The quest for freedom

Print edition : July 16, 2004

Miral al-Tahawy in New Delhi on June 13. - S. ARNEJA

The astonishing story of the Egyptian writer Miral-al-Tahawy's journey in self-discovery from the sheltered existence in a patriarchal Bedouin village.

THIRTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD Egyptian writer Miral al-Tahawy was born in Geziret Saoud in the Eastern Nile delta. Her first collection of stories Riem al-barai al-mostahila (The Exceptional Steppe Antelope) appeared in 1995. This was followed by the novels Al-Khibaa (The Tent), Al-Badhingana al-zarqa (The Blue Aubergine) and Naquarat al-Zibae (The Gazelle's Tracks). Two novels, The Tent and The Blue Aubergine, have been translated into English by Anthony Calderbank, published by the American University Press, Cairo. Her third novel is currently being translated.

Miral is a Bedouin of the Al-Hanadi tribe, which migrated to the Al-Sharqiyya province of Egypt in the 19th century. She grew up in a conservative Bedouin village, around a three-hour drive from Cairo. She stepped out from her home unaccompanied by a male relative for the first time when she was 26, and still had to be covered from head to foot.

Miral has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Arab Literature from Close University. In 1995, she got her Master of Arts in Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Cairo. She is now an assistant professor in the Department of Literature and Criticism at the University of Cairo. She is working on her doctoral thesis on the desert novels in Arab literature.

Miral writes in Arabic. Her publisher Hosni Soliman established the Sharqiyaat publishing house in the early 1990s. He is credited with having discovered this new generation of writers in Egypt, known as the 1990s generation. The female protagonists of The Tent and The Blue Aubergine, both semi-autobiographical novellas, narrate their stories in a stream of consciousness mode. Miral says that the first-person style gives her a lot of freedom of expression. She is evolving a unique style that combines the stream of consciousness technique with the confessional form, but in an autobiographical manner. Miral's protagonists are not people she knows. They represent different aspects of herself. She says that they are actually many different girls running around inside her, waiting to get out. "Just as the soul can be many characters in many ways the characters and the stories of my writing are multi-layered as well. It may seem like one linear narrative, but it is a style/story that has encompassed many different days, generations, stories etc. We are like the transitional generation." The structure of the autographical style allows Miral to "synthesise with the girls". According to her, the first-generation writers did not use their writing to make a story of their own lives, but "my writing is like my testimony".

The 1990s generation of Egyptian novelists only use the novella form, unlike the older novelists who used writing as a weapon, and chose words in the traditional way. The new novelists aim at greater clarity, writing about common feelings and problems, such as hurdles faced by women. Their way of expression is very concentrated and extremely rich, but they do not care about details. It is all an emotional narrative as it forces the reader to engage himself or herself with the text. The only way the reader can understand the writing is by following and being sensitive to the authors' emotions. It is certainly "stream of consciousness technique, but with a unique structure to it".

Miral grew up in a house occupied by a large, extended joint family. She is a descendant from the fifth wife of her trader grandfather. Her grandmother has been the catalyst for Miral's freedom. Miral's grandfather spotted her on one of his travels, when he was in his 70s and she a young woman - not a Bedouin but an Egyptian. In her younger days Miral's grandmother was used to a great deal of freedom in all senses of the word: in her dress (wearing clothes that did not cover her from head to foot), in her speech, in her relationships with men. She was not prepared for the seclusion and isolation to which Bedouin women were subjected. As the wife of a Bedouin, she was so cut off from the world and her own community that even when her father died, her husband did not allow her to attend the funeral.

Miral's father, unlike other Bedouin men, was quite liberal and modern in his outlook. He was a doctor and a member of the Egyptian Congress. Yet he continued the Bedouin tradition of keeping the women in seclusion. His mother found this hard to take. One of Miral's vivid recollections is that of her grandmother singing songs of freedom.

English does not come easily to Miral al-Tahawy, but you can hear the passion as she talks about her grandmother: "My grandmother is feeling like me to get her freedom. She was a good storytellesr and had nice energy. She started to tell me about her childhood and about the times that she was open. I made notes. I discover I want to express my feelings."

MIRAL is the youngest of seven children, one of two girls. When she was 21 or so, relatives began pressurising her to get married. Bedouins usually marry within their tribe and family. Marriage offers began coming for Miral but she was only keen to pursue higher studies and if possible work. Fortunately, her mother and grandmother supported her decision; (her father had passed away when she was 15.) So, after completing her graduation she worked as a schoolteacher in the village. Then at the age of 26 she decided to enrol and work in the University of Cairo.

At first there was horror at her decision. She was not allowed to accept the offer or work. Fed up with the continual restrictions on her movement and expression, and the poor status of women, Miral was adamant. When she did not receive any support from her relatives, not even her mother, she packed her bags one night and left for Cairo. For a while, her mother tried to conceal the fact that Miral had moved to Cairo, saying that her daughter was unwell. She plumped up the bedding in such a way as to give the impression that Miral was in bed, sleeping. Every night, she would plead with Miral on the telephone, "Please come home. I'll manage another solution." Miral refused, saying, "here I am in a good position and this is what I dream of."

Eventually relatives came to know that Miral was teaching in Cairo. The driver was sent to Cairo to fetch her from the university. At home, she was treated badly. Few were willing to talk to her, let alone acknowledge her presence. After much discussion, Miral and her family reached a compromise. She could travel everyday to Cairo, attend her classes and return home. She would not be allowed to spend the night in the city. Miral agreed. Every day she would leave home at 5-30 a.m., travel for three hours to reach Cairo, attend her classes and come home exhausted in the evening. At 5-00 p.m. Miral's mother would call the driver to check whether she was on her way home. The daily ordeal began telling on Miral's health. Finally, another compromise was reached. She was to squeeze the time required to spend at the university into two days. She would now be able to spend the night on the campus. Miral was delighted. This was her first taste of actual freedom. For the first time, her movements were not going to be monitored and she was free to talk and interact with whom she wished, without any restrictions whatsoever.

MIRAL says she felt awkward and uncomfortable when she went to Cairo for the first time. Her clothes were old-fashioned; she felt uncomfortable talking to men; she did not really know how to conduct herself in public, nor could she look people in the eye. Her room on the university campus overlooked the banks of the Nile. From her window, she would see couples cuddling and kissing. The sight was strange to Miral; it made her rather uncomfortable as well. "I had so much pain. I cannot love someone." She used to write of this in her diary, and has quoted parts of it verbatim in her second novel The Blue Aubergine: "I didn't like playing brides and grooms. I didn't like being a goal-keeper. Three times I broke my arm as they shot and I fell and they applauded. I was afraid of climbing trees... in case I died... and I didn't like hopscotch because my mother said my legs weren't pretty and my toes were too long like my grandfather's. I didn't like hide-and-seek because when I covered my eyes the boys kissed my friends behind the pigeon towers and in the alleyways between the houses and they let me bump from wall to wall and I didn't catch anybody. Now I like tag. I say: `Go!' and all the men run after me and none of them can catch me. I just pop my head out and then hide again, they can only hope to catch me in the seclusion of their dreams. I stick my tongue out at them and say; `I'm the moon. You can't reach me.' And when I say to the one who has my secret in his eyes: `Come closer," he says: `You don't know what love is'."

"I am not normal enough. Writing gives me this stability. It gives me my freedom."

Miral's low self-esteem was caused partly by her mother who would constantly belittle her by telling her that she was not beautiful, definitely not the princess that she thought she would grow up to be. When Miral came to the city, she realised that people considered her beautiful and that did wonders for her confidence. She narrates an amusing incident. She was being introduced by a journalist as this "shooting star on the Egyptian literary scene who is also young and beautiful". He half expected Miral to be affronted by the epithet "beautiful". He was taken aback when she acknowledged it as a compliment. Miral argues: "Why not be happy? I am also a human being who can appreciate compliments. There is nothing wrong in being received as beautiful. It is an aspect of me, just as my writing is."

Miral's first published book was a collection of short stories that was "based on a lot of memories. These were stories swirling in my mind. Stories that I had heard my grandmother narrate. My work is written in a form of Arabic that is quite difficult to read. I use my knowledge of Classical Arabic, which I learnt in the University, and the dialect that I grew up using. Every author creates his/her own language. It is like a fingerprint.

"Once my short stories were published and I began receiving acclaim and complimentary reviews, then translators began visiting me. My mother looked at me as if I was someone important. She thinks I am abnormal, but she also thinks that it is possible to be talented. She wonders why I put her in my books. But that is not the only relationship that I put in my books. It is all my experience. It is a very hard relationship with my mother as she cannot make distance between her dream and me. She cannot understand this image about myself. She affects something... my self-confidence. This in turn affects my relationships. It takes time to discover myself and writing gives me that self-confidence to do so.

"Writing also enables me to travel, meet people and I have to learn. I am like someone in prison. I have suddenly achieved freedom. I want to do everything. It takes me time to understand simple things like that it is easy to be very friendly and have a relationship. I discover that it is easy, but it takes time. Sometimes, I think that it is also not easy to change old things easily and it is as if inertia has set in.

"Writing has changed my relationship with my mother and sister. My mother for instance, has accepted me as a writer now. She feels that maybe writing is something that I really wish to do, and it is my talent. She says, `my girl cannot concentrate on anything. She cannot cook and she cannot be a mother.' But my mother realises that writing has made me real and strong.

"This transformation is something that my sister too realises. Earlier I would look up to my elder sister. There is nearly eight years gap between the two of us. She is very similar to our mother and though a trained pharmacist, running her own pharmacy, she is like our mother; a nurturing, sensitive, caring and a `good' woman. Earlier she knew my life, but now she discovers that I am strong. All because of the fact that I have learnt to express myself.

"My writing gives me the understanding to just look at myself and be honest. I do not have a strong imagination, but I guess I am a good writer. Because I have very sensitive feeling. I am not very good or very close to human feeling.

"I learnt to read English because I had been trained in Old Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Urdu. But I wanted to express myself in English. When I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's autobiography, he said something that was so true. He said, that whenever he gave interviews in English, he wanted to say much more, but was restricted by his vocabulary. I guess it is my deep relationship with language that made me learn English with ease. Yet, I use Old Arabic as the language for my writing as it has a lot of information about the history, culture, songs, poetry etc. It is very hard to read it, but it gives me a huge variety."

MIRAL writes about the problems of women and how to deal with freedom once attained, and yet she is not totally free. She does not have the space to deal with politics or recording other aspects of life known to her. The status of the women bothers her. This is possibly the reason why Fatima and Nada, the protagonists in The Tent and The Blue Aubergine, are in some senses outcastes. One is a cripple and the other is ugly. Both are total misfits in Bedouin and Egyptian society. But this is exactly what enables the young female protagonists to explore, question, and comment upon the world around them without really ever having to tussle with the `mainstream' world.

The world of politics - democracy in the Arab world, dynastic tendencies even in non-monarchies such as Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak's son is tipped to succeed him, and the freedom of media in Egypt, the Israel-Palestinian issue - does not interest her at the moment as she feels that politicians have not really done much to improve the status of women.

While in college she was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and had even written articles for the movement, now she totally rejects its ideology and beliefs. Insisting upon the veil, and confining women to fixed roles and not really giving them their freedom is actually regressive, she says. Now there are far stronger women visible as role models.

The women now have a better chance of expressing themselves and, what is more, gaining the support for their views that was earlier absent: "Something has changed in our society." In any case, whatever kind of politics one may swear by (the Left activist boyfriend and the Islamicist brother of Nada), the situation of the woman never changes. This is a huge disappointment. Nada cannot grow up properly. She cannot be mature and she certainly cannot expect any kind of stability. She is in a constant dilemma: "Writing gives us a medium by which to express ourselves, but not necessarily to help us locate the answers."

In her novels, whether it is set in a Bedouin village or in Cairo, Miral always has a Bedouin grandmother figure who is tyrannical and autocratic, the chief matriarch who runs the establishment in her husband's or the chief patriarch's absence. Given that the Bedouins are usually traders, the men disappear for very long periods of time on work, leaving the women and children at home. The women are then usually responsible for agriculture, the protection of the children, and so on. This prompts the Bedouin woman to become more aggressive and more aware of her value. In some sense, the rule of men and women elides and becomes one and the same. The woman, according to Miral, comes "out of her gender" as she becomes the less repressed.

For Miral, writing fiction is about her own thinking. She does not have any kind of ideology. Her writing is all about feeling and about understanding the work. She has chosen not to be a part of any ideology as, "our society has not grown up enough to understand what it is, to be liberal and free. It is all very well to reflect on conflict, but it is also important to try and locate solutions for the status of women".

Jaya Bhattacharji is editor, Zubaan, an associate of Kali for Women.

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