Doing something

Ahdaf Soueif

  • Persian Nights by Diane Johnson
    Chatto, 352 pp, £10.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3234 5
  • Smile, and Other Stories by Deborah Moggach
    Viking, 175 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 670 81658 2
  • Fast Lanes by Jayne Anne Phillips
    Faber, 148 pp, £8.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 571 14924 3

Three or four years ago, a friend of mine was asked to illustrate a Teaching English book for the Ministry of Education in Cairo. He was (is) an Egyptian, but an Egyptian from outside officialdom – a cartoonist. He painted a series of charming and instantly recognisable street scenes: stacked green-grocers’, lemonade vendors, decked-out taxicabs, dust-carts pulled by donkeys. The Under-Secretary flew into a rage: Who is this man? An Israeli? Why has he drawn everybody with kinky hair? Doesn’t he know selling lemonade on the street is unhygienic? And where did he get all these donkeys? There are no donkeys in Cairo. We want representations of the real Egypt. Eventually the commission went to an artist who had apparently suffered a time-seizure somewhere in Hampshire in the mid-Fifties and the Ministry got its real Egyptians: blazered schoolboys with satchels and freckles and cute, short-dressed little girls with blond pony-tails.

I was reminded of this incident when, early on in Persian Nights, Chloe, the protagonist, innocently asks a colleague at Shiraz University about the veil.

‘The veil? The veil?’ cried Mrs Reza. ‘There is no veil. The Shah has outlawed it. It is over, the vestige of a bygone day.’

Chloe anxiously tries to reconcile Mrs Reza’s statement with the vast numbers of chadored women she is constantly observing. Being foreign means, among other things, having no access to the underpinnings of ‘reality’; no tools with which to interpret what you see. So when Chloe finds a man lying face down in the shade of a bush she has no way of making out whether he is dead or merely sleeping. This question of perception is, of course, where a great deal of the humour in writing about foreign places comes from – and Diane Johnson uses it to good effect. When Chloe finds herself in a bathroom with her Iranian friend Noosheen, she is amazed to find that

she had no pubic hair. Chloe tried not to stare but it did make a person look strange, statue-like. She could not tell if Noosheen was naturally this way or if she shaved herself. Chloe was not so conscious on herself of that little fat pad of flesh over the pubic bone.

Noosheen, I might say, would have been appalled at the thought that shaving was her chosen method of depilation. This is in the best ‘East meets West’ tradition and brings to mind the bemusement of the 18th-century Turkish ladies on discovering Lady Mary Wortley-Montague’s corsets and their conviction that these corsets were a kind of overall chastity belt into which her husband had padlocked her before he allowed her to leave England.

Ms Johnson has plenty of good ‘foreign’ stuff: the humbly-born Minister of Education who comes with his collection of slides to address the American Wives: ‘My father had seven donkeys and a camel and many goats. Therefore we were rich, yet I could not read, nor could my parents.’ The finale of his show is a slide which shows ‘tribespeople dancing, made happy by literacy’. Then there is the hotel – in this case it is the Cyrus – with a ‘Western-style bar where people hung out like expatriates in a movie’. There, you can meet the foreigners and the ‘Westernised’ locals and listen to the expat know-all pontificate to the over-courteous native:

  ‘They think of women as property, all these Arabs do. No offence, as the kids say.’

  ‘I’m not offended. I agree completely. Although, you know, we in Iran are not Arabs.’

The expats, the telephones, the typhoid/cholera, the literacy campaigns, the stray dogs, the vibrant rugs, Westernisation v. Islam, the gold-braceleted women; the problems, the images and the jokes are the same the Third World over.

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