This anthology was read for the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna.
Alifa Rifaat, an Egyptian, in this fifteen (15) short story anthology, convincingly lifts the veil on what it means to be a woman living within a traditional Muslim society. Her writing articulates a subtle revolt against, and a sympathetic insight into, the place of women in the essentially male-dominated Islamic environment. In her stories, Alifa Rifaat does not call on her fellow Arab women to fight for their rights; her clarion call is not for the women to be up in arms against their men or the male dominated society. What her stories do is to rally Arab/Muslim women to assess their positions as mothers, wives, and sisters and redefine these positions in the context of their religion and its dictates.
The Muslim religion plays a very dominant role in Rifaat’s stories, as is characterised by the numerous call for prayers and the observance of the rotes of the religious rituals. But even here, one cannot help but glimpse beneath the surface, the routine and rather monotonous and even meaningless nature that these five daily prayers have come to assume, so that for Widad in the Kite, it is the sight of her cherished chickens as she blows kisses to them every morning that makes her see the generosity of her Maker.
“She regretted that it was only through such gestures and the uttering of a few simple supplications that she was able to render her thanks to her Maker………Ahmed had often tried to make her memorise some verse of the Quran but she had never succeeded in doing so, and thus with his death, she had given up performing the regular prayers…….”p109
Nevertheless, religion plays an important role in the lives of Rifaat’s women in her stories; indeed, Rifaat seems to question not the strict adherence to the religion, but the interpretation of the tenets of the Quran by the society in which she was born and brought up. By her stories, Alifa Rifaat calls for change and development, and even empathy, but the call is couched in specifically Arab terms. Her inspiration lies not in the Women’s Movement of the West but remains within a strictly religious, even Orthodox Quran framework.
Alifa Rifaat also discusses issues that would be regarded as taboo by some Muslim countries; issues relating to sex and sexual pleasure for married women. For instance the title story, The Distant View of a Minaret, The Long Night of Winter and Bahiyya’s Eyes tell of sex-starved married women and their strong desire to be sexually fulfilled. I noted that her stories treated varied ranges of unsatisfactory sex within the confines of marriage and my conclusion is that this issue maybe tied in with the traditional religious interpretations of the society. Again, Rifaat is not concerned with sexual pleasures outside marriage. She is not celebrating adultery which she sees as a sin; her concern is with the empowerment and right of the Muslim married woman to have control of her sexuality and to be able to demand and receive sexual gratification, within the confines of marriage.
Another common thread in her stories is forced marriages and inevitably loveless marriages. While I believe strongly that these issues may and indeed do exist in other societies where heavy tradition and culture may play a significant role in the socialization of an individual and ultimately may have some effect on her/his marriage, what Rifaat is portraying here is a direct link between her religion and its interpretations by her society which has brought so much pain and suffering for the Muslim woman. It is not too much to ask that the Muslim man treats his wife with some degree of love, respect, kindness and generosity as endorsed by the Quran.
In dealing with such everyday themes as sex, love and death, the writers does so within the confines of her own particular culture and set of moral values so that at the end of the day, what she does is to challenge these values and interpretations to reassess the plight of women, while celebrating their courage and fortitude in the face of so much odds.
I enjoyed all the fifteen (15) short stories in the anthology and would recommend it to anyone interested in knowing about Arab women, culture and literature. Another book to recommend is the Arab Women Writers An Anthology of Short Stories, Edited by Dalya Cohen-Mor.