Given the monumental (continuous) changes post-Arab Spring, my recent (ongoing) search for women’s voices before and after led me to an unusual writer who defies many expectations of what it means to be internationally literary: Alifa Rifaat lives and works in a traditional Egyptian Muslim society (this collection was first published in English translation almost three decades ago), she does not have a university education (her family married her off instead), she speaks a single language which means her reading is restricted to literature available only in Arabic, and the only time she has left her provincial Egyptian life is for religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.
“At first consideration this would appear an uncompromising background for a writer of fiction,” notes her translator Denys Johnson-Davies (the notable nonagenarian and revered translator of Nobel-ist Naguib Mahfouz, Mahmud Darwish, Tayed Salih, and many more), “yet it is these very limitations that have imposed upon her writing its freshness and actuality. Most of her stories express, implicitly rather than explicitly, a revolt against many of the norms and attitudes, particularly those related to woman and her place in society.” Rifaat’s protests are less political than they are just simply human: men should behave kindly towards women – “as enjoined by the Qur’an” – and when they don’t, women turn to “contempt and rebellion.”
In the titular “Distant View of a Minaret,” a woman long denied fulfillment in marriage surprises herself by calmly pouring herself a cup of coffee immediately after her husband’s death. In “An Incident in the Ghobashi Household,” a woman figures out to save her daughter and therefore her family. In “Badriyya and Her Husband,” a lonely wife whose husband returns from prison, is proverbially “the last to know” but she finally contemplates how she will “find the strength not to open the door to him.” In “My World of the Unknown,” a woman embarks on a mysterious affair that may or may not be real, but more importantly provides her great joy and pleasure. In “The Flat on Nakshabandi Street,” an elderly maiden aunt who lives with her bachelor nephew watches life go by (and plots her daily machinations) from her window seat overlooking the street below.
The majority of Rifaat’s 15 short stories here underline how difficult basic consideration between the sexes seems to be. In her immediate world tightly circumscribed by traditional, religious, and societal expectations, a sense of resigned regret undeniably looms, but lest you dismiss the Rifaat’s writing as bleak and disheartening, be assured that many of the women here find their own ways of surviving, and even thriving.
Tidbit: What a surprise to find the eminent Denys Johnson-Davis on BookDragon (!) as the author of a children’s book, Goha the Wise Fool. Clearly I don’t even know my own content, but Johnson-Davis’ creativity sure is prodigious!
Published: 1983, 1985 (United Kingdom), 1987 (United States)