la pluie noire des champs,
Tous derrière et lui devant.
Sa voiture allait poursuivant
Sa belle petite queue sauvage.
C’est alors qu’il était content,
Eux derrière et lui devant.
Mais un jour, dans le mauvais temps,
Un jour qu’il était si sage,
Il est mort par un éclair blanc,
Tous derrière et lui devant.
Il est mort sans voir le beau temps,
Qu’il avait donc du courage!
Il est mort sans voir le printemps
Ni derrière, ni devant.
Although Radwa Ashour titles her novel with a widely known-as male name “Farag”, it is actually the female voice that is predominating through out the novel. We never miss the main protagonist, Nada, and we actually see things through her own lens by the mere fact that she is the narrator as well as the heroine of the piece. In a tradition that widely characterizes women’s literature, Ashour begins her novel with the young Nada. We get to hear her voice as a young girl that actually tells us much about her character-to-be.
While waiting for the train to arrive, a huge man with a moustache and white hair smiles and asks about my name. I turn away. Our eyes meet again. He smiles and says “you are such a beautiful girl”. Mom says in French “say thank you to the Mr.!” I keep myself busy tying my shoes. My mother resumes talking with the fat women. I turn to the man and tease him. (Ashour 2008 5)
We see her as a smart unconventional young girl early on. In her day-dreaming and imagination, she does not hesitate to tell her mother “you ruin my singing” when she interrupts her to adjust her tone. She runs to the bathroom, locks herself up and sings in a louder voice. “The joy of expressing myself combines with the joy of teasing my mother”. (Ashour 2008 9)
Nada is portrayed as an imaginative girl; her imagination appears an integral part of her character, picturing things, making things up and filling in the gapes that seemed to a young girl so confusing. “Using my imagination, I have to come up with what happened in our house on the morning of the first of January 1959. I have not witnesses what had happened”. (Ashour 2008 16) However, her imagination will accompany her through out, “whatever he narrated appeared to me inspiring and imagination provoking” (Ashour 2008 58), later replaced by the creative self-expressive act of writing.
Self-expression is perhaps the most significant feature of women writings. It is in fact one of the very main reasons why some women write in the first place. In one of her other novels, Atyaf (Specters), Ashour writes “I realize now that I write by a process of association, and leave it to the pen to move like a shuttle between the past and the present”. (Ashour 1999) Among the many forms of self-expression, women find writing, specially novels and autobiography, the most convenient. Writing becomes a process of self-awareness and self-discovery. It presents a sort of memory, and another face of history that history books, predominant by males, would never provide.
As a woman herself, it is never surprising that Ashour has projected this particular talent on her female characters, in a sharp contrast to Nada’s father who did not write about his years of imprisonment, neither talked of them, not even to his only daughter. Nada’s mother, for example, used to tell and narrate things to her daughter. “She narrates and I listen carefully attracted by the resonance in her sentences, the light of her eyes and the sudden movement of her head when it joins her in the narration”. (Ashour 2008 76) In addition, the Mother also contributes to this creative, perhaps inborn, feature of women by writing a lengthy letter to Nada which she never sends and which Nada discovers after her death. Although we get to see the Mother only through Nada’s lens, her letter reveals a lot about herself; we get to hear her own voice. It is very significant that only via the letter that we get to know the Mother’s name. As a result, she actually receives much sympathy, or understanding to say the least. From her own perspective, we understand why she chose to leave the man she loved, abandon her only daughter, and return back to her own country after many years to face estrangement and loneliness. We also realize why she was outraged with the trip that Nada organized to her village at the south ofFrance. The letter is in fact a mirror; it reflects all the yet unspoken of. “The whole letter Nada, and I hope you have realized that, is an attempt to explain why I have lost control”. (Ashour 2008 144)
Nada’s aunt, a southern uneducated traditional woman exemplifies the oral tradition of narration. And Nada is indeed ever fond of her stories. But the aunt also contributes to this legacy of writing. When her brother (Nada’s father) was sent to prison, she decides to write a letter to the then President Gamal Abd El-Nasser. Having to dictate, after the writer reads it to her she is surprised to find that they have jotted down thing she did not intend at all “once the eternal hero, another the leader of millions and a third time big words that I could not understand”. So, she calls a junior student asking him to just spell her words on paper. The result was only amazing: a heart-to-heart letter with no ornamentation whatsoever. She even commences it by “President Abu Khaled (Khaled’s Father), Gamal Abd El-Nasser, Son of Bani Morr and President of Egypt andSyria”. (Ashour 2008 120) We also get to read a little of the writings of Seham Sabri, Nada’s friend and, in some aspects, role model. It seems that the thoughts she transformed to paper saved her from loosing her mind or committing suicide.
Nada, too, has taken up writing to reflect her inner thoughts, from mere diaries to thoughts and letters, even to dead people. Actually, the book itself is a collection of Nada’s memoirs. She seems welcoming the idea of someone reading them at one point because she refers to a potential reader in a number of incidents, though implicitly as they are. Absorbed in the experiences of prisoners, Nada has an ambitious project of writing about different imprisonment experiences as lived by different people. But also she has a secret project of writing a novel (again very significant) that deconstructs the traditions, as the prisoner would be “the one who lives outside the prison, as opposed to those inside”. (Ashour 37) This is precisely what Farag is all about.
In its first layer of meaning, prison in the novel is the experience of political arrest over three generations of the same family. This prison could destroy or could strengthen, could make one off-balanced or could provide them with more balance.
There is another prison present throughout the novel, that is the one of the cruel society. Here I made use of Foucault’s concept of the “disciplinary society”, and his theory in his important book Discipline and Punish in which he states that the authority in the period prior to the second half of the nineteenth century used prison and torture as tools of punishment. However, later on, especially in the twentieth century, this was not only restricted to prison. The authority exercised full control on all aspects and details of the society; it thus became a “disciplinary society”, just like the prison.
In Farag, I have used the Panopticon image, a Greek word of two parts: “pan” meaning all and “opticon” meaning to observe. It refers to the concept of the prison design architecture allowing some guards to watch all prisoners without them knowing, making them always feel observed, even if there was no one actually or directly watching. The observer thus, becomes inside the prisoners themselves. (Ashour 2009)
This authority of “Power/Knowledge” as Foucault puts it (also the title of one of his books) that Ashour explores is best crystallized in the novel itself:
In spite of its harshness, knowledge provided me with safety that could have never existed with such a gap in imagination. It built a bridge for memory to cross from one phase to the other, fill in what was missing in Nada’s story and her personal history, and bring her father back, in spite of everything. (Ashour 2008 30)
The teenage Nada narrates how her tremendous amount of reading, her “knowledge”, gave her a higher rank, authority and “power” among her peers at school.
As a characteristic features of Ashour’s writing style, also present in her other novels such as Sirag, Atyaf (Specters), and Qet’a men Aoroba (A Part of Europe), the mix between imagination and history, fact and fiction, is also put into play in Farag.
Whereas Nada Abd El-Qader, her father, mother and two brothers are absolutely imagined characters, some of her friends and colleagues are imagined and some others are real historic figures such as Seham Sabri and Arwa Saleh who both were among the leaders of the students’ movement in the seventies. I was keen on presenting this documentary aspect in such a way that answers my expressive needs in the novel. (Ashour 2009)
Nada’s relationship with her father is another integral part in the novel, and in fact an important dimension in her character. We actually see him mostly through her eyes, a reversal of the tradition of seeing women through the eyes of men. Even more, we don’t know of his name except in relation to Nada; he is Nada’s father and derives his significant from this very fact- “Abu Nada” as she funnily refers to him sometimes. We actually know his name when associated with Nada’s name. Her name is Nada Abd El-Qader Selim, another striking inversion of the tradition. In another deconstruction of the gender roles, he becomes “Hamdeya’s husband” (Ashour 2008 67), without a name, without an identity and existing by the mere fact of the existence of his wife.
Another feature of women’s writing that Ashour aptly employs here is the idea of madness. Introduced in literature through Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and deconstructed in The Mad Woman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, madness has chased women’s writing as much as it did to women themselves. In several incidents, several women have been labeled mad. As a child, Nada at times thought that her mother was mad. “She no longer shouted, talked and moved in that rhythm that made me believe she was mad. In light of that, I decided she was not really mad, just pathetic, exhausted and worried about my father. Or perhaps she was actually mad but then recovered.” (Ashour 2008 39) Interestingly, Nada’s mother herself in her letter states that once “she has lost her mind”. (Ashour 2008 144)
But, Nada is loud and proud in her gender identity. This has not been stated explicitly, but it is there in the undertone. However, a certain incident may be of a special significance in that regard. When attempting to translate Le Petit Cheval into Arabic, she translated it as the small female horse, a filly. “I sat to my desk and translated it into Arabic, quite a good draft. Two days later, I worked on the draft again and edited it. When I was finalizing it, I found myself replacing the white horse with the white filly in the title and the text.” (Ashour 2008 130) Actually, this is a very apt choice for one can in fact trace a lot of resemblances between the white filly and the protagonist.
It is not by mere coincidence that the very first words of the novel are “Mahatet Masr”- Masr Station. Ramses, the central Cairotrain station has come in the collective mind of Egyptians to be a symbol of Egyptat large. Ashour’s preoccupation with Masr (the linguistically correct form would be Misr, but Egyptians have always had their ways with language)- Egypt and the Arab world at large strongly manifests itself in the appearance of Farag, the symbol of freedom and hope, at the very last chapter of the novel and its very title, with Nada going back to her roots, visiting her aunt in the south of Egypt, intending a longer stay this time, after her trip to Lebanon just after its liberation from the Israeli forces. Combined together, all these harmonize in a saga, one of freedom, patriotism and hope. Ashour proudly announced “I am the daughter of this land and this region that, really aspires for freedom, had paid a lot but apparently has to pay more still”. (Ashour 2009)
Kotb has eloquently summarized it all:
The door that Radwa Ashour opens allows the protagonist into the dramatic context of the text that is constructed by language, and allows the reader into the context of the drama of life, and the heart of the eras that has shaped the heart and the mind and have been transferred into a personal history that intersect with a collective memory encompassing days, actions and incidents that were lost in the map of a world whose people never thought it would turn as such. (Kotb)
*All experts from Farag, Radwa Ashour’s interviews and Al-Naqd Al-Nissa’y lel-Adab Al-Qassasy fi Misr (Feminist Criticism of Narrative Literature in Egypt), are translated from Arabic to English by the author.
– Ashour, Radwa. Atyaf (Specters).Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk: 1999.
– Ashour, Radwa. Farag.Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk, 2008.
– Ashour, Radwa. “Thaqaftna Tarfod Alaan Ma Kanet Taqbalaho Qabl Alf Sana” (Our Culture a Thousand Years Ago Accepted What it does not Accept Today”. Interview conducted by Salwa Abd El-Halim. Al Hayat newspaper, 14 December 2010.
– Ashour, Radwa. “Mashrou’i Al-Rowaii Khalit Bayna Al-Motakhayal wa Al-Wathaiqi” (My Novelistic Project is a Mix of Imagination and Documentation”. Interview conducted by Marwa Kamal. El-Shorouk Newspaper, 6 April 2009.
– Al-Assal, Zienab. Al-Naqd Al-Nissa’y lel-Adab Al-Qassasy fi Misr (Feminist Criticism of Narrative Literature inEgypt).Cairo: Al-Hay’a Al-Missriya Al-‘ama lel Ketab, 2008.
– Al-Zayyat, Latifa. “In her own Mirror” in Women Writing in Africa: The Northern Region (ed.).
– Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Vincent Leitch,. ed..New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2001
– Essay Ally blog. http://www.essayally.com/essays/l%E2%80%99ecriture-feminine-de-sandra-cisneros last retrieved 18 December 2010.
– Jones, Suzannah. The Laugh of the Medusa available at http://www.inscribethebreath.co.uk/laughofthemedusa.htm last retrieved 18 December 2010.
– Kotb, Sayed Mohamed. “Rowayat Al-Ta’alam wa Mesaha lel Morag’a end Radwa Ashour fe Farag”
http://www.maktoobblog.com/redirectLink.php?link=http://sayedkotb.110mb.com/index.php%3Fp%3D1_28 last retrieved 18 December 2010.
– Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Elaine Showalter, ed.London: Virago, 1986.
– Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities; volume 2070.USA: 1999.