Edward Said writes about a new literature of the Arab world

  • Aisha by Ahdaf Soueif
    Cape, 159 pp, £7.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 224 02097 8

In this small-scale and intimate first collection of stories by Ahdaf Soueif there is a remarkably productive, somewhat depressing tension between the anecdotal surface of modern, Westernised Egyptian life and the troubling, often violent but always persisting traditional forms beneath. In one story, cajoled and pleaded to by her family and importunate suitors, Marianne is nevertheless seduced by an engineer whose Eau Sauvage, silk robe and Zamalek flat are to her the height of an irresistible worldliness: after she becomes his mistress it is discovered, however, that he runs a vice ring. Her brief revolt against the code governing nubile women is thereafter quelled, and she marries an uninteresting bourgeois who perfectly suits her family’s idea of what a good husband should be. Contrasted with this, Zeina’s marriage (Zeina is a lower-class foil for Aisha and Marianne, both Egyptian women inhabiting the world of half-European attitudes, foreign travel and university learning) is consummated in ritual fashion with the bridegroom’s bandaged finger brutally deflowering her in full view of her family, whose ‘honour’ has thus been served. Ironically, Zeina later confesses that she likes her ‘big’ husband, and contrives a clever way of ridding herself of his new, second wife. Marianne, on the other hand, settles despondently into a life of correct but dull domesticity.

Daughter of Egyptian academics on sabbatical in England, child of post-revolutionary Egypt, product of a partly Islamic and native upbringing, Aisha is the central consciousness of these eight stories. They form a cycle of experiences, from childhood to marital estrangement, to death; the lives of friends, relatives, lovers, family retainers intersect with hers, and when she dies she is transmuted by Soueif into an object of reflection and reminiscence for a self-conscious narrator. This last gesture isn’t very convincing, as if the author had decided that she couldn’t leave Aisha to descriptive realism but at the last minute had to point out the presence of a significant narrative process.

Fortunately, this bit of awkwardness does not matter too much. Everywhere else the writing is deft and patient, the understanding of this trickiest of narrative forms is sure and rarely off-target. Soueif is perhaps uncritically attached to the idea of making each story build to a final, usually clever ‘point’, but this habit is offset by a fascinatingly intense range of material. Sexual experience is central – much of it riskily eccentric – and close attention is lavished on families, nattering companions, isolated fear and dread. The stories’ coherence derives from the Egyptian subject-matter, which is neither exoticised nor submitted to explanatory or ideological explanations. Hence its considerable effect, and the significance of its deliberately ascetic framework.

To grasp what Soueif is about here it is necessary to recall, first of all, that she writes, not as an Arabic novelist, but as an Egyptian whose literary language is English. Her companions in this enterprise are other post-colonials using English (as a world-language) to reconstruct, revise and repossess experiences formerly either suppressed or denied them by colonialism. Ngugi, Achebe, Naipaul, different as each one is, are part of this very important effort, although some (like Naipaul) are more obligingly forgiving about the past than they are assertive and independent about reconstructing it. But the writer in Arabic-speaking countries has to contend with a substantial tradition of modern Arabic narratives as well, and these – to speak very schematically – are heavily, even defensively ideological. For in a sense the modern Arabic writer has had not only to defend against colonialism, but also to compensate for the absence of a functioning civil society, while minimising the overwhelming power of the sacred, traditional language common to religious authority and the modern writer.

The result has been a block of fiction (some of it very impressive) that is immediately and explicitly connected to such things as the question of Palestine, the conflict with the West, and the attempts to rebuild the Arab world in fact as well as in theory. As can be readily imagined, the strengths and weaknesses of this fiction have been there more or less constantly since its inception early this century. Descriptive realism established the narratability of events and characters; all sorts of urgent connections were regularly drawn between characters and plots, on the one hand, and political crises, on the other; fiction came to think of itself as a consolidation of ‘national’ life, rather than as an alternative to it. One index of the unusual status of fiction is the use of irony, which is most often encountered as a kind of italicising and underlining, rarely – except here and there in Idriss, or in Emile Habibi’s astonishing Pessoptimist – as play or as a device for extending or breaking the limits of perceptual understanding. According to the gifted Lebanese critic, Elias Khoury, the result has been that the most popular and affecting prose works in modern Arabic are formless, and these formless works, not the far more substantial fiction achievements of Naguib Mahfouz, have attained to the position of classics. Formless works in Khoury’s definition are autobiographical, episodic, often lyrical – two great examples are Taha Hussein’s Autobiography and Tawfik al-Hakim’s Diary. Such works treat experience outside the tough and busy prescriptions of great novels, and offer a rare intimate look at everyday life temporarily freed from prescription, moral imperative, official consciousness. In addition, in their unassuming articulation of authentic life, they released the Arabic novelist from subservience to the novel as a European institution (since there is no novel tradition native to Arabic literature).

In a sense, then, it has been possible for the Arabic writer occasionally to escape the frighteningly urgent atmosphere of quotidian life as represented by the official novel. Thus one sort of extraterritoriality arises in the formless prose works I have just referred to. It is another kind of extraterritoriality that has become possible for Soueif, whose English and whose studiously unideological focus place her outside the main territory currently mined by her Arabic-language contemporaries. Some years ago George Steiner perceptively characterised the linguistic homelessness and adaptability of refugee writers (Nabokov, Beckett etc) as creating ‘poets unhoused and wanderers across language ... eccentric, aloof, nostalgic’. Soueif’s work, modest in scope, not quite the product of a refugee mentality, strikes me nevertheless as affiliated with this phenomenon. Here we see a writer recovering episodes from a past lived in one society but haunting the present in a very different country, and expressed in a foreign language. None of the antecedent Egyptian experiences in Aisha is at all political: no mention is made of the 1952 Revolution, nor of the 1967 War, nor of Sadat’s Egypt, although all of them lie just off the text where, inevitably, they are also meaningfully absent for the Western reader. Instead of politics we are given the strange dislocations that are caused by that unresolved tension between what is traditionally Muslim and Egyptian and what is Western and modern.

In one story, for example, a young peasant boy becomes an apprentice in an Alexandria hairdressing salon for women; there he discovers that while washing the women’s hair he experiences a passionate sexual arousal and this in turn sets him up in the story’s last scene for a terrifying encounter with a prowling workman, whose menacing caresses suggest the violence that is in store for him. The bisexual motif turns up in one other story, and is balanced by two stories in which the displacements of substitute sex are explored. In one, we see a young Egyptian girl at school in England – it is 1964 – who, put off by the strangeness of the demands placed on her, withdraws into a highly eroticised, enclosed world of her own: ‘The whole house was my territory from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon and I lived my private life and was impervious to the cold, disapproving atmosphere that pervaded the evenings. After a couple of weeks they’ – her parents, that is, who want her to go to school – ‘gave up.’

The transformation of the ideological, the political and the contemporary into the retrospective intensity of fetishes, rituals and fantasies framed by the biography of a woman neither entirely Arab nor entirely English is Soueif’s theme. The distance and unfulfilment expressed by the stories is part of their strange appeal, which is maintained by a kind of ‘white’ writing, calling attention less to its often outré material than to its controlled matter-of-factness. For Soueif’s material is by no means ordinary, nor is her formal concern lackadaisical. When, in the last story, she creates a Fellini-like surrealism out of exorcism (the zar), her spare prose is admirably harnessed to a climax that is both understated and terrifying. Still, if in the future she returns to her Egyptian material, she will have to confront its inherently political charge.