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Table of contents :
Table of Contents
Note on Transliteration and Translation
1 Decentering the Self in Arabic Autobiography
2 Entwined Voices, Embedded Auto/Biography: Hanan al-Shaykh’s My Life Is an Intricate Tale
3 Engagement and Separation in Leila Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood
4 Self in the City in Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman
5 Inscribing the Self in a Landscape of Rupture: Salim Barakat’s The Iron Grasshopper
6 Casting the Self through Outcasts: Mohamed Choukri’s Streetwise
7 Personal Myth and Self-Invention: Autobiographer as Ironic Hero in Samuel Shimon’s An Iraqi in Paris
8 Autobiographer as Auto-ethnographer: Hanna Abu Hanna’s The Cloud’s Shadow
A Poetics of Arabic Autobiography
This book examines the poetics of autobiographical masterpieces written in Arabic by Leila Abouzeid, Hanan al-Shaykh, Samuel Shimon, Abd al-Rahman Munif, Salim Barakat, Mohamed Choukri and Hanna Abu Hanna. These literary works articulate the life story of each author in ways that undermine the expectation that the “self”—the “auto” of autobiography— would be the dominant narrative focus. Although every autobiography naturally includes and relates to others to one degree or another, these autobiographies tend to foreground other characters, voices, places and texts to the extent that at times it appears as though the autobiographical subject has dropped out of sight, even to the point of raising the question: Is this an autobiography? These are indeed autobiographies, Sheetrit argues, albeit articulating the story of the self in unconventional ways. Sheetrit offers in-depth literary studies that expose each text’s distinct strategy for life narrative. Crucial to this book’s approach is the innovative theoretical foundation of relational autobiography that reveals the grounding of the self within the collective—not as symbolic of it. This framework exposes the intersection of the story of the autobiographical subject with the stories of others and the tensions between personal and communal discourse. Relational strategies for self-representation expose a movement between two seemingly opposing desires—the desire to separate and dissociate from others and the desire to engage and integrate within a particular relationship, community, culture or milieu. This interplay between disentangling and conscious entangling constitutes the leitmotif that unites the studies in this book. Ariel M. Sheetrit (PhD, Harvard, 2007) is a lecturer in modern Arabic literature and Arabic film at the Open University of Israel. She has published many scholarly articles on Arabic autobiography, fiction, women’s writing and on Arab film.
Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Series Editor: Ricia A Chansky
Inscribed Identities Life Writing as Self-Realization Joan Ramon Resina Research Methodologies for Auto/biography Studies Edited by Ashley Barnwell and Kate Douglas The Autobiography Effect Writing the Self in Post-Structuralist Theory Dennis Schep Multilingual Life Writing by French and Francophone Women Translingual Selves Natalie Edwards A Poetics of Arabic Autobiography Between Dissociation and Belonging Ariel M. Sheetrit
A Poetics of Arabic Autobiography Between Dissociation and Belonging
Ariel M. Sheetrit
First published 2020 by Routledge 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 and by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4RN Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2020 Taylor & Francis The right of Ariel M. Sheetrit to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Sheetrit, Ariel M., author. Title: A poetics of Arabic autobiography : between dissociation and belonging / Ariel M. Sheetrit. Description: New York : Routledge, 2020. | Series: Routledge auto/biography studies | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2019055919 (print) | LCCN 2019055920 (ebook) | ISBN 9780367258016 (hardback) | ISBN 9780429289958 (ebook) Subjects: LCSH: Autobiography—Authorship. | Arab countries—Biography—History and criticism. | Biography as a literary form. | Autobiographical fiction, Arabic—History and criticism. Classification: LCC CT34.A65 S54 2020 (print) | LCC CT34.A65 (ebook) | DDC 892.709/35—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019055919 LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019055920 ISBN: 978-0-367-25801-6 (hbk) ISBN: 978-0-429-28995-8 (ebk) Typeset in Sabon by codeMantra
For Nina In memory and with love
Acknowledgments Note on Transliteration and Translation
Decentering the Self in Arabic Autobiography 1
Entwined Voices, Embedded Auto/Biography: Hanan al-Shaykh’s My Life Is an Intricate Tale 30
Engagement and Separation in Leila Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood 48
Self in the City in Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman
Inscribing the Self in a Landscape of Rupture: Salim Barakat’s The Iron Grasshopper 88
Casting the Self through Outcasts: Mohamed Choukri’s Streetwise 115
Personal Myth and Self-Invention: Autobiographer as Ironic Hero in Samuel Shimon’s An Iraqi in Paris 137
Autobiographer as Auto-ethnographer: Hanna Abu Hanna’s The Cloud’s Shadow 165
Conclusions 185 Index
Many people have helped me and supported me over my years of intermittent work on this project. I thank the editors and publishers of the journals in which earlier versions of three chapters of this book have appeared. In all the three cases, material has been revised for this book. I thank the editors of Contemporary Women’s Writing and Oxford University Press for their permission to republish an earlier version of Chapter 2, which appeared as “Two Lives Enmeshed: Disentangling Genre and Identity in Ḥanān alShaykh’s Ḥikāyatī Sharḥun Yaṭūl (My Life: An Intricate Tale)” in volume 5:2, 2011, pp. 1–18. My thanks to Stephan Guth and the editors at The Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies who published an earlier version of Chapter 4: “The Geography of Identity in ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf’s Sīrat Madīna: ʿAmmān fī al-Arbaʿīnāt,” volume 14, 2014, pp. 27–45. A version of Chapter 3 entitled “Narrative Strategies of Self-Definition and Voice in Layla Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood” was originally published in Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies Vol. 11:2, pp. 179–198. (c) 2015, Association for Middle East Women’s Studies. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyrightholder, and the present publisher, Duke University Press. I could not ask for a more generous and supportive academic “home” than that which I have at the Open University of Israel. Of my many stupendous colleagues there, too numerous to name here, I would like to single out Adia Mendelsohn-Maoz for her active support of this project. This research was supported by The Open University of Israel’s Research Fund (grant no. 41186). I extend appreciation to my editor, Barbara Grant, for precision, patience and invaluable feedback. To the ILL staff at the Open University Library, I extend heartfelt thanks for years of assistance in tracking down and obtaining references—thanks especially to Irit Zauberman and Orit Nissan-Shalem. Thank-you to William Granara, who saw through the seeds of my work on Arabic autobiography as a dissertation at Harvard and who has continued to be a dear colleague, friend and source of inspiration over the years. Thank-you to Wolfhart Heinrichs and Sasson Somekh, scholars whose generosity I remember with great warmth. I am grateful to
x Acknowledgments Deborah Starr, Orit Vaknin-Yekutieli, Liat Kozma, William Mills Todd III, Sulayman Jubran, Fred Bogin, Nora Parr and Yael (Yali) Dekel for their intervention at various stages of this project. I wish to thank my parents for their unremitting support. Thank you to my husband Eyal; and to my children Nerya, Ateret, Halleli Miryam and Reshef. I am unendingly gratified to have you as the people closest to me. This book is dedicated to Nina Morris-Farber, my dear Nina, in memory and with great love.
Note on Transliteration and Translation
I adopted the standard system of transliteration used by IJMES (International Journal of Middle East Studies). For greatest ease of reading, I transliterated names of people and places without diacritical marks using either the spelling known to an Anglophone readership (where relevant) or transliteration without diacritics. I refer to book titles by their English translation, providing the Arabic transliteration in parenthesis. All discussions of autobiographies are based on analysis of the original Arabic texts. I refer to published translations of texts when available and modify them when necessary. I indicate when the translation is mine in endnotes or in the text.
Decentering the Self in Arabic Autobiography
Introduction The following excerpt, from the beginning of Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh’s My Life is an Intricate Tale (Hikāyatī Sharḥun Yaṭūl, 2005), illustrates some of the intricacies and problematics of Arabic autobiographical writing that I explore in this book: My father says to me one of the times he visits me in Beirut, as he puts his tarbush on his head to make himself seem taller, since he was extremely short: ‘I named you Kamila because you were created with perfect [in Arabic, kāmila] features and characteristics, and I named your brother Kamil, despite the fact that The Perfect One [al-Kāmil] is the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but that’s all right, I am generous!’ His last sentence caused my response to get stuck in my throat, almost choking me. Nevertheless, I continued striking the slab, but this time with such a violent thump that I made the piece of meat fly around me in all directions. (5, my translation)1 This beginning draws attention to the name and the naming of the protagonist, who narrates in the first-person voice. The father’s explanation of the name causes the daughter to choke and to pound in anger; at the very outset, naming engenders disruption and resistance, not belonging. An explanation of the name of the autobiographical subject, like the birth topos, is a common convention for beginning an autobiography and functions as a referential anchor: it draws an equivalence between the autobiographer and the protagonist. Here, however, this convention is used in order to subvert referentiality, since the name of the first-person narrator—Kamila—is not identical to the name of the writer, Hanan. This account of the origin of the protagonist’s name therefore functions to destabilize the autobiographical intent of the text, raising many questions about how we should read this book. Perhaps we are misinterpreting the situation. Maybe this text is not subverting autobiographical conventions and is simply a novel. A reader
2 Decentering the Self assuming this would encounter a surprise just after the middle of the book. Hanan, the writer, is a character in the book, portrayed by the first-person narrator: Hanan is Kamila’s daughter. What’s more, in the final chapter, the protagonist, Kamila, now dead, “explains,” “This is my story that my daughter Hanan wrote for me … We would sit together without a recording device, and she would write in her small notebooks …” (379, my translation). This text is revealed to be a collaborative effort at autobiography/biography. This tangled relation of self-story to family story raises the questions, In what sense can this text be considered autobiography? Is it the mother’s autobiography, penned and reworked by the daughter? Is it a version of the daughter’s own autobiography? Perhaps we should simply agree that this is a biography of a woman written by her daughter. This would be partially true but is complicated by two factors. One, it is written in the first-person voice as though it were actually the autobiography of the mother, although it becomes increasingly (although not immediately) clear that the daughter mediates the story. Second, once the daughter enters the scene, she is a main character, and the reader begins to suspect that although the text continues to be narrated in Kamila’s first-person voice, what unfolds is a version of a life story of the daughter—who is, in fact, the writer and therefore, by extension, the autobiographer. The presence of the daughter’s character transforms the autobiographical or biographical intent of the text. The predominance of her presence suggests that this can be read as an autobiography of the daughter, albeit in her mother’s narrative voice. The writer-daughter requires her mother’s life story to help her to understand her own self, her past, and to come to terms with painful parts of her childhood. The reader can then ponder why she would want to write this in her mother’s narrative voice; perhaps the process of self-understanding she undergoes and represents in writing entails imagining herself in her mother’s place. The text unfolds the writer’s life story as a process of learning her mother’s story, and therefore the background to her own story, and the process of coming to terms with her mother’s decisions as they have affected her. She does this by learning her mother’s story, internalizing it and finding her place in it. This text can be reduced neither to an autobiography of Hanan al-Shaykh nor to a biography (autobiography?) of Hanan al-Shaykh’s mother—and that is its major feat: it maintains the self-narratives of mother and daughter in constant—and unresolvable—tension. If we dismiss this as not-an-autobiography because it does not neatly conform to autobiographical conventions, then we overlook the idiosyncratic and unconventional way in which this text can be read as an autobiography and the ways in which it plots out its own version of what an autobiography can be. We would then overlook the ways in which it challenges and extends the boundaries of life writing, one of whose central premises is the self-representational “I” at its center. Writing about “out-law
Decentering the Self 3 genres” in autobiographies that break most obvious rules of the genre, Caren Kaplan points out that such tests enable “a deconstruction of the ‘master’ genres, revealing the power dynamics embedded in literary production, distribution, and reception” (1992, 208). This illuminates the collaborative procedures that ground Hanan al-Shaykh’s narrative strategies in My Life Is an Intricate Tale, and which reveal the power dynamics involved in representing or “writing for” the illiterate mother in a literary language she could neither read nor speak. Building on this illustration, in the Arabic autobiographies I analyze in this book, the story of the self is intertwined within the story of another person, or within the story of a group, a place or even cultural products (such as a particular literary or filmic genre), as an essential, overarching facet of the narrative. My intention is to study this conscious digression, transgression or subversion of a perceived autobiographical tradition, in order to mark out, acknowledge and explore the diverse literary terrain for telling one’s life story in modern Arabic literature. This formulation highlights not only the porousness of the category as a whole but the specific tendency to merge autobiography with biography or novel, intentionally or unintentionally. My purpose is to linger with the difficulties posed by these idiosyncratic forms of self-representation, which are experimental to varying degrees and which challenge the limits and possibilities of a genre that ostensibly constitutes a sharp focus on the individual. In this vein, I examine how these texts rework the conventions of autobiographical self-representation and how their exceptional and original literary strategies broaden the scope of autobiographical writing in Arabic. Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Sīrat Madīna: ʿAmmān fī al-ʿArba’īnāt, translated under the title Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman (1994), is a case in point. There, the story of the self synthesizes with the story of the writer’s hometown, which, as suggested by the title, is the ostensible focus. In fact, the autobiographical subject whose childhood unfolds over the course of the narrative is represented not as “I” but either as part of a group of boys or subordinated to descriptions of the city and its inhabitants. Rather than dismissing the text as not-anautobiography, I examine how these portrayals encapsulate the writer’s identity in circuitous and unconventional ways. My analysis considers the significance of enmeshing the narrative self so profoundly within his or her surroundings—both people and places. I ask, How does this serve to articulate the writer’s identity rather than conceal it?
Autobiography Terminology The present book explores variations on self-representation in modern Arabic literary autobiographies. Both the English term “autobiography” and the prevailing Arabic terms “sīra dhātiyya” and “tarjama dhātiyya”
4 Decentering the Self (both of which can be translated as “self-biography”) bespeak the centrality of the autonomous self—the “auto”—in narratives depicting one’s own life. 2 This is congruous with two intertwined expectations readers tend to have from autobiography, expectations that Western theories on life writing promoted and reinforced for many decades and that have been a foundational element of Arabic biographical and autobiographical writing for many centuries.3 As Mary Ann Fay observes, Any reading of biographies, biographical dictionaries or the intellectual biographies known as thabat shows that the articulation of the autonomous, knowable, and recoverable self existed in the ArabIslamic world before Enlightenment ideas penetrated the intellectual life of the Arab/Ottoman intelligentsia in the nineteenth century. (2001, 2) Following from this, and from time-honored Western theories on life writing, is the expectation that the “self,” usually represented using the first-person pronoun “I,” will stand out as the main character of the narrative and will be rendered as “deeply singular” and as “autonomous bounded egos” (Fischer 1994, 79–80). Following from this, the autobiographical text will focus on a teleological development of the person whom the “I” represents. The author will inscribe his or her self-story against a particular background, be it broader historical, cultural, political or social, or a more intimate familial context in a hierarchy. Yet a central expectation is that the autonomous “self” will dominate the narrative, both as its central character and as the narrative voice, and all other elements will be subordinate to the autonomous individual invariably at the center of the narrative. Loosening or broadening our terminology in English indicates an awareness of the problematics intrinsic to the term “autobiography.” “Autobiographical text” and “life writing” are perhaps less dogmatic and more flexible terms that refer to modes of retrospective life writing in a way that is “more inclusive of the heterogeneity of self-referential practices” (Sidonie and Watson 2010, 4). The term “life writing” suggests, the broad continuum of life-writing discourses that range from writing about the self (autobiography) to writing about another (biography), acknowledging that writing about the self and writing about someone else are not as distinct from each other as they used to be. Contemporary writers of autobiography and biography tend to be self-reflexive and to situate their stories in well-developed contexts of family and community. Such multiple perspectives complicate and enrich the generic possibilities of life-writing practices. (Egan and Helms 2005, 216)
Decentering the Self 5 In this book, I tend to employ both the terms “autobiography” and “life writing,” using them with the understanding that neither term adequately encapsulates the possibilities of writing about oneself. Not only can we say that both terms are only starting points for referring to retrospective life stories, but we can also say that each individual autobiography is a distinctive interpretation of the limits and possibilities of the genre.
Relational Autobiography Many of the Arabic autobiographies I have read complicate the hierarchical division of the autobiographical subject as the dominant character and dominant voice, rendering the particulars of the context as secondary, part of the backdrop. Thwarting self-representational coherence, some autobiographies feature characters who are part of the background of the writer’s story yet penetrate the foreground and even seem to steal the show, as it were, with their own stories taking center stage, by narrating small (or even large) parts of the text or by having their stories narrated at length. Other characters or aspects of the milieu may be so dominant as to obscure the autobiographical subject altogether. By obscure, I mean that the autobiographical subject slips out of focus. This can occur in many ways. One way in which this may occur is by fusing the subject into a collective (such as “the children used to …”), which includes the autobiographical subject but without specifying him or her. Another way this may occur is by absenting the subject from the narrative for brief interludes or extended segments, inserting stories by or about other characters or inserting excerpts from other genres, for example, short stories, dictionary entries and folk tales. The expectation of a dominant autobiographical self can be undermined when the subject’s story is bound up with the story of another, as in the text by Hanan al-Shaykh discussed above, or others, as in the text by Abd al-Rahman Munif mentioned above, a mode of autobiographical expression that has become known as “relational autobiography.” Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson enumerate different kinds of textual “others,” including, but not limited to, historical, contingent, significant and idealized absent others as well as subject others. A historical other may be “identifiable figures of a collective past”; contingent others may “populate the text as actors … but are not deeply reflected on”; and significant others are “those whose stories are deeply implicated in the narrator’s and through whom the narrator understands his or her own self-formation” (2010, 86). An idealized absent other may be one to whom the narrative is addressed or whose absence underwrites the text (ibid., 87). A subject other exploits the otherness of one’s own identity, referring to oneself as another (ibid., 88). Relational narratives incorporate extensive stories of related others. Smith and Watson affirm, “The routing of a self known through its relational others undermines
6 Decentering the Self the understanding of life narrative as a bounded story of the unique, individuated narrating subject” (ibid.). The studies in this book comprise a reconsideration of methodological approaches to modern Arabic life writing,4 by focusing on narrative strategies that articulate the autobiographical subject in relation to other voices, characters, genres and milieu, often causing the narrative self to shift out of the limelight. Critic Rocío G. Davis epitomizes the relational approach to autobiography as follows: “Relational life writing challenges the fundamental paradigm of the independent self of traditional autobiography, as well as the concept of monologic representation” (2005, 42). Davis draws on relational theories in her studies of ethnic autobiographies in English, exposing how “The writing subject … views and writes his or her story from the prism of intersecting lives” (ibid., 45). Moreover, in relational autobiographies, the stories of “others” (not-the-autobiographer) “may occupy as much narrative space and importance as those of the auto/biographer” (Davis 2011, 3). Smith and Watson encapsulate the relational approach, explaining that “relationality contests the notion that self-narration is the monologic utterance of a solitary, introspective subject that is knowable to itself” (2010, 218). Relational theories contest the single-voiced autonomous, monadic contextualization of the autobiographical subject and the generic distinction between biography and autobiography that follows from it. Relational autobiographies defy both the notion of a unified text and the idea of an autonomous identity. Instead, textual openness, polyphony and multimodality form the basis for a conception of the self that is “defined by—and lives in terms of—its relation with others” (Eakin 1999, 43). According to Smith and Watson, the term “relational life writing” was proposed by Susan Stanford Friedman to characterize the model of selfhood in women’s autobiographical writing (Smith and Watson 2010, 278). Nancy K. Miller (1994, 2) stresses that relational tendencies were acknowledged in autobiography criticism starting as early as 1980, when critic Mary Mason began to interrogate the universalizing claims prominent until that point—but only with regard to female-authored autobiographies (Miller 1994, 2). Mason—the first of a series of female critics including Susan Stanford Friedman, Bella Brodzki, and Celeste Schenk—identified an impulse prevalent among female writers of autobiography to write in relation to a “chosen other” (Mason 1980, 210). Building on these critics, Miller’s innovation, a turning point in relational theory, was to suggest that the relational paradigm could also be applied to men’s autobiographies (1994, 4). Miller distinguishes between a readerly approach, that is, reading for a relational process even when that is not the center of the text, and the autonomous self dominates, and a writerly approach, in which the text itself features a clearly articulated relational strategy.5 She reads in terms of both approaches, locating the relational even when it is peripheral and drawing out the relational when
Decentering the Self 7 it is a prominent factor in the autobiographical text. In light of this, she concludes that some men’s texts can be read through a relational paradigm even when the text itself is not permeated with constant affinity to a relational other.6 In fact, some men do cross gender lines and compose the text “through the structure of self-portrayal through the relation to a privileged other that characterizes most female-authored autobiography” (1994, 4). Paul Eakin built on this idea several years later, observing that “we need to liberate men’s autobiography from the inadequate model that has guided our reading to date” (1999, 49). He argued that, paradoxically, critics have helped keep the so-called “Gusdorfian model” (the model of the autonomous self) in place by showing that it did not apply to women but did apply to men’s writing, with exceptions. Eakin suggests the term “a relational life” to “describe the story of a relational model of identity, developed collaboratively with others” (57), calling this “the story of the story” (58) and applying it across gender boundaries. In Eakin’s typology of a relational life, he avers that a narrative featuring a relational model of identity is one developed with others, often family members. Yet any life and, by extension, any autobiographical text have a relational dimension. For this reason, he writes, I want to preserve the usefulness of the label by applying it to those autobiographies that feature the decisive impact on the autobiographer of either (1) an entire social environment (a particular kind of family, or community and its social institutions—schools, churches, etc.) or (2) key other individuals, usually family members, especially parents. (68) This provides a key to central tenets of relational autobiographical criticism and indicates how the relational aspect of an autobiographical text can be expressed. Eakin argues that both men’s and women’s narratives may articulate the relational dimension of selfhood along a spectrum in which, in an extreme case, it can be difficult to tease apart whose story is being told because the stories (usually of family members, say, of parents and child) are interwoven. This prototype serves as a guide in my attempts to expose and analyze the relational paradigms within Arabic autobiographical texts. Various scholars reflect on relational life writing. Leigh Gilmore suggests the term “autobiographics” “to describe those elements of self-representation which are not bound by a philosophical definition of the self derived from Augustine …” (1994, 185), observing that the “assertion of a singular voice and subject, of a unique and unified self, contravenes the very dynamic that enables the autobiographical act and its characteristic play of identity in language” (87). Gilmore observes a
8 Decentering the Self tension between self-representation and the web of relations out of which the individual emerges, in light of which, she asks how, in approaching autobiographical texts, “selves and milieus ought to be understood in relation to each other” (2001, 12, italics in original). Susanna Egan engages a similar theoretical direction in her seminal book Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography (1999).7 The term “mirror talk” refers to the encounter of two lives within an auto/biographical text “in which the biographer is also an autobiographer” and one life is narratively formed in relation to another (7). Mirror talk comprises “double voicing, double vision” (25).8 She expands on this idea: Interactions among people and among genres are not simply dialogues because they involve pluralities but are often also dialogic— in terms of their dynamic and reciprocal relations between text and context; their revelation of the difference between self and other; the contestatory nature of many of these relationships; the frequent recognition and destabilizing of power relations; the common move toward decentered heterogeneity; the omnivorous use of genres to subvert of destabilize each other; and, perhaps most important, the recognition that human beings exist within a hierarchy of languages or ideological discourses. (23) These ideas are salient in my analyses of modern Arabic autobiographical texts in which I investigate the narrative and formal strategies that use various voices (of people and genres) and stories of others to articulate the life story of the writer. My studies are also guided by the conceptualization of anthropologist Michael M. J. Fischer, who, as early as 1994, appropriated the French term sondage (soundings), referring to search techniques in an archaeological dig, to apply to, efforts to listen to the many kinds of voicings in autobiographical forms that might on the one hand expand the ways genres of autobiography are recognized (beyond for instance the fairly narrow master narrative of Western individualism, or universalizing theories of individuation-maturation, which studies of autobiography are so often used to celebrate, innocent of any effort at serious cross-cultural validation) and on the other hand provide clues for keeping social and cultural theory abreast of a rapidly changing, pluralizing, world. (79–80) What is particularly illuminating here is the breakdown of autobiographical expression into three voices. The first voice is the autonomous
Decentering the Self 9 autobiographical “I”; the second refers to the double voicings, mirroring and dialogic storytelling with reference to “others” who may even be cross-historical or cross-cultural; and the third voice refers to “multiple perspectival positioning and understandings”. This conceptualization of the third voice broadens the notion of “other” to refer to cultural structures and fields—for example “the voice of rationality” (99)—casting these structures as an “other” in terms of whom the “I” narrates his or her story. The studies in this book work through a range of autobiographical practices that favor an expansive view of self-representational discourse and which seem to articulate the “question of how selves and milieus ought to be understood in relation to each other” (Gilmore 2001, 12, italics in original). I examine Arabic texts that inscribe the self in relation to other people, places, texts and cultural milieu. I want to emphasize that it is natural for a narrative of a life story to include characters other than the autobiographical subject, and so it follows that all life writing is arguably relational to one degree or another. In his discussion of voicings in autobiographical writings, Michael Fischer observes that in autobiographies, “individuals construct themselves through mirrorings with others and are constructed through systematic traditions of narration and dialogue …” (1994, 99). The question is therefore not whether “others” are incorporated into one’s life narrative (as they always will be) but how the self is articulated in relation to other people, and in relation to milieus; how do these interrelations underwrite narrative structure and story? In the studies in this book, I examine the literary and aesthetic strategies employed to contextualize and shape life stories in relation to—or, in Fischer’s conceptualization, “through mirrorings with”—other people, places, culture and history and genres (ibid.). I examine what literary strategies are used to accentuate or to embed the autobiographical self within the story of another person, a collective of others or a particular geographical or cultural milieu (including other written or filmic texts). What genres and texts are incorporated into the narrative, and how do they articulate the autobiographical subject’s identity indirectly? Beyond the voices of characters and of genres, the studies in this book address the role of place and social/cultural environment in the narrative.9
Dissociation and Belonging in Arabic Autobiography At the heart of the texts I explore, I distinguish a tension between being a part of and being apart from this world, to borrow from anthropologist Michael Jackson’s conceptualization in Between One and One Another (2012). His book does not deal “officially” with autobiography, but his reflections stem from portraits he constructs of individuals he has met over the course of his lifework in anthropology. He delves into life
10 Decentering the Self stories as a basis for discussing the tension between autonomy and engagement with others and between the sociocentric and the egocentric. Jackson encapsulates this tension, which I single out in modern Arabic literary autobiography, and he describes it as follows: On the one hand, the world constantly invades my consciousness, breaking into my thoughts, disturbing my dreams, and sometimes subverting my sense of who I am or would seem to be. On the other hand, I experience a countervailing impulse to leave the world behind, to put my dealings with it on hold, opening up a space in which the rhythms of my inner life govern the way the external world appears to my consciousness. I regard this tension between turning toward the world and turning away from it as an expression of a deeper existential dialectic between being acted upon and being an actor. (7) Jackson’s conceptualizations ground my central argument: the narrative strategies in the texts I chose encapsulate a movement between preoccupation with others and preoccupation with oneself, a movement that seldom admits of a final resolution or reconciliation. I argue that the relational paradigm employed in each autobiography I analyze and the concomitant aesthetic strategies expose a deep ambivalence and constant dialectical movement between two seemingly paradoxical or opposing desires— between the desire to separate from others and the desire to engage with others, to mingle and integrate within a particular relationship, community or milieu. The autobiographical subjects undergo moments of association and dissociation, entanglement and disentanglement, moments where they experience themselves as singular or solitary, as separate from their surroundings, and moments where their existence is predicated on what it means to be with another or part of a collective or milieu. In this vein, my studies expose the interplay between belonging and unbelonging, between individual identity and collective identity, between writing as an insider and writing from an outsider’s perspective, between identifying as a singular individual and identifying as a member of a collectivity, cultural or human. This phenomenon of disentangling to find one solitary self and conscious entangling in order to engage with others constitutes the leitmotif that unites all the studies in this book.10 My argument in this book is that the narrative strategies of concealing and exposing the autobiographical subject articulate how the story of an individual is mediated through a social, political, cultural or linguistic context, through identification with or against certain groups, through the stories of other characters—friends, family members or other acquaintances. The narrative strategies in my corpus express the tension between immersing the autobiographical subject in a host of other voices, on the
Decentering the Self 11 one hand, and exposing his or her individual voice, on the other.11 This can be articulated in terms of what Caren Kaplan calls “the process of delineating a narrative space of the coexistence of disparate parts underscores a [sic] productive tensions between homogeneity and difference” (1992, 213). Important to my argument is that narrative identity, as it is represented in these texts, is never static or unequivocal. The interrelationship between the self and the collective is constantly being negotiated and renegotiated through diverse narrative strategies. My approach undermines reductive perspectives that view the autobiographical subject in Arabic autobiography as an allegory for the collective (often a nation). Crucial to my intervention is the idea that relational strategies reveal the grounding of the self in the collective, not as symbolic of it, and express the complicated dynamic between connectedness and autonomy, which, I argue, is at the root of textual identity in the texts that make up my corpus. In her 2014 monograph Autobiographical Identities in Contemporary Arab Culture, Valerie Anishchenkova examines Arab (as distinct from only Arabic-language) identity, self, selfhood and subjectivity as expressed in a diverse range of forms across literary, cinematic and cyber modes of representation. She identifies transformations in Arab autobiographical expression, including explicit reference to physicality and overt negotiation of sexuality, and the absence of an “apologetic tone” for self-exposure, as was once the convention in autobiographical writing (23). Importantly (in the context of my studies), she calls attention to a prominent characteristic that persists in Arab autobiographical expression, namely, the binary between the collective/national and the individualistic, which, she argues, as does Machut-Mendecka (1999), leads to clash and crisis. Anishchenkova proposes that multiplicity of voices, languages and cultures hinders any possibility of a unified subjectivity and selfhood and that “those torn between places, cultures and languages are destined to experience the most torrid and intricate negotiations with their inescapably fragmented, polyphonic selves” (108). Given this, she concludes that selfhood is experienced as a permanent state of exile. This conclusion is perhaps an overgeneralization, an overly negative reading of the polyphonic and hybrid expressions of self. I suggest a different perspective on the interplay between a monologic self and multiple foci of identification. I argue that it is expressed as a dialectic and as a continual shifting between moments of association and dissociation, and between separateness and different modes of relatedness. In Anishchenkova’s collection of studies, that which is most relevant for the present study is the half-chapter she dedicates to an analysis of the novel-autobiography Baqāyā Ṣuwar (translated as Fragments of Memory, 2004) by Syrian writer Hanna Mina (1975). Anishchenkova examines the communal aspect of the identity-making process through a literary reading that exposes how the “memories of others are intertwined
12 Decentering the Self with his own in a way that makes them indistinguishable from one another” (49). She fleshes out the voicelessness and eventual voicing of the protagonist/autobiographical subject in light of national and religious collective identities. The tensions she illuminates in her discussion of Fragments of Memory correspond to those that guide the studies in the present monograph, and this underlines the pervasiveness of the entanglement of self and others in Arabic autobiographies, prevalent beyond the specific texts I examine. Parting company from Anishchenkova, I read this tension through a methodological framework of relational theories of autobiography, exposing a vacillating tension between autonomy and interdependence. Anishchenkova addresses a corpus different from mine, Arabic literary autobiographies, in terms of both language (not consistently Arabic) and form (blogs, cyber-writing and film alongside autobiographical novels). This initial concentration on how the narrative self is constructed in relation to others is a productive way to unravel associated underlying issues of voicing, silencing and representation in the autobiographical texts. The concept of “voice” here refers to the speech of characters cited in the narrative, to the narrative voice (the one who narrates the story) and to the different genres incorporated into the autobiographical texts. The following questions guide my investigation of voice in the autobiographies I analyze.12 Whose voice is privileged? How do multiple voices interact? If one voice dominates the narrative, where and how do other voices, nevertheless, emerge? How does the narrating “I” contain or curtail them? Is the story narrated in the first-person voice of the writer or in the first-person voice of another character or in the third-person voice? When do multiple voices emerge, and when do they disappear? How are other people’s stories and voices integrated into the narrative? Scholars have noted the powerful force of family, national parties and religious figures in Arabic autobiography and in the Arabic novel. Eva Machut-Mendecka observes, “The memoirs of Arabic writers show how difficult may be the fortunes of an individual in the contemporary world and how intricate are their relations with other persons, especially with their own community” (1999, 511). She pinpoints a conflict between individual and collective identity at the core of Arabic (autobiographical?) literature. Although she mentions eight writers, her article does not offer an in-depth analysis, literary or otherwise, but her general and generalizing contention is a stimulating point of departure. In each of my chapters, I examine how the autobiographical subject is submerged in—or emerges from—a composite of genres, places or other people’s stories and voices. I expose how the literary strategies through which the autobiographical subject is concealed or revealed actually reveal aspects of his or her identity. For example, in some of the Arabic autobiographies I discuss, the stories of a relative occupies as much narrative space and importance as those of the autobiographer,
Decentering the Self 13 who may be doubling as biographer. I examine in what sense the autonomous autobiographical subject, often the “I” in autobiography, may be undercut by engagement with a collective voice or with other characters or texts that overshadow the singular “self,” contextualizing him or her, or allowing for the story of the autobiographical subject to emerge from a composite of stories and voices.
The Spectrum of Relationality in Arabic Autobiography The relational component of the Arabic autobiographies I have read varies from text to text. For most of the autobiographies I analyze in this book, the relational component is an overarching feature of the text in that the autobiographical self emerges through narrative entangledness. However, in some of the texts I examine, such as An Iraqi in Paris by Samuel Shimon, the model of relationality is not as conspicuous or obvious as it is in others. Indeed, An Iraqi in Paris can be read in terms of the “emphatically individualistic” (Eakin 1999, 47) Gusdorfian model, in which the goal of the writer is to narrate his own history: “what he sets out to do is to reassemble the scattered elements of his individual life and to regroup them in a comprehensive sketch” (35). In contrast to An Iraqi in Paris, there are texts in my corpus in which the autobiographical self is so profoundly entwined in the lives of others that the very autobiographicalness is obscured. This brings out the range of the relational spectrum in the texts I examine. Some autobiographies that do not enmesh the autobiographical self in that of a proximate other, or which are collaborative, or engulf it in a particular milieu, can still be read for distinctive relational tendencies, which may be articulated in terms of inserted genres, or even in terms of deliberate silences. Some—but not all—of the texts I examine are conspicuously experimental in their form, while others are ostensibly more conventional. Some recent research has argued for explicitly defining relational autobiography as a distinct genre within autobiography (Anne Rüggemeier’s Die relationale Autobiographie, 2014). I agree with scholars who find this argument “insufficiently flexible for the idiosyncrasies of autobiographical writing, which readily takes up and adapts multiple discourses and genres” (Watson 2016, 17). The spectrum of relational autobiographical selves epitomized in the studies in this book undermines the assertion of relationality as a genre. My studies reveal it as “an ongoing process among modes of storytelling rather than a fixed form … a negotiation among the competing claims of single and collective stories,” to quote Julia Watson, who draws from her own wealth of research as well as observations by Nancy K. Miller (Watson 2016, 17). Susanna Egan suggests rereading “traditional, presumably monologic texts positing an autonomous, authoritative self” for their “unexpected polyphonies” (1999, 228). Thomas R. Smith takes this
14 Decentering the Self idea one step further by suggesting that “so-called traditional or canonical autobiographies—those using linear narrative, emphasizing development, and projecting a unitary, autonomous self—are constructed in part by means similar to nontraditional ones” (2004, 61). A text that seems to impute singularity can also be read for its overall multiplicity, for the differentiation within the seemingly singular identity, and for the polyvocality therein. This leads to a crucial point: namely, that relational autobiography is not only a mode of writing but also a mode of reading autobiographical texts. Miller distinguishes between a readerly approach—that is, reading for a relational process even when that is not the center of the text, and the autonomous self dominates, and a writerly approach, in which the text itself features a clearly articulated relational strategy (1994, 4). I emphasize that the studies in this book focus primarily but not exclusively on texts that undermine autobiographical conventions by mixing, sometimes to the point of drowning out, the self in a collective or by overriding it with other voices, characters or texts. However, subject-centric, chronologically linear texts may also gain from analysis of their relational aspects, and therefore I propose a reading of texts that are “conventionally celebratory” (Kaplan 1992, 212) and that use more familiar modes of autobiographical expression that illuminates aspects of how others (people, places, genres) are woven into the text. A crucial issue I address in the studies in this book is how the “self-in-narrative” is constructed, whether by processes that emphasize individuality or by processes that fuse self and others. How does each text perform the writer’s process of self-awareness? I draw on Susanna Egan’s articulations of the centrality of “personal and generic encounters” as a recurring feature of contemporary autobiographies. She observes that interactions among people and among genres are not simply dialogues because they involve pluralities but are often also dialogic— in terms of their dynamic and reciprocal relations between text and context; their revelation of the difference between self and other; the contestatory nature of many of these relationships; the frequent recognition and destabilizing of power relations; the common move toward decentered heterogeneity; the omnivorous use of genres to subvert or destabilize each other; and, perhaps most important, the recognition that human beings exist within a hierarchy of languages or ideological discourses. (1999, 23) Egan here points to not only the dialogic interaction that takes place on different levels of a text but the repercussions of such interaction in terms of the power relations that emerge—in fact, in many of the texts
Decentering the Self 15 I examine, power dynamics are a central theme, which is brought out through the text’s relational strategies. My analyses goes against the grain of scholarship on Arabic autobiography that continues to rely on traditional autobiography theory and categorization, notably but not only Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact” (1982 ), as prescriptive criteria for what texts are considered autobiography (notable examples include Tetz Rooke, 1997 and Sabry Hafez, 2002). This formalistic approach is problematic because it entails overlooking unconventional narrative strategies and their contribution to Arabic autobiographical production, particularly texts in which generic experimentation articulates aspects of self-identity. My point is not to disregard Lejeune’s conditions for an autobiography, and certainly not his own reservations and re-articulations on the topic expressed in subsequent publications (1982).13 As recently as 2007, Lejeune has been called “our reigning autobiography guru” (Miller 2007, 538), and his ideas comprise an unprecedented theorization of issues in autobiography. Nevertheless, they must be approached with a critical eye and— as he himself has implied—not as a rigid absolute, especially given the autobiographical texts that purposely waver in a borderland between genres, conflating autobiography with biography or novel. I draw inspiration from such critical works as Muhammad Baridi’s ‘Indamā tatakallam al-dhāt: al-sīra al-dhātiyya fī al-adab al-‘arabī al-ḥadīth (When the Self Speaks: Autobiography in Modern Arabic Autobiography 2005), which provides a stylistic analysis of eight Arabic autobiographies. His monograph stands out for its emphasis on artistic and genre issues in modern Arabic autobiography; its main point is that autobiography does not have one singular style but many (28). Another source of inspiration for my studies is Sabry Hafez’s (2002) all-too-brief study of the literary mechanisms employed in writing Arabic autobiography that turn the process of reformulation into something more complex than an account of life. He draws attention to the heterogeneity of autobiographies and the fragmentation of the self within Arabic autobiographical practice. His main contribution in this seminal article, foundational for my approach to autobiography, is setting forth what he calls “the variegation” of the self in Arabic autobiographical texts, present since the inception of modern Arabic autobiography, as he shows in his extended discussion of Ahmad al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg (1855). He distinguishes types of selfhood in Arabic autobiography: the confident self, the questioning self, and the fragmented self. They correspond to national consciousness, starting with optimism regarding the future, disappointment following independence, and lastly, a breakdown under new colonialism. While finding it problematic to abide unquestioningly by Lejeune’s autobiographical pact, my study also parts company from those scholars who reject any serious discussion of autobiographical convention. In so
16 Decentering the Self doing, they disregard how autobiographical expectations are employed as sites of transgression expressed on the formal level. Some autobiographers consciously work against genre expectations in order to subvert, stretch or overturn them, and so neglecting or overlooking the role of genre expectations makes it impossible to acknowledge self-expression through creative and idiosyncratic self-expression. Nawar Al-Hassan Golley (2003), in one of the few extended studies on Arab women’s autobiographical writing, acknowledges the difficulty involved in fitting modern Arabic autobiographical texts, particularly those by women, into the definitions set by Lejeune and other traditional critics. She argues that women write differently from men and observes that theories on autobiography treat only “standard” male heterosexual Western texts and are neither broad nor flexible enough to include Arab women’s autobiographies, given that “Writing, for women, becomes a way to provide spaces within which women can talk about the complexities and pluralities of their selves” (69). While this criticism is not misplaced, she does not suggest an alternative modus operandi. She does not acknowledge relational theories of autobiography proposed since the 1990s that offer alternative perspectives on women’s life writing and on life writing that does not fit neatly into traditional definitions of “autobiography” (including life writing by men, since claiming a gender divide provokes interesting questions but is not always accurate). The texts she chooses reflect her primarily psychological/sociological interest in women’s textual identity. Although Golley’s primarily thematic discussions of texts are interesting, her mixing of literary, sociological and cultural issues is confusing and unsystematic. The collection of articles Al-Hassan Golley subsequently edited, Arab Women’s Lives Retold: Exploring Identity through Writing (2007), is similarly far-reaching. In addition to works in Arabic, it considers those in French and English. It extends beyond life stories and written works, considering a spectrum of autobiographical expression by women, “from autobiographies to fiction, poetry, memoirs, and even photographs—showing the diverse ways in which Arab women are examining and exploring contemporary issues in terms of their own lives” (xxvii). Neither the individual articles nor the introduction problematize or develop the implied category of “autobiographical writings” (ibid., xxvi) that they designate. I have just outlined two approaches to modern Arabic autobiography that encapsulate the opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is rigidly prescriptive, dictating clear guidelines for a text to be considered an autobiography; the second breaks out of the confines of genre definition by promoting an inclusivity that invalidates the significances of variation between texts. In this book, I suggest engaging these variations in self-representation by examining the productive tension elicited by diverse strategies of self-representation. The power of genre expectations should not be understated or ignored, given that it “directs the act of
Decentering the Self 17 reading and writing and provides readers and writers with interpretations that enable them to share the process of meaning” (Davis 2007, 8). The concept of relational autobiography is fundamentally linked to the issue of genre-breaking and genre-bending because the central expectation of this genre is homogeneous, autonomous self-representation, and that is precisely what is undermined, to varying extents, by relational autobiography. By investigating the relational paradigms of each of the texts of my corpus, I address modes of self-representation that allow for alternative versions and visions of Arabic autobiography and for ways of expressing ambiguities of self-representation. This is encapsulated by what Kamran Rastegar has said of Ahmad al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg: “Through his writing, he [al-Shidyaq] redefines the structural and rhetorical outlines of the literary conventions available to him” (2007, 102). My studies subvert a prescriptive approach, engaging the varying strategies employed by different writers to represent their narrative selves within personal and communal contexts. What Reynolds et al. said of premodern autobiographical texts is applicable to the modern texts I study in this book: Rather than accepting the conventions of earlier examples of life writing, “autobiographers found precedents but did not view them as binding formal models” (2001, 59). It seems that despite the many differences between premodern and modern Arabic autobiographies, the genre continues to be characterized by “a high degree of formal variety and includes a number of highly idiosyncratic texts” (ibid.). Of premodern life writing, Reynolds suggest that rather than communicating specific formal characteristics or a sense of what the style and content of an autobiography should be, the “autobiographical act” is what seems to have been communicated as precedent. It is interesting that their conclusion regarding premodern life writing also describes contemporary autobiographical texts: “The history of formal innovation seems to be indicative of an individualistic impulse that is connected in a very significant way to self-portrayal in the Arabic literary tradition” (ibid.). This resonates in a literary context that is preoccupied with a tension between the individual and the collective, and expresses a deep ambivalence and oscillation between the desire to separate from others, and the desire to engage with others, to mingle and integrate within a particular relationship, community or milieu and yet also to individuate from it. This dialectic between dissociating to find one’s solitary self and connecting in order to engage with others constitutes a foundational tension in all of the autobiographies in my corpus.
The Corpus This book is not a broad generic study but offers in-depth studies of seven modern literary autobiographies that have not received the literary-critical attention they deserve. For this corpus, I have chosen
18 Decentering the Self what I consider to be important and essential works of Arabic literature. My approach is not meant to be encyclopedic but rather one that reflects the plural sensibilities of Arabic autobiographical writing. The seven texts I have chosen employ diverse and creative discursive strategies in recounting a retrospective story of a life or of a childhood. Cumulatively, they cover a wide range of social, cultural and geographic spaces. Taken together, they offer a view into the creative approaches to autobiography in Arabic literature. It is important to emphasize that modern Arabic autobiography has been characterized by unstable generic boundaries since its inception, as is exemplified by two important “firsts”: Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg (Sāq ‘alā al-sāq 1855) and Taha Hussein’s The Days (alAyyām, 1929). Al-Shidyaq’s decidedly satirical opus includes a breadth of genres, including lexicons, prose poetry and pieces of his life story. Taha Hussein wrote his masterpiece The Days, which is also regarded as a landmark in Arab autobiography, in the third-person voice in a style that fictionalizes his self-story. The Days is particularly important because it has served as a model for Arabic autobiographical writing, and many autobiographical texts demonstrate its influence, be it as a source of emulation or through a conscious effort to write against it.14 In addition, the fraught association between the individual and the collective is not a new theme, as Tahia Abdel Nasser observes: “The rise of Arabic autobiography dovetailed the private and the public, the individual and the national” (2017, 2). Thus, my choice of texts neither maps out a new experimental trend in Arabic autobiographical writing nor reflects a particular stage in the development of Arabic autobiography.15 Rather, it delves into a tendency that has persevered since the inception of modern Arabic autobiography, alongside more conventional modes of autobiographical writing (and here I stress that my studies call into question a definitive boundary between the experimental and the conventional). A number of factors guided my choice of texts. I chose texts with high literary quality. Each text was composed by a writer, whether a poet, a novelist or a journalist. Each of the authors has published other works of literature (novels, poetry collections or short stories), either before or subsequent to publishing their autobiography. That the authors are professional writers is significant, since autobiographies are situated at the intersection of historical documents and literary works, and, as such, a particularity of autobiography (not only in Arabic) is that it is a genre that attracts nonprofessional writers who choose to compose an account of their lives. All of the texts I have chosen are literary autobiographies written by professional writers. By literary autobiography, I mean autobiographies written by literary figures and that are artfully wrought. I draw inspiration here from David Lodge’s discussion of literature versus non-literature (2015 ). He draws on the concept of “foregrounding,” a central concept of the Czech
Decentering the Self 19 school of structuralists, which occurs when any item of discourse attracts attention to itself for what it is rather than acting merely as a vehicle for information. Literary discourse is distinguished by the consistency and systematic character of the foregrounding and the fact that the background as well as the foreground and the relationships between them are aesthetically relevant, whereas in nonliterary discourse only the foregrounded components are aesthetically relevant (4). Lodge adds that literature can be distinguished by how it motivates the reader to read it; intentionality is crucial here: Certainly it is one of the characteristics of a ‘literary’ reading that we ask what a text is ‘about’ with the implication that the answer will not be self-evident. We do not merely decode the literary message— we interpret it, and may get out of it more information than the sender was conscious of putting in to it. (6) Susanna Egan defines literary autobiography as that written by autobiographers “who are also artists—not writers by happenstance, in other words, but writers who have dedicated themselves to what Chaucer called the craft so long to learn” (1999, 30). The texts of my corpus are not meant to be “representative” of modern Arabic autobiographical texts (to the extent that we can even say that there is such a corpus). To the contrary, I chose texts that challenge and expand expectations of the autobiographical genre, or stand out from genre norms, each in its own way. I read each of the autobiographies for the ways in which it disrupts, destabilizes, and innovates genre expectations and for the novel strategies through which it entangles the self in an intricate network of others—individuals, groups, voices and genres. I examine how the texts in my corpus reveal and test the “limits” of autobiographical expression, echoing Leigh Gilmore’s discussion (2001, 14), and Nancy K. Miller’s assertion regarding autobiography that “its limits are the burning core of autobiography—as much a matter of life and death as life itself” (2007, 545). The texts I chose are literary masterpieces, yet each stands on the periphery of Arabic autobiography, neither following a particular model nor presenting a narrative model. The wealth of inventive, original and sophisticated narrative expressions of identity in my corpus reveals how Arabic autobiography is constantly invented and reinvented, drawing on both Western and Arab (premodern and modern) autobiographical traditions, to produce new possibilities for life writing.
Dissociation and Belonging in the Corpus In this book, I grant the autobiographical texts center stage, and as such, Chapters 2 to 8 each focus on a single autobiography. Each chapter brings
20 Decentering the Self out the diverse ways in which the autonomous autobiographical subject (often the “I” in autobiography) is undercut by engagement with a collective voice or with other characters, places or genres that overshadow the singular “self” but, at the same time, express self-identity through their emplacement in other people’s stories. In each chapter, I explore how the autobiographical subject is submerged in, or emerges from, a composite of genres, places or other people’s stories and voices. I ask, How are self and context negotiated in these autobiographies? How does the narrative “self” emerge through the productive tension between identification with and individuation from other people, places and writings? Each autobiography entails a distinct relational dynamic. Hanan al-Shaykh writes a collaborative autobiography, blending her mother’s autobiography with her own. Samuel Shimon incorporates the short story and overlays the narrative with conventions of Westerns. Abd al-Rahman Munif foregrounds the story of a city and its inhabitants, told from the third-person perspective of a boy who emerges as the autobiographical subject. Salim Barakat entrenches the autobiographical subject in a group of boys who witness and experience unremitting violence. Leila Abouzeid privileges the voices of mother and grandmother over that of the autobiographical subject. Mohamed Choukri enmeshes the autobiographical subject in a context of vagabonds and outcasts, expressing identity through other people’s stories of estrangement and dissociation. Hanna Abu Hanna fuses ethnography with autobiography and constructs his identity against the shadow of his father’s presence. Comparatively, these narratives become a powerful means of thinking about issues of identity within family, culture, and society as well as issues of group identification and difference. Chapter 2 articulates the interconnectedness of mother and daughter from an entirely different relational strategy. Hanan al-Shaykh’s16 My Life Is an Intricate Tale, translated by Roger Allen with the title The Locust and the Bird (2009, Hikāyatī Sharḥun Yaṭūl, 2005), hinges on a paradox, dubbing itself an “autobiography” of the author’s mother. I argue that it is an unconventional autobiography of the author herself, articulated through her mother’s “auto-biography.” I ground my analyses in Susanna Egan’s conceptualization of “mirror talk” (1999), as “the encounter of two lives in which the biographer is also an autobiographer” (7). I show how the reflexive doubling of mother-daughter (auto)biographical identities are constructed reciprocally and through self-reflection, blurring any possibility for marking out a clear boundary between biography and autobiography. This chapter also explores the ramifications, implications and complications of “speaking for” an illiterate—the mother. This points to autobiographical practices that go against the grain to become a site of political intervention. Chapter 3 focuses on Leila Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood (Rujū‘ ilā al-ṭufūla, 1993).17 In it, I contend that Leila’s18 voice increasingly
Decentering the Self 21 intervenes and interjects as the text progresses, a strategy that narratively constitutes the protagonist’s coming-into-voice against other “infringing” voices, namely, those of her mother and grandmother. Although this autobiography is narrated in the first-person voice, the autobiographical subject’s mother actually narrates large sections of the text, her voice infused into the narrative when she tells stories to her daughter, in a way that raises questions about identification with the mother and differentiation from her. The relational dynamics of this text situates Leila’s desire to individuate while at the same time identifying her through her family stories. Similarly, she situates her personal struggle for autonomy from her family within a broader framework of the Moroccan nationalist struggle for independence and subsequent nation-building, and of patriarchal family dynamics. Chapter 4 examines Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman19 (Sīrat Madīna: ʿAmmān fī al-Arbaʿīnāt, 1994) by Saudi novelist Abd al-Raḥman Munif. This narrative embeds the autobiographical subject in “an entire social environment” (Eakin 1999, 69), namely, the geographical-cultural entity of Amman itself, the author’s childhood city. The autobiographical subject is consigned to the background, more often than not, such that the city is favored as the focus over the “self” of the autobiographical subject. I expose the autobiographical subject’s textual presence, showing how it is discursively constituted through the historical, cultural and communal accounts of the city. I argue that personal identity is embedded in that of the city and narratively constituted through it. This chapter treats the implications of enmeshing the self so thoroughly within geographical and cultural structures, with a special emphasis on liminal configurations and the diasporic, multicultural identity such a positioning fosters. Chapter 5 also addresses an autobiography of community but in this case not from the perspective of belonging: the autobiographical subject’s community is exposed as a site of exploitation, perversion and abuse. I analyze Kurdish Syrian writer Salim Barakat’s The Iron Grasshopper: The Incomplete Memoir of a Child Who Never Saw Anything but A Fugitive Land and Shouted: These are my Traps, O Sandgrouse (Al-Jundūb al-Ḥadīdī: al-sīra al-nāqiṣa li-ṭifl lam yara illā arḍan hāriban fa-ṣāḥa: hādhihi fikhakhī ayyuhā al-qaṭā, 1980). 20 Barakat’s autobiographical subject is portrayed in terms that express his association with the community. He is identified so closely with it that he is portrayed as “submerged” in a group of boys, not identified individually but instead represented in the text by the first-person plural “we” rather than “I.” The text portrays the autobiographical subject as subsumed into progressively broader affiliations of family, peers, the local Qamishli community and the broader community of Kurds in Syria. Identification with community turns out to be destructive, as the portrayals of different elements of society reveal a dystopia that I illuminate through James
22 Decentering the Self Giles’s concept of a “fourthspace” of violence (The Spaces of Violence, 2006). The portrayal of the autobiographical subject as so deeply associated with his community insinuates him as both a victim and a perpetrator of violence in a landscape of rupture and estrangement, not one of kinship and community. I show that most of the “others” are themselves situated on the margins of the community or outside of it (socially and/ or physically): importantly, they tend to be misfits and outsiders. By locating the autobiographical subject within their stories, the text executes a discordant portrayal of the autobiographical subject in an incongruous convergence of belonging and estrangement. Chapter 6 focuses on Mohamed Choukri’s Streetwise (Al-Shuṭṭār, 1992; literally meaning The Picaros), 21 which was published about twenty years after he wrote his acclaimed autobiography of childhood al-Khubz al-ḥāfī (1972; literally meaning The Barefoot Bread), 22 translated as For Bread Alone. I argue that the model of relational identity in Streetwise functions on two levels: first, it is expressed by the decisive and continuous impact of books and, by extension, writing. Following from this, I explore how the autobiographical self is constituted discursively through the medium of literature: literary works and genres that the narrative interpolates bespeak, insinuate or adumbrate aspects of the narrator’s own story and identity, such as the picaresque in Arabic literature. Second, I argue that Choukri filters his own textual identity through the stories of vagabonds, outcasts, criminals and drifters who saunter through the narrative. I show that both levels of Mohamed’s relational identity articulate exclusion and estrangement from mainstream society. The autobiographical subject’s articulations of belonging are not based on extended relationships but rather on fleeting encounters, on recurrent experiences of rupture and on short-lived moments of affinity. Unlike Munif and Barakat, Choukri does not convey “an entire social environment” (Eakin 1999, 69) because for him, there is no whole, no center and no inviolate place from which he is excluded but only broken, unconnected fragments. His personal story is an expression of seething and pained societal and social criticism. Chapter 7 addresses An Iraqi in Paris: An Autobiographical Novel (‘Īraqī fī Bārīs, 2005; translated by Christina Phillips and Piers Amodia in 2011) by the Assyrian writer and poet Samuel Shimon, who hails originally from Iraq. The cinematic genre of the Western is a continual reference, employed for imagining redemption and for reinventing the self. His status as an outsider (including in his native Iraq where he belongs to the minority of Assyrians; in the Arab countries in which he travels and in Paris) is construed ironically through the conventions of the Western and the outcast-hero image of the cowboy. By undermining the possibility for constructing a fixed beginning, middle and end, this text exposes an evolving subjectivity associated with diaspora identity and composes an intricate network of identification alongside dissociation.
Decentering the Self 23 Chapter 8 addresses The Cloud’s Shadow (Ẓill al-ghayma, 1997)23 by Palestinian poet Hanna Abu Hanna, who consciously structures his personal story as a historical-cultural record of a now-vanished world. I argue that the autobiographer functions as what Paul John Eakin calls “an auto-ethnographer,” “the insider who explains to the uninitiated the customs, the way of life of the … community of his childhood …” (1999, 77). I examine the ramifications of his use of the third-person voice to narrate and his choice to give the autobiographical subject a fictional name, one of which is to facilitate shifting smoothly between a subjective, personal point of view and an objective point of view that conceives of the autobiographical protagonist as paradigmatic of life in Palestine. His unconventional narrative choices—to “other” himself by narrating in the third-person voice and his digressions about culture and community that disrupt the flow of the personal story—embody a deep sense of fragmentation and internal rupture. These two narrative strategies create a sense of estrangement from the self but not from community. I argue that they enact the internal rupture between the self before and after the Nakba, the cataclysm that upended Palestinian society in 1948, not only for the refugees, but also for those who remained in historic Palestine. The final chapter examines the ambivalence of the autobiographical texts between belonging and autonomy, addressing the tensions and their implications through a panoramic view. This chapter delineates the various forms of ambivalence enacted by the corpus of texts I examined and how they play out from a comparative perspective. The studies in this volume aim to fill a gap in the research by presenting in-depth literary analyses of Arabic autobiographical texts and enriching the theoretical basis of analysis by drawing on relational theories of autobiography. This is particularly relevant for Arabic autobiography in general and for the particular corpus I have chosen, given how the autobiographical subject entangles himself or herself with other characters, groups, places and genres. Relational theories of autobiography aid in fleshing out the literary expression of this entwinement of self and other(s), examining how the self is inscribed through or against the self’s relation and connection to others. Collectively, my studies of the seven texts of my corpus manifest one particular direction of autobiographical writing in Arabic in which generic expectations are overturned and redefined, reinvented and reinterpreted, especially in terms of the representation of the autobiographical subject and his or her relation to other people, inserted genres, community groups and milieus. Studies on Arabic autobiography (even those studies that address less experimental texts) that address issues such as identity, gender, diaspora, oppression, modernity versus tradition, political resistance and social change—to name only a few—need an awareness and understanding of the literary strategies for self-representation in order to illuminate the intersection and entwinement between the personal and the collective.
24 Decentering the Self
Notes 1 Interestingly, this section is not translated in Roger Allen’s English translation, 2009. For an analysis of the translation versus the original, see my article from 2011: “Two Lives Enmeshed: Disentangling Genre and Identity in Ḥanān al-Shaykh’s Ḥikāyatī Sharḥun Yaṭūl (My Life: An Intricate Tale),” Contemporary Women’s Writing, 5:2, 1–18. 2 The most common Arabic term for denoting modern Arabic autobiographies is al-sīra al-dhātiyya, a term derived from classical Arabic literature. Dwight Reynolds et al. (2001) discuss the etymology and development of the term sīra (38–40), literally denoting a path or journey, but used to denominate the earliest of the biographical forms. This term was used to refer to the biographies of the Prophet Muḥammad written starting in the eighth century, but gradually expanded to encompass biographies, and then an autobiographical subgenre of biographies (often when the writers of a biographical dictionary wrote an entry on themselves). The term “sīra dhātiyya” is a neologism expanded on sīra, literally, a “self-sīra” or a personal path. 3 What is known as “traditional” autobiography criticism refers to norms established in Western autobiography criticism that tend to emphasize, indeed, apotheosize the autonomy of the individual in autobiographical writing, as independent and distinct. Traditional criticism tends to assume that autobiography recounts a teleological pattern of the development of an autonomous and enlightened “individual” usually written (by a man) as a retrospective narrative looking back on his life or career. Such critics include German philosopher Georg Misch (who emphasized the representative nature of autobiography in his Geschichte der Autobiographie, 1907, translated in 2003 as A History of Autobiography in Antiquity); French philosopher George Gusdorf (1956, “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography”); American Francis R. Hart (1970, “Notes for an Anatomy of Modern Autobiography”); German American Karl Weintraub (The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography); American James Olney; French Philippe Lejeune; inter alia. Although there are variations in the assertions and specific ideas of each of these critics, a fundamental assumption of what constitutes autobiography is, as Roy Pascal famously asserted, “the center of interest is the self” (1960, 9). An implication of such traditional criticism is that autobiography was considered limited to societies with a notion of the isolated individual, that is, to the West; it was further confined mainly to male writers writing from the higher echelons of mainstream society. This did not mean that women did not write autobiographical texts. It means, rather, that theorists tended not to conceive of women’s life writing in terms of “autobiography”; according to Smith and Watson, “on those rare occasions when their narratives were taken up, they were accorded a place in an afterword, a paragraph, a note—in marginal comments for what were seen as marginal lives” (2010, 203). 4 There is not one specific moment in which “modern Arabic autobiography” was born, but rather watershed works. Such works would include Rafiʿ al-Tahtawi’s Takhlīṣ al-’ibrīz fī talkhīṣ Bārīz (sometimes translated as The Quintessence of Paris, 1834); Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s multiform Leg over Leg, 1855); Jurjī Zaydān’s Mudhakkirāt Jurjī Zaydan, (Memoirs of Jurji Zaydan, translated into English by Thomas Philipp as The Autobiography of Jurji Zaidan, first published in Arabic in 1966 although written five decades earlier) and Taha Hussein’s monumental autobiography The Days (al-Ayyām 1929, published serially 1926–1927). All of these works, which can be said to have broadened Arabic autobiographical consciousness in different ways,
Decentering the Self 25
are also linked to the tradition of premodern autobiographical writing, and each is a milestone in the inception of modern Arabic autobiography. Thomas R. Smith expands on this idea in article about reading “traditional autobiographies” from non-traditional perspectives. Smith extends the suggestions of Miller, Eakin and Egan to argue that the “so-called traditional or canonical autobiographies—those using linear narrative, emphasizing development, and projecting a unitary, autonomous self—are constructed in part by means similar to nontraditional ones” (2004, 61). It is important to add that a readerly approach is relevant also for women’s autobiographies in which an autonomous self predominates, such as Fadwa Tuqan’s autobiography Riḥla Ṣa‘ba, Riḥla Jabaliyya (Nablus: al-Maktaba al-Jāmi‘iyya, 1985); translated into English by Olive Kenny, A Mountainous Journey (London: The Women’s Press, 1990). This text apparently adopts a more traditional individual expression of the autobiographical self. In my 2012 study of this autobiography, I offer a reading that brings out how Tuqan constructs her life story in terms of other intellectuals and other genres: “The Poetics of the Poet’s Autobiography: Voicings and Mutings in Fadwā Ṭūqān’s Narrative Journey,” Journal of Arabic Literature 43, 102–131. Eakin’s initial article and Egan’s book came out in the same period, and each book acknowledges the importance of the other (Eakin 1999, 56; Egan 1999, 9). In their introduction to Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography, Smith and Watson describe the representation of the autobiographical subject as “dialogical,” responding to the myth of autobiography as singular, coherent and monologic; it “cannot escape being dialogical, although its central myths resist that recognition” (2004, 19). Although French critic Lejeune (1982) asserts that his study of the autobiography covers only European literature, critic Tetz Rooke legitimizes the application of his theories to modern Arabic literature because, Arabic twentieth-century prose is the product of the Arab modernist movement that adapted the genres of world literature to its own literary production… As a literary genre, it [Arabic autobiography] emerged after Arab contact with the ‘West’ as a result of cultural exchange and in response to the process of social transformation. (Rooke 1997, 25) Sasson Somekh (1991) emphasizes the role of Western literary influence in the formation of modern Arabic genres, over and above the role of indigenous modes of writing. Sabry Hafez (1993) maintains a “dialectic interaction” (10) between traditional Arabic types of writing and new types of writing imported from the West, which, through a “complex process” (11), gave way to new modes of modern Arabic writing. Dwight Reynolds et al. (2001) argue that although the West may have influenced the development of modern Arabic autobiography, one can see evidence of “strangely ‘classical’ characteristics” in certain modern Arabic autobiographies, on which basis he argues that many such texts are the “culmination of a centuries-long chain of texts” (249). These critics demonstrate that Arabic literature and Western literature (and criticism) are not two mutually exclusive categories. Theories on autobiography from recent decades can be engaged to illuminate Arabic autobiography, regardless of the “roots” of Arabic autobiography. This is especially relevant in light of the continual development of Arabic autobiography, which reveals a broad range of influences, both from within the Arabic-speaking cultural realm and from without.
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Decentering the Self 27
28 Decentering the Self Fay, M. (2001). Auto/Biography and the Construction of Identity and Community in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave. Fischer, M. (1994). Autobiographical Voices (1, 2, 3) and Mosaic Memory: Experimental Sondages in the (Post)modern World. In: K. Ashley, L. Gilmore and G. Peters, eds. Autobiography and Postmodernism. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 79–129. Giles, J. (2006). The Spaces of Violence. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Gilmore, L. (1994). Autobiographics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ———. (2001). The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Hafez, S. (1993). The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse. London: Saqi Books. ———. (2002). Variegating the Self: Transformation of Textual Strategies in Autobiography (Raqsh al-dhāt lā Kitābatuha: taḥawwulāt al-istrāṭijiyyāt al-naṣṣiyya fī al-sīra al-dhātiyya). Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 22, 7–33. Jackson, M. (2012). Between One and One Another. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Kaplan, C. (1992). Resisting Out-Law Genres and Traditional Feminist Subjects. In: S. Smith and J. Watson, eds. De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 115–138. Khazaal, N. (2013). Re-evaluating Mohamed Choukri’s Autobiography al-Khubz al-ḥāfī: The Oppression of Morocco’s Amazigh Population, the Sa’lik, and Backlash. Middle Eastern Literatures 16:2, 147–168. Lejeune, P. (1982). The Autobiographical Contract. In: T. Todorov, ed. French Literary Theory Today. R. Carter, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 192–222. Lodge, D. (2015 ). The Modes of Modern Writing. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Machut-Mendecka, E. (1999). The Individual and the Community in Arabic Literary Autobiography. Arabica 46, 510–522. Mason, M. (1980). The Other Voice: The Autobiographies of Women Writers. In: J. Olney, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 207–235. Miller, N. (1994). Representing Others. Differences 6:1, 1–27. ———. (2007). The Entangled Self: Genre Bondage in the Age of the Memoir. PMLA (Modern Language Association) 122:2, 537–548. Mina, H. (2004). Fragments of Memory. S. Jayyusi, trans. Northhampton: Interlink Books. Olney, J. (1980). Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pascal, R. (1960). Design and Truth in Autobiography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Rastegar, K. (2007). Literary Modernity between the Middle East and Europe. New York: Routledge. Reynolds, D., ed. (2001). Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Decentering the Self 29 Rooke, T. (1997). In My Childhood: A Study of Arabic Autobiography. Stockholm: Stockholm University. Rüggemeier, A. (2014). Die relationale Autobiographie: Ein Beitrag zur Theorie, Poetik und Gattungsgeschichte eines neuen Genres in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur [Relational Autobiography: A Contribution to the Theory, Poetics, and Genre History of a New Genre in English-language Narrative Literature]. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier. Sheetrit, A. (2011). Two Lives Enmeshed: Disentangling Genre and Identity in Ḥanān al-Shaykh’s Ḥikāyatī Sharḥun Yaṭūl (My Life: An Intricate Tale). Contemporary Women’s Writing 5:2, 1–18. ———. (2012). The Poetics of the Poet’s Autobiography: Voicings and Mutings in Fadwā Ṭūqān’s Narrative Journey. Journal of Arabic Literature 43, 102–131. Smith, S. and Watson, J. (1996). Introduction. In: S. Smith and J. Watson, eds. Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1–24. ———. (2010, 2nd ed.). Reading Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Smith, T. (2004). Generating Selves: Issues of Self-Representation. a/b: Auto/ biography Studies 19:1–2, 59–70. Somekh, S. (1991). Genre and Language in Modern Arabic Literature. Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz. Villar Ramos, C. (2016). Filling in Where Memory Fails: The Use of Stories in Portuguese American Memoirs. Configurações 17, 139–152. Watson, J. (2016). Is Relationality a Genre? Review Essay on Anne Rüggemeier, Die relationale Autobiographie: Ein Beitrag zur Theorie, Poetik und Gattungsgeschichte eines neuen Genres in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur [Relational Autobiography: A Contribution to the Theory, Poetics, and Genre History of a New Genre in English-language Narrative Literature]. European Journal of Life Writing 5, 16–25.
Entwined Voices, Embedded Auto/Biography Hanan al-Shaykh’s My Life Is an Intricate Tale
Introduction* My Life Is an Intricate Tale (Ḥikāyatī Sharḥun Yaṭūl, 2005, translated into English by Roger Allen as The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story, 2009) purports to tell the life story of Kamila, mother of the author, celebrated Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh.1 Its style is novelistic, yet, as the final chapter attests, the narrative is based on oral interviews with the author’s mother and the author’s own memories. This text is neither an autobiography nor a biography in the conventional sense. It is narrated in the first-person voice, which represents Kamila, the mother. This seems to indicate that this is her story, about her, perhaps by her. Yet her name does not appear as author or even as coauthor; rather, the daughter’s is the sole name on the cover. The first indication of the text’s indeterminateness in the realms of genre and identity is manifested in the disaccord between the signature on the title page—that of author al-Shaykh—and the first-person narrative voice employed throughout, which refers not to the author but to her mother. The illusion of autobiography is shattered as Kamila’s first-person narration persists through the final two chapters that recount feelings and events that transpire subsequent to her own death. This prosopopoeia, alongside al-Shaykh’s decision to sign only her own name as author, calls attention to her substantial role in crafting the text and calls into question the extent to which the first-person narrative voice represents Kamila’s own articulation even prior to the final two chapters. These narrative choices cast doubt on the role of the writer-daughter as “mere” scribe and compiler, merely the conduit of her mother’s self-expression. One way of looking at the text is to see it as a biography of the author’s mother conveyed in the first-person voice. This too is problematic because it does not seem to
* I thank the editors of Contemporary Women’s Writing and Oxford University Press for their permission to republish an earlier version of this chapter, which appeared as “Two Lives Enmeshed: Disentangling Genre and Identity in Ḥanān al-Shaykh’s Ḥikāyatī Sharḥun Yaṭūl (My Life: An Intricate Tale)” in volume 5:2, 1–18. This chapter comprises a reworking of that article.
My Life Is an Intricate Tale 31 encompass the involvement of the mother in formulating the text and the daughter’s attempt to narrate as though from the mother’s point of view, stepping into her shoes, becoming the voice of the parent. A central preoccupation of this study is exploring the following question: To what extent does the story of the mother’s life mark out an autobiographical quest of the daughter to understand her own past, which is entangled with that of her mother? In My Life, the autobiographical act is doubled as the mother’s and daughter’s life stories are intertwined. The motive behind conveying the mother’s story seems to be a personal search for the missing pieces of the author’s own background, heretofore shrouded in secrecy, shame and resentment. In the interviewing process, the daughter learns details about her mother’s past that shed light on her own past. In the writing process, by adopting her mother’s point of view, she attempts to come to terms with her mother’s life choices as they affect her own life. In a sense, the auto/biography performs the daughter’s evolving process of self-understanding, as her mother’s story is in many ways the story of herself, unknown to her until she starts to prepare the groundwork for this book at the end of her mother’s life. Until that point, the daughter’s story was one-sided, with many gaps and unanswered questions, the main one referring to the mystery of her mother’s absence in her childhood, to her perceived abandonment. Following from this, My Life can be considered a “narrative of filiation,” the term coined by Thomas Couser (2005) to enact an engagement with the elusive parent (usually the father, not the case here). The memoirs he examines emerge from filial relationships “experienced by the writers as inadequate or deficient in some way” (639). The memoirs are, … mainly driven not by the desire to memorialize a beloved or admired father but by the impulse to compensate for or repair a flawed relationship. That is, the books are best read not as static representations of fathers, whether favorable or not—indeed, very few are successful at rendering their subjects as complex human beings—but rather as attempts to claim or even fashion a relationship with a father who is somehow absent—because of death, abandonment, geographical distance, or emotional reserve. (Ibid.) Such texts probe the aporia that generates the narrative act. This is a productive way of approaching My Life Is an Intricate Tale. The narrative thrust focuses on a love story, but that love story is the reason Kamila was forced to abandon Hanan as a child. The narrative is not a static representation of a life, but a revelation of the reasons behind the mother’s absence from Hanan’s childhood. Building on this, I argue that what seems on the surface to be a biography of the mother is in many senses also an autobiography of the writer-daughter. Hanan envisages and reinterprets her own life story through her mother’s unfolding narrative (as
32 My Life Is an Intricate Tale it provides background and fills in blanks), thereby embedding her own life story in that of her mother. The crux of this inquiry is My Life’s self-representational indeterminateness. This study engages Leigh Gilmore’s theory of “autobiographics” to examine how the autobiographical self (selves?) emerges and evolves, and to bring out its incongruous strategies of self-representation. In contrast to formalistic theories of autobiography that struggle to harmonize narratives whose formulations eschew conformity and convention, 2 Gilmore opens up the possibilities in such texts by coining the term autobiographics, where self-invention, self-discovery, and self-representation emerge within the technologies of autobiography—namely those legalistic, literary, social, and ecclesiastical discourses of truth and identity through which autobiography is produced. Autobiographics, as a description of self-representation and as a reading practice, is concerned with interruptions and eruptions, with resistance and contradiction as strategies of self-representation. (1994, 42) Autobiographics, as such, seeks to locate, not limit, the autobiographical and determine what constitutes its representation in such a way as to bring out the multiplicity of the autobiographical “I” as it occurs in the text. To this end, Gilmore avoids “terminal questions” and “close delineation” (13), gravitating instead toward such questions as, Where is the autobiographical? What constitutes its representation? I consider these questions as I explore how two lives are narrated in relation to one another. The theoretical basis of this chapter draws from Paul John Eakin’s concept of “collaborative autobiography” and Susanna Egan’s conceptualization of “mirror writing” to bring out the intertwinement of self and other in My Life. In her seminal book Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography (1999), 3 Susanna Egan develops the concept of “mirror talk,” which refers to the encounter of two lives within an auto/biographical text “in which the biographer is also an autobiographer” and one life is narratively formed in relation to another (Egan 1999, 7). Her theorizing of such collaborative autobiographicalbiographical texts will also inform my study of My Life Is an Intricate Tale, inasmuch as she formulates and discusses the effects of various such “reflexive practices” in autobiography (ibid., 11). My Life concentrates on the struggles of a girl-cum-woman whose agency is constantly overturned, whose desires are ignored or silenced, and whose choices, consequently, are seen as a rebellion against societal and cultural norms. The story takes us from Kamila’s early childhood in the village of Nabatiyya in southern Lebanon to Beirut, where
My Life Is an Intricate Tale 33 she moves, along with her mother and brother, following her parents’ divorce. When she is thirteen, she falls in love with her neighbor, seventeen-year-old Muhammad. The story of their love weaves its way throughout the narrative and comprises one of the central experiences of her life. Shortly after they fall in love, Muhammad becomes incensed because he believes she has concealed the fact that she is engaged to another man, an accusation she denies. When she turns to her mother in an attempt to uncover the veracity of this accusation, her mother reveals to her that she has been engaged to her late sister’s widower so that he would not remarry outside of the family, taking his children with him. Kamila suddenly comprehends the significance of a ceremony she recalls from years before, at age ten, in which she hands over power of attorney by uttering the words, “You are my proxy” before witnesses; this seals her engagement to her late sister’s husband. Muhammad tells her to defer the wedding for six months so that he can complete his studies and then marry her, but Kamila is married off against her will within weeks. She bears two daughters by this husband, the second of whom, Hanan, authors this text. This sets the scene for the quagmire in which Kamila finds herself over the ensuing decade: whether or not to leave her husband and, by extension, her two daughters and her extended family for the man she loves. For ten years, Kamila carries on an extramarital affair with Muhammad until she finally insists on a divorce that results in her daughters remaining with her ex-husband, following local custom. She marries Muhammad and in eight years gives birth to five children and suffers multiple miscarriages. Then Muhammad is killed in a car accident. Kamila portrays the ensuing forty years of her widowhood: raising her five children, yearning for her eldest two daughters whom she sees as often as possible and her unceasing love for Muhammad. She never remarries, despite societal and familial pressure—one of many expressions of the theme of rebellion that suffuses the text. Three additional themes that recur are her love of cinema, her ties to her family and most notably, her illiteracy. She describes her “own” death and burial in the penultimate chapter. In the final chapter, Kamila “reveals” the inception of this text: she has narrated her life story to her daughter Hanan. Her writer-daughter records Kamila’s words in notebooks and returns to them two years after her mother’s death (so Kamila tells us), fashioning the text into its present form. In this study, I consider the interconnected themes of family, gender, power and authority as they are forged by the text’s self-representational tensions. The thematic preoccupation with illiteracy underpins my discussion throughout. It comprises the initial reason why the literate daughter is called upon to formulate a literary representation of her mother’s speech. It raises the problematic issue of representing those who cannot represent themselves in writing, given the choice of leaving their stories to disappear in silence, or to represent them through an
34 My Life Is an Intricate Tale intermediary, an act that is always precarious. The unstable, variable “I” of My Life, which represents the mother’s voice but in a literary Arabic she did not write, delineates one of the foundations of the world in which this text was conceived, where the literate speaks for the illiterate (when the illiterate is heard at all). The theme of illiteracy epitomizes the lack of control Kamila has over her own life. In uttering “you are my proxy” at the age of ten, she has given up the right to self-representation; she has granted others the right to speak in her name in order to agree to her engagement. There is a profound irony in the idea that the scene in the book in which she forgoes her right to speak for herself, as if she had a choice in the matter—is adumbrated by act of being represented in the book itself. On the one hand, she offers her permission and acquiescence, but on the other, she does not understand the significance of her words, or regarding the book, has no choice if she wants her story to be written. I want to suggest looking at this as a metaphor for problematizing the act of representation involved in the writing of this autobiography. I argue that the overarching theme of illiteracy engenders this text as an act of resistance, even as it generates a “crisis of representation” (Alcoff 1991, 9), raising significant questions about what it means to speak for others, what it means for the daughter to write the mother’s story in the mother’s narrative voice. This underscores a tension at the heart of this text, a tension between representing another (her mother), on the one hand, and finding and representing her own self in her mother’s story, on the other. Even the possessive pronoun “my” in the title blurs the distinction between the two speakers: “my” seems to refer primarily to the mother, since the title encapsulates an expression relevant to her life but can also refer to the daughter. This draws attention to the self-representational ambiguity at the heart of this narrative: through her representation of her mother’s life she is also composing her own (intricate) story. In My Life, the two life stories are unremittingly entangled. Her mother’s silences represent the gaps in Hanan’s own life story, and to speak in her mother’s voice is also for Hanan to find words for her own untold story.
My Life: Whose Life? Autobiography has been called “the most elusive of literary documents” (Olney 1980, 3). It has been noted that “its very pervasiveness and slipperiness … has made the need to contain and control it within disciplinary boundaries all the more urgent” (Anderson 2001, 2).4 Such attempts have been profuse, generated by autobiography’s liminal quality, perched precariously between the genres of novel, biography and history-writing. One line of questioning pertains to how to reference it to the world outside the text, and to what extent the self portrayed corresponds to that of the author. Philippe Lejeune, attempting to delineate this wayward
My Life Is an Intricate Tale 35 genre, famously put forward the notion of the autobiographical contract, which sees autobiography as a contract between writer and reader in which “there must be identity between the author, the narrator, and the protagonist” (Lejeune 1982, 193).5 In the decades since, critics have underscored its problematic nature, noting, for example, that the narrative “I” is necessarily a fictive persona, as “the autobiographer can never capture the fullness of her subjectivity or understand the entire range of her experience” (Smith 1987, 46). Whereas Lejeune seeks to ground the genre in a reality which exists outside of the text, poststructuralist critics such as Paul de Man (1979) argue for the self-referentiality of the autobiographical text, governed, as it is “by the technical demands of self-portraiture” (920). Despite the criticism of Lejeune’s theory, including by Lejeune himself who updated and nuanced it (The Autobiographical Pact (bis) 1989),6 Palestinian Israeli critic Nabih al-Qasim (2006) not only invokes Lejeune’s original autobiographical conditions in his article on My Life but goes as far as to assert that this text fulfills those conditions because the author speaks in her mother’s voice. Such a claim seems casuistic and overlooks the problematics of this text. However, such studies confirm that Lejeune’s contractual notion of the autobiographical still thrives, alongside the temptation, as exemplified by My Life’s English translation, to simplify ambiguous self-representational tendencies rather than appreciating the possibilities opened up by these apparent contradictions. That these questions touch a nerve is underscored by the editorial decisions reflected in the English “translation” of the text (2009).7 Its attempts to disentangle the mother’s voice from that of the writerdaughter unwittingly highlight the richness of the Arabic, especially regarding its self- (or selves-) representational nature. The question of the autobiographical scope of the narrating “I” disturbed those involved in the editorial process to such an extent that they altered the English text in order to “solve” (or obscure) the ambiguities involved in merging autobiography with biography. They do so by adding a lengthy prologue by the author (written especially for the translation) which characterizes her voice as distinct from her mother’s. Not only does this “answer” the question of self-representation left open in the Arabic text, but it also serves to inaugurate the text with the author’s first-person voice, rather than beginning with that of Kamila, as in the Arabic. Not only does the prologue disentangle Hanan’s voice from her mother’s, but it simultaneously explains why they intermingle in the text. She explains that she constructs her own self-history through her mother’s words: “My marriage was my mother’s victory … Like mother, like daughter …” (al-Shaykh 2009, 5). These explicit explanations undermine the text’s narrative strategies that in themselves generate discursive meaning. In the translation, the body of the text has been altered such that the final two chapters are narrated not in the mother’s first-person voice but
36 My Life Is an Intricate Tale in the writer-daughter’s voice. These changes re-cast the layout of the narrative by framing the text in the writer-daughter’s voice. An epilogue is appended to the last chapter, in which al-Shaykh details the process of transforming her mother’s speech into text, and explains her decision to narrate in her mother’s first person voice: she “heard” her mother’s “voice insisting that she wanted to tell her own story” (2009, 302). This attempt to unravel the most glaring of narrative obscurities characterizing the narrating “I” explicitly “answers” the question of why the narrative voice is her mother’s, given that this text is (now) unmistakably a product of al-Shaykh’s own formulation. An examination of the editorial tampering highlights the tension between autobiography and biography addressed in this study. Indeed, one can approach these ambiguities as “problems” in need of neat resolution or as an “… act that renegotiates critical concepts of the self-in-autobiography” as Rocío G. Davis remarks regarding the collaborative autobiographies she examines (2005, 276). Reading My Life in light of Lejeune’s initial theory exposes its experimental, metafictional nature that so clearly flouts autobiography’s formal conventions while engaging autobiography’s central issues, namely, self-representation and a history of becoming. This study takes into consideration that “In the act of politicizing and publicizing the private sphere, autobiographical writing depends on the reference to social relations, which is not fiction” (al-Hassan Golley 2003, 62). Yet I argue that My Story expresses historical truths not only in a general sense but also inasmuch as the interconnectedness between the two women’s stories reflects their actual interdependency. Its very production affected the mother-daughter relationship, creating new truths in their view of themselves and each other. As such, the text can be read both as biography and autobiography of the mother, but I want to suggest that the text’s self-representational space can also be read as the simultaneous autobiographical expression of both the mother and the daughter. Their voices are inextricably intertwined, each imbricates her narrative into that of the other, and each reads her story into that of the other. As such, the text comprises an experiment in relational self-representation (or, more accurately, selves-representation) of two women who express themselves through one another. In so doing, the narrative establishes a direct relationship between biography, autobiography, and fictionalized personal narrative. Its narrative space is characterized by constant tension between two voices, reflecting ex tratextual exchange between the mother and the daughter, and its construction in the textual realm, as the writerdaughter renegotiates her relationship with her mother and with her own history. She recasts herself within the autobiographical-biographical self-representational space of her mother. Despite the propensity for relying on Lejeune’s prescriptive criteria for autobiography, critics have long noted—and embraced—the
My Life Is an Intricate Tale 37 heterogeneity of the self-in-autobiography, especially women’s selfwriting. Sabry Hafez argues that the self is created by looking at ourselves as though we were another; this, he claims, is at the root of the self’s fragmented nature (2002, 15). In her examination of alterity in Mikhail Bakhtin’s philosophical approach to autobiography, Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan uses the construct of “heterobiography” to account for the ambivalence in the Bakhtinian position, which views the ambivalence between singular self and “other” as a “dynamic process, produced by an opposition and balance of two simultaneous movements” (2018, 425). She continues, But human subjectivity is always ‘addressive’ and emerges architectonically in and from the tensile relations of narrative and dialogue, rhythm and loophole, aesthetics and ethics. The ‘two movements,’ standing for our embeddedness in others’ narratives on the one hand, and the urge to transcend these provisional narratives and assume the burden of singularity on the other hand, are indeed oppositional, but both are equally essential in the architectonics of subjectivity. (Ibid., 426) The intricate modes of self-representation in My Life can be explained through this concept of “embeddedess” in the narrative of others, which suggests a narrative spectrum of singularity and self-coherence, on the one hand, and on the other hand, a subjectivity that involves “other voices” that “defy the ostensibly sovereign voice that is heard in the text” (ibid., 427). In al-Shaykh’s My Life, there is a continuous ambiguity regarding voice because the mother’s voice is channeled through the daughter’s writing, and further, the daughter’s own self-understanding and self-history is channeled through the mother’s narrative. The heterogeneousness of the deceptively laconic “I” generates contradictions that cannot necessarily be neatly settled or resolved.
The Relational Model of Identity in My Life Because My Life is the product of a collaborative endeavor, it falls into the realm of autobiographies “that offer not only the autobiography of the self but the biography and autobiography of the other”; of such autobiographies Eakin asserts, “the story of the self is not ancillary to the story of the other, although its primacy may be partly concealed by the fact that it is constructed through the story told of and by someone else” (Eakin 1999, 58). In My Life, the autobiographical act is doubled, since the story of the other (the informant: here, the mother) accompanies the story of the individual gathering the oral history (the writer-daughter, Hanan). Eakin terms this second narrative “the story of the story” which relates the collaborative enterprise that produces the
38 My Life Is an Intricate Tale first story (ibid., 59). Eakin writes that in his corpus “the story of the story structures the narrative we read; the stress is on the performance of the collaboration and therefore on the relation between the two individuals involved” (ibid.). In My Life, the collaboration is described in the final chapter, which states, “This is my story which my daughter Hanan wrote,” describing their meetings together in which the mother would recount and the daughter would record in little notebooks (2005, 79). In the narrative itself the mother has already died, and thus this chapter foregrounds the strategies of its own composition, both in form and content, highlighting Hanan’s role as ventriloquist. Over the course of the text, Hanan is doubly displaced because, as Eakin puts it, “the parental narratives in which they figure as only episodes were largely unknown to them” (Eakin 1999, 88). However, the mother is also displaced: she does not know the ending of her own story, which continues even after her death; she is not well-versed in the literary language that relates her story; and she does not have any say in the final form of the text. The power over the text granted to the daughter can be considered in light of the story in which the ten-year old Kamila gives power of attorney to her family to be her “proxy” and decide who she will marry. Here, too, someone talks for her, and in her name. Al-Shaykh narrates her mother’s story in the first-person voice, as if she were inside her mother’s body and experience. Perhaps the attempt to step into her mother’s point of view is part of the point of this project. I read the account of Kamila’s gradual decline and death in terms of Nancy K. Miller’s remarks on autobiographical narratives that, rather than recounting (only) the history of becoming, “focus on the failing other, provides the account of an undoing, an unbecoming. But this is only one side of ‘notebook realism.’ The other side of the story has to do with the gain offered by that loss” (Miller 1992, 46). The “gain” I read into the text is at the root of its relational paradigm: as Kamila declines, the mother and the daughter sit together to record the past, and through these meetings, their actual relationship is reconstituted; the story told by the mother is what actually connects them, and the writer-daughter also acquires renewed self-understanding. The generic and formalistic decisions behind this text voice this attempt to capture this relationship that has formed through these sittings, conveying the sense of finding herself in her mother’s account. Miller avers, regarding writing about the death of a parent in Bequest and Betrayal: “Showing our faces, telling ourselves cannot help but betray the others who live on in our heads and dreams. Writing about oneself entails dealing with the ghostly face in the mirror that is and isn’t one’s own” (1996, x). This overlapping suffuses—and unsettles—the text: it is never quite clear to what extent the narration is the mother’s or the writer-daughter’s.
My Life Is an Intricate Tale 39
Illiteracy and Self-Representation It is striking that a storyline chronicling the protagonist’s rebellion against societal expectations should be formulated in terms of a text that so successfully and powerfully overturns genre expectations. As such, it not only addresses issues of repression and oppression but also serves as the site in which such oppression is challenged, as such constituting the text’s political intervention: Kamila rejects the exclusion from the world of letters imposed upon her as an illiterate—her lot as a woman, a silenced subaltern. Kamila’s illiteracy stems from her being female, and from the authority of her family over her, forcing her to marry and to mother while still herself a child. This emphasizes the “rhetorical dimension of autobiography,” in Gilmore’s words, and its “performative agency” (Gilmore 1994, 25), as it does not merely tell what happened but engenders a new reality by its very formulation, by unsilencing the illiterate. Illiteracy is the reason why this autobiography must be mediated and constructed through a collaborative endeavor. My Life can be read in terms of Gilmore’s argument that “first-person, nonfictional narrative offers voice to historically silenced and marginalized persons who penetrate the labyrinths of history and language to possess, often by stealth … the engendering matrix of textual selfhood: the autobiographical I” (63). One can read “stealth” into the fact that Kamila could not convert her words into writing without mediation. She desires to learn to read and write, and is embarrassed by her illiteracy until her dying day, when she can no longer talk, and is loath to show that she cannot write on the pad offered to her. She has access to the written word only through others, such as resorting to her neighbor to read her Muhammad’s letters (al-Shaykh, 2005, 172–173), and when she brings her son with her to the cinema so he can read the subtitles to her (ibid., 325). Just as her illiteracy is linked to humiliation, dependence, deprivation, and to the control others have over her, literacy is inversely linked to power and authority in this text. Significantly, Kamila’s initial relationship with Muhammad is conducted mainly through letters passed between them, none of which Kamil can read for herself. Illiteracy marginalizes, and it silences the written voice of those who cannot write. This is a story of a woman whose legacy was bound to be that of silence, if not for the writer-daughter who mediates between her speech and the written word, molding it into text. Against this background, it is true that (as Gilmore has suggested, p. 40), writing an autobiography constitutes a political act because it asserts a right to speak rather than be spoken for. My Life’s self-representational strategy conjures Kamila’s narrative voice, and in so doing, its form contrives “writing” as Kamila’s final, most resonant form of resistance, as a political proclamation alongside other acts of resistance described in the narrative (such as initiating divorce
40 My Life Is an Intricate Tale and opting to raise her children alone). The text delineates a constant struggle between those, mostly family members, who try to silence her, and between her ongoing attempts to author her own life choices. Despite not knowing how to read or write, Kamila narrates stories and film plots, dictates letters, and sings. She is loquacious until throat cancer silences her in her final days of life, a silence that can be read symbolically as a narrative death-before-death that silences her completely. Her only way to express herself then is by drawing vague pictures (that recall her signature in pictures). This illustrates the enforced muteness of those unable to write. The writer-daughter simulating her mother’s voice can be read, ironically, as emphasizing Kamila’s powerlessness and dependency, thereby undermining the positive effects of “speaking for” her. Linda Alcoff problematizes this issue, questioning the legitimacy of speaking for others, as “the speaker loses some portion of … her control over the meaning and truth of … her utterance” (1991, 15). As an illiterate, Kamila does not “sign” the text in the Lejeunian sense, enigmatically authorizing the text in a way which rebels against formal dictates. Indeed, the name functions as a “site of experimentation rather than a contractual sign of identity” (Gilmore 1994, 185). Style again mirrors content: Kamila refuses to sign with a thumbprint, signing with an ideograph instead. In so doing, she strains the bounds enforced by illiteracy and finds a way to creatively assert herself on paper. The issue of signing underscores the child-like stance of the illiterate. Kamila struggles to remember the letters of her name, which “collide in their blackness, like flies, “as her five small children tug at her skirts, making her feel like her own sixth child (281). Similarly, the genesis of the written text evokes the reversal of the “usual” roles of mother and child: the daughter births her mother’s text and has ultimate authority over her mother’s articulation of herself. Where reading and writing are concerned, Kamila, rendered childlike, is at the mercy of literate people, often children themselves. The power ultimately granted to Hanan as author is prefigured when Kamila dictates a love-letter to her eight-yearold daughter Fatima, Hanan’s older sister (215). This illustrates that My Life is not the first time the mother has depended on the child to mediate her voice.
Overlapping Worlds, Entangled Identities Yet the roles of mother and daughter are not simply reversed but reflect more of a mutual begetting, and a breakdown of subject-object boundaries. Not only is it nearly impossible to tease apart one voice from the other on a textual level, as Hanan channels her mother’s words, but the distinction is further blurred in the storyline by Hanan’s comments on her mother’s talent for self-expression. The writer-daughter tells her mother that were she literate, she would have been the writer (353).
My Life Is an Intricate Tale 41 Kamila has her daughter’s literary works read to her and not only comments on them but also suggests editorial changes. This fosters Kamila’s penetrating comment, “The more I talked to Hanan, the more I discovered myself … and realized that the present is the past, and without my realizing it, it was as though I were assuming her personality and becoming her” (354). Both women’s expressive powers merge, as Nancy K. Miller writes of a daughter writing her parent’s story: “the daughter’s writing takes the form of reparation, fulfilling the father’s [here, mother’s] dream in her own life’s work” (Miller 1996, 5). When Kamila enters Hanan’s flower-filled hospital room after she has given birth, she remarks that Hanan is living the life Kamila had wished for herself, glamorous and full of culture, the hospital room seeming to her like a set from the movies (330). Hanan embeds her own life story in that of her mother, and Kamila, in turn, lives vicariously through Hanan’s triumphs, particularly her literary achievements and success at overcoming the repressive forces in Kamila’s life, distancing her from love and literacy. Ultimately, My Life synthesizes—and performs—the mother’s and daughter’s creative aspirations in and through each other. The opening scene of My Life accentuates the related issues of naming, self-representation, voice and identity, topics crucial to the relational paradigm of the text (note that this entire scene is deleted from the English version). It falls into the category of what Gilmore calls “discursive contradictions in the representation of identity (rather than unity), the name as a potential site of experimentation rather than a contractual sign of identity” (1994, 42). This theory provides a framework for exploring the complex issue of naming in the text. In this first scene, Kamila’s father juxtaposes his explanation of her name to that of her brother, which is the same, Kamil, except for the lack of the feminine -a ending. Her father’s words simultaneously highlight and obscure the protagonist’s unique identity and thus comprise a fitting beginning to a text in which self-representation is portrayed in continually vacillating terms. She is born perfectly shaped (5), he says, hence her name (which means “perfect”), but, ironically, she shares this designation with her brother—and also with the Prophet Muhammad, who as her father notes is the true “Kamil,” or Perfect One. He thereby emphasizes her singularity while simultaneously undermining it. Kamila’s outward response is silence, responding inwardly “in her heart” (7), that is, to herself but also for the reader. Her narrative voice is presented in the text as authoritative, and yet it is also undercut. On the one hand, it initiates the text (“On one of his visits to me in Beirut, my father told me …” [ibid.]), and on the other, her father’s direct speech “interrupts” her narration in the third line, explaining the names. Her silence draws attention to her lack of agency. She is again silent later in the same scene when she questions the authority of his name, when her father asserts that the name Karim, meaning noble or generous, aptly
42 My Life Is an Intricate Tale describes him. “You are karīm?!” the protagonist exclaims in disbelief and yet, once again, “in her heart” (ibid.)—after he deliberately loses Kamila and her brother Kamil in the market in Nabatiyya without even buying them food. “You call yourself noble? You who kept food from me and let me go hungry, you who sold me off to be married for ten golden liras when I was only thirteen years old?” (8). Her statement to her father illustrates the ambivalence of voice in the narrative: she is not making herself heard to the person with whom she is conversing; yet she voices her feelings to the reader—and more importantly, to her daughter who is “listening.” As Jo Malin observes in her discussion of maternal narratives embedded in the autobiographies of daughters, … even when one speaker is “silent,” there can still be dialogue as each speaker influences the other’s speech. What appears to be an autobiographical monologue is, in fact, a dialogue. The daughter/ writer’s word or utterance is formulated with constant regard to her mother’s word. Thus, what exists is a dialogic text. Within the text, the subjects are “talking,” having a conversation. (2000, 11) This broadens the possibilities of voice and silence in My Life, enabling us to view the narrative as a conversation between the mother and the daughter. What the mother has silenced in her life she voices to her daughter by recounting these memories as she does; and the writer-daughter “responds” by formulating her mother’s memories into creative written expression. The story of Kamila begins not with her birth but with this story of her name. This scene reverberates many chapters later when Kamila names her daughter Hanan, thereby initiating Hanan’s story in a way that echoes the beginning of Kamila’s life narrative. I suggest reading this as symbolizing a second textual beginning—the beginning of the narrative of Hanan’s life. Unlike that of all of her (many) other children, Hanan’s naming is the only one that merits its own story. Two naming stories of two women stresses the doubling of the autobiographical act in this text, and the idea that the story of the writer-daughter emerges from the story of her mother, and reinforces the symbolism inherent in being named (authored?) by Kamila.8
The Indeterminate Self and Double-Voicing in the Text In his theorization of discourse in the novel, Bakhtin explains that “voices in a novel comprise another’s speech in another’s language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way. Such speech constitutes a special type of double-voiced discourse” (1981, 324). By concentrating on Kamila’s forgiveness of her father, is the writer-daughter
My Life Is an Intricate Tale 43 hinting at a message she conveys through the double-voiced nature of the text, through the control she has to mold her mother’s story into a narrative of her own doing? Already on the first page, the protagonist declares forgiveness of the father who has abandoned her, despite her unmasked anger toward him. I suggest here that this might be the writerdaughter’s way of expressing her own forgiveness of Kamila, the mother who abandoned her. Not only does her mother’s story fill in the aporia about Hanan’s own past, but by writing her motther’s story, she finds that her mother was once in a similar position. The writer-daughter’s self-representational space is embedded within that of her mother, as she explores her own suffering, and capacity to forgive, by way of her mother’s story of forgiving her own father. This, then, is one of the effects of the entwinement of both voices and the impossibility of teasing apart the stories and the voices. The most prominent self-representational voice is that of Kamila. This “I”, which narrates starting with the first page, reflects the distilled version of the oral expression she relays to her daughter. This fact obscures the directly self-representational aspect of her first-person voice, and automatically discounts this voice as a mirror reflection of the person Kamila, the author’s mother, or even her textual articulation. That this “I” is channeled by the pen of the writer-daughter does not necessarily lessen the autobiographical effect of this narrative, inasmuch as a text can represent one’s story. What I am therefore suggesting is to suspend the role of the writer-daughter in order to read the text not only as comprising a story about Kamila but as her story, narrated in her voice. This idea is supported by the first-person voice which narrates most of the text (other than inserted letters), and by the text itself, which indicates that she dictated this text to her daughter. In this case, we must also take into account the fact that Kamila is illiterate, which explains the intervention of the writer-daughter who puts her mother’s words to paper. If we read the text as such, the mother and her internal world constitute the focus, and her daughter merely the means through which Kamila’s speech takes on written form. From this perspective, the text constitutes “an autobiography of the author’s mother,” an idea which here is neither a contradiction in terms nor an anomaly but expresses the dual nature of the text representing the voice of one person and the writing of another. The idea that the text constitutes Kamila’s self-representational project as redacted by the author is, however, only one dimension of the text. This is because the role of the writer-daughter is more than a technicality, a guiding hand. The authority of the writer-daughter is expressed in two ways. Firstly, it is manifested in her role as redactor of the text, which makes her presence felt behind the scenes (and this is what the English rendition wanted to bring out into the open, to clarify). Secondly, it is expressed by the rhetorical strategy of the final two chapters in which the text continues to be narrated through Kamila’s first-person voice, despite
44 My Life Is an Intricate Tale the fact that her voice narrates incidents that occur subsequent to her death, making it clear that the first-person voice cannot actually reflect the mother’s self-expression. This foregrounds the strategies of the text’s composition, exposing the mother’s voice as a mediated voice. It affects the reading of the entire text, making explicit the writer-daughter’s role in constructing the text. This narrative experimentation celebrates “the power fiction gives them”—that is, the authors and their biographical subjects—“to invent themselves and their characters through the act of writing” (Scarparo 2005, xv). This narrative choice simultaneously highlights and conceals the writer-daughter’s presence as storyteller by maintaining a unified narrative voice throughout the text but undermines the authority of the mother’s narrative voice, by having it narrate scenes that it could never have experienced. By representing herself through her mother’s first-person narrative, al-Shaykh is, nevertheless, writing her own story, even if she represents herself in the third-person voice reflecting her mother’s point of view. The final two chapters of her mother’s first-person narrative from beyond the grave exposes the autobiographical space of the writer-daughter. As Egan points out, in writing a biography, “(auto)biographical identity is significantly shaped by the process of exploratory mirroring” (1999, 7). The idea that My Life is “only” the mother’s story, and not also a version of the writer-daughter’s autobiography, is undermined by the fact that the second half of the text seems to focus inordinately on Hanan, out of Kamila’s seven children. This trajectory begins with her birth and naming story. From this point on, Hanan’s character is invoked every few pages. This stands out not only because the other six siblings are not mentioned as often but also in light of the fact that her mother “abandons” her so early in her life, from which point on, they are rarely together, until Kamila’s final years.9 Nevertheless, the narrative invokes Hanan in a way that does not seem proportionate to her physical presence in her mother’s life. This textual “bias” toward Hanan reveals the second dimension of the text, namely, that the text unfolds the writer-daughter’s own self-narrative, although narrated from an unconventional perspective. The author therefore not only transcribes her mother’s oral expression but simultaneously finds her own autobiographical space in and through her mother’s narrative.
Conclusion My Life not only unfolds the life story of Kamila, and Hanan’s embedded autobiography, but also recounts the genesis of the relationship between the mother and the daughter. The text is the product of the mother and the daughter reaching out to each other, of joint trips to Nabatiyya, of recording sessions in which daughter records the words of her mother and of the daughter’s contemplation of her mother’s stories. Following
My Life Is an Intricate Tale 45 from this, I would like to conclude by suggesting another perspective on the narrative voice in the final two chapters. It is not a fictionalized voice but rather is the voice of the relationship that underlies the text: although the mother dies, the relationship lives on in the character of Hanan and in the words jointly created by both women. It is not just the illiterate mother who is empowered by her daughter’s pen but both women who are mutually empowered by the relationship that is forged through the process of creating this narrative. The individual self in this text is relational, in Suad Joseph’s words, “woven through intimate relationships,” with one’s family members, to the point of “embeddedness of self and other” (1999, 2). G. Gudmundsdottir emphasizes the possibility of auto/biography as a process that functions jointly. In that sense, my point here is that “The true intimacy is in the writing” because it is there that al-Shaykh “intertwines their lives …” (2003, 216). The stories of the mother and the daughter are meshed one within the other. Not only is there no attempt at generating an equivalence between the names of the author, the protagonist and the narrator, but the opposite is true: attempting to assert a single autobiographical subject in this text would undermine its point. Along similar lines, Gilmore asserts that “this assertion of a singular voice and subject, of a unique and unified self, contravenes the very dynamic that enables the autobiographical act and its characteristic play of identity in language” (1994, 87). Not only is the subject dual, or, more accurately, multiple, but it cannot be unraveled into two distinct voices. Gilmore’s theory of autobiographics articulates the impossibility of adjudicating between two entwined voices, asserting the “discursive contradictions in the representation of identity (rather than unity)” (ibid., 42). Neither woman (not just the illiterate) can articulate her story without joining forces with the other dialogically. The mother, Kamila, is dependent on Hanan, firstly because she is illiterate and needs someone to transpose her speech into writing, and for this she asks not just a literate person but an accomplished writer. By listening to, recording and redacting her mother’s words, Hanan’s story is conceived. It has been argued on many occasions that autobiography is not a mirror reflection of an objective historical truth but an articulation of one’s self-history as seen at the moment of writing. The author, also a character in the text, thus finds herself face-to-face with a new version of her own history through the act of writing.
Notes 1 World-acclaimed writer Hanan al-Shaykh was born in Lebanon (1945) and has lived in London since 1982. Writing only in Arabic, she treats many diverse issues in her novels and short stories. 2 Arabic autobiography is rife with examples of generic instability, including Taha Hussein’s The Days (al-Ayyām, 1929) and Hanna Abu Hanna’s The Shadow of the Cloud (Ẓill al-ghayma, 1997), both of which are narrated in
46 My Life Is an Intricate Tale
3 4 5
6 7 8 9
the third person narrative voice; and Louis Awad’s Life Papers: The Formative Years (Awrāq al-‘umr: Sanawāt al-takwīn, 1989), in which he incorporates a range of genres. Eakin’s initial article and Egan’s book were published in the same period and each book acknowledges the importance of the other (Eakin 1999, 56; Egan 1999, 9). Linda Anderson provides an excellent history of autobiography theory in the West. Lejeune himself (1989) renders the concept of the “autobiographical pact” more flexible in allowing for the possibility of an autobiography of an illiterate, analyzing how an autobiographical subject is produced in a text which is ghostwritten. See Carole Allamand’s discussion of Lejeune’s many amendments to his original theory in her 2018 article. These editorial decisions are divorced from the quality of the translation, which is virtuoso, as befits the work of scholar and seasoned translator Roger Allen. This recalls the idea of a decentered self in an autobiographical text that approaches its subject indirectly. See King (2000, 8). Kamila mentions Hanan in abstract situations, including when Muhammad asks why she has not been to visit, when she hears of her marriage, when she mentions Hanan taking her children to London during the war, when Kamila saves a special umbrella for Hanan’s daughter and when she reports Hanan leaving her hospital room.
Bibliography Alcoff, L. (1991). The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique 20. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 5–32. Allamand, C. (2018). The Autobiographical Pact, Forty-Five Years Later. The European Journal of Life Writing 7, 51–56. Al-Hassan Golley, N. (2003). Reading Arab Women’s Autobiographies: Shahrazad Tells Her Story. Austin: University of Texas Press. Al-Qasim, N. (2006). Hannān al-Shaykh tarwīa qiṣṣat ummihā fī Hikāyātī Sharḥun Yaṭūl (Hanan al-Shaykh Narrates Her Mother’s Story in My Life Is an Intricate Story). N. pag. www.nabih-alkasem.com/hanan_shekh1.htm Al-Shaykh, H. (2005). Hikāyātī Sharḥun Yaṭūl [My Life Is an Intricate Tale]. Beirut: Dār al-Adab. ———. (2009). The Locust and the Bird. R. Allen, trans. New York: Pantheon. Anderson, L. (2001). Autobiography. London: Routledge. Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination. M. Holquist and C. Emerson, eds., M. Holquist, trans. Austin: University of Texas Press. Couser, T. (2005). Presenting Absent Fathers in Contemporary Memoir. Southwest Review 90:4. 634–648. Davis, R. (2005). Dialogic Selves: Discursive Strategies in Transcultural Collaborative Autobiographies by Rita and Jackie Higgins and Mark and Gail Mathabane. Biography 28:2, 276–294. De Man, P. (1979). Autobiography as De-facement. Modern Language Notes 94:5, 919–930. Eakin, P. (1999). How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
My Life Is an Intricate Tale 47 Egan, S. (1999). Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Erdinast-Vulcan. D. (2018). Heterobiography: A Bakhtinian Perspective on Autobiographical Writing. Life Writing 15:3, 413–430. Gilmore, L. (1994). Autobiographics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Gudmundsdottir, G. (2003). Borderlines: Autobiography and Fiction in Postmodern Life Writing. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi. Hafez, S. (2002). Variegating the Self: Transformation of Textual Strategies in Autobiography [Arabic]. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 22, 7–33. Joseph, S. (1999). Intimate Selving in Arab Families. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. King, N. (2000). Memory, Narrative, Identity: Remembering the Self. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Lejeune, P. (1982). The Autobiographical Contract. In: T. Todorov, ed. French Literary Theory Today. R. Carter, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 192–222. ———. (1989). The Autobiographical Pact (bis). In: Paul John Eakin, ed. On Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 119–137. ———. (1989). The Autobiography of Those Who Do Not Write. In: Paul John Eakin, ed. On Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 189–215. Malin, J. (2000). The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth-Century Women’s Autobiographies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Miller, N. (1992). Autobiographical Deaths. The Massachusetts Review 33:1, 19–47. ———. (1996). Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Olney, J., ed. (1980). Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Scarparo, S. (2005). Elusive Subjects: Biography as Gendered Metafiction. Leicester: Troubador. Smith, S. (1987). A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Engagement and Separation in Leila Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood
Introduction* In this chapter, I examine how Leila Abouzeid employs voice in her autobiography, Rujūʿ ilā al-ṭufūla (1993), translated into English, in 1998, as Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman. Abouzeid is a widely read and well-known Moroccan author who writes all her works in Arabic (rather than French).1 Return to Childhood begins with her childhood in the years leading up to Moroccan independence in 1956 and the years that follow. As the title affirms, the narrative thrust is a literary “return” to Leila’s childhood, when she is between the ages of eight and fourteen. 2 I demonstrate how Abouzeid uses narrative strategies related to voice and silence for two opposing purposes: to illustrate the foundational roles of her mother, grandmother and father in shaping her identity and to express her criticism of these same relatives and her rejection of many aspects of their beliefs and sensibilities. A reading of autobiography that brings out how the self is inscribed in terms of others is especially relevant for conceptualizing the fraught and often paradoxical spaces that produce Arab women’s subjectivities. As we have seen in the previous chapter, in which I discussed Hanan al-Shaykh’s autobiography of her mother, such writing often expresses the pressures of marginalization versus empowerment, conformity versus subversion, representing oneself versus representing others, especially unlettered “others” who cannot represent themselves in writing, and women’s silence versus presence in cultural and historical contexts. Arab women’s autobiography often insists on including the individual and collective memories of those whose voices are muted in dominant historical representations. By sounding the voices of older generations, usually mothers but also grandmothers, Arab women’s autobiographies not only subvert the effects of such muting but also employ voice to articulate intergenerational conflict, * “Narrative Strategies of Self-Definition and Voice in Layla Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood” was originally published in Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 11:2, 179–198. (c) 2015, Association for Middle East Women’s Studies. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder, and the present publisher, Duke University Press. This chapter comprises a reworking of that article.
Return to Childhood 49 particularly between daughters and mothers, whose value systems and worldviews may be at odds with each other. What Rocío G. Davis says of Cuban women’s autobiographies is relevant here: These texts are frequently narrated by protagonists who must necessarily deal with the implications of specific maternal discourse (or the lack thereof) in the process of self-identification and affirmation. The place of the mother—personally, socially, culturally—directs, modifies and influences the daughter’s responses to both individual and cultural demands. (2000, 60) Therefore, such texts trace issues of identification with and disidentification from the mother, weaving a complicated web of internalization of the mother’s discourse and separating from it. My goal in this chapter is to expose the relational qualities of Abouzeid’s coming to self and voice in defiance of patriarchal family dynamics and against the backdrop of the Moroccan nationalist struggle for independence and subsequent nation building. She articulates the nuances of finding her place as a “modern Moroccan woman” in a culture that freed itself from colonial domination but not from Western concepts of modernity. Abouzeid’s identity struggle can be understood in the context of Fatima Sadiqi’s description of Moroccan feminism to be “a result of the encounter of the Moroccan indigenous culture/ civilization with Western culture/civilization” (2003, 20). In Abouzeid’s account, her mother and grandmother endorse indigenous cultural perspectives, whereas her father endorses both Western and local patriarchal values. Johnnie Stover highlights a “countergenre” in black women’s autobiography that ties the “self” to family and community (2003, 28). She argues that such writings introduce a “unique communicative text that expresses resistance” (15). Abouzeid’s text can similarly be read as caught between overlapping marginal and hegemonic discourses that are expressed by “inconsistent points of view” (30) and an unstable, nonunified autobiographical voice. Stover notes that black women’s texts often reflect “balancing acts” that characterize self and community and juxtapose multiple, ambiguous, and conflicting tones and views (37). In her study of mother-daughter relationships in Arabic literature, Dalya Abudi examines whether the female world becomes “a site of female empowerment or of female oppression?” (2011, 11). She hones in on how conflicts between mothers and daughters are expressive of the changing roles of family members “when life is changing rapidly throughout the Arab world” (ibid., 25). This underpins the ambivalence of the daughter’s ties to her mother in Return to Childhood, which reflects, and is a product of, a broader tension between traditional expectations and modernizing societal changes in Morocco.
50 Return to Childhood I read Return to Childhood as at the crux of two types of intergenerational autobiographies as delineated by David Parker, who distinguishes between “an intergenerational narrative of relationality” and “an intergenerational narrative of autonomy” (2004, 142). Return to Childhood is a narrative of autonomy in the sense that it imparts the story of the separation from family expectations and values. However, the story of separation is premised on the importance of the narratives of mother and grandmother. In this vein, I examine the ambivalence and tensions involved in engaging with the perspectives of mother and grandmother, and the countervailing impulse to break away and disentangle from them, from their values, and from the effect of their voices that continue to reverberate for the autobiographical subject. I also highlight the contrast between the powerful presence of Abouzeid’s mother and the father’s silent and silenced voice despite his patriarchal dominance and privileges. In addition to her own first-person narrative voice, Leila, the autobiographical subject, unfolds her own story through other narrative voices that are distinct from the autobiographical “I.” Specifically, her mother’s narrative voice, and occasionally that of her grandmother, punctuate the narrative and at some points even drown out the voice of the autobiographical subject whose story is ostensibly the focus. In order to illustrate a point or tell about a certain period in her life, the text resorts to a story “her mother would tell” and conveys that story in her mother’s first-person voice, as though she were talking, casting Leila as listener. Consequently, one of the main tensions in the text is between the protagonist’s efforts to reconstruct, uncover and inscribe the narrative voices of her illiterate mother and grandmother while gradually individuating away from their authority in order to forge her own voice and path. The text posits a relational identity articulated primarily through the mother’s narrations, often configured as answers to Leila’s questions or stories about family history. Eakin considers such an individual to be “the proximate other to signify the intimate tie to the relational autobiographer” rather than merely another character in the autobiographer’s life (1999, 86). Return to Childhood unfolds the ongoing process of subjectivity and identity in relation to various forms of authority and against a background of national events that directly influence Abouzeid’s personal life. This crucial facet of the text may be found in its formal strategies, which refract personal identity through a threefold prism: first, in relation to the narrative voices of her mother and grandmother; second, in relation to her father’s silences; and third, through national forms of language, memory and forgetting. I argue that Leila’s voice increasingly intervenes and interjects as the text progresses, a strategy that narratively constitutes the protagonist’s coming to voice against other “infringing” voices. Past studies have treated Abouzeid’s mainly fictional works
Return to Childhood 51 in terms of language politics (Ellis-House 2011), feminism and Islam (Hunter 2006), East-West identity politics (Vinson 2007), portrayals of men (Bentahar 2012) and national history from the margins (Kozma 1999; Sadiqi 2003). Only Hunter and Vinson explicitly deal with Return to Childhood, although neither examines its narrative strategies. Autobiography has been called “the slipperiest of literary genres” (Eakin 1999, 2), given the penchant of authors to integrate novelistic and biographical techniques. Return to Childhood is autobiographical in content and to some degree novelistic in style and structure. Inasmuch as Return to Childhood, which the author dubs a “memoir” in the 1998 English translation, is a literary rendition of the author’s life story, I refer to it as “autobiography.” It is to be distinguished from Abouzeid’s fictional Year of the Elephant (1984), a novel that draws inspiration from “real” aspects of the author’s life. In contrast, Return to Childhood claims to unfold the author’s authoritative personal story. It conflates the author and the narrator in a style that one may claim to be “novelized,” to use Abd al-Dayim’s terminology (1974), or “novelistic” (Enderwitz 1998, 11). Such novelized or novelistic qualities include the interplay of “various narrative voices,” repetition and embedding (e.g., Malti-Douglas 1988, 97). These novelistic qualities, particularly polyvocality, invite the use of analytical tools and theories usually used for analyzing novels.
The Narrative Voices of Grandmother and Mother In Return to Childhood, the grandmother’s and mother’s voices are ultimately mediated and constructed through Abouzeid’s literary Arabic, noteworthy since the stories were no doubt actually spoken in the vernacular Moroccan Arabic. Through a multivoiced rhetorical strategy, Abouzeid relegates the autobiographical subject to a listener and not simply a narrator. On the one hand, she surrenders exclusive control of the text, but on the other she controls the voices of the mother and grandmother, even transposing the register of their language from spoken to literary. The fact that the text draws so heavily from her mother’s voice to complete her own illustrates the force of her mother’s memories on her own subjectivity. Writing about Return to Childhood, Vinson observes that, “The numerous embedded quotations and narrations place Abouzeid’s written memoirs within a larger narrative of primarily oral female speech and transform her memoirs from an individual’s chronological review of her childhood into a series of multiauthored interconnected, episodic stories” (2007, 96). However, the text is not, in fact, multiauthored and rather than “oral speech” culled from interviews, these are stories recalled by the narrator and rendered in Modern Standard Arabic. By incorporating the grandmother’s narrative voice, the autobiographical subject situates herself at the intersection of local women’s voices in
52 Return to Childhood communal gatherings. For example, the grandmother describes necessary tactics for banishing the evil eye, an “aspect of her grandmother,” revealed at an evening gathering, which Abouzeid rejects as superstitious (92).3 This illustrates the import on Leila of a community of women, family members, neighbors, and visiting friends, who frequently interact during coffees, visits, neighborly chats, bath days, weddings and other family occasions. The grandmother evokes local folklore, beliefs, and the cultural atmosphere of the “ḏiyāfāt,” or women’s gatherings at her uncle’s house (21–26; 80–81), and rooftop “umsiyyāt” in the evening, where women get together to eat, talk and sing (88–93; 93–95; 103). In contrast to the grandmother’s communally grounded narrations, the mother’s voice in Return to Childhood generally emerges from intimate mother-daughter encounters. The mother is the most conspicuous figure in the text’s relational framework. Narrating large segments of the autobiography in her mother’s voice exemplifies a “mutually critical double voicing” (Fischer 1994, 90) that expresses the ambivalence of the autobiographical subject. She identifies through the mother’s anecdotes, stories, and values but also against them through questioning. In one example, the mother recounts to her young daughter that the father has been imprisoned, explaining the meaning of “homeland” (watan), and describing prison as “honorable” in the anticolonial struggle (12). Yet the young protagonist doubts her mother’s words because she, nevertheless, “weeps,” “sighs” and “wails” at her husband’s imprisonment (13). Spurred on by the young Leila’s interjected questions, her mother narrates the father’s arrest in an account that spans almost the entire second chapter in a text of four chapters (32–58). Incorporating her mother’s narrative voice lends the text a certain authority given the limits of Leila’s child perspective. Additionally, it establishes the recounting of the story as formative for the protagonist, as her mother recounts the story repeatedly. Inclusion of her mother’s narrative voice also enacts a historical or intergenerational dialogue between mother and daughter. The mother’s protracted accounts are filled with details of myriad characters and events from an earlier era that include her mother’s visits to the prison and the repercussions of the father’s imprisonment for the mother, who was effectively abandoned and exploited by her father’s family. The mother recounts dragging her husband’s family to court and winning the case. The judge says to the mother’s father-in-law, Leila’s grandfather, “What can I tell you? You dog for saying he divorced her” (49). Leila’s mother is constructed as audacious in choosing to take her in-laws to court and in the end is triumphant despite having been victimized. Tess Cosslett argues that such extended narrations reconstruct hidden, silenced, or lost matrilineage for the protagonist in women’s autobiographies. In the women’s autobiographies she researched, Cosslett asserts that, “the identity of the subject is assumed to be dependent on or in
Return to Childhood 53 relation to the identities of her female ancestors” (2000, 142). Such an autobiographical strategy presents women ancestors as “grounds of her own being” while at the same time writing for or as them. This restores “subjectivity to the mother, and other female relatives” and articulates “their influence on the protagonist” (142). In Return to Childhood, the extended narrations revive stories and experiences that she remembers hearing, illustrating that her own memories and identity are informed by the stories her mother would tell. Return to Childhood emphasizes that Leila’s mother’s anecdotes have been repeated on many occasions: “… then she would repeat her narration and recapitulate … (thumma ʿādat taḥki wa-taʿīd)” (60). In another example: “I recall that from her repeated recounting … (adhkur dhālika min ḥakyihā al-mutakarrir)” (107). Repeated speech attributes significance to Leila’s memory rather than the actual experience of events. The adult narrator is discernible through iterative verb markers, as the critic of Russian childhood autobiography Andrew Wachtel (1990, 27) writes: Iterative markers indicate that the remembered scene is a composite, one that happened so many times as to have been indelibly impressed on the memory … These verbs give the effect of stopped time or of the simultaneity of action and its expression; they are the ultimate expression of the protagonist’s chronotope … Wachtel argues that repetition could be called the grammatical expression of nostalgia: “The iterative allows the narrator to go into a kind of trance … [wherein] he can bring his past incarnation back to life and reexperience long-past events” (28). Edward Said underscores the role of repetition in the Arabic novel when he says, “[N]arratives do more than simply and generally repeat reality: they create another sense altogether by repeating, by making repetition itself the very form of novelty” (1975, 87). In Abouzeid’s text, repetition creates a tension where iteration challenges linearity. The stories are not told to the protagonist at a specific time but rather repeatedly and therefore they are timeless. The telling is repeatedly experienced, and finally internalized, underscoring the complexity of a relationally produced identity. Such repetitions challenge a precisely marked boundary between speaker and listener and a precise period and context, connecting individual memory to group consciousness. The repetitions break up time and signify the merging of past and present, bringing to the fore the force and power of tradition from which Leila must break free in order to mold a future that has not been literally dictated by her past. Marianne Hirsch’s term “postmemory” refers to the secondary memory of those “who grew up dominated by narratives that precede their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can neither be
54 Return to Childhood understood nor re-created” (1996, 662). Applying this term to Portuguese autobiography, Carlos Ramos Villar suggests that “the process through which a person takes on the memory of others and makes it their own provides an interesting way of understanding the tightrope of belonging and not belonging” in autobiography (2016, 141). The mother’s stories in Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood occupy just such a precarious position, as the book incorporates these accounts at length as an integral part of Leila’s life story, not that of the mother—and yet Leila struggles with curtailing her mother’s dominance in her life. The stories, and specifically her mother’s rendition of them, as remembered, are crucial to her identity but also symbolize the point of departure, the place from which Leila seeks to free herself for a new direction and a new set of values, a different form of Moroccan identity. Eakin points out that “Sharing other people’s stories can be understood as an act of self-definition” (1999, 71). As different as Leila’s worldview may be from that of her mother and grandmother, their reconstructed narrations conjecture them as models for the writer Leila eventually becomes because they are portrayed as storytellers, even if they resisted Leila’s receiving advanced schooling. Abouzeid lauds her grandmother’s talent for storytelling, which extends to “our women,” a category that includes Abouzeid: “My grandmother knew how to exaggerate and embellish her narrations, to capture and mesmerize her listener” (80). This demonstrates what has been said of Asian American family memoirs: “the consciousness that the stories of one’s relatives are constitutive of one’s own story” (Davis 2017, 119).
Coming to Individual Voice and Selfhood Return to Childhood reflects an ambivalent process where the text simultaneously recovers the mother’s narrative voice and dissociates from it. Abouzeid recovers her mother’s voice through double-voiced discourse, “another’s speech in another’s language” (Bakhtin 1981, 324). The narrative strategy of incorporating other speaking voices bespeaks ambivalence between identification and individualism. Leila’s voice increasingly intervenes and interjects as the text progresses, a dynamic that narratively constitutes her coming to voice. The merging or blending of the mother’s speaking voice into the text is most conspicuous in the first two chapters, decreases in the third chapter and is nearly absent from the final chapter. Although her mother’s voice represents authoritative discourse that shapes Leila’s worldview, her statements are increasingly cast as contradictory or otherwise problematic. Linda Anderson (2001, 113) notes a tendency for women to become autobiographers against identification with the mother. This point is relevant to Return to Childhood but does not express the full ambivalence reflected by the mother’s presence and voice in the text.
Return to Childhood 55 In the first chapter, titled “al-Qsiba,” Leila’s mother explains that the “Nasara,” or Christians, referring to the French colonizers, imprisoned Leila’s father because of his nationalist views (12). The narrator exposes inconsistencies in the mother’s views of the honorability of imprisonment by pointing out that she previously expressed the unfairness of being imprisoned by the French and her sadness at her husband’s imprisonment. The narrator states that the mother’s wailing undermined the positive force of her words, thereby insinuating her skepticism. In this first chapter, the mother’s narrative voice merges with the narrator’s voice, blurring the distinction between them. One example is the anecdote about one of their neighbors in Rabat, who, it is told, applied makeup even on the day Leila’s youngest sister died. Only at the end of the anecdote is it clearly stated that this is her mother’s anecdote: “My mother would smile and say, whenever she told that story: ‘She was good, God rest her soul … She stood by me at Khadija’s death, if only she had not used rouge’” (11). Although Leila does not experience the events directly or is too young to understand their import, she is shaped by the telling. Her mother’s accounts are in fact Leila’s “postmemory” narratives of the previous generation. These are powerful forms of memory because of their “imaginative investment and creation” (Hirsch 1996, 662). The narrator reproduces her mother’s memories as she remembers hearing them, albeit “translated” into literary Arabic, signifying Abouzeid’s intervention. The second chapter, titled “Sefru,” includes the mother’s voice punctuated by the daughter’s criticism. For example, the narrator states, I asked my mother the meaning of ‘the entrance and the departure,’ and she said: ‘Be quiet! When grown-ups are speaking, don’t speak.’ And I was quiet. This expression continued to baffle me until I grew up and figured it out by myself. (89) This anecdote illustrates the distinction between Abouzeid’s authoritative voice as narrator of her autobiography and her voice as a girl when she is a silenced listener. As the narrative progresses, the balance of power shifts and Abouzeid, now author, may grant and silence her mother’s narrative voice—at least in the context of the text. The idiom Leila does not understand is explained in the English translation as meaning “that a girl’s family set the divorce of a man’s first wife as a condition to marrying his daughter” (49). As such, it foreshadows her mother’s predicament when the father leaves her to marry his chic, Westernized second wife without divorcing his first wife. In the third chapter, titled “Casablanca,” the narrator-daughter curtails her mother’s voice, foregrounding Leila’s developing perspective and newfound courage to question and distinguish whose memories are
56 Return to Childhood whose and to assert her own opinions of events and choices. When we read the mother’s voice, it is framed and mediated by the daughter’s criticism. For example, her mother depicts how she is cheated and mistreated by her father-in-law. Leila interrupts her mother’s story to criticize her: “You weren’t wise. From what you say …’” (108). The mother replies: “I was obeying my mother. That’s what upsets me. I obeyed my mother, and now no one obeys me …” (ibid.). Such interruptions increasingly occur in the third and fourth chapters as Leila comes into a mature, independent voice. Leila’s increased “interruptions” of her mother’s speech suggest a shift in the power dynamics conveyed through narrative voice. They also reveal differences of opinion regarding popular Islam as practiced by women, in comparison to orthodox beliefs that shun the magical. An example of this occurs when Leila bursts into the text—and into her mother’s monologue, “When will God free Morocco from witchcraft?” (135). This interjection bespeaks the shift in values from her mother’s generation to her own. Significantly, the mother does not respond to the question but continues narrating, perhaps suggesting that these two views cannot be reconciled. The narrative strategy of the final chapter, titled “Rabat,” reflects the most notable shift in narrative voice, since Leila’s first-person narrative voice dominates. Her mother’s speech is inserted intermittently, for example, about a national hero whose remains were prepared for reburial in his current house after being removed from his previous grave (142–143). Not only is there less of the mother’s direct speech in this chapter, but the narrative emphasizes the mother’s silences. When Leila asks her what she can tell her of her father’s “conspiracy” charge, her mother answers, “Nothing.” Leila persists, “‘How did the news reach you?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘What do you remember from that period?’ ‘Nothing’” (150–151). Significantly, the autobiographical subject relates the anecdote in her own first-person voice. In a second example, after her father leaves her mother, Leila asks her why she, nevertheless, goes to court to support her incarcerated, estranged husband. Here the text silences the mother as Leila preempts a response with criticism: “Now that you’ve heard with your own ears, let’s not go, and don’t say, ‘They’re going to criticize me’” (153–154).
The Father as a Silent/Silenced Authority The father is a key relational presence in the text, relevant as much by his enforced silences as by rare instances of speech. I argue that Leila’s father in the text embodies Western colonialist values, even as he fought against colonial occupation. In silencing him, the text performs what Susan Sontag has termed a productive “resonating silence” (2002, 11). His short snippets of speech are filtered through the mother’s voice.
Return to Childhood 57 This dynamic subverts patriarchal norms where men’s voices dominate in public spaces and women’s voices are relegated to private spaces. There is a sharp contrast between the writer’s intimate conversations with her mother and the clipped exchanges with her father. The father’s control over aspects of the lives of the mother and daughters manifests the powers granted him by virtue of the patriarchy. This power stands in contrast to his overall lack of direct speech in a text brimming with narrative voices. The father is not entirely silenced. Rather, his speech and his stories are channeled through female voices, dialogizing his voice through their own renderings and layering his voice with their interpretations. In contrast to Leila’s mother, his narrative voice does not convey any part of the story of Return to Childhood. He is not even afforded the role of storytelling, in contrast to Leila’s grandmother. Similarly, when excerpts from his letters are recounted, they are embedded within the mother’s speech (67). This narrative strategy functions in opposition to his dominance in deciding important decisions for the women: he exercises control over their lives but not over the text. The mother’s authority over major decisions is superseded by the father’s, notably with regard to the girls’ education. A conversation between Leila’s mother and great-aunt about the decision to send both daughters to school portrays the hierarchy of authority in Leila’s family (71). The aunt attempts to convince her not to send them to school, but Leila’s mother is adamant because Leila’s father insists. Leila’s mother objects because she does not see the value in education, but she cannot disobey their father, who directs, “Enroll both of them in school,” every time she visits him in prison (72). The narrator cedes narrative authority by sharing the narrative stage with her mother’s voice. However, ultimate authority over the decision is in her father’s hands, as her mother has internalized his patriarchal authority. He is not even present to enforce his demands, exposing a gap between the power of his words and his physical inability to see them through to action. It is further ironic and yet telling that he uses his patriarchal powers to demand his daughters’ education, as nationalists commonly insisted, while his wife and her aunt oppose this decision in keeping with common skepticism regarding the education of girls at the time. Because of his insistence, Leila ultimately comes into French and Arabic literacy. Through this insistence, he influences Leila’s future as a writer, intellectual and educator. The text’s tendency to mute Leila’s father’s direct voice is significant. It certainly reflects his physical absence from their lives. This is partially due to the homosocial nature of Moroccan society at the time, where women and men operate in different social and spatial spheres.4 His absence was also caused by his imprisonment by the French colonizers of Morocco and the postcolonial Moroccan government in the years following independence. He later abandons Leila’s mother. Beyond this
58 Return to Childhood physical absence, Abouzeid denies her father a direct narrative presence, which accentuates the god-like power of his authority exerted from behind the scenes. This power is communicated through her mother’s threats, his menacing looks and coughs, and directives expressed in letters. As a child, Leila experiences her father’s authority as ever-present and often wordless. She “freez[es] with terror wherever I was whenever I heard his cough from a distance” (32). The father looms large with a silent presence that conveys his power. Here it is instructive to consider Robyn Fivush’s distinction between being silenced and being silent in her study of the social construction of silence in autobiography: when being silenced is contrasted with voice, it is conceptualized as imposed, and it signifies a loss of power and self. But silence can also be conceptualized as being silent, a shared understanding that need not be voiced, and in this sense silence can be a form of power, and the need to speak, to voice, represents a loss of power. (Fivush 2010, 88–89) This helps us to distinguish between Abouzeid’s choice to silence her father’s direct speaking voice, when it is implied that he speaks, a choice that enacts a silencing that accomplishes textual exclusion. This contrasts with (and is perhaps a reaction to) his use of silence to lord his power over his family, and in this case does not reflect Abouzeid’s silencing, but his own choice to wield silence to enforce his control and status. In the last chapter, the narrator reveals that in the early 1970s, her father visited Leila and they entered into heated discussions about politics. Yet the text does not disclose the content of these debates. In Return to Childhood, her mother stands in the background during these discussions, motioning them to stop lest people think they are arguing (155). This changing power dynamic generates a rich irony wherein Leila and her father engage in debates as intellectual equals while her mother tries to silence them. It is significant that only the fact of the arguments is recorded and not their content. In the penultimate paragraph, the narrative does convey Leila’s position in one of the arguments with her father but omitting his side of the dialogue. She expresses her right to work in any organization she wants, even if it opposes her father’s views; and she criticizes her father’s political and social views in siding with the opposition. Return to Childhood silences the father through the final paragraph, using the argument to express Leila’s political opinion rather than opening space for her father’s voice. In that final paragraph, which is the only time Leila addresses her father directly in the entire text, she challenges the authority of his actions and ideas and questions his political allegiances. In addressing him, she recapitulates what she told someone who had criticized her “betrayal” of her father, defending her right to hold
Return to Childhood 59 political views different from his. Specifically, she questions his adoption of secular principles imported from the West. In this dramatic moment, his response is silence: “My father did not say anything. He remained thoughtful and did not say anything” (156). In the poignant final scene, the father’s lack of response expresses the diminution of his patriarchal power, which contrasts with the power of the mere sound of his cough during her childhood. At the same time, the choice to end with this scene emphasizes the force of his ideals and his silences for Leila. The autobiography emphasizes the contradiction inherent in valuing Western education for girls as well as boys, while exploiting a modern Personal Status Law unfavorable to women by abandoning Leila’s mother to be with a “Westernized” Moroccan woman. Leila asks her father how he can fight for something for the whole country but not apply it to himself (154). For the narrator, this paradox reflects the broader hypocrisy prevalent in the newly independent country. Leila’s father is the victim of Western colonialism, as French colonial powers repeatedly arrest and torture him. Yet after driving out the Western victimizers, her father victimizes Leila’s mother and daughters by abandoning them. In Return to Childhood, the father personifies the intersection of Western and patriarchal authority. He abuses his patriarchal rights, leaving his wife without even divorcing her, which would have allowed her to get the benefits allowed to her and the children by law, an act that is transformed into the central theme in Abouzeid’s novella Year of the Elephant (1984). By contesting and silencing her father’s authoritative voice, Abouzeid by extension delegitimizes colonial authority and the postcolonial government that took its place. At the same time, every page of the autobiography reflects the influence of her father on her education and subsequent development into a woman of letters.
Crossroads of Self-Definition, Voice and the National Story Abouzeid uses content and narrative strategy to portray her struggle for personal liberation as part of the nation’s struggle to find its own voice through Arabic language and literature. I argue that while Leila’s story can be read as an allegory for the Moroccan national struggle, the connection between autobiographical subject and nation is deeper than an allegorical framework allows. The national story powerfully dictates and impels her personal story, fusing the personal and the national. The colonial and postcolonial situations dictated crucial elements of Leila’s childhood. This embeddedness of self and national struggle is articulated in sentences such as, “We were politicized (mutasayyasin) youth who debated in the style of resistance in developing countries” (146). Developing countries, bilād nāmiyya in Arabic, emphasizes the overlap between her own development and national development.
60 Return to Childhood In Return to Childhood, Leila’s personal story is expressed in relation to the nation. On one level, the text can be read as a political allegory where the chronicles of the autobiographical subject are symbolic of the nation itself.5 This kind of representative function of the protagonist occurs in other Moroccan autobiographical works (Rooke 1997, 303). This is perhaps an expected narrative posture, since the childhood of authors born in the 1940s corresponds to Morocco’s struggle for national independence, which culminated in 1956. Rooke demonstrates that in each of the autobiographies he analyzes, the synthesis of individual life story with national history fulfills different objectives. These objectives include social critique advocating a complete break with the past (Mohamed Choukri), a monument to Arab cultural identity and a reactivation of classical heritage (Tahir Bin Jalun) and a vision of personal and national identity rooted in folk and popular culture (al-Arabi Batma). Indeed, Return to Childhood speaks to the importance of a broader Arab cultural identity, and, like the autobiographies of Choukri and Bin Jallun, it unfolds the autobiographical subject’s coming to literacy. This process is linked to Arab identity and nationalism, just as the poem that inspires the Choukrian protagonist to learn to read is a nationalist poem. Similarly, Leila’s love of Arabic language is linked to the political discussions at school and her insistence on fasting in school during the month of Ramadan, a way of asserting her national, cultural and religious allegiances. However, it is difficult to reduce the political- cultural underpinnings of this text to unequivocal messages. For example, whereas the text is forthright in expressing Leila’s opposition to popular superstitions, it, nevertheless, expresses many folk stories and songs. As Liat Kozma has claimed regarding Abouzeid’s novel Year of the Elephant, Return to Childhood can be read as a rereading and rewriting of “national history through the first-person narration of a lower-class woman [here, several]” (Kozma 1999, 389).6 The autobiography offers a view of Moroccan history from women’s perspectives, particularly Leila’s mother and grandmother, “one that recognizes the unsung efforts of Moroccan women” (Vinson 2007, 96)7 and undermines a monolithic, male-centered and top-down version of Moroccan national history. The nonconventional perspective this narrative offers on Moroccan national history is conveyed through the political background implicit in the mother’s stories. She tells about her husband’s first arrest and the great efforts she makes (like other wives of prisoners) to bring him packages while in prison (63–73); about transporting guns from city to city in her apron (130); and about her role in smuggling a man out of prison (134–135). These reminiscences underscore the text’s political intervention as a “text of the oppressed, marginalized subject” (Anderson 2001, 104). The mother reveals that the reason for the father’s imprisonment is that he is a “nationalist, meaning that he wants to expel the Christians from our country, and that is an honorable thing” (12). An unlettered
Return to Childhood 61 woman, who is one of those colonized subjects, vividly portrays this power imbalance through many anecdotes. Indeed, anecdotes by the mother, grandmother and prisoners’ wives (151) are often anticolonial. Similarly, women often visit prisoners and smuggle weapons, contributing to the young protagonist’s awareness and coming to voice. Leila’s identity is constituted not only in relation to her family members but also in relation to colonial and neocolonial attempts to undermine the society’s Islamic fabric. Return to Childhood repudiates the colonial past and reclaims aspects of the indigenous and Islamic past, which can be read as challenges to the persistence and dominance of colonial culture even after independence. The protagonist chooses to fast during Ramadan, challenging the “Christian logic” of the Algerian woman who prohibits fasting: “Eat, eat, or else I will lock you up” (140–141). The text expresses nationalistic and anticolonialist sentiments, along with opposition to the corruption of the postcolonial Moroccan leadership. Its aspirations for the nation-self are multifaceted. It advocates indigenous Arab identity, as represented particularly by illiterate women’s contributions to culture and broader Arab identity. It simultaneously expresses and advocates the so-called Western values of modernity and democracy, including in the classroom (esp. p. 146). The autobiographical subject’s personal story is entwined in a political-national frame of reference from the beginning to the end of the text, which begins as mother and daughters are forced relocate because of her father’s imprisonment. The constant movement in the text is compelled mainly by the French colonial presence, which determines the map of Leila’s burgeoning identity. Political circumstances impinge on their personal lives and literally propel the narrative course. The road at the root of the autobiographical process is contorted and tangled rather than straight. It circumscribes the boundaries of Leila’s childhood and adolescence. It parallels the sinuous structure of her memories and the ambivalences that characterize her entwined individual/ national identity. The autobiography begins and ends at a crossroads. The final scene takes place at Casablanca’s international airport, a border and symbol of movement, transition, displacement, modernity, and development. These final textual moments, depicting a personal encounter with her father, are situated at a national-international crossroads, emphasizing the impossibility of disentangling the personal from national and transnational history.
Narrative Voice and Registers of Language Return to Childhood is one of the first modern Moroccan autobiographies to be written by a woman in Arabic rather than in French, accentuating the radical nature of language choice. As a Moroccan woman writing her autobiography in Arabic, Abouzeid broadens the linguistic
62 Return to Childhood and literary horizon of contemporary Arabic autobiographical discourse. Since French was the primary literary language in Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa during the colonial and early postcolonial years, and has persisted in commerce and scholarship, it is the lingua of most Moroccan autobiographies. Abouzeid stands among the few, including writers writing from the 1960s through the 1990s, such as Abd al-Majid bin Jalun, Mohamed Choukri and al-Arabi Batma, who have broken with literary practice in Morocco by writing autobiography in Arabic, rather than in French.8 As Elizabeth Fernea asserts in the preface to the English translation of Return to Childhood (1998), the decision to write in Arabic is a political act.9 Language is a central issue in “ideology dynamics,” according to Sadiqi, who stresses “the power of language in keeping or contesting the status quo in Moroccan society” (2014, 95). Arabization programs were introduced after Moroccan independence with the goal of establishing modern Arabic as “the foundation stone of a Moroccan national literature,” a goal that “has been constantly thwarted” by a “persistent Francophone strand” (Armitage 2000, 41). As discussed above, it is Leila’s father who insists she learn French alongside Arabic (139) even after independence. This demand is intrinsic to his predilection for things modern and French, including the Westernized woman for whom he abandons her mother. In light of this, the choice to write in Arabic is a rejoinder to the predominance of French culture and language (144). Abouzeid writes the entire text in literary Arabic without incorporating Moroccan Arabic except for lyrics of folk songs. This is noteworthy because so much of the textual accounts are of speech spoken by her illiterate mother and grandmother, who no doubt spoke Moroccan colloquial dialect. This raises the problematic of representing those who cannot write, speak or represent themselves in authorized language registers (Alcoff 1991). Employing literary Arabic rather than the Moroccan Arabic dialect to convey their speech enhances its mediation by an educated and modern daughter who uses the language register that has “the greatest share of prestige in the linguistic market in Morocco” (Sadiqi 2003, 47). Abouzeid rejects a fluid hybridism of language registers in which the main text is written in the literary language and dialogue is rendered in colloquial language. This “literary trend” has gained momentum in Moroccan literature written in Arabic “as a device of realism and creativity that reflects Moroccan diglossia and distinguishes Moroccan literature from Egyptian literature” (Ellis-House 2011, 463). In light of this, in Return to Childhood, Abouzeid conveys the speech of her mother and grandmother while simultaneously suppressing their language, distancing the text from oral accounts and indicating ambivalence about inclusion of marginalized voices. This ambivalence bespeaks the dual status of orality in Moroccan culture as both lower-class and a “powerful symbol
Return to Childhood 63 of identity and authenticity” (Sadiqi 2003, 42). Abouzeid navigates between including these voices as bases for her personal and cultural identity, while distinguishing herself from them by “translating” their accounts into literary Arabic. When folksongs are conveyed in Moroccan Arabic (e.g., 29–30), their language register sets them apart from the rest of the narrative, emphasizing the gap between local oral cultures and high, pan-Arab literary culture.10 Nevertheless, “[w]riting in Arabic is a profoundly transgressive gesture for a Moroccan woman, and Abouzeid uses this device to disrupt national and international gendered power hierarchies affected through language” (Ellis-House 2011, 455). Abouzeid’s use of literary Arabic, “a high prestige language typically reserved for men” (458), not only subverts colonial influence but also expresses a “refusal of gender roles” (457). By excluding Moroccan Arabic, the autobiography situates itself within the gamut of canonical Arabic literature, which is doubly subversive for an Arab woman writer. The language choices in Return to Childhood also reflect a commitment to Arab culture and literature, themes also expressed in the narrative.
Conclusion My reading of Return to Childhood emphasizes the significance of its narrative strategies in relation to voice, silence and language. They reveal an intersubjective coming to self that resonates widely in the postcolonial Maghrebi context. Reading for relational dimensions is crucial for the study of Arabic autobiography, not only for experimental texts in which “the biographer is also an autobiographer” (Egan 1999, 7), such as Hanan al-Shaykh’s My Life Is an Intricate Tale (Hikāyatī Sharḥun Yaṭūl, 2005), but also for texts that use “linear narrative, emphasizing development, and projecting a unitary, autonomous self” (Smith 2004, 61).11 Return to Childhood incorporates complex strategies where the mother, grandmother and father are each implicated through voicing and silencing. The narrative strategies reveal how the identity of the autobiographical subject emerges uncertainly at first and then more confidently from within the stories, anecdotes, directives that infuse her childhood. The dynamic interplay and interweaving of narrative voices brings out the ambivalences of the autobiographical subject as she identifies through and against the voices and ideas of her mother and father, as well as dominant ideologies. As the chapters unfold, the mother’s narrative voice is less conspicuous, Leila is more argumentative and interventionist, and the father is practically absent as a directly speaking subject. Although the mother narrates stories that are the grounds for the protagonist’s identity, the protagonist increasingly undermines and contests her mother’s ideas and voice. Despite their differences, mother and daughter retain an intimacy that contrasts with the distant
64 Return to Childhood father-daughter relationship. The text reflects important language choices, as it is written in Arabic rather than French, and in literary Arabic rather than Moroccan colloquial dialect, which formalizes the intimate register of women’s autobiography and mediates in formal terms the everyday voices of the unlettered women whose opinions and lives Abouzeid integrates into the national-personal stories. The decision to write in literary Arabic reflects Abouzeid’s postcolonial Moroccan rather than French cultural belonging and underscores her association with broader Arabic culture. The decision not to include dialogue in spoken Moroccan Arabic indicates Abouzeid’s ultimate authority over the text. It can also be read as a refusal of traditional gender expectations that relegate women’s voices to oral traditions. At the same time, the protagonist’s modernity recognizes that her coming to voice emerges through the ideas, beliefs and stories passed down to her, including a forceful matriarchal genealogy. This technique of interrogation and challenge is something she says she learned from her education in the West. Ironically, it is through these tools that she interrogates Western legacies as well.
Notes 1 In English the author is widely referred to as “Leila Abouzeid.” I will use this transliteration for her first and last name throughout this chapter. For a study on differences between the translation and the Arabic original in the context of translation politics for texts crossing cultural and national borders, see D. Abdo (2009). Textual Migration: Self Translation and Translation of the Self in Leila Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood: The Memoirs of a Modern Moroccan Woman and Rujuʿ Ila Al-Tufulah. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 30:2, 1–42. 2 I use “Leila” to refer to the protagonist, “the narrator” to refer to the adult voice narrating and “Abouzeid” to refer to the author. These distinctions are not so neat in this or any autobiographical text. We must take into account the merging or obscuring of these different “selves,” since “the narrator is both the same and not the same as the autobiographer, and the narrator is both the same and not the same as the subject of narration” (Smith 1998, 109). 3 All translations are mine, and therefore references are to the original Arabic (1993). 4 See Sadiqi’s discussion of the use of space in Morocco and how it has been used to “segregate between men and women” (2014, 88). 5 Vinson notes (somewhat imprecisely) that the “various levels of allegiance and betrayal in Abouzeid’s family serve as a microcosm of Moroccan society at large” (2007, 100). 6 See also Sadiqi who asserts that Year of the Elephant “brilliantly depicts Moroccan women’s agency in the making of Morocco’s national history” (2003, 29). 7 Abdo calls this counterhistory “subaltern discursive practices” (9). 8 Notable North African autobiographies in French are Abdelkebir Khatibi’s La Mémoire Tatouée: Autobiographie d’un Décolonisé (1971) and Rachida Yacoubi’s Ma Vie, Mon Cri (1995).
Return to Childhood 65
66 Return to Childhood Davis, R. (2000). Back to the Future: Mothers, Languages and Homes in Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming the Cuban. World Literature Today 74:1, 60–68. ———. (2017). Asian American Family Memoirs and the Performance of Identity and Readership in Transcultural Societies. In: B. Hofmann and M. Mueller, eds. Performing Ethnicity, Performing Gender: Transcultural Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 118–131. Eakin, P. (1999). How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Egan, S. (1999). Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Ellis-House, M. (2011). Transcending the Nation, the Francophone Postcolonial: Abouzeid’s Vectors of Global Reception for Moroccan Arabic Literature. International Journal of Francophone Studies 14:4, 453–471. Enderwitz, S. (1998). From Curriculum Vitae to Self-Narration: Fiction in Arabic Autobiography. In: S. Lieder, ed. Storytelling in the Framework of Non-fictional Arabic Literature. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1–19. Fischer, M. (1994). Autobiographical Voices (1, 2, 3) and Mosaic Memory: Experimental Sondages in the (Post)modern World. In: K. Ashley, L. Gilmore and G. Peters, eds. Autobiography and Postmodernism. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 79–129. Fivush, R. (2010). Speaking Silence: The Social Construction of Silence in Autobiographical and Cultural Narratives. Memory 18:2, 88–98. Hirsch, M. (1996). Past Lives, Postmemories in Exile. Poetics Today 17:4, 659–687. Hunter, E. (2006). Feminism, Islam and the Modern Moroccan Woman in the Works of Leila Abouzeid. African Studies 65:2, 139–155. Kozma, L. (1999). Remembrance of Things Past: Leila Abouzeid and Moroccan National History. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 6:3, 388–406. Malti-Douglas, F. (1988). Blindness and Autobiography: al-Ayyām of Ṭāhā Ḥusayn. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Parker, D. (2004). Narratives of Autonomy and Narratives of Relationality in Auto/Biography. a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 19:1–2, 137–155. Rooke, T. (1997). Moroccan Autobiography as National Allegory. Oriente Moderno 16:2/3, 289–305. Sadiqi, F. (2003). Women, Gender and Language in Morocco. Leiden: Brill. ———. (2014). Moroccan Feminist Discourses. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Said, E. (1975). Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Basic Books. Smith, S. (1998). Performativity, Autobiographical Practice, Resistance. In: S. Smith and J. Watson, eds. Women, Autobiography, Theory. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 108–115. Smith, T. (2004). Generating Selves: Issues of Self-Representation. a/b: Autobiography Studies 19:1, 59–70. Somekh, S. (1991). Genre and Language in Modern Arabic Literature. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. Sontag, S. (2002). The Aesthetics of Silence. In: Styles of Radical Will. New York: Picador, 3–34. Stover, J. (2003). Rhetoric and Resistance in Black Women’s Autobiography. Tampa: University Press of Florida.
Return to Childhood 67 Villar, C. R. (2016). “Filling in Where Memory Fails: The Use of Stories in Portuguese American Memoirs. Configurações 17, 139–152. Vinson, P. (2007). A Muslim Woman Writes Back: Leila Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman. In: N. al-Hassan Golley, ed. Arab Women’s Lives Retold: Exploring Identity through Writing. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 90–107. Wachtel, A. (1990). The Battle for Childhood: Creation of a Russian Myth. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Self in the City in Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Story of a City A Childhood in Amman
Introduction* This chapter discusses the masterpiece Sīrat madīna: ʿAmmān fī ’l- arbaʿīnāt (Story of a City: Amman in the Forties, 1994; translated into English by Samira Kawar as Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman, 1996) by celebrated novelist Abd al-Rahman Munif (1933–2004). Although Munif’s novelistic oeuvre identifies him most strongly with Saudi Arabia, where many of his works are set, his life was one of extensive movement between countries in the Middle East and Europe.1 Therefore, it may come as a surprise that not only is Story of a City set exclusively in Amman, Jordan, but it so strongly and lovingly evokes this place, which he left when still young, only to visit once many decades later. Yet, paradoxically, through his localized focus on Amman, Munif brings out a diasporic consciousness, evoking other distant places through intimations and from his perspective that evokes Amman from the distance not only of time elapsed but through the traveled eyes of one whose subsequent years were permeated by displacement and exile. Story of a City is punctuated by discontinuities of identity and encodes tensions of locational ambivalence and diversity, of exile, diaspora and transnationalism, rather than specificity, despite its focus on a singular place. Munif inherited his father’s Saudi citizenship but was born and brought up in Amman. Because his father died several years after his birth, his childhood affinity with Saudi Arabia was in name only, and the intentions of returning there faded. His transcultural identity was further reinforced by his Iraqi mother and grandmother. In Story of a City, Amman is shaped as an agglomeration of liminalities, reflecting the inscription of hybridity, interstices and otherness within the protagonist’s own identity. The implied timeframe of the narrative encompasses the protagonist’s childhood through age nineteen, when he migrates from his native * I thank Stephan Guth and the editors of The Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies who published an earlier version of this chapter entitled “The Geography of Identity in Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Sīrat Madīna: ʿAmmān fī al-Arbaʿīnāt,” (vol. 14, 2014, pp. 27–45).
Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 69 Amman. Story of a City is unfolded through the narrative perception of a child, filtered through the retrospective awareness of an adult writer who organizes and structures the child’s observations. Although its third-person narration adheres to the perspective of the growing “child”witness whose personal experience of the city guides these chronicles, it self-describes as the sīra—life or biography—of a city, not of the writer. This raises the question of how to approach this text, which seems to merge the biography of a place with autobiography (inasmuch as it unfolds the story of the narrator-author-self), or, inversely, to submerge the autobiographical subject in the annals of a city. I suggest reading it as an unusual implementation of relational life writing, characterized by unconventional and original formal and aesthetic choices in which the story of the city and the protagonist are narrated relationally in terms of each other. 2 This entangling of self in his environment can be seen in light of Munif’s broader tendency in his writings, as encapsulated by Susanne Enderwitz, who says of Munif that in his writing, “he was less interested in the inner life of the individual than in the inner life of the society this individual lived in” (Enderwitz 2010, 137). Munif’s fictional writing indicates a preoccupation with how a community thinks and acts, more than a focus on a single individual. Story of a City’s depictions of Amman as multicultural and cosmopolitan not only portray the atmosphere and geography in which the young protagonist grows up but also embody the foundations of the protagonist’s own mosaic of identity. As this study shows, Amman is portrayed in constant reference to other places, and conversely, those other places actually penetrate Amman through its communities of immigrants and exiles, through its multitude of accents, religions, and customs, and through memories of distant locales, such that Amman as a singular, clearly defined entity is obscured in its pluralities of identification. The protagonist himself is narrated as an amalgam of the city, a city inhabited by people of many identities and nationalities. Hence, this text not only unfolds his—and the city’s—chronological development but conceives of Amman as a reflection and expression of his own personal identity, one characterized, like Amman, by diverse affiliations. This is crucial for understanding this piece of self-writing, and for understanding this text as self-writing. The goal of the present study is to deconstruct the multifaceted relational strategies of Story of a City, pinpointing the formal choices and thematic proclivities that situate the autobiographical subject in a particular social, cultural, temporal and historic sphere, and in constant tension with these same elements. It also pinpoints the text’s paradoxically obverse tendency to dissociate and distance the autobiographical subject by way of formal narrative techniques and content, ostensibly favoring the city as the focus of the text over the “self” of the protagonist.3 Yet, as this study shows, under the surface, the autobiographical
70 Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman subject is constantly present, and is discursively constituted through the historical, cultural and communal accounts of the city. I argue that personal identity is embedded in that of the city, and is narratologically constituted through it. This study also reveals that in Story of a City, both the porousness of geographical boundaries as well as the traversing of personal boundaries are expressed through metaphors and accounts of death.
Articulating the Autobiographical Subject through a Geographical “Other” Theories positing the relational dimension of autobiography emphasize the dynamics of intersubjectivity in autobiographical texts. Critical works on the theory of relational autobiography tend to be dominated by a focus on the relation between the autobiographical subject and other individuals, especially one favored other person.4 Such theories foreground relationality both thematically and by investigating how they inculcate dialogic relationships into the narrative strategy of the text. Along this vein, autobiography scholar Paul Eakin emphasizes narratives “constructed through the story told of and by someone else” in which the text contains not only the autobiography of the self “but the biography and the autobiography of the other” (Eakin 1999, 58). This same focus tends to dominate the autobiographical texts themselves through texts which are written in relation to a “proximate other,” that is, in relation to another person, to one degree or another, whether they participate in writing the text, or whose voices penetrate the text through the anfractuosity of the narrative strategy. Eakin notes that this is “the most common form of the relational life” in which the self’s story is “viewed through the lens of its relation with some key other person” (1999, 86). Story of a City is infused with the voice of the boy’s grandmother, who has migrated from Iraq, and the boy is represented through his continual interaction with her. However, this is secondary to the primary “proximate other” of the text, namely the geographical-cultural entity of Amman itself. Eakin acknowledges two manifestations of the “relational dimension” in autobiographical texts, and applies this label to those autobiographies that feature the decisive impact on the autobiographer of either (1) an entire social environment (a particular kind of family, or a community and its social institutions—schools, churches, and so forth) or (2) key other individuals, usually family members, especially parents. (1999, 69) The relational dimension of Story of a City is anomalous in that it does not adhere to such an either-or division but rather features both “an
Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 71 entire social environment,” namely Amman in the 1940s, alongside “key other individuals,” namely, the boy’s grandmother whose voice and point of view are a main feature of the text. As such, it “expands the structures and forms through which personal experience may be narratologically enacted” (Davis 2007a, 136) by generating the boy’s personal story through a composite of the components of the broader community of his childhood, from geographical, historical, social and cultural perspectives. This impregnable association is stronger here than in other relational Arabic autobiographies to the extent that the individual autobiographical voice is consumed by its association with Amman. Film critic Hamid Naficy points out with regard to autobiographical films, also applicable here, that [E]xilic autobiographical films are not concerned solely with the self and with the individual. Rather they tend simultaneously to highlight elements on which group affiliation or division are based, such as race, gender, class, ethnicity, nationality, religiosity, and political belief. (2006, 95) Such cinema, he argues, is therefore highly social at the same time that it is intensely personal. 5 Story of a City embodies these characteristics of exilic autobiography. Despite its focus on a single place, it recounts a dialectic, exilic existence inherited from the protagonist’s forebears, and which contributes to the paradoxical sense that Amman is both exile and home, or exile at home. This stems not only from the awareness that the author’s familial roots lie elsewhere but also from the fact that he writes of his native city from the physical and temporal distance of exile. This generates a sense of “double alienation,” as has been discussed with regard to the writings of Samir Naqqash (Hajjar 2010, 285), an Israeli novelist from Iraq who continued to write in Arabic in Israel. It is productive in this context also to mention the concept of “alienated nearness” in which “a daily lived distance dims the gaze” (Keil-Sagawe 2010, 253). This is narratively reinforced by the autobiographical subject’s departure from Amman at the end of the text, a place in which he will never live again. This asserts the exilic foundations of self that arise out of this autobiography, a self on the cusp of a life of far-flung displacements, and situates the gaze upon Amman from a perspective remote and yet intimate, a combination that engenders “alienated nearness.” Ironically, despite its focus on a single geographical place, this text ultimately resists monologic national affiliation, by constructing place— and here also the self—as unstable, ever-changing composites of multiple affiliations. There is a tension in this text between “reclaiming” a connection with place and leaving it, symbolically rejecting national
72 Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman affiliation, and the complex interplay between continuity and discontinuity that characterizes the diasporic subject. The strong, nearly indissoluble, association between self-identity and geographical-cultural positioning in the text—relationality taken to its exilic extreme—is further asserted by the textual strategy of obscuring the presence of the protagonist both as a character in the text and in the narrative strategies of voice and text. Not only is the autobiographical voice (“I”) itself distanced through third-person narration, but the autobiographical subject himself is often fused into broader communal and geographical entities, such that his own individual presence cannot always be discerned. This defamiliarizing technique, exemplified and discussed below, adds immediacy to the relational proclivity of the subject, which can be distinguished only with difficulty, when scrutinized through relational strategies. This study treats the implications of contextualizing the autobiographical subject narratologically so intricately within geographical and cultural structures, with special emphasis on liminal configurations and the diasporic, multicultural identity such a positioning fosters.
First Person Oblique The purpose of this section is to expose Story of a City’s inscriptions of individual identity, the “first voice” of an autobiographical text, to appropriate anthropologist Michael M. J. Fischer’s typology of autobiographical voices (1994, 79). He distinguishes between the first voice, which represents the “processes of identity formation,” the second voice which comprises the various “cross-historical and cross-cultural others” which resonate in the text through double-voicing, and the third voice, which comprises the text’s “multiple perspectival positioning” (ibid., 92). Usually the first voice is that which is foregrounded in an autobiographical text, but in the case of Story of a City, this voice and, indeed, the autobiographical subject himself need to be unearthed. To this end, this section first treats how the voice and character of the protagonist are obscured by the text, and then how the autobiographical subject can, nevertheless, be located and revealed in the text. The autobiographical subject is embedded in a web of “others,” and hence its very obscurity is a product of the text’s marked relationality. There is no first-person voice in the text. The child-protagonist, who represents the autobiographical narrator during his childhood years, is unnamed and disembodied. The tone of the text reflects an attempt to eclipse both his personal feelings and his voice. References to the autobiographical subject’s personal memories are generally relayed in a distant, impersonal tenor. This is accomplished not only by use of the thirdperson voice but also by minimizing reportage of intimate details. When personal anecdotes are conveyed, this is done in a detached tone—for
Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 73 example, “it still echoes in one’s memory” (1994, 114).6 He is also implicated through verbs conjugated in the third person without a specific designation. The autobiographical subject is referred to alternately as “al-ṭifl” (the child) and “al-ṣaghīr” (the youth), both recalling the designation “al-ṣabī” (the boy) in Taha Hussein’s groundbreaking autobiography The Days (1929), as well as “al-ḥafīd” (the grandson) in relation to the grandmother, and, towards the end of the text, “al-ṭālib” (the student). He is also further insinuated as one of a group of children, “al-awlād,” “al-aṭfāl” (107) and “al-ṣighār” (129). In most cases, from the context, it is inferred that this refers to the boy-protagonist in association with his siblings,7 although it also is used to refer to the boy-protagonist in association with his friends or compatriots. For example, “as the children went home” (118) refers to the protagonist and his siblings, and a more general statement about “children” in Amman during the period at hand refers to children in general, including the protagonist. An example of this is the anecdote at the end of the first chapter in which he describes a “dervish” who uses his powers to practice medicine and discover the identity of thieves (72). One day, as he conducts the rituals necessary for divining the identity of the thieves, “children (al-ṣighār) peeked in on him,” (73) and when the dervish becomes aware of their presence this greatly annoys him. “The children” includes the personal view of the narrator, establishing his role as witness.8 Although the term “the children” downplays the individuality of the protagonist by fusing his presence into the collective “children,” this tactic, nevertheless— ironically—lends a personal quality to the text. The narrative strategy of employing the third-person voice in an autobiographical text is employed in other prominent Arabic texts, including The Days by Taha Hussein, with which Munif was surely acquainted.9 Narrating an autobiographical text in the third-person voice is in itself not sufficient to throw the reader off the autobiographical trail. The autobiographical sense of such texts lies in its being about the writer, and its chronicling seminal developments in the life of the writer, albeit not in the first-person voice. The third-person voice is more of a narrative ruse or stratagem employed for a variety of effects, but it does not annul the autobiographical intent of the text. In Hanna Abu Hanna’s autobiographical trilogy, this device, in fact, becomes noticeably clumsy in the second and third volumes when the text describes encounters between the narrator “Mīkhāʾīl,” the name Abu Hanna gives his subject, and well-known people.10 Similarly, in Taha Hussein’s The Days, it is interesting to note that the translator into English of the third volume took the liberty of making the narrator “speak with the pronoun ‘I’” (Hussein 1997, 242). This exemplifies that for Abu Hanna and Taha Hussein, this narrative technique does not entail much more than a “switching” of voices, which informs the distancing, among other
74 Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman repercussions of this technique.11 In Story of a City, the third-person voice evokes the perspective of the writer describing his younger “self,” and with the caveat that this “self” is usually located within a group of other children, not individually. A repercussion of this technique in this text is that it allows for the individual self to appear representative of a whole generation (as has also been argued for the use of the technique in Taha Hussein’s The Days12). At times, however, in Story of a City, the third-person voice seems no more than a mask for an extremely personal self-narrative. This is the case when the narrative recounts the wording of the song “I am Coffee” which “the child” learns in his first year of primary school: “Over fifty years have passed since that song was learned, but its echo still reverberates …” (1994, 114). This wording links the third-person protagonist to the writer-self so unequivocally as to render the third-person voice maladroit and inappropriate, a risk this narrative strategy can entail. Such passages most conspicuously reveal the autobiographical subject. Narrative point-of-view, whether first- or third-person, is not an indicator of the autobiographical sense of a text. Inversely, novels often employ the first-person voice to express that of an imagined character. Moreover, first-person narration in a work of non-fiction, even a personal one, is not always an indicator of autobiographical text. An example of such a phenomenon is Basrayatha: Story of a City (Baṣrayāthā: ṣūrat madīna, 1996, translated by William Hutchins, 2007) by the Iraqi writer Muḥammad Khudayyir. This text, recounted in the first-person voice, relates the author’s personal reflections and musings on his hometown of Basra. It comprises a range of reflections, including personal memories, local tales, and historical anecdotes. In Basrayatha, each chapter reads like a discrete essay on various aspects of Basra, its history and characteristics. Although the text conveys the author’s personal point of view in the first-person voice, the focus is exclusively on the city from a variety of perspectives rather than on personal identity and individual development; nor does the text comprise any continuous period of the narrator’s life. Contrasting Story of a City with Baṣrayatha serves to bring out the focus of Munif’s Story of a City on the boy-protagonist’s “history of becoming,” to cite Nancy K. Miller’s propitious delineation of autobiography (2000 , 53). She avers that autobiography is “how you pass on the story that you think expresses you,” (ibid., 165) and, as I argue in this study, Story of a City is an autobiography because in it, Munif unfolds the development of his personal identity within the social, cultural and geographic setting of his childhood. Although Baṣrayatha is personal, it is not autobiographical, in contrast to Munif’s text, which unfolds his personal development situated in his childhood environment. Munif could have chosen to avoid mention of intimate details of his child-self in this text, focusing only on describing aspects of where he grew up; the text would then comprise a personal perspective but would
Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 75 not comprise a personal history of the author himself. It should be noted that pages 395–406 of the eighteenth chapter of Story of a City provide a more detached rendering of the chronicles of Amman, including excerpts from two medieval travel accounts and six modern travel accounts that invoke Amman. The detached point of view stands out from the rest of the text, but the text then reverts to the personal testimonial point of view (albeit in a third-person voice), in which the autobiographical subject is paradoxically present and obscured, as it is throughout the rest of the text, with the testimonial presence of “the children” punctuating the descriptions of Amman. The text’s autobiographical nature is obfuscated by its ostensible, stated focus on the city of Amman, as the element that propels the narrative. The first sentence of the introduction states, “This book conveys the story of a city, namely Amman (sīra li-madīna hiya ʿAmmān), and it is not an autobiography of its author (wa-laysa sīra dhātiyya li-kātibihi), even if both stories overlap … at certain points” (1994, 45). Classifying one’s text as not-an-autobiography is not the same as denying autobiographical elements therein. Autobiographical disclaimers are not uncommon in modern Arabic self-writing: Taha Hussein neither denies nor affirms the autobiographical nature of The Days13; Ibrahim al-Mazini, bequeaths his protagonist with his own name and profession but professes the protagonist to be the opposite of him in Ibrahim the Writer (Ibrāhīm al-kātib, 1931); Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone (al-Khubz al-ḥāfī, 1982) self-identifies as a novelistic autobiography (sīra dhātiyya riwāʾiyya); and Edwar al-Kharrat categorically denies that his City of Saffron (Turābuhā zaʿfarān, 1986) is autobiographical in the first sentence, highlighting the role of “artifice” therein.14 Writing on fiction in Arabic autobiography, Susanne Enderwitz suggests reading the latter disclaimer as “an offer for a fictional pact” (1998, 18). She suggests that this text is perhaps the first Eastern Arabic autobiographical example for the postmodern proclamation of the ‘death of a subject’. Seen on a larger scale, however, it fits well into a general trend within autobiographical literature over the past thirty years, which consists in constantly widening the gap with biographical literature by the means of fictionalization. (ibid., 19) This is helpful in stressing the point that in Story of a City, what is at stake in its disavowal is the dissolution of the subject, one facet of the fictionalized style of autobiographies. Munif’s disclaimer is more about style than about disavowing that the text is autobiographical, as the introduction states that while not an autobiography, it is also not a novel, given that it is not a work of the imagination (li-anna al-khayāl fīhi
76 Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman mawjūd) (1994, 45) and despite—as he writes—employing novelistic techniques. Moreover, in the introduction, Munif eschews categorizing his text as an autobiography in the same breath as he asserts that it incorporates autobiographical elements.15 In contemplating Munif’s disavowal of the autobiographical genre of his text, I wonder whether he would have maintained this assertion were he aware of the possibilities opened up by theories of relational autobiography. For his stated focus, Munif chooses place over self, despite the fact that the content and form of the text both point to a constant association between both. The theories underlying the concept of “relational autobiography” help unravel the tension and connection between these two elements. Although “the city” is the proclaimed focus of the text, the city issues from the consciousness of the protagonist. This stated focus comprises an aspect of the text’s narrative strategy, and I read it as an example of what critic Susanna Egan calls “convoluted self-reflection,” (Egan 1999, 8) for which she proffers The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) by Gertrude Stein as prototypical. In Stein’s autobiography, the stated focus of the text is Toklas, and in the case of Story of a City, it is the city. Such declarations are a textual artifice through whose agency the actual autobiographical subject emanates. Like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Story of a City is also concerned with “authenticating the process of discovery and re-cognition. These autobiographies, in other words, do not reflect life so much as they reflect (upon) their own processes of making meaning of life” (ibid., 7–8). The narrative strategy of Story of a City refracts the story of the autobiographical self through the chronicles of a city in order to articulate the communal process of self-making, thereby creating, in the words of critic Rocío G. Davis, an “itinerary of subjectivity” (Davis 2005, 44). The figure of the autobiographical subject is obfuscated not only by the third-person narrative voice but also by the text’s generally impersonal, disinterested tone that deflects the emphasis away from the protagonist and decenters his presence. This tone is manifest in the fact that the text eschews noting personal biographical details about the life of the protagonist, and circumvents overt expressions of his personal feelings. This tone distinguishes it from such a text as Taha Hussein’s The Days, which, although also narrated in the third-person voice, expresses the life story of the autobiographical subject in a subjective, personal, and pathos-filled narrative. In contrast, in Story of a City, the boy dissolves into the background or into a collective—of siblings, children, or the city inhabitants in general (“ahl ʿAmmān”) (1994, 82). The very first sentence of the text foregrounds the paradoxically objective and subjective point of view characteristic of the text. Amman spawns from the experiences of the boy-cum-writer; the boy in whose memory resides “the first image of the town-city of Amman” coalescing textually into
Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 77 the bevy of children: “Before that day, the boundaries of the town, as the children (aṭfāl) perceived them …” (82). Shortly thereafter, the boy is singled out for the first time but only inasmuch as he finds a friend and then merges into the dual frame of reference: “When the street emptied of people, and silence prevailed, the child (al-ṣaghīr) found no one his age other than Muʿādh Shuqayr …” (82). The autobiographical subject is referred to intermittently individually and collectively; his narrative presence is sometimes muted, sometimes conspicuous. He is at once the eyes, ears, and memory of the narrative and yet distanced through both narrative content and strategy. This enigma of subjectivity is compounded by the dispassionate narration of personal details. For example, the text never directly indicates the configuration of the family of the autobiographical subject. The protagonist has implied siblings: from context it emerges that “the children” refers alternately to children in Amman in general, to the protagonist’s group of friends, or to the protagonist amongst his siblings. Only in the sixth chapter is there a passing reference to “the three brothers” (170). The account of the father’s death is a case in point exemplifying the impersonal—yet paradoxically revelatory—way the autobiographical subject’s personal history enters the text. This father’s death is depicted in a chapter whose general theme is death, for example “The revelation of Amman the city-the people (al-madīna–al-bashar) took place through the shock of death. The child (al-ṭifl) would later look back and wonder about those who had ‘passed on’ (dhahabū) …” (75). The theme of death includes a description of a professional mourner, funeral processions, graveyards and cemeteries, avoiding death, and deaths of specific people, including classmates, a notable—and also the death of the boy’s father. Remarkably, it is described in the same tone in which the other deaths are reported: A few last words about the shock of death, which has not disappeared from memory. Its beginning resembles a dream, and blends with other things,16 including: disbelief; suddenly being plunged into a green forest; the inability to be happy or to play. When the children (al-ṣighār) return from that compulsory outing, they discover that their father has died and has been buried in their absence, and when they start to cry, they are again whisked away to the house of one of the relatives in order to stay for a few days … It became the first connection to personal death … (84–85) This depiction is jarring. On the one hand, it reveals the personal experience of the boy. On the other hand, it embeds this intimate anecdote within a sequence of death-related anecdotes. This is the only place where the text mentions that the protagonist grows up without a father,
78 Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman and, ironically, “confirms” that the text is narrated not only from a subjective perspective but from a personal one, that of the orphaned boy. If, as the text asserts, it is the first connection to “personal death,” then the reader is wont to ask, “personal” for whom. As this excerpt shows, the “personal” is embedded in the collective, and yet it constitutes the perspective from which the collective is conceived. This excerpt evokes a reaction similar to what Enderwitz has written with regard to a passage in Yusuf Haykal’s Days of Youth (Ayyām al-ṣibā, 1988), which describes an experience of nearly drowning in a detached and distant first-person voice. Of this, she writes that the “the monologue of the drowning boy, thoroughly rational and uttered in high-standard Arabic, adds an intriguingly ‘unreal’ or even ‘imaginary’ flavor to the scene” (Enderwitz 1998, 10).
Locating the Autobiographical Subject Although obfuscated and obscured, the autobiographical subject is, nevertheless, the central axis around which the text pivots. The story of the city is refracted through subjective experience, and conversely, the identity of the autobiographical subject is articulated through the city chronicles. The personal emerges out of the collective as the following shows: “Another sudden death Amman remembers in disbelief was the death of Majid al-Udwan …” (86–89). Amman is personified, employed as synecdoche for the people of Amman—perhaps—or, perhaps referring only to the adult writer-self. Yet this text is more than a chronicle of Amman from a personal perspective; it also comprises the coming of age of the autobiographical subject. In other words, his is not a static position from which he describes change occurring around him; rather, the text encompasses the ontogenesis of the autobiographical subject. His growth is elicited by the following trajectory: the first two chapters invoke the protagonist’s earliest memories. The text then treats his schooling, narrated in chronological order according to the protagonist’s progression from one Quran school to another (Chapter 3), to the government primary school (Chapter 4), to secondary school (Chapter 13), and finally to the Scientific College (Chapters 14 and 17). The narrative thrust is impelled by the protagonist’s chronological development. Chapters 5 through 12 are organized topically but with a chronological progression, describing his school experiences from primary school onwards. In Story of a City, identity is constructed rhetorically in terms of relation to geographical location and cultural context. Critic Nancy K. Miller’s statement (in a footnote), that the other “provides the map of the self” (1992, 14) certainly applies to this text. In this case, the map in question is not merely metaphorical but has actual geographic implications, as setting plays the role of primary object of relation. By
Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 79 “Amman,” the text implicates an intricate conglomeration of spatial and social aspects, including institutions, but also illuminating characteristics of an entire community by describing its individual members, and major events it endures, and the cultural transformations it undergoes in the period coeval with the boy’s childhood. The geographical and spatial elements of the city constitute a background for its social, institutional, and historical vicissitudes. The first chapter epitomizes that Amman unfolds textually through the boy’s perspective, since the boundaries of the city emerge according to his awareness of them. In turn, the cadences of Amman define the realm of his childhood experience, and corresponding identity formation. This is exemplified in the following lines: Before that day, the boundaries of the town, as the children (aṭfāl) perceived them, had not extended beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived. If they had crossed them, it was only to go to nearby places, accompanied by adults. Life before that day had been ordinary and slow, as if the world (ʿālam) had begun and ended within each neighborhood,17 or at its boundaries … (1994, 51) The world of the city takes shape through the child’s awareness of it: This was the first time he became aware of the length and breadth of the neighborhood, both in terms of a [geographical] place and in terms of its people (bashar). [He became aware] that it extended beyond the house of Abu Sham and Hajja Anisa, and the houses on that bend parallel to Fayṣal Street. [He also became aware that] they were separated from Baghdad by distance and accent, but at the same time, it was also extremely close. That, then, was the first real discovery of the city, which happened to coincide and collide with death! (52) These excerpts show that Amman’s contours are contrived through the boy’s burgeoning awareness, and in relation to his evolving perspective. Amman metamorphoses as his geographical awareness broadens. In fact, the map of the Middle East is also subjective, molded by the protagonist’s vacillating perspective, according to which Amman and Baghdad are either distant or contiguous.18 The Ammani community’s unexpected interest in the death of King Ghazi of Baghdad alters the child’s perception of the distance between Amman and Baghdad, causing him to realize that Baghdad is relevant beyond his family affiliation, and it is therefore “closer” to Amman than he had previously imagined.
80 Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman The descriptions of Amman at the beginning of the autobiography recall the initial chapter of Hussein’s The Days, which, as mentioned earlier, Story of a City also invokes through its peculiarities of style.19 There, too, physical boundaries are conjured through the protean perspective of a child’s mindset. Both texts reject absolute geographical boundaries, evoking instead the shifting boundaries of the boy’s world, and establishing his milieu in relation to his perception of it. The blindness of the protagonist of The Days can be assigned metaphorically to that of Story of a City as an expression of the subjectivity of perception, 20 which blinds one to an objective geographical reality.21 The perception of geography in Story of a City undergoes multiple transformations over the course of the text. Two examples of this are the references to World War I that join Amman to a broader international conglomeration of geographical points, and the references to Palestine in Chapter 17, which, through emotional identification at the time of the 1948 war, becomes “closer” to Amman. By melding the boy’s personal development into the chronicle of Amman, the autobiographical subject is emplaced within the narrative’s social, geographic and geopolitical locations. He becomes a narratively “situated self” (Eakin 1999, 85) who identifies both through and against the environment depicted in the text. This intermingling of self and milieu reveals the narrator’s quest for origins. He reconstructs his broader childhood environment as an account of his own personal identity. Ironically, the chronicles of Amman communicate and expose the inner world of the obscured, dissolved subject, the “evolvement of his nature” (takwīn al-ṭabʿ) in the words of Arab litterateur Tawfiq al-Hakim (1990 , 228), author of The Prison of Life (Sijn al-ʿumr), which can be read as a relational autobiography about what he has inherited from others, portraying himself as a prisoner of this inheritance (ibid., 220). Story of a City’s challenge to the notion of the individual as prime subject illustrates Munif’s conception of the first-person in autobiography, as according to Eakin, the self is “truly plural in its origins and subsequent formation” as it addresses “the extent to which the self is defined by –and lives in terms of—its relation with others” (Eakin 1999, 43). The protagonist is narrated through his interaction with others, fused into the pulsating vividness of life in Amman, and is thus indistinct and inscrutable. Noted critic of Arabic literature Sabry Hafez epitomizes the continual interaction (al-tafāʿul al-mustamirr) between self and its contexts (siyāqāt) in autobiography, both of which are subject to evolve (2002, 18). The metamorphosis of a place, Hafez asserts, can be channeled to reflect personal change, and the boundaries of identity can be expressed in terms of the boundaries of a particular place and context through the manipulation of narrative technique (ibid., 10). Subjective experience is, in fact, what vivifies the city. The growth and change of the “witness” through whose eyes the city unfolds creates a focal point of attention, not only in the story of the city but also in the
Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 81 story of the storyteller. In this sense, this text can be viewed as incorporating, in Eakin’s terms, “the story of a story,” and the autobiographical subject can be revealed in terms of “a proximate other.” Or perhaps, this should be rephrased as a question. Is Amman the “proximate other” of the autobiographical subject, or is the autobiographical subject the “proximate other” of Amman? The difficulty in answering this question unequivocally underscores the multiplicity of readings that the text engenders.
Negotiating Personal and Geographical Boundaries through Death Feminist critic Leigh Gilmore hones in on the centrality of the positioning of self in relation to a particular milieu in autobiographical writing: Every autobiography is … an assembly of theories … of personal identity and one’s relation to a family, a region, a nation; and of citizenship and a politics of representativeness (and exclusion). How to situate the self within these theories is the task of autobiography which entails the larger organizational question of how selves and milieus ought to be understood in relation to each other. (2001, 12) In the same textual breath, Gilmore notes the seeming opposite, “the autobiographical self who is cut off from others, even as it stands for them … Once separated conceptually from a nation, a family, a place, and a branching set of contingencies, how does the individual recognize this disestablished self?” (ibid.). These questions articulate both the spectrum and limits of relationality in self-writing, in other words, that tension inherent in self-identifying relationally, while at the same time delimiting oneself from that same relational focus. Story of a City is haunted by such a tension through its dual tendencies to accentuate the affinities between the autobiographical “self” and its milieu, on the one hand, and, on the other, to delimit boundaries separating self from its geographical and cultural environment. In other words, the autobiographical subject in Story of a City continually defines and re-defines the quality and degree of relation to his surroundings. He conceives of himself through the city and against it, and is therefore an example of the “contradictory discourses” which characterize autobiographies in general, and ethnic autobiographies in particular (Bergland 1994, 134; Fischer 1994). In Story of a City, the theme of liminality is brought out by a focus on actual borders, such as the primordial marking of boundaries in the first chapter (discussed above), and the protagonist’s eventual leave-taking from Amman in the final chapter. The theme of death is prominent in
82 Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman the first and last chapters, those in which the most dramatic renegotiations of boundaries occur: the first, the broadening of local boundaries, and the last, the leave-taking from within these limits. This establishes a textual connection between death and the traversing and shifting of boundaries. In the first chapter, the death of King Ghazi represents, or causes, the broadening of the protagonist’s conception of the perimeter of his imagined community, stretching not only into other neighborhoods but also as far as Baghdad. In contrast with this first textual death, the final textual death in the last chapter, that of his grandmother, symbolizes the breakdown of the Ammani community as it once was, its irreversible transformation, and the protagonist’s own transformed locus of identification. The grandmother dies in Baghdad, her native city, where the autobiographical subject, “her grandson” moves after finishing high school (1994, 435). She dies just days after his arrival, and at her funeral, a relative points to other family members’ graves. The textual beginnings of memory and awareness are delineated through death, and the breakdown of geographical, communal and familial association is also expressed in terms of death. Importantly, both deaths link the protagonist to Baghdad; the first, through an ethereal sense of identification with Baghdad through his grandmother’s stories. The final death, then, can be read as a realization of this identification; this death actually locates the protagonist in Baghdad, which until now had only been imagined and felt through the accents, memories, and longings of others. This statement can be broadened to a role of death in general throughout the text, which includes the mention of his father’s death (another link to an alternate geographical belonging), and the deaths of the “mad” who wander the streets of Amman. In Story of a City, death destabilizes boundaries, and links the protagonist to places beyond the borders of Amman. Death symbolizes the textual focus away from Amman as a geographical center, constructing it as marginal and relational to other places, particularly but not only as a periphery to Baghdad. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the protagonist’s final leave-taking of his own native city with the grandmother’s death casts the departure in terms of a death-like rupture. The overall narrative absence expressed through the narrative choices of the third-person voice, and of blending the protagonist into an almost invisible entity can be read in terms of an expression of “the impossibility of return” (Egan 1999, 125), imbuing the text with the irrevocability of this rupture; although vivifying his childhood world, the text distances the protagonist from it decisively. Moreover, applying the words of Nancy K. Miller, through this text, Munif writes “against death, the other’s and one’s own” (Miller 1994, 12). That is, this text perhaps writes against his grandmother’s death and the “death” of an era by vivifying both human and city life through the written word.
Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 83
Conclusion: The Self between Home and Exile As discussed above, Story of a City embodies a dialectic, exilic existence constructing Amman as both exile and home, or exile at home, and also generates a sense of “alienated nearness” since the place that was once home is described from a spatial and temporal distance. Moreover, the text’s preoccupation with death and consequent penchant for “shifting or blurring distinctions between centers and margins” corresponds to characteristics of diasporic autobiography (Egan 1999, 123). The protagonist who is doubly, or multiply diasporic, in Egan’s words, “a kind of diaspora person in diaspora” (ibid., 126), is dislocated, ultimately a foreigner in his native land, which in itself contains an agglomeration of diaspora identities, especially expressed by a focus on the migrant communities of Amman. Along these terms, the protagonist of Story of a City is imbued with markers of otherness, and especially through allusions to Baghdad. In addition, this is accomplished through the emphasis on the cosmopolitan, multicultural, and generally multifarious characterization of the Ammani community, itself characterized by margins and interstices. Moreover, this text “enacts one distinguishing feature of diasporic autobiography in its creation of strategic spaces for a network of people rather than linear time or a singular story” (ibid., 123). The multiple narrative foci of the text, rather than following a singular narrative trajectory, underlie its diasporic identification from the perspective of narrative strategy. This quintessence of multiplicity and relationality of self-identity is one of the ways in which Story of a City encodes the tensions of exile, diaspora and transnationalism. As critic Hamid Naficy points out, “In exile, personal identity is enmeshed more than ever with identities of other sorts” (2006, 95). Diasporic autobiography is not concerned solely with the self and the individual, and is by definition deeply relational, highlighting elements on which group affiliation or division is based, such as ethnicity, nationality and religiosity. The boundaries between the personal and the collective are constantly blurred. While outwardly a reconstruction of a particular era, place and community, self-identity is articulated through the chronicles of the city. The autobiographical self is decentered, appearing in the text obliquely, in relation to other characters, and especially to the city. Narrative content and strategies enact the autobiographical subject’s liminal positioning. Story of a City draws deeply from discourses of diaspora, exile and displacement, ultimately shaping the protagonist as an exilic subject, in constant flux and transition, constantly negotiating past loss and longing and present search for a home and for belonging. In this sense, the text is not merely an articulation of a childhood but an expression of broader exilic identity, and the evolution of this identity. Like the narrative itself, Munif’s life story is a trajectory of transition and movement, from his prenatal
84 Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman roots in Baghdad and the Najd to his childhood in Amman to his studies in Baghdad, from where he was eventually exiled. Ironically, Story of a City narrates the years of Munif’s life in which he was most sedentary, attached to one particular place. Yet the poetics of this narrative articulate a diasporic state. As an expression of profound belonging juxtaposed with a diasporic sense of liminality and otherness, this text can be read as a poetic articulation of the exilic sensibility of constant transition and movement that characterizes the autobiographical subject.
Notes 1 Munif was born in 1933 in Amman, where he lived until 1952, when he moved to Baghdad to study law. He subsequently lived in Egypt, Serbia, France and Syria. In addition to Story of a City, he wrote two volumes of short stories, fifteen novels and nonfiction works on history, politics and literature. In his literary biography of Munif sketched through his fictional oeuvre, Hafez refers to Munif as “an eternal exile, whose independent mind, deep-rooted values, self-doubt and constant questioning would be an anathema to party discipline” (Hafez 2006, 7). 2 The English translation was supported by the European translation project “Mémoires de la Méditerranée” which operated until 2001 and focused on Arabic autobiographical texts that give pride of place to the role of the city in the text. This calls attention to the phenomenon of Arabic autobiographical texts in which the chronicles of the city dominate. Story of a City can be read in light of other such texts, noting differences and similarities in how the protagonist and city are portrayed. 3 In his brief remarks on Story of a City, scholar of Arabic autobiography Tetz Rooke calls these childhood memories, a twin story about personal growth and development and about urban growth and development about the surrounding city of Amman. The boy-protagonist is depicted at the start of an identity-building process, his creation of himself, and so is the Jordanian capital whose lack of historical roots and quest for identity makes it a perfect metaphor of Arab modernity and uncertainty about belonging. (Rooke 2004, 47–48) 4 See, for example, Rocio G. Davis, who remarks that “relational approaches to life writing complicate notions of self-representation by privileging the intersubjective over the individual” (2007b, 491). There is a “consciousness that the stories of one’s relatives are constitutive of one’s own story” (2007b, 493). 5 For a similar phenomenon (though not exilic) in Turkish autobiography/ memoires, cf. Glassen (2007). 6 All translations of Story of a City (Sīrat madīna) are mine and page numbers refer to the original Arabic text. 7 For example on snowy days, the grandmother would tell “the children” (alṣighār) the good news, the context indicating that “the children” here refers to her grandchildren, the protagonist and his siblings, and is not a general reference to the generation of children in Amman, or to the protagonist amongst his friends. See Munif (1994, 129). 8 Another evocative example of this is in the last chapter (chapter 18), which is the most historically minded chapter in the text. As the text describes the
Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 85 colorful characters of Amman, it focuses on “the miracles” of one particular shaykh: “The boys (al-fityān) who were keeping track of Shaykh Salih’s ‘miracles’ would say that …” This excerpt exemplifies the first-person point of view of the text, in which the narrator is one of “the boys,” and underscores its testimonial, not merely historical, ethos (Munif 1994, 415). 9 Other autobiographies narrated in the third-person voice include The Cloud’s Shadow (Ẓill al-ghayma) by Palestinian poet Ḥanna Abu Hanna (1997, discussed in Chapter 8) and A Child from the Village (Ṭifl min alqarya) by Egyptian thinker and activist Sayyid Qutb (1946). 10 The Yeast of the Ashes (Khamīrat al-ramād) and The Dowry of the Owl (Mahr al-būma) both 2004. 11 This is not meant to downplay possible ramifications of this technique, which, as Susanne Enderwitz points out in her discussion of the third-person voice in The Days, can be highly ironic in its effect; but it is difficult to decide whether the adult perceives the boy once he was as in the meantime estranged from him or the experience of the boy has been widened into the experience of a whole generation. (Enderwitz 1998, 11–12)
She also points out that the use of the third-person voice in this text “adds to the novelistic mode of his autobiography” (ibid., 11). As noted by Jubran (2006, 204). Regarding The Days, the author signs his name at the end of the letter to his daughter at the end of the first volume, and in the third volume, his name occurs in the body of the text. See Fedwa Malti-Douglas’ discussion of the letter to his daughter at the end of the text in Chapter 1 of Blindness and Autobiography (1988, 19–31). Although critics are not agreed as to whether this text should be read as a novel or an autobiography, it is indubitably an autobiographical narrative, even if cast in a novelistic style. In his preface, al-Kharraṭ writes, “These writings are not an autobiography, nor anything like; the flights of fancy, the artifice herein, bear them far beyond such bounds” (al-Kharrat 1989, xiv). On this text which also features a “remembered city” see, e.g., Guth (1999). I stress that the issue here is not nonfiction versus fiction, as the text itself does not claim fictionality, as opposed to al-Kharrat’s City of Saffron (1986), nor does it claim that the memories recounted therein are not those of the author. On the contrary, he affirms the text’s autobiographical predilection. The point of the reservations expressed in the introduction, as I see it, is to emphasize that the text mainly concerns a city, not a person. This is despite the fact that the text is narrated throughout with constant reference to the point of view of the boy-autobiographical subject. His experiences through time, as well as his likes, dislikes and thoughts, guide the trajectory of the text. This recalls Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s introduction to his autobiographical work The First Well (al-Biʾr al-ūlā) in which he describes his childhood stories as an amalgam of memories and dreams, rationality and irrationality, existentialism and poetry (Jabra 1987, 14). Compare this to the initial description of the fence in The Days that delimits the world of the protagonist, stretching “to the end of the world” (ākhir al-dunyā) (1997, 4). Compare to the opening of Hussein’s The Days: “He was convinced that the world ended to his right at the canal …” (1997, 12). The autobiographical protagonist construes the world in terms of his immediate perception of it.
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Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 87 and G. Peters, eds. Autobiography and Postmodernism. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 79–129. Gilmore, L. (2001). The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Ithaca: Cornel University Press. Glassen, E. (2007). The Social Self: The Search for Identity by Conversation (sohbet). The Turkish Literary Community and the Problem of Autobiographical Writing. In: O. Akyildiz, K. Kara, and B. Sagaster, eds. Autobiographical Themes in Turkish Literatures: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives. Ergon: Istanbuler Texte und Studien, vol. 6. Würzburg: Ergon, 143–156. Guth, S. (1999). The Poetics of Urban Space: Structures of Literarising Egyptian Metropolis. Arabica 46, 454–481. Hafez, S. (2002). Raqsh al-dhāt (Variegating the Self). Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 22: 7–33. ———. (2006). An Arabian Master. New Left Review 37: 1–18. Hajjar, O. (2010). Exile at Home: Samir Naqqash – Prophecy as Poetics. In: A. Pflitsch, A. Neuwirth, and B. Winckler, eds. Arabic Literature: Postmodern Perspectives. Beirut and London: Saqi Books, 272–286. Haykal, Y. (1988). Ayyām al-ṣibā (Days of Youth). Amman: Dār al-shurūq l-il-nashr. Hussein, T. (1929). al-Ayyām. (The Days). Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif. ———. (1962 ). Fī ’l-adab al-jāhilī. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif. ———. (1997). The Days: An Autobiography in Three Parts. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press. Jabra, J. (1987). al-Biʾr al-ūlā (The First Well). London: Riad El-Rayyes Books. Jubran, S. (2006). Bināʾ al-dhākira fī kitāb al-Ayyām. In: Naqadāt adabiyya (Literary Critiques). Kafr Qarʿ: Dār al-Hudā, 194–214. Keil-Sagawe, R. (2010). ‘From the Orient to the Occident It Is Just a Reflection’: The Mirror-Worlds of Habib Tengour. In: A. Pflitsch, A. Neuwirth, and B. Winckler, eds. Arabic Literature: Postmodern Perspectives. Beirut and London: Saqi Books, 243–258. Kharrat, E. (1986). Turābuhā zaʿfarān. Beirut: Dār al-Ᾱdāb. ———. (1989). City of Saffron. F. Liardet, trans. London: Quartet Books. Khudayyir, M. (2007). Basrayatha: Story of a City. W. Hutchins, trans. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. Malti-Douglas, F. (1988). Blindness and Autobiography: al-Ayyām of Ṭāhā Ḥusayn. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Miller, N. (1992). Facts, Pacts, Acts. Profession 92, 10–14. ———. (1994). Representing Others. Differences 6:1, 1–27. ———. (2000 ). Bequest and Betrayal. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Munif, A. (1994). Sīrat madīna: ʿAmmān fī ’l-arbaʿīnāt (Story of a City: Amman in the Forties). Beirut: al-Muʾassasa al-ʿarabiyya li’l-dirāsāt wa’l-nashr. Munif, A. (1996). Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman. S. Kawar, trans. London: Quartet Books. Naficy, H. (2006). Palestinian Exilic Cinema and Film Letters. In: H. Dabashi, ed. Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema. New York: Verso, 90–104. Qutb, S. (1946). Ṭifl min al-qarya (A Child from the Village). Beirut: Dār al-Shurūq. Rooke, T. (2004). Autobiography, Modernity and Translation. In: F. Said, ed. Cultural Encounters in Translation from Arabic: Autobiography, Modernity, Translation. Ontario: Multilingual Matters, 40–50.
Inscribing the Self in a Landscape of Rupture Salim Barakat’s The Iron Grasshopper
Introduction In this chapter, I will focus on the first volume of the autobiography of Salim Barakat, Kurdish novelist and poet, born in 1951 in Qamishli, Syria. When he published the first and second volumes of his autobiography, Barakat was barely thirty years old (29 and 31, respectively), considered young for writing in this particular genre, which is often written from the perspective of advanced age.1 Each volume offers an account of a different stage of youth. The first focuses on childhood, and its full title is The Iron Grasshopper: The Incomplete Memoir of a Child Who Never Saw Anything but A Fugitive Land and Shouted: These are my Traps, O Sandgrouse (1980). The second, about his adolescence, is entitled Play the Trumpet, Play it Highest: Autobiography of Youth (1982). 2 The narrative centers on violence, describing its “initial” infiltration, starting (at least, from the perspective of the boy) with the president’s visit in the first chapter, stating that once it entered their lives it never left. The narrative depicts the spread of violence as though it were an infestation: his mother abuses the children at home; his teacher victimizes his father; the children torture animals; and even the snow is described as “attacking” (1980, 24). The book is difficult to summarize because the narrative does not revolve around an ongoing story or even a clearly demarcated period. Rather, it recounts episodes and discrete memories, as well as stories about other people that enrapture (or terrorize) the narrator. The anecdotes are united by a common thematic preoccupation with violence and terror. They convey the pervasiveness of suffering—of the narrator, of the people in his community and of the animals that suffer from malnourishment and torture, and the anecdotes parse out the numerous forms of suffering in his childhood. The narrator observes and sometimes participates, though even the act of observing often entails an act of violation, by sneaking peeks into private homes. Both Chapters 2 and 3 describe torturing animals (moles, jerboas, hedgehogs, cats and cows) with his friends and even raping sheep (81). The narrator describes rampant poverty leading to extreme measures, such as when the children skin discarded animals to sell the skin. Even the sheep suffer from indigence, eating each other’s wool due to lack of fodder (74).
The Iron Grasshopper 89 He describes his circle of friends as living off death and smuggling (32–33). He conveys other people’s stories, which teem with destructiveness, exploitation, corruption and violation. Examples include Hasan al-Sufi’s story of a fight between Hasan’s horse and a jackal, Osmanu the Crook’s frustrating romantic endeavors, the story of how Ahmad Salu murdered twelve people and the story of a demon named Brifa buried at the top of a nearby hill. He recounts the story of Shukru the disciple of a Sufi shaykh who held ecstatic religious sessions in which women often fainted. The children would see him groping them as he took them out of the circle; when he held them tight, they would regain consciousness. The narrative abounds with stories of rape and various atrocities: the story of an elevenyear-old girl who is forced to marry, that of Habsunu “the Imbecile” who is raped in front of the children on the soccer courts, that of a man who gambles his wife one night when he runs out of money and that of kidnapping a bride from her wedding and raping her, then massacring the guests. He describes episodes at the children’s secret refuge at the French ruins, in which they encounter violent gamblers and big-time brigands. His only break from the all-encompassing terror is the summers that he spends at his uncle’s, far from Qamishli, on the banks of the Khabur River—as though the only way to break the cycle of violence is to leave Qamishli, a town infected with terror and abuse at every level. In this chapter, I argue that the relational strategy entrenches the autobiographical subject in a landscape of rupture and estrangement, not one of kinship and community. Most of the “relational others” whose stories are interwoven into the autobiography are situated on the margins of the community or outside of it (socially and/or physically)—they tend to be misfits and outsiders; they are victims of abuse and/or they themselves abuse others. By situating himself in relation to them, Barakat creates a paradoxical situation of belonging within an environment of alienation, estrangement, violence and suffering—in fact these emerge as unifying forces. Ironically, the boy-protagonist represents affiliation and connection to an environment characterized by isolation and devastation. This chapter has two interconnected goals. My first goal is to show how the autobiographical subject is inscribed in relation to broken, estranged characters and marginal spaces of rupture, and articulated by language choices that deepen the sense of alienation and repression. In Barakat’s autobiography, subjectivity is articulated in relation to diverse characters who populate the autobiographical subject’s environment, who are connected through a persistent, dynamic discourse of violence. In light of this, the second goal of this chapter is to explore how the autobiographical subject is constructed in relation to an ongoing encounter with violence. To this end, I suggest applying James Giles’s term “fourthspace of violence” (2006), which I will explain and apply in my analysis. I contend that the textual self is constructed through a language of violence and rupture. I examine how is the autobiographical subject positioned
90 The Iron Grasshopper within a dynamic of victimizing and victimhood. How does the text negotiate between a narrative of collective oppression and marginalization and personal suffering of the autobiographical subject? The relational strategy is key to fleshing out the duality of being both the victim and the victimizer that underlines the dynamics of shared traumatic history. This sense of social alienation is intensified because the community is Kurdish and therefore living in a state of internal exile in their native land, politically isolated, excluded and ostracized. Before I discuss the text’s relational strategies, in the first part of the chapter, I discuss issues relating to Barakat’s writing and to Kurdish identity including the concept of counterexclusion, a historical overview of actual violence and symbolic violence against Kurds in Qamishli, and issues of language. The autobiography was written from the distance not only of time that has passed but also from the geographical distance of exile. Although the narrative vivifies memories of a particular community, place in this text is not the object of longing. Unlike autobiographies that look into the past with nostalgia, such as Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Story of a City (Sīrat madīna, 1994) discussed in Chapter 4, Barakat describes the place in which he grew up with a mixture of matter-of-factness and intense resentment, exposing an ambivalence of belonging within alienation. This is exemplified in the title by the unusual pairing of words in the title: “arḍ hāriba”—a fugitive land. How can we understand the idea that the land itself is on the run? This may signify that the country, such as it is in the period of his youth in the 1950s and 1960s, is estranged from itself, especially due to the anti-Kurdish measures inflicted on the community. “A fugitive land” intimates a sense of internal exile, of a land distanced from itself. This resonates in the characters themselves, many of whom are misfits and outsiders, as their actions and behavior attests. Barakat’s autobiographies comprise his first two published prose works, following four published volumes of poetry. These seem to have paved the way for his prolific prose output—starting with his first novel The Jurists of Darkness (Fuqahā’ al-Ẓalām) in 1985, and including twenty-one novels to date. Both volumes of autobiography bear features that characterize his subsequent prose output to various degrees, notably the incorporation of mythic or folkloric realms into an otherwise realistic quotidian setting, portrayed in highly lyrical language, even verging on abstruse. His prose writings have been described as assimilating features of magical realism. 3 As far as this claim pertains to his autobiographical writings, the folkloric or supernatural elements portrayed in the text express local superstition and belief and do not mean that the text is itself one of magical realism. Magic and supernatural episodes do not actually occur in the framework of the story, although the superstitions and beliefs tend to be described in exquisite, sometimes hair-raising, detail. For this reason, it is hard to divorce the descriptions of folk belief from the text’s highly poetic language.
The Iron Grasshopper 91 The attention to detail in depicting the folk beliefs illustrates and exacerbates the characters’ lack of autonomy over their own lives. The centrality of the belief in supernatural intervention bespeaks the lack of agency, in the world of the text, of the individual characters, who are generally acted on rather than controlling their own stories. It would seem that the local superstitions help deal with this lack of control over the trajectory of their lives. As they are represented in the text, the beliefs are attempts to assert control over—or to provide a logic and explanation for—an environment that is invariably chaotic, oppressive and cruel. The poetic language of these texts draws heavily from the imagery of these mythic beliefs.
Embedding the Self: First Personal Plural It is interesting that rather than the pronoun “I,” often expected in autobiography since autobiographies ostensibly focus on the self, the autobiographical subject is most often referred to by the pronoun “we.” This submerges him in the group of children, as the following excerpt shows: “… we wore only the wisdom of baṭsh” (1980, 10).4 In Arabic, baṭsh expresses violent force or ruthless tyranny. I chose this passage because it implicates him as part of the collective, not singled out as either the victim or the perpetrator. The narrator portrays his child-self as part of the etiology of violence in Qamishli, and consumed by the groups (family, children, the broader Kurdish community) infected by abusive, forceful, oppressive behavior. By using the pronoun “we” so frequently, Barakat’s personal becomes a communal story. Use of “we” downplays Barakat’s own unique role within the story. His distinctiveness is expressed mainly by his role as observer and as writer. Indeed, this is not a story of individual development per se, and the choice of the first-person plural pronoun expresses the predominance of group consciousness and group belonging over individualism. The narrative choices in Barakat’s autobiography entangle the autobiographical subject deeply in layers of his communal environment in and around the city of Qamishli, thereby constructing a relational autobiography of the type that features (as Paul John Eakin puts it) “the decisive impact on the autobiographer” of “an entire social environment” (Eakin 1999, 69). Barakat does not portray his autobiographical subject in relation to one or two key “proximate other/s” (Eakin’s term) or “chosen other/s” (Mary Mason’s term, 1980, 201), but in relation to an entire community. This includes his family, his group of peers, the local community in Qamishli, and the broader Kurdish community in Syria. This interweaving of his personal story with that of others in his community is particularly interesting since it is, for the most part, not an indication of love or affection. However positive this sweeping gesture of inclusivity at first seems, in fact, the wide-ranging portrayals of “others”
92 The Iron Grasshopper who populated Barakat’s childhood, as well as the predominance of “we” instead of “I,” link the autobiographical subject’s personal identity to experiences of oppression, exclusion and violence. It establishes him as immured in a profoundly violent environment, and implicates him as the victim and the perpetrator, “explaining” his own violent actions as participation in an environment poisoned by oppression on the individual and communal levels. Barakat’s autobiographical subject is ensconced in “an entire social environment” (Eakin 1999, 69). This calls to mind Story of a City by Abd al-Rahman Munif (1994) and Hanna Abu Hanna’s The Cloud’s Shadow (1997), but unlike those autobiographies (discussed in Chapters 4 and 8 respectively), the environment Barakat describes is consistently discordant and harsh, from government forces that oppress the Kurdish minority, to the community itself that victimizes its weaker members. The epistemic violence that uses law and language to marginalize and victimize people and groups motivates internal violence between members of the community and leads to an atmosphere that triggers abuse within the family and between peers. The violent acts are described as senseless, unmotivated and supremely irrational. Barakat’s relational strategies establish the effect of this pervasive violence on him and other weak elements of society, and implicate him—or at least his childhood self—as participating in it once it “infiltrates” him. As such, this autobiography’s direct and candid depictions of violence can be read in terms of “an act of narrative resistance, one that can uncover mechanisms of oppression and lay out paths toward political and social change” (Beard 2009, 111–112). He conveys his personal story through identification with an oppressed group that also oppresses its members, and therefore the combination of association with violence and alienation are crucial to his relational strategy.
Violence as Fourthspace The first chapter of The Iron Grasshopper describes the violence as spreading in a clear-cut trajectory from the social structures of power that oppress the powerless to the oppressed themselves, who not only must withstand the violence directed at them but even become perpetrators of violence. In the marginal spaces illuminated by The Iron Grasshopper, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between the perpetrator and the victim, as the spread of violence turns victims into perpetrators to some degree or another. Starting with representatives of the government, the violence then penetrates the city of Qamishli, the school, and the houses and families. The first chapter opens by portraying the autobiographical subject as enduring violent behavior at the ceremonial parade celebrating the president’s visit to Qamishli, spelling out the actual physical ramifications on the individual of pernicious government policies
The Iron Grasshopper 93 toward the Kurdish minority. By the end of the chapter, the violence has “infected” the subject himself, and he himself becomes a perpetrator of violence. From this moment on, the text blurs the boundaries between victims and perpetrators, since the victims seem to have a justification for being violent. In this sense, the local violence is mimetic, imitating the systemic violence of the government, and each individual perpetrator can be seen as internalizing and imitating the violence inflicted on him by the broader community. For example, his mother’s abusive behavior (cursing them and beating her children until they lose consciousness) is portrayed as an indirect product of systemic violence, and as spurring the protagonist’s own subsequent violent inclinations. Violence is portrayed repeatedly as a chain reaction, in which the violent behavior is preceded by some previous act of violence enacted on the perpetrator. This epitomizes the connection between violence as an ongoing network and the relational environment described in the text. I propose reading the depiction of the president’s visit, strategically placed at the beginning of the first chapter, as a stand-in for a birth story—not only because of its placement at the beginning of the autobiography, where birth stories are often situated, but also because of the originary significance given to this event. The procession precipitated a violent chaos that embroils all of the children, including the autobiographical subject: “I fell many times, bodies and legs pushing me, and I tried to emerge from the human lake. When I got home my face was closer to dust than to a child’s face” (1980, 15). The violence that the narrative unfolds is portrayed as a response to this fundamental, draconian violent incident, and as such, this story recounts the birth of violence in the life of the autobiographical subject. It is fitting that the metaphorical birth story portrays him as part of a mob, emphasizing the communal rather than individual, given the tendency to merge the autobiographical subject’s individual story in that of his community throughout the autobiography: nevertheless, he emerges from the human lake—as a baby born. The Iron Grasshopper exposes the spaces of Barakat’s childhood as marginal spaces permeated with violence. In light of this, James Giles’s (2006) concept of “fourthspace” is valuable for theorizing these spaces of violence. Explaining this concept, Giles writes, “Fourthspace assumes the existence of Soja’s firstspace, secondspace, and thirdspace but projects another spatial dimension in which the liberation inherent in thirdspace has been co-opted and is no longer possible” (2006, 13). Qamishli, where Barakat’s account is set, can be said to possess the characteristics of thirdspace because it is a “marginal,” heterogeneous, non-hegemonic space in Syria. Thirdspace suggests a space where resistance for the marginalized might be possible, and connections can be formed across binaries. However, the pervasiveness of the violence described in Barakat’s texts transforms Qamishli and environs into a fourthspace that precludes any possibility for liberation in the margins. The narrative describes existence
94 The Iron Grasshopper on the borders of the cultural and national mainstream (characteristic of thirdspace) suffused by violence not only from an outside force but also emanating from within the marginal spaces. The margins described in The Iron Grasshopper, diverse as they may be, “offer no escape, no affirmation, no hope of redemption” (ibid., 13). In such spaces, violence is always “threatening to erupt” to transform the worlds of the text into grotesque, surreal spaces. In Barakat’s narrative, as in the American narratives analyzed by Giles, violence can become so excessive, so pervasive, as to become, in itself, a space that annihilates physical, mental and social spaces. The mythological dimensions in these spaces are inherently repressive; violence leads to repression, not transcendence (ibid., 14). The spaces described in Barakat’s autobiography do not offer the opportunity for exploring spiritually affirming “borders” of existence. The first chapter presents violence progressing by the agency of overarching social structures into the lives of the people (cf. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1995 ). Alongside this characterization of the process of violence are other additional origins that lurk in the subtext, as though to hint at other possible narratives of origin not explicitly stated. For example, in the third chapter, the group of children go to their secret refuge—French ruins (al-kharā’ib al-fransiyya) from the period of the French occupation that ended in 1946, less than a decade before the birth of the autobiographical subject (1980, 43). It is significant that the children meet at a site whose remains attests to this older source of violence that lurks beneath the surface both literally, in terms of the landscape, and historically, in terms of its effects on the history of the region. This is a liminal fourthspace outside of Qamishli where the children engage in petty acts of malfeasance. They wrap the tea they steal in the pages of their notebooks, smoking it “in imitation of the adults” (muqaliddīn al-kibbār) (ibid.). This description is significant because it articulates the children’s behavior in terms of mimicry of adult behavior. This mimesis dramatizes acts of adult violence mirrored by the children’s simulations. The site of the French ruins is also the favored site of a group of criminal “gamblers” who would expel the children when they came. The children would, nevertheless, stay and watch. They were violent … One would always be stabbed in the waist or back, but they would always be saved from death. Except for one gashed completely open. He stayed screaming, thrown, his insides oozing out—five hours and no one saved him. The last drop of his blood dripped out and he died. We children continued to hear his screams for a month in our dreams, and also in our waking hours, when the darkness became thick as a wall in that land frugal with lamps. (44) These details expose the excessive violence that dominates the marginal spaces of the autobiographical subject’s childhood environment, and how
The Iron Grasshopper 95 the violence that is witnessed generates an ongoing sense of terror for the children. The description is gory, emphasizing not only the actual moment of “gashing” but the slow death, the lack of care or concern of others, and the children’s own role as spectators, incapacitated witnesses who could have perhaps helped or attempted to save the dying man, but do not. The depiction encapsulates the traumatic effect of the scene on the children who subsequently suffer from nightmares, thereby establishing this moment as ongoing in its terrorizing effects on the child spectators. The horror instilled at this site is exacerbated by the fear of monsters that haunts the children at the ruins. The surreal experience of monsters emerging from the ruins—specifically ruins of the French occupation— might symbolize ghosts of some unspoken past horror, the remnants of a buried violence. The actual violence of the gang of criminals who stab and kill in full view of the children, taken together with the imaginary realm of monsters and other terrifying creatures, transforms the ruins into a terrifying fourthspace surging with terror, where nightmare and traumatic reality intermingle.
Background: Actual Violence and Symbolic Violence against Kurds in Qamishli The autobiography is set in Qamishli, and it is recounted from the distance of exile in Beirut, where Barakat lived from 1971 to 1982 and where he composed both autobiographies.5 Qamishli is an inseparable part of the mood and ethos of both texts, as I will show. The detailed descriptions of the setting expose the place as a wellspring for the resentment, pain and violence that infuse the writing. In what follows I offer important background information on repression in Qamishli during the period covered in the autobiography. Qamishli’s liminality stems from both its population (minorities) and its location—in northeastern Syria on the border with Turkey. It is part of Jazira, which became Syria’s most heterogeneous province in the twentieth century. In the 1950s, in which The Iron Grasshopper is set, Qamishli became a center of a regional economic boom. At that time, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, as well as Arabs and other groups populated the city (Commins and Lesch 2014, 195). However, according to Jordi Tejel (2009), the rapid development led to the further economic, national and cultural marginalization of certain groups, especially the Kurds (Tejel 2009, 39). From the late 1950s on, the Kurds suffered from increasingly repressive measures (ibid., 50). Tejel explains that the Kurds became a major scapegoat of Arab nationalism and were considered “people who would not allow themselves to be ‘Arabized.’” He explains that They were considered as hired agents in the service of powerful foreign enemies of Arabism. It was a definitive return to the tensions
96 The Iron Grasshopper previously seen during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, and later during the mandatory period, between the state and minority groups. (ibid., 41) Under the short-lived UAR (United Arab Republic, 1958–1961), the Kurdish language was outlawed as a language of culture. Following the UAR, when Syria was proclaimed an Arab Syrian republic, the new government neglected the Kurds’ political, economic and cultural demands and they became subject to repressive measures, notably in Jazira. The economic conditions of the Kurds further worsened following the special census of 1962, which stripped 120,000 Kurds of Syrian nationality such that they became stateless and could not legally work locally or even cross the borders. This explains the prevalence of smuggling in Qamishli. Those not counted by the census suffered because, from a legal standpoint, they became completely “hidden.” Their basic rights (including education, employment, property, ownership, political participation, and legal marriage) were limited in Syria and their lands could be seized (ibid., 51). Kurds also suffered from what Tejel calls “symbolic violence” that included anti-Kurdish graffiti, political slogans such as “Save Arabism from Jazira” or “Fight the Kurdish Menace” (ibid., 52). Barakat’s autobiographies capture this all-consuming climate of violence from a perspective that blends the personal and the communal.
Kurdish Identity, Counter-exclusion and the Beginnings of Violence The Iron Grasshopper concentrates on local dimensions of identity, obscuring an association with broader Syrian national identity. In a move that is clearly deliberate, both texts preclude deliberate references to overarching Arab identity, concentrating instead on the margins of localized Syrian identity. This absence bespeaks a politically charged redefinition of belonging and identity within Syrian society that subverts dominant Arab hegemonic frames of reference. Kamal Abu Deeb discusses this absence as it appears overall in Barakat’s oeuvre, suggesting that its most remarkable quality “is the decisive act of exclusion, or rather counter-exclusion, it performs. Arabic writing had totally and completely ignored the presence of a Kurdish cultural space in the Arab world” (Abu Deeb 2000, 349). He demonstrates the process of counter-exclusion as it is achieved in Barakat’s first novel The Jurists of Darkness, creating “an autonomous, indeed fully independent, Kurdish space severely delimited and chopped off the space of Syria as a geographic and political unit and inhabited totally by Kurds, as though other Syrians did not exist …” (ibid.). Although larger Syrian Arab frames of reference are not incorporated on a cultural level, on a political level, the Arab regime and its repressive
The Iron Grasshopper 97 laws and regulations are in the background. References to broader Syrian Arab spheres are vague, beyond instilling fear and violence into the world of the text. The Iron Grasshopper operates similarly: it does not omit larger Syrian Arab frames of reference entirely. Importantly, the Syrian president’s visit is portrayed as initiating the violence that infiltrates Qamishli. The schoolchildren participate in a procession honoring him. No further information is given: Which president is it? What is his name? Why is he coming to Qamishli? No date or year is mentioned, so it is not possible to do more than conjecture based on historical information about Syria from the mid-late 1950s. This visit is depicted only from the perspective of its effect on the protagonist’s community, as the foundational act of violence that triggers the subsequent violence in the text. Broader Syrian Arab identity is only an abstraction for the Kurdish autobiographical subject despite its oppressive impact on his life. Political and social implications are imparted only inasmuch as they refer to local circumstances and are felt by the young boy, for example, “That was the beginning of the ‘official’ violent celebration, and the beginning of the violent mass poverty” (1980, 17). This shows that the narrative circumvents references that may have broader Syrian Arab national significance, concentrating instead on their effect on Kurds in Qamishli. The absence of precise historical details is striking: “But the violence I thought was particular to me penetrated our home after the president’s violent passing (murūr) …” (16). The effects are described from a subjective point of view, but the text avoids describing what exactly this “passing” entails other than the violence it causes. The narrative choice to exclude precise references and details regarding greater Syrian Arab national events and figures is exclusionary and can be read in terms of Elsaesser’s concept of “presence in absence” (2008). Syrian national presence is suggested metonymically through the president’s visit as an amorphous, omnipresent mechanism of oppression whose significance is in its portrayal as the root of the violence that permeates every aspect of the characters’ lives. Describing this visit in the first pages establishes the foundational effect of this visit on the protagonist’s community, and yet its placement in the textual margins of the narrative precludes this event from penetrating the main body of the text. This placement maintains the larger Syrian Arab sphere only in the textual margins, and dissociates it from the boy’s quotidian life.
Language Choice: Subversion or Repression? Language is one of the means of repression in the world of the text, specifically Kurdish, Barakat’s mother tongue, which is banned in certain situations. The decision to compose his still-expanding oeuvre exclusively in Arabic rather than in Kurdish is significant in the context of this chapter’s focus on belonging and exclusion, and in light of the
98 The Iron Grasshopper autobiography’s references to repression of the Kurdish language. That Arabic is not his mother tongue is stated explicitly in the second volume when the autobiographical subject sits in a movie theater with his friends, and he wonders why most of the audience laughs despite the fact that most of them are not proficient in Arabic. Barakat contextualizes this linguistic divide in terms that illustrate the concomitant feelings of exclusion they provoke: For how could they understand a dialect that is from the furthest corners of the country, from the furthest corner of our geography books that—when talking about our fertile soil, our long rivers and gas reserves, the fish in our lakes—never says why we don’t possess any of it. (1980, 10) Here he elaborates on the political implications of using Arabic for Kurds who do not feel at home in this language. The bitterness he expresses is all the more poignant—and ironic—since it is expressed in eloquent Arabic, thereby doubly subversive in using the language of the oppressors. The first chapter of The Iron Grasshopper conveys that the Kurdish language predominates in the autobiographical subject’s everyday life in a terse statement that associates it with repressive policies: “It was forbidden to speak Kurdish in school” (21). Ironically, this repressive policy is what he says makes him aware of his distinct Kurdish identity. From this, one can deduce that outside of school, Kurdish is spoken. In a similar vein, when his teacher (presumably an Arab) calls his father in to school, his father speaks with a “non-Arab accent” (22), which leads to a violent confrontation. The names of people and places in the text are often not Arabic. This creates an encounter point between Arabic and Kurdish. Other than these intimations, the text does not actually articulate that most of the interactions articulated in the text in literary Arabic actually occur in Kurdish. Barakat’s autobiographical oeuvre contrasts with texts such as Hanna Abu Hanna’s The Cloud’s Shadow (1997, discussed in Chapter 8), in which the preservation of local language and folk culture is one of its stated goals and the autobiographical “I” functions as autoethnographer. Abu Hanna incorporates references to words in the local Palestinian dialect of Arabic, explaining them in order to preserve them, unlike Barakat who does not seek to preserve or vivify the Kurdish language and culture through his autobiography. Abu Deeb contends that Barakat’s choice of writing in Arabic rather than Kurdish is far from ironic, and suggests that the use of the language of the oppressor is analogous to the use by the colonized of the language of the colonizer (Abu Deeb 2000, 349). By exploiting the language of the hegemonic culture, it performs “one of the most widespread acts
The Iron Grasshopper 99 in literature by which marginalized/minority discourses come to assert their presence and carve a space for themselves within the wider cultural context in which they take shape” (ibid., 439). This statement is relevant for Barakat’s autobiographies, where the author masterfully describes the suffering of the Kurdish community in the language of the oppressor. This underlines its subversive posture, even more pronounced in light of Stefan G. Meyer’s observation that it is paradoxical that “Barakat is perhaps the master prose stylist writing in Arabic today” (Meyer 2001, 90). Specifically, he notes that The Iron Grasshopper is “innovative” not in terms of form or structure, but in terms of “its vocabulary, sentence construction, images, and narrative voice” (ibid., 88). Meyer contends that its style is “so difficult that even Arabic readers will fail to understand it” because in essence, Barakat attempts to convert a traditional poetic style to prose (ibid.). He elaborates that, “His technique is to deliberately strip a word of its original meaning, and press it into service in a new way, in effect substituting it for a more standard word” (ibid.). I would press this point by arguing that through his idiosyncratic use of language, Barakat forges a poetics of violence. One of Barakat’s central literary feats in The Iron Grasshopper is that the violence that scars the storyline is enacted through the words themselves, thereby creating the conditions for the unease of the reader, for whom the words are vague and elusive. This is exemplified in an extended sentence in which he addresses his younger self, You were sweet in your recklessness; sweet in your oppressive governance; sweet when you uprooted the rose fences … sweet when you skinned the chameleons … sweet when you tied together the beaks of the turkeys … sweet, you are sweet, may God keep you. (1980, 11) By characterizing the boy who commits these acts of violence as sweet, the adult narrator contorts the very notion of “sweetness,” especially that associated with children. His characterization as “sweet” is repeated (anaphora), and modifies the acts of violence and perversion the boy commits. This juxtaposition, and the contrast between the “sweet” boy and the violent acts he commits, insinuates into the text a grotesque tenor that undercuts the positive associations of the word “sweet.” It manifests the literary ruptures throughout the autobiography that write the devastation in the language of the autobiography, by associating words with positive meaning with vulgar, violent acts, and also by thwarting the obvious significations of particular words, creating a reading experience that is itself jarring and discordant. This address also expresses profound ambivalence of identification: by addressing his younger self in the second-person voice, he dissociates from the person he once was, while at the same time delving in to his own memories.
100 The Iron Grasshopper Barakat’s idiosyncratic style and language use makes him “a sort of stranger within his own language,” to recall the phrasing of Deleuze and Guattari in their theorization of a minor literature (1986, 26). In their analysis of Kafka, they demonstrate that there is a connection between a writer’s revolutionary language and collective consciousness. They specify three characteristics of a minor literature: “deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation” (ibid., 18). Raquel Ribeiro explains, A writer of ‘minor’ literature no longer pays tribute to a master or a literary father figure of the nation, because he (and it is historically a male ‘father’) is intimately linked to a hegemonic tradition of the language imposed on the writers who operate the so-called deterritorialisation. Considering the political implications of his/her writings, and even if s/he is isolated, this literature is charged with a collective consciousness that is inexorably revolutionary. (2011, 158) Deleuze and Guattari emphasize that one of the characteristics of minor literature is that “everything takes on a collective value”; in fact, “there are no possibilities for an individuated enunciation … that could be separated from a collective enunciation” (1986, 17). Barakat’s use of the Arabic language expresses deterritorialization. Although writing within the borders of the major literature (a necessary condition of “minor literature” according to Deleuze and Guattari), it is charged with a collective consciousness of non-hegemonic others populating the interstices of Syrian society. The narrative content echoes the collective consciousness established by the language of the text. Through the medium of Arabic, the hegemonic language, Barakat brings to life experiences of members of groups marginalized by political power, by history, and by epistemic violence and entwines the autobiographical subject within the fabric of these groups.
An Intrarelational Life Before entering into a discussion of the role of relational others in the autobiography, I want to examine how the autobiographer portrays himself relationally by distinguishing between his older writing self— the narrator—and the younger boy whom he must make an effort to remember and portray. In so doing, he portrays his younger self as an “other,” as we saw in the excerpt above in which he addresses himself as “you.” This fragmentation is explicit, as we see in the prologue, which opens with an address in the second-person voice: “What do you see?
The Iron Grasshopper 101 Tell me, O Child, what do you see?” (1980, 7). This lyrical opening casts the five chapters that follow as a protracted response to this question. In those chapters, the young child repeatedly addresses “my friend,” that is, his older self. This encapsulates the autobiographical point of view of the text in which the older, writing “self” addresses the younger “self” of his memories as though he were distinct from him. Barakat situates what Leigh Gilmore has termed the “subject-who-writes” as in dialogue with the “subject-in-the-text” (2001, 97). This narrative strategy fractures the unity of the autobiographical subject, expressing each temporality with a distinct narrative voice in which the child represents the self of the past, and the adult writer represents the adult writing the text. The older narrator’s voice is interspersed at many points throughout the text, noticeable when “I” or “we” is displaced by the second person voice. For example, the first chapter is narrated by the child (pp. 15–21) until the older narrator’s voice interjects and dominates for the remainder of the chapter, even addressing the child directly (pp. 21–24). It begins with a sentence that integrates “I” and “you”: I started to become something new that I had not taken into account previously, something violent and jarring: You are a Kurd … You are not allowed to speak Kurdish at school. This is new, because you know three fourths of this city bordering the Taurus Mountains are Kurds. And you sense the issue: the teachers humiliate and hit the students excessively. (21) This exemplifies the shift from the first-person voice to the secondperson voice, from the child-narrator to the adult narrator, and draws attention to the diachronic framework of the narrative. Such shifts occur throughout The Iron Grasshopper, and their content tends to accentuate the child’s vulnerability: here, “You are a Kurd”; in other places, the adult voice punctuates the narration by addressing the boy: “You are a child” (24).6 This is what Eakin calls an “intrasubjective dialogue” and it reminds us that “our sense of continual identity is a fiction, the primary fiction of all self-narration” (1999, 93). This reveals Barakat’s use of “I” referring to the boy as a construct—because this “boy” is aware of the older self who wants to know the story. This rhetorical strategy of two separate selves exposes the conventions and paradoxes of autobiographical writing. It enacts a sense of rupture between the self who is writing/remembering and the earlier self, who is acts in the writer-self’s memory. Using the first-person voice for both asserts that the identity of the self, narrating/writing in the present (in the prologue), is somehow continuous with the “I” acting in the past (that depicted in the ensuing five chapters) and that both I’s refer to the same autobiographical self.
102 The Iron Grasshopper However, this continuity is undermined by positioning them in an intrasubjective dialog with each other, which bespeaks a rupture or a degree of distancing between two distinct entities. Eakin refers to such representational strategies as an “intrarelational life which works steadily … to reforge the links between selves past and present” (ibid., 94). This fissured self-representation intensifies the relational quality of the autobiographical subject who identifies not only in relation to others but also in relation to his own “other” self. Distinguishing between the child “self” and the adult “self” enables the text to hone in on the child’s voice, to peel away the adult consciousness as much as possible and present a child’s perspective unadulterated (for the most part) by the retrospective understanding of the adult self. It seems that the distinction between the selves enables him to face his deeds, admit them and identify as that boy, while at the same time distancing himself from his younger self. In the prologue, the older speaker addresses his younger self in a kind of realization or announcement: “Indeed we know for sure, after this whole departure (baʿd kulli hādhā alrāḥīl) that you were the one who dug the passage for the wheat carriages in order to break the legs of Simʿūn’s donkey” (1980, 9). “After this whole departure” is perhaps a way of conveying the difficulty of admitting to having committed these misdeeds, as though to say, After all this time, it was you—the child!—who committed these acts. This is followed by a long list of “You were the one who …”—as though to say, it was not me, it was him, the young child who committed these acts. This destabilizing of a coherent unified “I” casts the text in terms of both a confession (“I”) and an accusation (“you”), depending on how the narrator expresses himself, whether he is accusing his younger self or whether that younger self is confessing. In this sense, the language of the text allows the autobiographical subject to inhabit “self-representation’s ambiguities,” creating a literary space that encompasses both self-representation and estrangement from oneself (Gilmore 2001, 23). Moreover, by rhetorically distancing the two sides of the self from one another, the narrative expresses a sense of internal exile that mirrors the actual exile of the writer from his homeland: just as the Qamishli is a “fugitive land” so the boy remembered and the adult writer are constructed through a narrative disjunction that manifests the self’s internal estrangement. Generally, the representation of an autobiographical subject tends to entail fragmentation or fissure as a way of expressing his or her transformation over time.7 Nicola King theorizes this process observing that there is a tendency in what she calls “conventional autobiography,” to “elide memory as a process: the content is presented as if it were uniformly and objectively available to the remembering subject, as if the narrating ‘I’ and the subject of narration were identical” (2000, 3). King identifies two selves in autobiographical writing, that which is presently narrating and the “self” being remembered. However, each of
The Iron Grasshopper 103 these selves can be distinguished through representation by two different voices, or the distinction can be elided. In the case of The Iron Grasshopper, rather than eliding the “self” who is writing with the self who is remembered, the two temporalities are exposed by the voices that are personified as though in dialog with each other. The narrative strategy uses these two distinct voices to interrupt the narrative flow, enacting a rupture on the text itself, and dramatizing the severance within the autobiographical self. Dividing the autobiographical subject into two distinct narrative voices bespeaks the rupture at the heart of this text, and is symbolic of the emotional wound on which the autobiography is predicated. Splitting the self into two voices signifies an open wound that has not mended, and perhaps can never mend. This rupture is reinforced by a description of the crack in the voice of the autobiographical subject. The older narrator asks his younger self, “Isn’t there the sound of sharkh (crack, fissure; prime of youth) in your voice?” (1980, 8). The two possible meanings of sharkh here engenders a play on words that embodies the crux of the tragedy: the prime of the protagonist’s youth is devastated, and he is left shattered, traumatized and his voice, that is, his means of selfrepresentation is cracked, broken. The play on words may also be drawing from the imagery of the physical transformation of a boy’s voice that cracks during adolescence, denoting the physical changes that occur in that period. The metaphor of the child’s voice is crucial because the narrative is conveyed through this child’s voice, and through it, the story unfolds. In other words, the acts of violence are described not only by the storyline itself, but also by the medium through which it is narrated, with its very infrastructure cracked and broken. Several lines later, he again recalls the child’s voice, depicting it as mutilated, figuratively producing tools of destruction: “I saw your voice naked among the voices, panting like a broken lung, double bladed axes propelled from its fissures, and scythes gushing out” (8). This underlines and intensifies the imagery of rupture, showing that it not only epitomizes the autobiographical subject’s environment but has infiltrated his being, his voice, which has been punctured and shattered. At the same time, it has itself turned into a potential destructive force: double-bladed axes and scythes.
Identity through Absence: al-Sīra al-nāqiṣa As I have discussed elsewhere in this book, some texts obscure the autobiographical nature of the text by declaring at the outset that the text is not an autobiography. For example, Abd al-Rahman Munif declares his work to be “the story of a city,” not an autobiography (discussed in Chapter 4 of this book); Hanan al-Shaykh declares her text to be an auto/biography of her mother (discussed in Chapter 2). If we take declarations at face value, then both of those texts are not autobiographies,
104 The Iron Grasshopper strictly speaking—although there is something dubious about the need to point out that a text is not an autobiography as forcefully as Munif does. The concept of a “relational autobiography” helps renegotiate the “horizons of expectations” in those texts (Hans Robert Jauss’s term, 1970) with regard to the possibilities inherent in any particular literary genre). I re-work this concept “not-autobiographies,” into “unconventional autobiographies.” Although such declarations in the title and the text’s opening remarks can serve to express authorial intent, they can also obscure it, the declaration acting ironically as a literary ruse. Such disavowals can be undermined by the style of the text and the portrayal of the autobiographical subject therein, as I show in the chapters on those two works. With regard to Barakat’s autobiography, there is no such declared disavowal of autobiographical intent, but the term sīra dhātiyya, usually used to connote an autobiography in modern Arabic is also not used. The term sīra, which is used in titles of both works as well as in the combined title for the 1998 edition, can connote either “biography” or “chronicle” and by extension can imply autobiography. The specific wording seems to reflect an “autobiographical ambivalence”—a purposeful equivocation regarding the place of the dhāt (literally, self) in the text. Thus the full title of the first volume accentuates this evasiveness with regard to the text’s autobiographical nature through the wording sīra nāqiṣa li-ṭifl, the sīra (biography? autobiography?) of a boy. This distances the writer from the autobiographical subject—a boy—which, nevertheless, does not rule out the possibility for autobiography. The somewhat elusive term nāqiṣa can connote the idea of unfinished or absent, and reinforces the ambivalence regarding the nature of this sīra. It is significant that the word nāqiṣa is located exactly where the word dhātiyya (self, “auto-”) would be if it were deemed a sīra dhātiyya, thereby replacing the word “self” with the adjective “absent.” This bespeaks the immediacy of absence and loss for the autobiographical subject. Moving from the title to the text itself, the theme of absence resonates throughout the narrative as the following two examples adumbrate: “We were children without a childhood” (20) and “You are a child without a childhood” (23). Paradoxically, the very thing the text purports to describe—his childhood—is described through its absence.
Negating the Autobiographical Self by Fusion into the Group Continuing the discussion of absence and negation in the text, the representation of the autobiographical self suggests a further negation. Alongside the use of the first-person voice that manifests the text’s autobiographical intent, that same self is enacted through a rhetoric of absence—he is eschewed, overshadowed, eclipsed and neglected, not
The Iron Grasshopper 105 only in the storyline but also by the reference using the pronoun “we” rather than “I.” His presence is coalesced into the collective of children, of Kurds, collectives which themselves are marginal and often forgotten. This is achieved primarily by the tendency to represent him as part of a collective that eclipses his individual identity. The text is replete with references that subsume him in the group of children (aṭfāl, ṣighār), for example, “We were children (sighār), my friend, children who stayed up [plural] at night under the street lamps …” (1980, 20). This epitomizes the protagonist’s central axis of belonging in the text, in reference to and as a part of an amorphous group of youngsters. Identity through the collective group of children is expressed repeatedly, “We would continue, we children, to hear his scream for a month in our dreams, and also in our waking hours …” (44). It is striking that a traumatic experience that seems individual (indeed, how could he know what others dream?) is described from a group perspective that blends the individual into a group consciousness. More examples that demonstrate how the autobiographical subject is subsumed in the group of his peers: “We were children interested in death” (32); “We thought we were born of straw and that we would return to straw …” (35). The individual blended into a group identity is reminiscent of the portrayal of the protagonist in Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Story of a City, mentioned above. However, what is different here is the use of the first-person voice, “I” and “we” rather than “they” and “the children.” In the first chapter of The Iron Grasshopper, the first-person singular voice emerges, demonstrating that the ṭifl of the title is also the autobiographical subject: I was a boy (ṭifl), my friend. I would not leave the house in the morning until after my father had left the house … Then I’d run to school, and from there to the swamp to watch the water snakes. (17) This passage manifests the autobiographical subject individually in the context of his family. It portrays his individual trajectory as distinctive and specific, even though the narrative locates him continually in relation to his social environment, and even though his character is so often embedded in the collective.
Communal Violence and Alienation as Relational Strategies The role of community—“an entire social environment” (Eakin 1999, 9)— is predominant in this autobiography, as I have shown by the preponderance of the pronoun “we” instead of “I,” signifying self-representation through the collective. Although the autobiographical subject comes to
106 The Iron Grasshopper life through a collective consciousness, his position vis-à-vis the community is ambivalent, identifying through specific groups (of children, of Kurds), while simultaneously exposing their most repulsive side to the reader. Considering this, a central concern of the present chapter is to expose a crucial paradox in Barakat’s model of communal subjectivity. The autobiography is imbued with a profound tension between the protagonist’s self-definition through portraits of diverse “others” populating an entire social environment and assertion of their formative influence on him, on the one hand; and his estrangement from those same “others” (and also from his earlier child-self), on the other hand. The Iron Grasshopper revolves around detailed stories about members of the community where he grows up. His is what Paul John Eakin calls a “situated self,” that is, the product of a particular time and place. In such autobiographies, “the identity-shaping environments … are nested one within the other – self, family, community set in a physical and cultural geography, in an unfolding history” (Eakin 1999, 85). The acts of violence the boy commits are characterized as an internalization of the violence he experiences and witnesses. Self-definition occurs through the impact of one’s social environment—here it is oppressive and brutal. The acts of violence he commits seem senseless and purposeless, and they are perpetrated as a group—“we”—an amorphous group of children whose members are never specified. For example, Chapter 3 “In Fire and in Hunting” recounts in excruciating detail how he and his group of peers torture a mole to death (1980, 41), hunt and torture jerboas and hedgehogs to death (42). The same chapter devotes a great amount of detail to describing ʿUsmanu, a crook who would frequent the French ruins and tell stories to the children about “events that occurred and others that had never taken place”— including stories about monsters (45). He would gather us around him and tell us children (naḥnu al-ṣighār)” and they would listen with mouths agape. The children had forgotten ʿUsmanu when he came to Ahmad Salu’s doorstep one day, his dagger unsheathed, having killed ten men and two women. The children “marveled at the daring hand that did not forsake its owner” and never asked for the motive for this massacre. This manifests the protagonist’s childhood heroes—a “brigand” turned murderer whose own uncle refuses to give his daughter to him in marriage because he is a “brigand (azʿar) living off of ḥarām” (i.e. what is proscribed) (ibid.). Thus, this portrayal of “another” is revealing of the child’s values, and through the child’s reaction to this brigand-murderer, we learn about the child’s worldview. From this anecdote, the narrative progresses to other anecdotes that are unified by the group experiences of the children. This epitomizes the narrative style of stream of consciousness, jumping from anecdote to anecdote and incorporating many characters, without clear plot or trajectory. When taken together, the flow of characters and stories accords
The Iron Grasshopper 107 a sense of an entire social environment steeped in violence and terror. This style conveys a child’s consciousness in which events roll in to each other but are not necessarily remembered in the order in which they occurred or ordered in terms of direct causality or a specific storyline. In this context, it is interesting that the narrator alludes to the non-linear nature of time for simple country folk, as they are described by other people who are presumably more worldly: “When they try to remember things, what happened merges with what did not happen …” (73). This introduces an account of the adults’ reminiscences of the horrors of snow in their childhood: “In their stories, we did not see one bit of our childhoods, so we would go looking for it in the snow” (74). This emphasizes the gap between the adults and the children. This gap is significant because the adults do not protect the children from their fears or from actual violence, and this excerpt shows that adults and children literally do not even understand one another. This underlines the tensions of emplacement and displacement and of belonging and estrangement within the expansively described social environment. The Iron Grasshopper situates the autobiographical subject simultaneously within different modes of collective belonging and vigorously subverts those same assertions of belonging. Violence has a paradoxical effect on collective identity in that it reinforces a sense of communal belonging and simultaneously undermines it. The autobiography navigates between the personal and the collective by situating the autobiographical subject as both protagonist and witness; locating him as both subject and observer; and by alternating between the first-person singular voice and the first-person plural voice. Locating him on the spectrum between “I” and “we” manifests an ambivalence of absence and presence as his personal story winds through the lives of many individuals and connects disparate characters from the margins of society into a mosaic—a collation of broken pieces—united by the gaze of the protagonist and by the experience of violence and estrangement. Let us look at how this plays out in the account of Shaykh Khaznawi’s prominent follower Shukru. Shukru has epileptic fits that cause him to froth at the mouth; his bulging eyes instill fear in the children. He sleeps wherever he happens to be, and he has a special dispensation to attend the sessions Shaykh Khaznawi opens only to women. When a woman would lose consciousness during the Sufi rituals, he carries her outside of the circle. He is caught on occasion putting the woman on his lap in a way that does not indicate help, but “something else” (77). “We observed repeatedly—we children” that the women would regain consciousness not because of his help but because he held them so tight. They would look askance at him, cursing him as they fixed their gaze at an “alert” place in his body. This story emphasizes the perversion that escapes the eyes of the adults, or which the adults willfully ignore. Perceived as an outsider with deviant qualities, he crosses into spaces where
108 The Iron Grasshopper “typical” men are forbidden. The narrator also implicates the women in this “game,” since when he touched them in ways he should not have, they looked at him with a “hidden passion” (ibid.). This anecdote emphasizes the undercurrent of illicit sexual contact that occurs as part of religious meetings, thereby exposing an infrastructure of deception observed by the children. A crucial aspect of the violence and violation that occurs in the text is not only in the actual acts of violence but in those adults who overlook the violence or do not prevent it. Following from this, the children’s observation from places where they are not formally allowed to be exacerbates the sense of violation and neglect. This story exposes many levels of deceit and hypocrisy, particularly given the religious context of the violations that occur, and that someone seen as feeble-minded is given free rein to break societal principles of behavior such as separation between men and women, and to commit illicit acts, as though living according to a separate system of rules.
Identification through Outsiders and Misfits: Belonging through Exclusion Ambivalence between belonging and alienation/unbelonging underpins the emotional foundation of this autobiography. This is brought out most powerfully in two ways: first, by the violence that permeates the world of the text; and second, by focusing on the margins of the community, or outside of them entirely, portraying a broad spectrum of outsiders and misfits through whom he identifies and whom he mimics. He and his group of peers are, in the narrator’s words, “broken people”: … Broken [people] (al-maksūrīn) like us did not notice a new breakage; and no one could take from them what they did not already possess. That is why we put pins in the cattle fodder … and opened the water stoppers of the fields … Then we returned to our bedrooms so that we could take by force by night what we could not take by force by day. (83) This epitomizes the marginal fourthspace characterized by violence, rupture and pain, experienced by the autobiographical subject always as part of a collective. All of the actions described here are carried out in the plural, as though part of what is broken is the chance for an individual voice. The relational poetics of The Iron Grasshopper is most cogently embodied through violence, since, in these texts, violence is a force that not only fractures and wounds but also (ironically?) acts as a unifying force. This is because violence is witnessed, experienced, and carried out as a group—of brothers, peers, classmates, community members, or outlaws. Violence is portrayed in terms of a collective
The Iron Grasshopper 109 experience rather than individual, secret or private. The glue that connects the people is the experience of violence. This resonates in the final chapter that consists of a single three-page long paragraph, whose form seems to intimate a kind of desperation to cram in characters and events not yet mentioned in the text. In addition to its dense formulation, its repetitions imbue it with a poetic rhythm. The narrator repeatedly asks, “What about (mādhā ʿan) …” and then introduces yet another character involved in another tragedy. Here is an excerpt: What about the brothers of Shakir the henchman, who turned Bahram’s wedding into a massacre because their brother wanted to marry the bride? What about how they kidnapped the girl after killing the groom and six others? What about how they raped her under the rain of ululations of women taking out their anger on the bride’s family because of their refusal to marry her to Shakir? What about Handar who crossed the Turkish borders with thirty men on horses dragging Afdi from his house to Turkey? What about Afdi and his wailing? This list continues at a dizzying pace, a frenzy to enumerate people and the violence they committed or endured. These stories repeat the themes of stories already recounted in detail—raping brides (e.g., 66) and torturing people to death. The very form of a list adds to the sense of the collective. Not only are the events experienced by a collective, but the events themselves are so many that they dissolve into each other, both saturating the text with more and more violence, but at the same time making light of each individual experience of violence, as though merely one among many, just another tragedy in a long list of tragedies. The list focuses on violence committed in exterior spaces, often set outdoors. In this sense, it is interesting to note that domestic space is largely absent from the text. It is mentioned in terse fragments (the stove, a shelf of jars, a hurried depiction of the father running off in the morning), despite the fact that the autobiography focuses on his childhood. The narrative explicitly states that he runs away, particularly after his mother’s beatings, but the feeling of not being at home in his home is further emphasized by the fact that the narrative focuses on spaces outside of his home and characters populating the larger area. There are only terse mentions of his parents and siblings, who remain obscure in the text, along with the house itself. This adds another dimension of internal exile to the narrative and sharpens the sense of exclusion, specifically from the place where it would be assumed that he would feel a sense of belonging. This compulsion to escape domestic space contrasts with the freedom the autobiographical subject enjoys at his uncle’s house by the Khabur River, during the summers spent outside of Qamishli (47–51). Barakat
110 The Iron Grasshopper describes these summers: “Wherever we were far from our family, we were also far from terror (al-rʿub), far from that terrifying dissolution of our childhood” (47). Nevertheless, death and violence do find their way to this enchanted space: first, one of his friends drowns in the river, and his body is found only four days later, mutilated by the water and the fish that had eaten out his eyes. Second, the uncle would punish them violently or even send the boys back to Qamishli because they tormented the uncle’s Yazidi business partner. The narrative describes this partner’s “strange” garb, prayer and customs, portraying him as an “Other” in a narrative abounding with Others. Groups not part of the Arab hegemony populate the area where his uncle lives, including Assyrians and Yazidis, as well as Kurds. The children’s revulsion toward him is perhaps surprising since almost every inhabitant of Qamishli is portrayed as some sort of deviant or outcast. Nevertheless, the fact that the environment is filled with so many types of “Others” does not breed tolerance but only further revulsion and cruelty. When violence occurs in the private sphere (not outside or in public spaces such as the school), it is conveyed by the screams of pain reverberating outside and heard by the group of boys, turning it de facto into a communal experience. One example of this is the story of the elevenyear-old orphan girl married off to a shepherd named Hamdan; he beats her when she refuses to sleep with him, and her screams “terrified us children” (80). The actual physical violence in this instance is directed toward one person—a young girl, but its terrifying force is experienced collectively, by “the children,” who act as witnesses. In this instance, the girl is clearly the immediate victim, but I would suggest that the text implies that the children are also victims, secondarily. To complicate things further, even the perpetrator is ultimately a victim. He is an orphan who grows up completely alone, shepherding his brother’s sheep while his brother neglects him and lives elsewhere. His only friend becomes aware that he mounts his donkey and rapes his sheep, and when the brother finds out, he marries him off to the orphan girl. In other words, the question here and throughout the text is, Where is the root of the violence? Are the perpetrator and the victim ever mutually distinguishable in the fourthspaces described? The chain of stories repeatedly portrays violent acts as reflections or mimicry of an earlier violence or neglect, as in this instance where neglecting Hamdan as a boy turns him into a husband-rapist when he grows up. Once the violence commences with the president’s visit to Qamishli, its course is not one-way or straightforward but rhizomatic, adumbrating Deleuze and Guattari’s famous model (from A Thousand Plateaus) that rejects a hierarchical teleology and clear-cut origins. In what sense is this visit, in fact, the beginning of the violence? First, the autobiographical subject experiences it as physically violent—the chaos causes him to fall repeatedly (15). Second, from his personal perspective, he remembers
The Iron Grasshopper 111 it as a beginning of the violence, as the beginning of a breakdown that spread throughout the community spread “like ripples” (ibid.). Following this visit, things change at home. It seems that his father’s onceprosperous business activities cease, and the guests who used to frequent their house stop coming, and poverty overtakes the family, causing his father and mother to treat the children with increased violence. Poverty subsequently spreads through Qamishli, and the spread of unemployment is described as a “silent violence” (17). It would seem that the visit entailed some sort of regulatory change that caused many Kurds to lose their right to earn a living legally. This reveals that “violence” in the text implies not only acts that cause physical pain but also oppressive acts that lead to despair. The despair then often leads to actual physical violence that, in turn, leads to more violence. Violence is so pervasive that there is no escape, only engagement in the successive cycles of violence, which breed a demented form of belonging and shared suffering. The ripple effect is stated in the text when the older narrator speaks to the child: You begin to grasp the issue: the teachers are excessive in humiliating and hitting the students … You are a child but you are not blind. They hated you beforehand (salafan), you don’t know why. The teacher hates you, the government employee and police officer hates you. This is a new condition, so let me be violent then, more violent than necessary towards this demonic intrusion. (21) Although violence spreads in every direction in fourthspaces of the narrative, the narrative also seems to imply some sort of hierarchy of violence in terms of its gravity. There is a sense of a greater violence committed by the regime, a lesser violence committed by adults (including his parents, criminals and many others) and the violence akin to pranks committed by the children. Although the child is portrayed as far from innocent, his surroundings nurture and foster this behavior, and his violent acts are preceded by far more serious acts of violence. The violence he witnesses and endures is generally more horrific than the violent acts he himself commits. It is remarkable that the narrative not only recounts violence and pain experienced by the autobiographical subject, or that he witnessed, but also violent acts that he commits. I cannot think of another Arabic autobiography in which the autobiographical subject depicts himself (or herself) as purposefully perpetrating violence to such an extent, especially not such graphically described acts of violence as are depicted in these volumes (toward people and toward animals).8 Even more extraordinary is the apparent senselessness of the violence that the autobiographical subject inflicts. It is exemplified by cock fights in which he
112 The Iron Grasshopper and his friends make the animals struggle (27–29); by hunting and torturing moles, jerboas and hedgehogs to death (41–42); and by pouring gasoline on a cat and burning its tail, as well as tying explosives to cows’ tails (52). These acts demonstrate how the violence that has infused his community has “infected” him as well. He is the terrified victim—one of many, and has become a perpetrator. In this sense, he becomes a part of the cycle of violence. This extraordinary narrative renders the autobiographical subject as deeply implicated in the violence and deeply a part of the collective of children, of siblings and of Kurds. He is terrorized and participates in the terror. At the very same time, the text portrays the depth of his exclusion and alienation—from the broader Arab hegemony but also from his family and from his home. The fact that he is almost always swallowed up by the first personal plural pronoun “we” encapsulates the paradox of belonging while also expressing the loss of an individual sense of self. The relational aspect of the autobiography is crucial for manifesting the duality of belonging alongside exclusion and suffering perpetrated by so many from within the collective. The text begins with a moment of rupture that sets in motion many consecutive cycles of violence. The text enacts a further rupture through the outsider stance of the narrator, who presents himself as separate and distant from the boy-protagonist. In so doing, he acknowledges the terror and trauma, judges it and breaks away from it physically by going into exile and textually by separating himself from the terrorized-terrorizing boy.
Notes 1 It seems that his first prose work was also of an autobiographical nature— a journal/diary published in 1976 entitled Kanisat al-maḥarib (Church of the Warrior) that I have been unable to track down but which is mentioned on various websites that list Barakat’s works. However, it seems unconnected to the two volumes of autobiography. An article in the newspaper al-Quds al-ʿArabī mentions that Barakat does not include it among his works. www. sahafi.jo/arc/art1.php?id=67de37707c425584fa06629dbcc9d03c329dc94b 2 Both accounts were published in another, single edition entitled al-Sīratān (Two Autobiographies, Beirut, Dār al-Jadīd, 1998). This title, “Two Autobiographies,” perpetuates the distinctiveness of each text, but in publishing them in a single volume, it prompts a reading that relates to both texts on a continuum. In this consolidated edition, the first volume is called Sīrat al-ṭufūla (autobiography of childhood) and the second Sīrat al-ṣibā (autobiography of youth). Each autobiographical volume has basic and consistent differences, and each illuminates a different period of Barakat’s life. However, both have similar thematic preoccupations, and both probe the role of violence in the protagonist’s childhood environment. 3 See (Meyer 2001, 87). 4 All translations are mine from the single volume published in 1980. Barakat’s autobiographies have not been translated into English, but excerpts were translated into English by Mona Zaki and appeared in Banipal in 2002.
The Iron Grasshopper 113
114 The Iron Grasshopper Munif, A. (1994). Sīrat madīna: ʿAmmān fī ’l-arbaʿīnāt (Story of a City: Amman in the Forties). Beirut: al-Muʾassasa al-ʿarabiyya li’l-dirāsāt wa’l-nashr. Ribeiro, R. (2011). Marginal, Nomadic and Stateless: Pessoa, Musil and Kafka in the Works on Maria Gabriela Llansol. In: Rossella M. Riccobono, ed. The Poetics of the Margins: Mapping Europe from the Interstices. Bern: Peter Lang, 157–186. Tejel, J. (2009). Syria in Transition, 1946–1963. In: Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics, Society. New York: Routledge, 38–52.
Casting the Self through Outcasts Mohamed Choukri’s Streetwise
Introduction This is the only chapter in this study to hone in on the second volume of an autobiography, rather than the first or only volume. The decision to focus on a second volume may seem all the more remarkable given that it follows a brilliant first volume that continues to attract much attention. My analysis here will focus on Mohamed Choukri’s1 al-Shuṭṭār (1992, literally, The Picaros or The Clever Ones translated into English in 1996 by Ed Emery as Streetwise), 2 which was published about twenty years after Choukri wrote al-Khubz al-ḥāfī (1972, The Barefoot Bread, translated as For Bread Alone).3 Streetwise has received less scholarly and literary attention, despite being no less of a literary triumph than For Bread Alone.4 We first encounter Mohamed5 in For Bread Alone, whose narration is focalized through a naïve narrator, who chronicles things as they happen with the awareness of a child and of an illiterate. Mohamed is from the Rif (the countryside in northeastern Morocco where the Amazigh, also known as Berbers, live), forced by famine to leave the Rif in search of food, first to Tangier, then Tetuan. Over the course of the Amazigh family’s migration, Mohamed faces not only hunger but also extreme violence from his father, who even kills his four-year-old brother. The narrative concludes in 1956 with his decision, made while in jail for a petty crime, to attend school in Larache to learn to read and write. This coincides with the year Morocco receives independence from colonial governing powers, thereby aligning personal intellectual independence with national independence and situating literacy in terms of gaining national autonomy and freedom. This evokes a vague sense of hope, despite ending at the gravesite of the brother murdered by their father, signifying entrapment in a cycle of suffering and death. Streetwise begins where For Bread Alone leaves off, chronicling Mohamed’s entry into literacy as well as Morocco’s entry into the era of independence. He begins his studies in Larache. As in For Bread Alone, in Streetwise death, hunger and violence are dominant themes. Alongside these themes, Choukri depicts a nascent passion for reading that flourishes as the narrative progresses. This passion is injected into the
116 Streetwise narrative explicitly by incorporating names of specific books and writers, short excerpts from poems, and also four of Mohamed’s own poems as part of the text. Mohamed begins writing; a newspaper publishes his first short prose piece. He describes the people he meets in bars and cafes, and acquaintances who flutter in and out of his life. He describes visits to his family, including multiple visits to his mother in the hospital. He describes his father’s relentlessly violent behavior, even when Mohamed is already an adult, and the friends who take him in when he runs away. In Streetwise, the autobiographical subject’s identity is illuminated by weaving his story through other stories, whether written pieces (books, poems) or stories about others. The book spans about thirty-five years, starting when the protagonist is 21 years old in 1956, up until about 1990–1991. For Bread Alone’s naïve narrator does not espouse an explicit political stance, nor does he seem to have the political awareness to enable him to do so. This has led various scholars to interpret the vague insinuations of a broader collective in different—opposing—ways. Tetz Rooke points out the representative function of the autobiographical subject as a symbol of a larger collective. By extension, Rooke reads the narrative of personal liberation in For Bread Alone as an allegory for Morocco’s national liberation, in which “the life of the hero and the life of the nation merge” (1997a, 295).6 In contrast, Natalie Khazaal reads For Bread Alone and Streetwise as an alternative history (alternative to the Moroccan nationalist narrative) about the oppression of the Amazigh Riffian (Berber) people, as distinct from that of Moroccan Arabs. Arab and Amazigh identities are distinct, and after independence, the Arab government discriminated against the Amazigh. Khazaal elucidates that Mohamed was not always aligned with the nationalists: In Al-Khubz and Al-Shutṭ ̣ār, Choukri clearly distinguishes himself and the Amazigh from Arab nationalists in their response to the colonial regime. In Al-Khubz, he describes how Riffians turn to vandalism and looting moments after being recruited in the anticolonial protests of 1952. In Al-Shutṭ ̣ār, he denounces the nationalist mob in the city of Larache during the immediate post-independence period. (2013, 150) I suggest framing this scholarly disagreement about the broader communal affiliation of Choukri’s autobiographies in terms of the discourse on relational autobiography. It is instructive that the arguments of both Rooke and Khazaal are inspired by the question of the relation between the autobiographical subject and his group environment. Both Rooke and Khazaal attempt to situate the autobiographical subject within a cohesive group context, be it “Moroccan” or “Amazigh” (Berber) and both read the text’s amorphous allusions to a collective as references to
Streetwise 117 explicitly defined groups and to the narrative’s (or Choukri’s) implicit political stance. I take this question of the relationship between the autobiographical subject and his environment as my point of departure in this chapter. Should Choukri’s obscure allusions to a Moroccan collective or to a Berber-speaking identity really be taken to mean that the narrator is writing either a national allegory (as Rooke maintains) or an alternative history of Amazigh oppression (as Khazaal avers, 148)? How does Choukri embed his autobiographical subject in a broader context, and how does the narrative articulate this broader context? How does the text delineate the identity of the individual autobiographical subject in relation to other people and in relation to diverse historical or cultural concerns? My main purpose in this chapter is to explore the relational strategies of Streetwise. I contend that Mohamed’s narrative identity is refracted through two interconnected strategies: first, it is expressed by featuring the decisive and continuous impact of books (and by extension, writing); and second, it is expressed by the decisive impact of acquaintances. The stories of many “others” are recounted in detail and at length—stories of ruffians, artists, mental patients, vagabonds, and societal outcasts. Following from this, in this chapter I argue that the autobiographical self is discursively constituted through the medium of literature: the works of literature and genres that the narrative interpolates bespeak, insinuate or adumbrate aspects of the narrator’s own story and identity. The second part of my argument is that the stories of “others” express aspects of Choukri’s own textual identity. The crux of my argument is that both of these levels of Mohamed’s relational narrative identity—the one literary, and the other, the spoken stories of “others”—articulate his exclusion and estrangement from mainstream society, and express a form of belonging that is based on brief encounters, on continual rupture, and on fleeting experiences of affinity. The twofold relational paradigm of Streetwise that I suggest in this study draws from Paul John Eakin’s typology of a relational life in autobiography, but I want to stress that the paradigm that I identify in Choukri’s narrative stretches Eakin’s model in a direction that Eakin does not expressly state. In order to preserve the usefulness of the label of “relationality,” Eakin applies it to those autobiographies that feature the decisive impact of either “an entire social environment (a particular kind of family, or a community and its institutions—schools churches and so forth)” or “key other individuals, usually family members, especially parents” (1999, 69). Considering Rocío G. Davis’ contention that “writers continually open up possibilities for self-representation” (2011, 3), I suggest adapting the idea of relationality that Eakin uses in reference to people (individuals or groups) or to a particular environment, and showing how Choukri expands it in two directions. First, I apply Eakin’s conceptualization of relationality to the role of books in the narrative.
118 Streetwise Second, in applying the concept of relationality to this narrative, I suggest that Streetwise reflects an inverted articulation of the concept of “an entire social environment.” Instead of presenting a consolidated milieu, Choukri purposely subverts the representation of mainstream homogeneity, as I will show, tracing a relational model that emphasizes heterogeneity, alienation, unconnectedness and transience. Relational connections between Mohamed and the characters portrayed accentuates the chaos, indifference and cruelty at the hands of people in mainstream society, both preindependence and afterward, and thus a lack of identification and connection. Crucial to Choukri’s relational strategy is that it articulates detachment, not communal or group affiliation. Choukri does not convey an entire social environment because for him, there is no whole but only fragments—outcasts and people who do not fit in or belong. The people who traipse through the narrative do not comprise an “entire” consolidated social environment, and they do not even have an ongoing presence in his life. They are characters who chance through the life of the autobiographical subject as he moves from place to place, shuffling in and out of his life. Sometimes, they are connected to each other (for example, the patients in the mental ward), and sometimes, they are individuals not connected to any other characters in the narrative. Not only do these characters not constitute a single identifiable social environment or community, but, to the contrary, the characters are diverse, dubious from the point of view of mainstream society, many of them on its fringes, or “invisible” to it, outside of it. The people Choukri describes do not comprise a distinct “type” or group. On the contrary, they subvert any attempt to delineate a clear-cut group, whether bound by a neighborhood or city or whether ethnic (Arab, Amazigh/Berber, Moroccan nationalist, Muslim). In fact, the only place where the diverse characters ever come together is in the pages of Streetwise. Moreover, many of the characters are marginal to the narrative itself, not significant with regard to the overall storyline or to the life story of Mohamed, and they enter into his life only briefly. Although they may enter into hiss life only for a day, a week or a month, textual identity is construed largely in relation to them, to their stories as recounted by the narrator and to the ideas that they interject into the narrative. In this chapter, I explore in what ways the autobiographical subject’s identity is refracted, expressed and constructed in relation to these “significant insignificant others.” I am deliberately inverting the term Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson use to categorize different kinds of relational “others” in an autobiography. They describe “significant others, whose stories are deeply implicated in the narrator’s and through whom the narrator understands her or his own self-formation” (2010, 86). As far as the storyline is concerned, many of the characters in Streetwise could be seen as what Smith and Watson call “contingent others,”
Streetwise 119 those “who populate the text as actors in the narrator’s script of meaning but are not deeply reflected on” (ibid.). However, in Streetwise, these contingent others are, in fact, significant and deeply reflected upon, and as such, I will examine in what ways they engender Mohamed’s textual self. Taken together, the “significant insignificant others” do not form a cohesive whole but a shattered, disintegrated collective. This leads to a paradoxical mode of relationality: Mohamed’s identity is forged not through belonging but through persistent unbelonging. He builds his identity and focuses his introspection around the fleeting “others” he describes. This contrasts with the relational model in which the autobiographical subject incorporates a “proximate other” or “key significant other” into the narrative to such an extent that it is hard to distinguish between them, such as Hanan al-Shaykh’s autobiography/biography of her mother (My Life Is an Intricate Tale, 2005) discussed in Chapter 2 of this book. Unlike the entwining of the stories of mother and daughter in al-Shaykh’s auto/biography, the relational strategy in Streetwise draws attention to un-relation. Streetwise also contrasts with such autobiographies as those by Abd al-Rahman Munif and Salim Barakat. In those autobiographies, which I discuss in this book in Chapters 4 and 5 respectively, the autobiographical subject is depicted as one of a group of children growing up in a circumscribed environment. In both of those autobiographies, it is sometimes difficult to isolate the voice of the autobiographical subject because it is associated so closely with the group. Hanna Abu Hanna, whose autobiography I discuss in Chapter 8, also situates his autobiographical subject in what Eakin would call “an entire social environment” (1999, 69) in his efforts to vivify the ambience, folklore, culture and vernacular of his childhood in Palestine. Streetwise contrasts with these relational models because, rather than inculcating the autobiographical subject in relation to a well-defined environment, Choukri situates him within a layered and fractured collage of voices that expresses Mohamed’s tenuous identity, hovering between the extremes of intimacy and loneliness, between companionship and isolation. Mohamed’s environment is idiosyncratic, individual, erratic and vacillating.
Al-Shuṭṭār (Streetwise): Calling to Mind Picaresque Literature That the autobiographical subject is mediated through portrayals of “significant insignificant others” is already suggested in the book’s title, which is plural, not singular, and therefore situates Mohamed as one among many shuṭṭār. The term shuṭṭār embodies the paradoxical idea of belonging through a collective of outsiders. Shuṭṭār can refer to rogues or ruffians, but “picaros” is a more precise translation, conveying as it does the insinuation of picaresque literature that the title seems to suggest,
120 Streetwise since, in Arabic, picaresque literature is termed adab al-shuṭṭār. This title therefore embodies the text’s twofold relational strategy through a term that indicates both a type of person and a type of literature. This reverberates the relational duality of Mohamed’s textual identity, effectuated in relation to books and to people—specifically in relation to shuṭṭār, the picaros who populate “picaresque literature.” Critic Sabry Hafez points to the affinity of Streetwise to picaresque literature and suggests that Choukri does not emulate picaresque literature as much as he extracts its spirit, imbibes its different aspects and draws inspiration from it (1992, 221). Picaresque literature has spanned continents, centuries and languages; it has transformed over time, and elements of picaresque literature can be found in various modern genres.7 Given that picaresque literature does not entail a stable set of rules of a coherent genre, I find it hard to discern a difference between emulating picaresque literature and extracting its spirit. Through both title and relational strategies, Choukri situates Streetwise within a literary tradition that juxtaposes an intellectual, poetic, literary predilection with low-life experiences of characters from the margins of society and describes painful or shocking situations with a humorous tone. Streetwise similarly embodies similar juxtaposition between drifters and an intellectual point of view. This is articulated in Streetwise’s relational strategy that focuses on the diverse literature that Mohamed reads and remarks upon on the one hand (although often depicting violent content), and, on the other hand, on personal stories exposing the underbelly of society, such as prostitutes, criminals, the destitute, violent people, victims of violence and people in mental wards. Much picaresque literature focused on “the day-to-dayness of habit and practical routine … Marginal materials became a central focus of attention…” (Maiorino 1996, xvi). Linking poverty with social criticism, medieval Spanish picaresque novels focused on “the autobiographical life of a single individual from birth to adulthood” exposing “bankrupt aspects of sixteenth century culture in Spain” (ibid., 3). Streetwise has a similar focus on banal day-to-day-ness. Through depictions of his own suffering and that of the destitute, exploited and marginalized people he encounters, Choukri voices penetrating social criticism. In Streetwise, the historical and political background is depicted only through the autobiographical subject’s personal experiences. This is different from such autobiographies as Fadwa Tuqan’s Mountainous Journey (Riḥla Ṣa‘ba, Riḥla Jabaliyya, 1985), in which she describes historical events and even includes excerpts from historical accounts or from newspaper clippings. She interpolates the voice of the autobiographical subject with an authoritative narrator who supplies the reader with information about contemporaneous historical events that inform the background of the protagonist’s personal experiences. Unlike For Bread Alone, in Streetwise, the narrator occasionally fills the reader in on background details known only retrospectively but only those relating to Mohamed’s
Streetwise 121 personal life, not background on politics or history. Here is an example: “My father would die in 1979, 22 years later” (2000, 9, my translation). In the second chapter of Streetwise, the narrator describes a postindependence demonstration against the Spanish inhabitants remaining in Tangiers, including agents of colonialism and soldiers. The mob lynches the Spanish pasha’s manservant, and then continues on a rampage of looting and killing anyone deemed a traitor. A crucifixion is described in graphic detail: the narrator is a helpless and terrified witness. This is one of only two chapters (the other chapter is “Rosario”) that include footnotes (in the Arabic) to explain the historical particulars to the reader. Choukri chooses not to include elucidations in the body of the text. The decision is to limit narration to Mohamed’s perspective as a spectator. Moreover, it shifts the focus from a specific political stance to a focus on repulsive human behavior: “This mass of moving flesh had entirely lost its humanity” (1996, 21).8 Mohamed is astonished and repulsed by the bloodthirsty people, by the lack of government or police intervention, and by the sheer glee of the killers. This exposes Choukri’s political stance as a humanist, and for this reason, the autobiographical subject cannot be considered an allegory for the Moroccan nation, as Rooke contends. It is true that, as Khazaal suggests, Choukri’s narrative incorporates rather than excludes the Amazigh. However, it is also the case that his objective is not exclusively to expose the existence, suffering and discrimination experienced by the Amazigh but rather (and this is true of For Bread Alone too) to expose human suffering per se and human responsibility for the suffering of others. Choukri’s politics as expressed in his autobiography do not revolve around colonialism, nationalism or discrimination against one particular group. Even when he incorporates historical events into the narrative, what captivates him is human misery perpetrated by other humans. Echoing the enterprise of picaresque literature, Choukri’s narratives encompass broad social criticism, exposing many types of marginalized people usually excluded from official historical records. William Granara reads protagonists of works of modern North African literature, including Choukri’s autobiographical texts, as heirs and permutations of the Arabic rogue (ṣu‘lūk, shāṭir) from the classical maqāma tradition and nineteenth century reworkings of the maqāma (Arabic picaresque narrative). He suggests that one way of broadly defining it is “as a story structured around the episodic adventures of a roguish, conniving, or socially marginalized character whose verbal virtuosity and cunning often allow him to negotiate his survival in a chaotic world” (2003, 53). He concludes that “The picaresque ethos encapsulates the political and psychological displacement of the modern North African who tries to maneuver his way through the oppressions of political and religious authority, poverty and social stagnation” (ibid., 54). This description encapsulates the ethos of Streetwise. In alluding to these premodern Arabic genres, the title therefore provides a key to the relational model of Streetwise, written in intertextual
122 Streetwise relation to picaresque literature; and also in relation to other picaros. Reading Streetwise in relation to the conventions of picaresque literature illuminates the process of articulating identity in the narrative, and understanding the contradictions and paradoxes built into Choukri’s model of self-representation. It is crucial for understanding the intersection of personal and public in a text whose purpose is to expose the odious and repulsive aspects of society by transforming them into literature. In Streetwise, the narrator foregrounds a conscious awareness of the act of formulating a written, artistic form of self-representation; on several occasions, he writes about the act of writing the autobiography itself. One example of this kind of reflexivity is, “I write these memoirs (mudhakkirāt) as I listen to Ode to Joy in the Ninth Symphony and Chopin’s First Nocturne…” (2000, 167, my translation). Statements of this type expose the act of writing the text that the reader is reading. Not only does Choukri draw attention to the production of these memoirs that the reader is reading, but in Streetwise, he also specifically addresses the project of writing. He alludes to the artifice and control, perhaps deception, inherent in writing; he shows how the writer’s idiosyncratic representation controls how the reader experiences the content that is conveyed. The point of writing is not mimesis but the creation of a poetics that expresses the writer’s experience. Choukri addresses the conventions of the representation of ugliness in writing and asserts that the role of art is to transform what is offensive—whether physically ugly or emotionally painful or repulsive— into beauty. This recalls a feature of picaresque narratives that “poeticize the social disorder and psychic disintegration” (Granara 2003, 54). This preoccupation with the possibility for representation to transform social chaos, disorder, ugliness and pain into art/literature is discussed explicitly in the chapter “Beauty Revisited,” which affirms the incongruity between “actual” ugliness and Choukri’s written representation of it. The writer-narrator tells us that he is writing some of the chapters of “this book,” as he calls it, in 1990. During the previous summer, a Japanese friend, who was in the midst of translating the first volume of Choukri’s autobiography into Japanese, visits Tangiers. He decides that in order to achieve a good translation, he should visit the places that Choukri writes about, and so he asks the autobiographical subject to take him to where the events in the book occurred. Upon seeing the cistern described in the book, the Japanese friend says, “In your book you described this cistern and everything around it as if it was very beautiful. But it’s not. What’s more, there’s nothing to suggest that it was beautiful even in those days” (1996, 80). The writer’s response to his friend encapsulates the essence of his outlook on the role of art and on the uniqueness of the autobiographical perspective: That’s the purpose of art—to make life beautiful even when it’s ugly. In my mind’s eye I still see this water tank as beautiful, and that’s
Streetwise 123 the way I am always going to remember it. Even if it really was only a muddy puddle. What’s more, when I wrote that description, I was a long way away from it, in time and space. (ibid.) In this reflexive passage (in the sense that he writes about the writing of the book itself, even noting that this occurs as he is writing these paragraphs of this “autobiography,” sīra dhātiyya, in 1990),9 the writer articulates his spatial and temporal distance from the cistern at the time he wrote about it. By embellishing the description, he distances the reader from the “actual” ugliness of the object, by portraying as beautiful something that was not beautiful. In so doing, he expresses that the object only exists through the subjective point of view of the writer. To his mind, the point of writing is to convey subjective experience and point of view, not objective reality. Calling to mind a prominent characteristic of decadent writing, Choukri’s descriptions strive to confirm the power of art, which can embellish and transform what is offensive, whether physically ugly or emotionally painful or repulsive, into beauty. This is one of the primary objectives of both volumes of autobiography. However, in Streetwise, Choukri foregrounds this as an explicitly stated process. He draws attention to the act of writing as an aesthetic endeavor whose goal is to describe social misery, disorder and inequity through aesthetic distance, or, in Edward Bullough’s words, “psychical distance” (1912, 87). As spectators, the readers experience the desolation of the original, actual experience from a distance and from an artistic perspective that generate aesthetic pleasure. Choukri poeticizes the autobiographical subject’s experiences of marginalization and displacement, as well as those of the people he encounters. As he writes elsewhere in Streetwise: “Beauty is created by hardships” (2000, 196, my translation). Florian Kohstall observes that Choukri writes to let his misery speak: “The only escape from misery is the art of writing itself” (2015, 104). I would like to suggest that the psychic distance engendered by Choukri’s poeticization of the repulsive and the ugly is in itself a form of estrangement. As I will show below, estrangement is also generated by his relational strategies and is central to the feeling of dissociation and detachment produced by the text. The rest of the chapter will be devoted to an examination of this twofold relational model.
Relational Tendencies in Streetwise: Books, Reading and Writing In For Bread Alone, literacy enters as an idea and a hope at the end of the narrative; however, in Streetwise, literacy is part of a protracted process, and therefore it comprises a pivotal and continuous theme throughout the narrative.10 In For Bread Alone, literacy is a symbol of rebirth,
124 Streetwise which is particularly meaningful in a narrative so suffused with death. What, then, is made of this symbol in Streetwise, when it is transformed from ethereal hope to an enterprise? Streetwise does not start with an ecstatic or even hopeful beginning. The road to literacy is a difficult one; although twenty years old, Mohamed must study in a school with young boys. Streetwise is not a story of rebirth as much as it is a story of successive rebirths. For example, when Mohamed passes the exam for teacher training school, he describes it in terms of a rebirth—“it felt like I was being born again”—but one that does not shield him from either ignorance or from life’s miseries, as he had hoped (1996, 77). The autobiographical subject does not leave his “old life” behind. This is possibly the most surprising aspect of Streetwise, one that we can read in terms of the paradox of the intellectual outcast antihero in picaresque narratives. In other words, Mohamad incorporates his marginal status into his new status as literate-cum-writer and burgeoning intellectual, rather than casting this development as a metamorphosis. He incorporates reading and the possibilities that literacy offers (eventually becoming a writer and professor) into a life of continued poverty. Beyond literacy, the narrative unfolds his burgeoning passion for literature—mostly Arabic but also Spanish and English: “The demon of literature had begun to take possession of me …” (88). Not only are reading, writing and books a central theme, but allusions to them are employed as a relational strategy in which the vacillating textual identity of Mohamed is expressed through the books he specifies. For example, he reads Les Misérables during his Educational Theory and Psychology class and is thrown out of class for reading, perhaps drawing a parallel between himself and Jean Valjean, the poverty-stricken protagonist of Les Misérables who is accused of a crime he actually committed but receives a punishment disproportionate to his crime. Reading and booksare employed as a fundamental part of the narrative strategy to adumbrate aspects of his own identity. Allusions to specific books are mentioned not for “name-dropping of literary greats” (Civantos 2006, 42) but to broaden the textual field through intertextual references. The narrator obscures the distinction between “reality” and “literature,” for example, “I only loved what was fleeting. Love, in fact, didn’t interest me unless it was big and fantastic, like in a book …” (1996, 133). This blurring of “real” feeling with the feelings generated by reading serves as a code for how to understand his references to books and writers. The following excerpt acknowledges the extent to which Rousseau’s Confessions was influential for Mohamed: “I’d always had a close affinity with internal turmoil. Rousseau’s Confessions taught me how one can gain consolation in the appreciation of the small things that others neglect. But I was getting into a pretty terrible state” (113). Yet, several lines later, he writes that he hears the bar owner telling a waiter,
Streetwise 125 “Poor guy, his books have driven him crazy.” In other words, books may also negatively influence him, pulling him more deeply into states of depression and alienation. Another customer describes the autobiographical subject with these words, with which the chapter ends: “I saw him sleeping out one night in a doorway opposite the Bar Monocle. He was using his books as a pillow. May Allah help him!” (ibid.). This vivid portrayal epitomizes the paradoxical amalgam of vagabond and intellectual, and therefore books as objects that can be used as needed (as pillows), or read for content. At the beginning of his depiction of his stay in a mental ward, he inserts two pithy sentences, seemingly as part of the stream-of- consciousness narration but, in fact, fundamental to his portrayal of his surroundings: “I was reading a biography of Van Gogh, and how his life had begun with a dream and ended in despair” (1996, 114). The allusion to this biography he “happened” to be reading can be read as shorthand for how he sees himself at that moment—a suffering, tortured artist. Similarly, he compares his heavy drinking to Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac, whose heavy drinking ultimately kills them (153). It is relevant that Choukri mentions Kerouac, given that his stream-of-consciousness style and the protagonist (autobiographical subject) he envisions seem to draw inspiration from Kerouac’s On the Road. He alludes to Henry Thoreau as an example of a writer who was able to break off from city life and its pressures to find inspiration and a better life in the forest. I move to an analysis of an allusion that shows how intertextuality is employed to envisage Mohamed’s relational environment. The chapter “Blockade” unfolds his friendship with a mentally unstable man named Qasem, a man who was agonized by the fact that his mother had been a prostitute. He describes the end of their friendship, an evening when Qasem comes to visit Mohamed, bringing a ratchet knife along with him, and opening it in a way that frightens Mohamed. Mohamed describes a “crazy scene,” after which Qasem puts the knife away—but Mohamed hears later that he attacked his mother that same night. I want to focus on the single sentence that the narrator slips in as the tension builds and the “crazy scene” unfolds: “I was reading a novel–Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, in a Spanish translation” (1996, 142). Perfume came out in German in 1985, so it follows that this scene takes place in the late 1980s, something we would not know if we did not know the book’s year of publication. There is no explanation about what the novel is about or why he mentions it here, other than this apparent coincidence that this was what he was reading at the time. Even so, why mention it at this particular moment? An answer can be found in the fact that the novel Perfume revolves around a misfit-vagabond-outcast who uses superhuman abilities to identify scents to carry out murder. By insinuating this book into the text, he casts his own “real” story in a literary context, since the suspense scene he depicts echoes aspects of the murderous
126 Streetwise ambience of the novel Perfume. Further, it intimates a connection between the protagonist of Perfume and Qasem, since both disappear from mainstream society, as we learn about Qasem at the end of the chapter. Whether or not the intertextual reference was intended to generate a profound comparison or not, its placement, and the fact that it so neatly adumbrates aspects of the scene described in the chapter, routes our reading of the scene through this reference. This allusion not only positions Mohamed as a reader but also indicates that the content of the books he reads intermingle with the actual events in his life, as though the two worlds, the actual and the literary, leak into each other in a sort of mise en abyme in which it is not clear which is the original and which is the replica. Interestingly, the autobiographical subject says of himself: “I was on the verge of becoming as crazy as him” (1996 143), comparing himself to Qasem. This introduces another relational factor, not only suggesting a literary double for Qasem but also implicating himself, as though suggesting that both of these characters, Qasem and the murderer in Perfume, refract aspects of himself. The narrator’s identification with Qasim, and by extension with the character in Perfume, underlines the role of literary references in this book to mirror aspects of himself. He reads with empathy for the literary characters, and sees his reflection in them, even to the point of identifying a potential for insanity. The fact that Choukri does not elaborate on the content of this book (and similarly with other references that are mentioned as though arbitrarily), and the reason for the reference, situates it as a kind of hint for the reader. He leaves it to the reader to infer (or not) the connection between the reference and the autobiography, thereby composing a text that can be read on two levels, one for the reader who is familiar with the references and one for the reader who is not. Choukri’s relational strategy of incorporating literary references or authors is his way of illuminating his own identity. For example, he reads books by Mustafa Manfaluti, Gibran Khalil Gibran and Mai Ziadeh because he has heard that they wrote about “true love.” Although he finds comfort in reading what they wrote, he observes that for them, love is predicated on death, sadness or craziness (1996, 44). His own views on love are articulated in relation to writings of other writers, everything he says about them implies that his views differ from theirs. In addition to references to books and their writers, the narrator also incorporates actual characters who are writers, most notably Moroccan writer Mohamed al-Sabbagh, whom he meets in a café and from whom he initially draws inspiration. In this chapter, I distinguish between two relational strategies: one is intertextual references and the other is the people whose stories he incorporates and through whom his own narrative self is shaped. Mohamed al-Sabbagh seems to straddle the boundary between both of these categories, since he is a writer like other writers mentioned by Choukri, but unlike them, he is an actual character in the
Streetwise 127 book. Al-Sabbagh serves as an initial source of inspiration for the novice writer. I want to emphasize the relational element, here employed as a contrast—to show who Mohamed is not. On the one hand, the autobiographical subject draws inspiration from al-Sabbagh and benefits from his comments on his writing. He buys al-Sabbagh’s books, reads them and tries to emulate his writing. On the other hand, as the autobiographical subject gets to know al-Sabbagh and progresses with his own writing, the differences between them become increasingly conspicuous. Choukri writes, “… but he was clay of one kind and I was clay of another” (92). He describes the differences between them: “He didn’t have to eat the garbage of the rich. He didn’t have lice like me. His ankles weren’t all sore and bleeding …” (ibid.). As Özkan Ezli observes, in Streetwise, “… Choukri characterizes himself as a political writer of the streets, in direct contrast to the Moroccan author Mohamed al-Sabbagh” (2010, 463). Significantly, visiting al-Sabbagh’s flat is described as entering into a still life: “Grapes, apples and pears in a large metal bowl; a subdued light that deepened the effect of the poetic silence” (1996, 91). This description draws attention to the gap between the conditions of his life and those of al-Sabbagh, and by extension, to the different writing modes of each. Unlike al-Sabbagh’s writing, which is refined in style and content, Choukri’s art is transgressive, brutal, obscene, emanating from palpable pain and instability, from the banal search for a bed or a home, from uncertainty and apprehension, focusing on people and topics that are usually suppressed. It is symbolic that his meetings with al-Sabbagh, an actual writer, are described in terms of walking into a painting, thus embodying him through the aesthetic experience, as though turning him from a character into an allusion; al-Sabbagh forges art out of beauty, whereas Choukri transforms the grotesque and the banal into art. To conclude this discussion of the role of books and writing in the relational strategy of Streetwise, I want to draw attention to the poems inserted into the body of the autobiography (which, interestingly, are not translated or even mentioned in Emery’s English translation of Streetwise). Three poems are inserted into the autobiography: “Daffodils” (2000, 163–164), “Matchbox” (165) and “Incense” (166). The autobiography concludes with one final poem, longer than the other three, “Ṭanjīs” (a version of the city name Tangier, 213–217). The poems stand on their own: nowhere does the author allude to them or explain why they are included in the autobiography, when or where they were written, or offer any information about them or their placement in the autobiography. It is significant that if we see the rest of the autobiography as revealing that the autobiographical subject is a prose writer, these poems spell out his identity as a poet. It is noteworthy that the first poem describes what sounds like an impossible love: “It pleases me to contemplate your eyes / They are practically oranges / And your hair hanging down like gleaming cacao … Your delicious lips impose roadblocks /
128 Streetwise On my war-ridden mouth. / Fighting is my last weapon. / And I love myself. …” (2000, 163, my translation). The ending seems to suggest an impossible rendezvous. This resonates with the stories recounted in the prose text, and can be read as emanating from encounters that reveal love to be painful and fleeting. The other two poems are also striking in the way they fuse beauty with agony. Here is an excerpt from “Matchbox”: “All of me rolled to the countryside: / Bones … excretions … beauty … / I passed by someone who took me with him. / He put me in a matchbox / And as a result the matches are burning, / So they say” (2000, 165, my translation). The third poem is “Incense”: The snow falls. / Blue rains down upon the room, / and we are together, / our flesh stripped from us. / They left nothing of us but bones, / But the smoke of the body parts rises / With a snail-like slowness. / Outside, blue rains down, / Inside, incense rains down, / And we are emaciated, undying, torn, / Perpetually melting into an exquisite vanishing ecstasy. (2000, 166, my translation) I include these excerpts here because they are powerful expressions of how descriptions of physical love meld into descriptions of torture and how pain is described in aesthetic terms. The poem “Ṭanjīs” that concludes the autobiography can be read as an ode to Tangier, in which praise is infused with invective and vituperation. In it, Choukri articulates the rupture in the attachments he forms with people and places: closeness and warmth mingled with blunt vulgarity.11 The past and present symbols of Tangier’s history and beauty are experienced as pain and alienation. These poems adumbrate the overall aesthetic expression of suffering, and the synthesis of beauty and pain that the prose narrative expresses. Rather than recounting a specific story, as the prose narrative does, the poems express the ideas in terms that dissociate from the specific stories of the prose text, instead focusing entirely on emotions through abstract expression. They are detached from chronology and actual events and characters, and this detachment is deepened by the decision not to write the place or date that the poems were written. They lack all context, both in terms of the writing of the poems and in terms of reference to specific events. In this sense, the poems distill the ethos of the prose text into pure feeling, disconnected from specific characters or events.
Relational Tendencies in Streetwise: Brigands, Misfits and Picaros As noted, the relational paradigm of Streetwise contrasts with relational paradigms of other autobiographies I analyze in this book, which situate the autobiographical subject in relation to a single key “proximate
Streetwise 129 other” or in relation to a consolidated group. In Streetwise, the autobiographical subject’s textual identity is produced largely in relation to the stories of others, but these others are not part of a concentrated community. Rather than cohesiveness, Choukri’s relational paradigm is founded on disintegration, transience and rare, fleeting moments of belonging. These “others” tend to be misfits, outcasts, who do not conform to a specific, consolidated group in Moroccan society.12 The narrative occasionally describes the people as ṣa‘ālīk, the plural of ṣu‘lūk, meaning “vagabond.” If a single term can be said to encompass the autobiographical subject and his relational interlocutors, this is it. It also articulates the paradoxical idea of a group whose main characteristics are disjunction, disaffiliation and alienation from clear-cut groups within society. Mohamed uses this term, for example, when describing a young girl who joins up with them in their living quarters in Larache, who cooks for them, drinks with them and sleeps between Mohamed and his companion Hamid. Her name is never mentioned, but the narrative relays bits of her background, for example, that she is an orphan. Hamid had met her in Tangier, where she had been living with the ṣa‘ālīk (2000, 52). This term recalls the ṣu‘lūk, the brigand-poet who was one of the poetheroes of pre-Islamic poetry. The ṣu‘lūk is cut off from his tribal community, living on his own in the desert. Existential themes evoked by ṣu‘lūk poetry resonate in Streetwise. As Michael A. Sells observes, “Within the heroic battle-boast as an affirmation of human struggle is a meditation upon fate and the absurdity of the human condition” (1989, 6). Such musings are expressed by Mohamed, as we can see in what he says to the mukhtar after they finish reading La Symphonie Pastorale: “I don’t know why fate is always so cruel to good people and brings good things to bad people What did poor Gertrude do to deserve what happened to her in the book?” (1996, 64). Furthermore, in ṣu‘lūk poetry, “the hierarchies of tribal society and the sense of self-identity that the boast is upholding begin to unravel from within” (Sells 1989, 7). Natalie Khazaal suggests that the ṣu‘lūk serves as a literary archetype for the autobiographical subject in For Bread Alone and Streetwise. She offers a careful comparison of For Bread Alone and sa‘lik poems to reveal parallels in structure. In the context of the present study, I point out that by designating the characters as “ṣa‘ālīk,” Choukri draws an analogy between modern-day societal outcasts, and the well-known motif of the ṣu‘lūk in Arabic literary tradition. The ṣu‘lūk poem expresses a perversion or a deviation from social norms and highlights the use of ruse or trickery (Stetkevych 1993, xiii). This general description corresponds to the autobiographical subject in Streetwise, as well as to the liminal characters he describes, who are prostitutes, petty criminals, or who get by on the margins of society. By employing the term ṣu‘lūk in the autobiography, Choukri consciously evokes ṣu‘lūk poetry and juxtaposes the characters in the autobiography with the figure of the ṣu‘lūk, who evinces liminality
130 Streetwise and existence on the margins of tribal society in mythical terms. This further complicates the paradox of belonging through unbelonging inscribed by the text’s relational paradigm, since this subversive text is, nevertheless, written in terms of a classic archetype from the Arabic literary tradition. For Choukri, the landscape is one of rupture, and the dominant sentiment is of exclusion from the collective. The friendships or attachments he describes are usually one-on-one, and do not “add up” together to a clear-cut collective in which all of the individuals he describes are included. This undermines arguments that contend that the autobiographical subject should be read as a symbol of a larger collective (such as Natalie Khazaal, whose argument situates the autobiographical subject within a cohesive group context, that of the Amazigh). Streetwise defies all attempts to distinguish or locate a cohesive group, and situates the autobiographical subject as an outcast among outcasts. Mohamed’s relational community consists of individuals, not of groups. Furthermore, these individuals meander in and out of his life and do not form a consistent, or constant, set of companions. In other words, the people mentioned are not “proximate others” (Eakin’s term, 1999, 86), in that they do not appear throughout the narrative. Each character tends to be mentioned in only one or two chapters, such that the interpersonal connections are transitory and evanescent. Nevertheless, I contend that they constitute a relational strategy because the autobiographical subject shapes the narrative around these relationships, around his connection with these individuals and the details of their stories, some of which involve the autobiographical protagonist and some of which do not. His own textual identity is woven through the stories of others. The narrative has two distinct strategies in terms of its description of “others.” The first strategy is to describe one person in passing as part of the setting or background. The second is to describe individuals in great detail, not only including their connection to the autobiographical subject but transcending beyond, unfolding their personal stories. The first strategy is exemplified by the description of Salahami, conveyed as a digression. When Mohamed walks with the blind mukhtar with whom he reads occasionally, he notes that he stops by Salahami’s restaurant on the way to the café to read with the mukhtar. He sells Salahami the stove that the mukhtar had stolen and swears to Salahami that the stove is not stolen property. This anecdote exposes the autobiographical subject’s involvement in petty crime. It also calls attention to Salahami, who slaughters his own chickens for his restaurant. Salahami addresses the chickens before slaughtering them and kills them with a razor instead of a knife in order to alleviate their suffering. As with many anecdotes throughout the narrative, this one seems arbitrary. However, such anecdotes are key to the relational strategy of the narrative that inscribes the story of the autobiographical subject’s worldview. This
Streetwise 131 particular anecdote comprises a fascinating combination of cruelty and concern: killing the chicken, on the one hand, and acknowledging its pain with words of mourning and trying to make its death as painless as possible, on the other. Such anecdotes are crucial to the narrative’s relational paradigm, in which the descriptions of his surroundings (people, events, details of the setting) refract aspects of his own inner state. In Streetwise (as in For Bread Alone), the way the setting is described is symbolic of Mohamed’s inner sensation. For example, toward the beginning of the narrative when he is beginning his studies in Larache, the narrator likens himself to a flower he finds—a beautiful white flower with no smell, that would either wither and die or be trodden underfoot (1996, 11). This serves as an indicator or signal for the reader about how to interpret the descriptions of the settings throughout the book, as expressions of the autobiographical subject’s inner life. That the surroundings personify the autobiographical subject is also demonstrated when he writes that “Drops of rain trickled from my eyes” (1996, 104). The autobiographical subject’s identity is continually unfolded through the descriptions of his surroundings, whether people, books, weather, or setting.
Embedding the Self in the Stories of Others The textual self of the autobiographical subject is inscribed through the prism of intersecting and overlapping stories of other down-andouts/vagabonds/outcasts living on the margins of society. In so doing, Choukri preserves the stories of people whose stories would not otherwise be resurrected or presented in writing; because many of the people whose stories he incorporates are illiterate, thereby embodying a politics of representation that voices stories from people whose voices are usually not heard or recorded in writing. Choukri relays content revolving around survival through prostitution, crime, humiliation, and frames these topics in aesthetic terms, beautifying that which usually prompts revulsion. Choukri weaves his own story through these stories of diverse, unconnected “others.” These “others” are too numerous to be each individually addressed in this chapter without retelling the entire autobiography, and therefore I will discuss several of the relational others to show how his identity is bound up with their stories. The autobiographical subject’s journey into literacy is not a journey away from the down-and-outs with whom he shared company before learning to read and write. Instead, a major change in his coming into literacy is the ability to represent their stories in writing and contextualize within other genres (picaresque, ṣu‘lūk poetry) and in light of other literary works that unfold stories of human misery (Les Misérables, La Symphonie Pastorale, and others). He entangles his textual self in the stories of poverty-stricken others. This entanglement articulates a
132 Streetwise tension between two sides of himself. It entails living in two worlds simultaneously, since becoming literate distinguishes him from many of them. We see this when he begins to read fluently and starts reading books. As he reads a chapter on history, his pickpocket friend Hamid asks, “What’s the point of filling your head with stuff like that? It’s no use for anything.” Mohamed answers, “I don’t agree. Everything that happens now is grafted onto what came before. History matters, whether we like it or not” (1996, 63). This illuminates the clash between Mohamed and his friends who are wary of books and of reading. Yet he does not disentangle himself from them; rather, he embeds his textual identity in their stories. An interesting case in point is including the life story of a woman named Habiba, a woman from his childhood whom he mentions seeing at his mother’s house at one point. He recounts her biography in detail, although there is no obvious reason for including it, as he could have mentioned his passing friendship with her during this summer visit home without recounting her life story. This is one example in which the author blends the stories of others into his personal story. Such seemingly nonessential stories are crucial to how the author builds his personal story in relation to the stories of others. Regarding Habiba, he writes, “I was also comforting [consoling] myself with the thought that my life was no more wonderful than hers” (1996, 93). This rumination illuminates the relational strategy of the embedded stories in Streetwise. The author-narrator inscribes his own suffering in relation to theirs and positions himself in relation to a collective of destitute people from the underbelly of society. After recounting her biography—including marriages, divorces, mental wards, abandoned children, and finally death— the narrative unfolds his interactions with Habiba during Mohamed’s visit home during the summer of 1960. Particularly poignant is the night that he sleeps in her flat, she in her bed and he on the couch. He gets up to join her on her bed but is not wanted there. She protests and then wets herself. The next night she lets him in to her place: Habiba was my saviour that night. I went round to her place again. She welcomed me warmly. She probably understood that I was the best she’d get. Her gentle smile and friendly handshake told me she wasn’t angry with me. She probably needed companionship the same way that I did. (1996, 97) This articulates the shared identity that unites them in loneliness and alienation. Choukri does not recount these stories from an aloof stance but as one of them. Although their lives cross only briefly, the details of her story are bound up in how he sees himself and how he represents himself. Her sadness, her mental instability, her loneliness, her poverty,
Streetwise 133 the fleeting moments of happiness she experiences—Choukri constructs his narrative subjectivity through her story and not only through his actual interaction with her. Another story interpolated into the narrative is that of 62-year-old Maria Rosario in the chapter by that name. Rosario often joins Mohamed in the café and he describes her effect on some of the other customers, given her “Andalusian temperament, even though she was from Avilés” (1996, 100). She tells Mohamed about her husband, a communist who was executed in Tetuan at the hand of “fascists” on Franco’s orders. Her husband’s story is narrated in her voice, as though Mohamed were listening to the story on the pages of the text (2000, 121–124). The autobiographical subject negotiates his identity—neither solely Amazigh nor solely Moroccan Arab—through such broad historical strokes: Rosario’s embedded story complicates the matrix of interwoven stories and memories, broadening and diversifying the spectrum of down-andouts through whose stories he weaves his own story. The details of the individual stories subvert any notion of a clear-cut collective, not only because the stories are so different but because the people are so different; however they are united through their suffering and by being out of the mainstream. By including these diverse stories, Choukri indicates that for him, experience cannot be reduced to “collective experience.” Narrated in Rosario’s direct speech, the narrative recounts the fracturing effects of colonialism from an entirely personal perspective. In so doing, the autobiographical subject rejects a singular foundational identity, instead piecing together an evolving textual identity through the diverse stories. Rosario’s story is of particular significance to Mohamed, although he does not explicitly draw the connection with how the Spanish military dictator Francisco Franco embittered his own life, to her story. Elsewhere, he writes that his father and his friends had been recruited to fight in Franco’s wars and were deserters or wounded ex-soldiers. In this sense, Rosario’s story offers a fragment of his own story—his father might have been different had he not been forced to serve as a soldier in the war of a foreign colonial power. Streetwise’s relational strategy redraws a map of belonging by identifying with and through the marginalized and poverty-stricken, and by subverting the notion that these people comprise a clear-cut group. The chapter “The Forgotten Ones” encapsulates Mohamed’s four-month stay in a mental ward. Here he describes the other patients in detail, relaying their stories and occasionally words of wisdom through their direct speech. For example, one patient declares, “… Everyone is scared of an imaginary chasm they have before them. We fall before we walk. How tall are the trees, but how short are people! Truly the secret of life lies in the secret of growth” (1996, 115). And “… The most beautiful things in this world finish up wrecked and crushed …” (1996, 116). The narrator does not comment on these words, leaving them to resonate in
134 Streetwise the text. Choukri’s relational choices articulate life truths drawn from great literature and from the mouths of illiterate or those deemed mad. Mohamed himself lives a transient life, not only moving physically between cities but also living on the boundary between sanity and madness. That seems to be one of the points of the narrative’s relational strategy, namely, the idea that the lives he depicts, the stories he tells and the speech he quotes subvert the hierarchy between high culture, as represented in the autobiography by references to great literature and low culture of the less educated or illiterate. Furthermore, the narrative seems to subvert the distinction between those inside the mental ward and the people outside. His description of life inside and the stories of madness and violence are no different from the stories of those outside of the hospital. One final point I would like to make is that the relational strategy of including the stories of such a wide range of unconnected “others” establishes the narrator’s identity as a storyteller. In other words, not only does the content of the stories refract and express aspects of his identity, but the stories also have a performative value by establishing him as a storyteller. The autobiographical form chosen by Choukri reveals a fundamentally relational paradigm constructing his identity as a storied identity, a dynamic conglomerate of the people he has encountered and the other stories he has heard.
Notes 1 A more accurate transliteration is Muḥammad Shūkrī, but I refer to him in this chapter according to the common English spelling. 2 Al-Shuṭṭār was for published under the title Zaman Al-akhtā’ (Time of Errors) several months before it was republished as al-Shuṭṭār by Dār al-Sāqī (Khazaal 2013, 167). I refer to it as Streetwise in this chapter because I think that the title captures the sense of the original Arabic, which connotes a blend of smarts and cunning. 3 Al-Khubz al-ḥāfī was published first in the English translation by Paul Bowles and only ten years later in Arabic. It was banned in Morocco until 2002. 4 In his “Afterword” to the Arabic original of al-Shuṭṭār (Streetwise), literary critic Sabry Hafez argues that both texts constitute two volumes of a unified text. From the perspective of the basic chronology of both texts, this assertion seems compelling: Streetwise picks up chronologically from the place where For Bread Alone ends—in 1956, with the narrator-protagonist’s transformative decision to learn to read and write. Both volumes offer a first-person account of the same autobiographical subject, discernible despite his transformation from a illiterate child-cum-adolescent in the first volume into a lettered adult. I do not read both volumes as two parts of a unified whole, not least because twenty years pass between the writing of both texts. More conspicuous than the time gap are the divergent literary styles of each text, some of which Hafez himself points out. Although chronologically a sequel to For Bread Alone, each work is written in distinctive narrative styles, and therefore the second volume is not merely a continuation of the same text; it
5 6 7 8 9
is a second volume of Choukri’s autobiography but not the second volume of the “same” autobiography. Note the distinction between “Mohamad” to refer to the narratorautobiographical subject versus “Choukri” to refer to the author (both according to the popular transliteration of his name). In his Afterword to al-Shuṭṭār, Sabry Hafez also reads “the collective” as Moroccan (not Amazigh). As Marina Brownlee points out, “there seems to have existed no normative picaresque” (1994, 26). All translations are from that of Ed Emery (Saqi Books, 1996), unless otherwise indicated. Where the translation is mine, the page numbers refer to the Arabic original (2000). In Emery’s English translation, he renders it “this book,” (1996, 79) but the Arabic is “this autobiography,” (2000, 94) which is significantly different, since here Choukri indicates the specific genre. It is interesting to note that in another place where Choukri refers to “these memoirs” (mudkakkirāt) (2000, 167), Emery translates those words as “these notes,” (1996, 129) once again obscuring Choukri’s explicit reference to the book as autobiographical. As Christina Civantos asserts in her analysis of all three of Choukri’s autobiographical volumes (including al-Wujūh, 2000), each autobiographical text presents a different sense of self, each of which is tied to distinct aspects of literacy and literariness (2006, 24). Unlike For Bread Alone that barely mentions reading and writing, except in the coda wherein the protagonist decides to learn to read and write, Streetwise is preoccupied with reading and writing. According to Christina Civantos (40), “Ṭanjīs” is about how the city breaks her promises to him. The speaker watches and waits with only empty, passive identities. I do not see where he implies broken promises, and so I read this poem differently, seeing it akin to his writing throughout the autobiography. His description is honest and voices beauty and disappointment, stressing the inconsistencies and the paradoxes in his individual experience of the city. It is interesting that For Bread Alone has been called a “communal autobiography” (Khazaal 2013, 149). It is no more “communal” than Streetwise and I would suggest that Khazaal is referring to the relational aspect of For Bread Alone: although the protagonist is a vagabond and a societal outcast, his experiences always incorporate “others.” However, in her statement, Khazaal is overlooking the nuance I wish to make with regard to Streetwise, namely, that the “others” who play such a pivotal role in the text do not constitute a community, do not necessarily know each other, and sometimes flit out of Mohamed’s life as easily as they chanced into it. Therefore, while the role of others is crucial, it does not amount to a community but the opposite: a disconnected indistinct group of people living on the margins of Moroccan society.
Bibliography Al-Shaykh, H. (2005). Hikāyātī Sharḥun Yaṭūl [My Life Is an Intricate Tale]. Beirut: Dār al-Adab. Brownlee, M. (1994). Discursive Parameters of the Picaresque. In: C. B enitoVessels and M. Zappala, eds. The Picaresque: A Symposium on the Rogue’s Tale. Newark: University of Delaware Press and Associated University Presses, 25–35.
136 Streetwise Bullough, E. (1912). ‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle. British Journal of Psychology 5, 87–117. Choukri, M. (1996). Streetwise. E. Emery, trans. London: Saqi. ———. (2000 ). Al-Shuṭṭār. London: Saqi. Civantos, C. (2006). Literacy, Sexuality and the Literary in the Self-Inscription of Muhammad Shukri. Middle Eastern Literatures 9:1, 23–45. Davis, R. (2011). Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Eakin, J. (1999). How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Ezli, Ö. (2010). Transgression, or the Logic of the Body: Mohamed Choukri’s Work: A Fusing of Eros, Logos and Politics. In: A. Neuwirth, A. Pfitsch and B. Winkler, eds. Arabic Literature: Postmodern Perspectives. Beirut: Saqi Books, 461–470. Granara, W. (2003–2004). Picaresque Narratives and Cultural Dissemination in Colonial North African Literature. Arab Studies Journal 11/12: 2/1, 41–56. Hafez, S. (1992). Al-Bunya al-Nassiyya li-sirat al-taharrur min al-qahr (Afterword). In: M. Choukri, ed. Al-Shuṭṭār. London and Beirut: Saqi, 219–242. Khazaal, N. (2013). Re-evaluating Mohamed Choukri’s Autobiography al-Khubz al-ḥāfī: The Oppression of Morocco’s Amazigh Population, the Sa’lik, and Backlash. Middle Eastern Literatures 16:2, 147–168. Kohstall, F. (2015). For Bread Alone: How Moroccan Literature Lets the Subalterns Speak. In: Elisabeth Özdalga and Daniella Kuzmanovic, eds. Novel and Nation in the Muslim World: Literary Contributions and National Identities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 98–113. Maiorino, G. (1996). The Picaresque: Tradition and Displacement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Rooke, T. (1997a). Moroccan Autobiography as National Allegory. Oriente Moderno 16:2/3, 289–305. ———. (1997b). In My Childhood: A Study of Arabic Autobiography. Stockholm: Stockholm University. Sells, M. (1989). Introduction. In: Desert Tracings: Six Classical Arabian Odes. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 3–10. Smith, S. and Watson, J. (2010, 2nd ed.). Reading Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Stetkevych, S. (1993). The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Tuqan, F. (1985). Riḥla Ṣa‘ba, Riḥla Jabaliyya. Nablus: al-Maktaba al-Jāmi‘iyya.
Personal Myth and Self-Invention Autobiographer as Ironic Hero in Samuel Shimon’s An Iraqi in Paris
Introduction This chapter addresses the interplay of belonging, estrangement and individualism in An Iraqi in Paris: An Autobiographical Novel (ʿIraqī fī Bārīs, 2005; translated in 2011) by the Assyrian writer and poet Samuel Shimon, who hails originally from Iraq.1 In contrast to most other chapters in this book that treat autobiographies of established writers and poets—Hanan al-Shaykh, Hanna Abu Hanna, Abd al-Rahman Munif and others—this chapter treats a text that established the author’s literary reputation and is his debut full-length prose text. As such, it recalls Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s (1935–2003) autobiographical novel al-Khubz al-ḥāfī (Arabic, 1982; published first in English translation, 1972, as For Bread Alone), which also does not record a literary career in retrospect but rather launches one. 2 An Iraqi in Paris depicts an autobiographical subject, alternately called “Joey,” “Ṣamū’īl,” “Sāmī” and “Shmū’īl,”3 who, at the age of t wentythree, departs the village where his family lives in Iraq. Estrangement and individualism are marked themes from the beginning, which starts with a departure from his family, his home and all that is known and familiar. He sets out on a journey whose goal is Hollywood with hopes of working in film there. Indigent, he travels through Damascus, Amman, Beirut, Nicosia, Cairo and Tunis, working odd jobs, mostly in writing, typing and translating, and also interviewing stars for a film journal. The first chapter recounts a digest version of six years of adventures in these countries until eventually arriving as a refugee in Paris. The ensuing seventeen chapters vividly portray reminiscences of over ten years of itinerant life on the streets of Paris, chronicling exploits, encounters, acquaintances and undertakings. The final section of An Iraqi in Paris is a continuous segment comprising one-third of the narrative, entitled “The Street Vendor and the Cinema: A Story of Childhood.” This final piece depicts the autobiographical subject’s childhood in the town of Habbaniya, emphasizing the roles of his parents and siblings, as well as that of a man named Kirkyakos, a family friend who instills in him a love and a knowledge of cinema from the age of five. This story within a story,
138 An Iraqi in Paris arguably a novella (about one-third of the narrative, 105 pages out of 300 pages in the original Arabic, pages 195–306), ends with the family’s forced transfer from Habbaniya, along with other minority groups. An Iraqi in Paris consciously draws on both literary and cinematic genres. Literary genres include the Arabic premodern riḥla (travel) genre that developed into a genre in and of itself in modern Arabic literature, collections of legends such as A Thousand and One Nights (cited explicitly; loc 269 of 4081, Kindle) and picaresque episodic literature including Arabic maqāmāt.4 Moreover, An Iraqi in Paris incorporates poetry, specifically Shimon’s own poems that he cites sporadically; excerpts from film scripts also penned by the author and the mode of the novella, the form of the last section of An Iraqi in Paris, distinct in form, style and content from the “main” part of the text. However, beyond insinuating these genres, An Iraqi in Paris evokes, incorporates and integrates the cinematic mode, particularly the film genre of the Western. One may wonder why An Iraqi in Paris merits a chapter in a book about relational autobiographies, given that its narrative style and storyline emphasize the singularity of the autobiographical subject, calling to mind monadic and autonomous autobiographical selfhood rather than relational narrative selfhood.5 The autobiographical subject dominates the text, as does his voice, which is expressed by the first-person “I.” In previous chapters, I addressed autobiographical texts in which the story of the autobiographer is obscured when it is bound to and refracted through the stories of others. In such autobiographies, the decentering of the first-person narrative voice of the autobiographer occurs by privileging the narrative voices of other characters. In Leila Abouzeid’s Return to Childhood (Rujū‘ ilā alṭufūla, 1993), the mother’s stories extend across large sections of the text, and in Hanan al-Shaykh’s My Life Is an Intricate Tale (Hikāyatī Sharḥun Yaṭūl, 2005), the mother’s narrative voice narrates the entire text, conflating autobiography with biography. In both Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Story of a City (Sīrat Madīna, 1994) and Salim Barakat’s The Iron Grasshopper (Al-Jundūb al-Ḥadīdī, 1980), I showed how the autobiographical subject is submerged in concentric circles of groups—siblings, classmates, groups of friends and even the local community as a whole. In contrast to these paradigms of relationality, this chapter addresses an autobiographical text that, despite its offbeat story and innovative and inventive style, proffers an autobiographical subject who expresses himself in the first-person narrative voice and is therefore arguably an expression of canonical autobiographical subjectivity. Overall, the storyline emphasizes the uniqueness of the autobiographical subject. Although there are many characters in the book, their agency is reduced to participation in the story, which emphasizes the distinctness of the autobiographical subject from them. Despite the individualistic representation of the autobiographical self in An Iraqi in Paris, I have chosen it as the subject of a chapter in this book about the poetics of relationality because, as I will show, the text is
An Iraqi in Paris 139 characterized by ambivalence between autonomy and engagement with others. I draw on anthropologist Michael Jackson’s conceptualization in the life stories he constructs of individuals he has met over the course of his lifework in anthropology. In the people he researches, he investigates a tension between “turning toward the world and turning away from it as an expression of a deeper existential dialectic between being acted upon and being an actor” (2012, 7). Following from this, my analysis in this chapter will examine the interplay of belonging and dissociation (identifying with and identifying against); of entanglement and disentanglement; and of separation and connection. In this chapter, my main argument is that, despite an autobiographical subject who appears by and large autonomous and solitary, this text is, nevertheless, characterized by a marked ambivalence and constant dialectical movement between two seemingly paradoxical or opposing desires. These are the desire to separate from others and the desire to engage with others: to integrate within a particular social and cultural environment while resisting affiliation with mainstream society. I hone in on two expressions of this tension that permeate the text. The first expression of this tension can be located in the decision to overlay the text with film references, particularly the genre of the Western. This is not only an expression of the autobiographical subject’s love of film. By engaging this genre, Shimon situates the autobiographical subject, wherever he is, as involved in a struggle between the forces of the established order (“civilization” in the world of the Western) and iconoclasm (the “frontier” in the world of the Western). The references to the Western genre superimposed on the life of the autobiographical subject reveal a central conflict in his identity. Like a cowboy, he is portrayed as a mythic figure and at the same time as a vagabond and a drifter. He is engaged in culture yet is staunchly iconoclastic and nonconformist, and is enchanted by aspects of society yet, willingly or unwillingly, lives on its margins. The second expression of the ambivalence between belonging and distinctiveness is expressed by his portrayal of the father as a model of identity. The text expresses his deep sense of connectedness with his father, to the point where the narrator says that he finds it hard to determine whether he is writing about his father or about himself. In this sense, I argue that this text typifies what David Parker calls “an intergenerational narrative of relationality” (2004, 142). He portrays his father as having spurred his cinematic-literary-artistic vision and renders him through the prism of this vision, as I show in the second part of this chapter. His affinity to his father entrenches the autobiographical subject in his father’s quirky individualism, in his unconventional way of being and in life as an outsider. The ambivalence of identifying with and identifying against is expressed in his portrayals of his father. I examine how the otherness of the father as a deaf-mute and his status as an outsider in his family and community underpin the narrative identity of the autobiographical subject.
140 An Iraqi in Paris In An Iraqi in Paris, the tendency toward privileging a dissociated, introspective subject vividly evokes the theme of vagabondage that is a central preoccupation of the text. In other words, the text’s articulation of narrative selfhood is purposefully individualistic because it is emblematic of the estrangement the autobiographical subject experiences from mainstream society both during his years living as a homeless refugee in Paris and as a child growing up in Iraq entranced by his father’s unconventional predilections and the still-unfamiliar world of film. The autobiographer portrays himself as a perpetual outsider. His status as an outsider—in his native Iraq where he belongs to the minority of Assyrians, in the Arab countries in which he travels and in Paris—is construed ironically by overlaying the text with the conventions of the Western and the image of the cowboy. He identifies with and through the genre of the Western, both in his early adulthood after leaving Iraq as well as in the appended story that depicts, and fictionalizes, his childhood. The first part of this chapter shows how cinema references, screenplays and cinematic perspectives of scenes are conceived as forms of self-representation in the text. I examine how experience is conveyed in relation to the cinema, cinematic perspective, and the world of Westerns. The conventions of the cinematic genre of the Western are a continual reference, employed for inventing and imagining the self and as an expression of deep cultural connection and imagination. By overlaying the text with film references, Shimon articulates the dialectic between belonging and unbelonging; as I will show, he identifies through film, particularly through the figure of the cowboy. Yet, for him, film is necessarily foreign, since the films he sees are either Indian or American. In this sense, film insinuates far-away places and distant cultures. His dream of creating movies like those he watches entails leaving Iraq in search of those places, thus dissociation from his childhood milieu. Because of this, film encapsulates the text’s central ambivalence between association and dissociation, between identifying with and identifying against and between affiliation and estrangement. The mythic figure of the cowboy through whom Shimon represents himself reinforces this ambivalence. The figure of the cowboy embodies the double function of a free individualist and hero in popular cinema and, contrarily, a loner and a misfit living on the margins of society.
Beginnings and Circularity An Iraqi in Paris persistently interrogates beginnings, both in its structural choices and in its content. Its beginning “Note” starts at the chronological end; it reverts to a beginning, to his naming. Moreover, the text thwarts the possibility of reaching an “end”: both in narrative content, as he never fulfills the stated goal of his quest to become a director or to reach Hollywood, and in narrative form, by ending the text with a new text, a story
An Iraqi in Paris 141 within a story, such that the end of the autobiography embodies a new text. An Iraqi in Paris therefore defies expectations of linearity, resisting chronological constraints.6 After expounding on his adult years for seventeen chapters, the narrative “ends” by circling back to his childhood, with a meta-literary story that draws on his childhood experience. By undermining the possibility for constructing a fixed beginning, middle and end, this text exposes an evolving subjectivity associated with diaspora identity and composes an intricate network of identification and dissociation. I propose reading An Iraqi in Paris as an autobiography of diaspora, particularly inasmuch as diasporic autobiographies focus on the ongoing production, or negotiation, of identity. Beginnings are one expression of this text’s “diaspora aesthetic,” to borrow cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s term (1990, 235). The multiple beginnings serve to hybridize, decenter and destabilize, and thereby express the heterogeneity and diversity of Shimon’s textually construed identity. By undermining linear chronology, An Iraqi in Paris problematizes the “imaginary coherence of the experience of dispersal and fragmentation, which is the history of all enforced diasporas” (Hall 1990, 224). Rather than a progression, or coherence, beginnings entail a sense of fragmentation involved in negotiation of a hybrid, in-between identity. In perpetual friction with the authoritative, dominant regime of representation, this self-narrative creates an affinity with other diasporic autobiographies that tend to emphasize “processes of transition rather than places of origin” (Egan 1999, 131). An Iraqi in Paris ends with a story that takes places at the chronological beginning, describing the childhood that precedes all other events in the book. The decision to end with a story about the period that encompasses the chronological beginning of his life can be read as a textual displacement of an ending and illustrates the urgency of beginnings in this narrative construction of the self. Moreover, this chronological beginning is located in the text following a chronologically arranged account of living abroad. This constructs it as a literary return that integrates the “double vision” (Bhabha 1994, 8) of the migrant, the “altered vision” of one who returns to his native land. It is a textual return in which he regards his childhood through “travelled eyes” (Rushdie 1980, 5), placing it after describing years of travels. The text’s tendency to undermine linearity and its preoccupation with beginnings are expressed by its use of the picaresque mode in the main text, depicting events as a series of adventures in the sense of multiple beginnings. The autobiographical subject is constantly beginning over again: he begins his childhood story (about his beginnings) several times; he starts many new jobs; in each new city, he begins anew, and by being homeless in Paris, each day he reconfigures “home.” The multiple beginnings in this text undermine progression and coherence, and conjure up a sense of fragmentation involved in negotiating a hybrid, in-between identity. In perpetual friction with the authoritative, dominant regime of
142 An Iraqi in Paris representation, this self-narrative creates an affinity with other diasporic autobiographies that tend to emphasize “processes of transition rather than places of origin” (Egan 1999, 131). The poetics of beginnings articulates the autobiographical subject’s perpetual negotiation of identity within the conflicting poles of resisting and adapting, and of controverting and integrating. The narrative not only ends by “returning” to the beginning but begins with a page-long “Note” (Malḥūẓa) that depicts the autobiographical subject’s first meeting with his mother twenty-five years after departing Iraq, the closest he comes to Hollywood, his stated destination. By “giving away” the ending, the focus becomes not the destination but the road traveled. Although the “Note” describes a meeting that takes place in 2004, at the chronological end of the journey, in it, his mother alludes to his naming: “You know, Shmuel, just a few moments after we named you, I grew very sad and told myself that with such a name we were placing too much on the shoulders of this baby!” (loc 38 of 4081, Kindle). This fuses the end of the story (placed at the beginning of the book) with the chronological beginning of his life. It constitutes an unconventional appropriation of the birth topos with which many Arabic autobiographies begin, showing that he is writing against conventional expectations by intimating an acknowledgment of them. An Iraqi in Paris also resists chronological constraints by adopting a stream-of-consciousness mode in which events “fall into events,” recalling Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). The stories that emerge draw attention to its own “literariness,” thereby expressing literary identity through structure. The discontinuity of structure that characterizes An Iraqi in Paris expresses the autobiographical subject’s disregard for the constraints of time, and, more broadly, his indifference toward mainstream concerns. His nonconformist, artistic leanings find expression in the narrative strategy as well as in the narrative content. By distorting, distending and blurring chronology and emplacement in time, this narrative is imbued with a mythic force. Our “hero” traverses and crisscrosses countries and decades, suffusing the text with the timeless space of myth and legend. This tendency is particularly distinct in the first chapter. The autobiographical subject’s six years of travels in Damascus, Amman, Beirut, Nicosia, Cairo and Tunis are described in the space of a chapter, such that from the text itself the reader would be hard pressed to figure out that six years have elapsed.7 Time is stretched and condensed throughout the narrative or—as with this six-year stint— is simply not mentioned. The first chapter highlights the “action scenes” in Damascus, Amman and Beirut, jump-cutting from scene to scene, giving the effect that the events depicted occurred in the space of several days, weeks or months, or, perhaps more accurately, outside of the passage of time. There are two specific references to dates in the book, anchoring the narrative in reality: the specific month and year in which
An Iraqi in Paris 143 the autobiographical subject sets out on his journey (January 1979) and the day his friend Francois is killed in the Fakihani massacre in Lebanon, July 17, 1981 (loc 306 of 4081, Kindle). One additional reference is not a specific date but a mention of his age to the barber who circumcises him: “The youth I told you about is me, and I am twenty-eight years old” (loc 375 of 4081, Kindle).8 In light of the overall blurred and distended chronology, it is especially intriguing that the first chapter opens with the urgency of time: the time is almost six in the morning, and the autobiographical subject does not want to miss the 9:30 bus to Damascus. Furthermore, “In Damascus, I spent two days as a tourist … a week after being in Damascus …” (loc 89 of 4081, Kindle). Although “reminding” the reader that the narrative is autobiographical and refers to real dates and events, these specific references focus the narrative on specific moments and do not establish a narrative continuum. This incidental, anecdotal style is enhanced in the first chapter by the lack of paragraph divisions. This chapter constitutes a single, twenty-three-page paragraph, using stream of consciousness style. An Iraqi in Paris tends to cast the experiences of the autobiographical subject in terms of adventures. The autobiographical subject’s years of vagabondage are textually constituted as a succession of extraordinary events. He is beaten up and even tortured, each time because of mistaken identity: in Damascus, the secret service believes he is a Jewish spy because of his Aramaic, Jewish-sounding name; in East Beirut, the Christian Phalangist militiamen mistake him for a spy; in Amman, secret police think he is working for a Palestinian group; in West Beirut, a man mistakes him for someone who raped his sister. These events actually take place over a sustained period, but they are narrated as though they occurred in succession, as in an action film. Similarly, once in Paris, the narrative unfolds the autobiographical subject’s discursive, disjointed series of exploits, with little attention to progression through time, except when the narrator unexpectedly notes that he has been living in Paris for more than ten years. This comes as something of a surprise, since the events described have eluded specific chronology or even a sense of progression. They are described as a series of adventures in which the autobiographical subject always ends up back where he started from, with no permanent home, partner or job, or country, akin to such picaresque modes as the Arabic maqāmāt or the legendary Thousand and One Nights (to which An Iraqi in Paris specifically alludes). I want to suggest that the subversion of linearity distinguishes this autobiography from Arabic autobiographies, which, like this one, feature a “centered” self, whether in first- or third-person voice, but, unlike this one, which portray the autobiographical subject as an exemplar (qudwa). This subgenre of modern Arabic autobiography is presumably influenced by the premodern sīra tradition of exemplary narrative biography and autobiography (Reynolds et al. 2001, 38–40). Such autobiographies
144 An Iraqi in Paris (Taha Hussein’s The Days; Fadwa Tuqan’s A Mountainous Journey; Jurji Zaydan’s The Life of Jurji Zaydan; Mikhail Nuaimy’s Seventy; Ahmad Amin’s My Life; and Salama Musa’s The Education of Salama Musa) tend to present their lives in a linear progression that depicts a difficult journey that ends in success. These are “self-made men,” as Sergei Shuiskii put it in a study written before Tuqan wrote her autobiography in a style that clearly drew on the same model (1982, 113, 114).9 He writes that the autobiographies he discusses have one clearly discernible feature in common: “The aim of all is to provide an example for emulation” (ibid., 116). Building on this, my argument here is that An Iraqi in Paris is constructed as a counterpoint to such autobiographies, as an inverted sīra. Autobiographies that set out to feature the journey as a success story tend to begin with an introduction that highlights the difficulties and the success of the autobiographical subject at the end of the journey/book. In An Iraqi in Paris, Shimon does the opposite: he begins with a Note that divulges that the journey he is about to describe will be a failure, and that he makes it neither to his stated destination nor to his desired career. The subversion of linearity in the text as a whole and the ironic proclamation of failure at the beginning engage the qudwa tradition in order to subvert it from within, dramatizing his stance outside of convention, while acknowledging that same convention.
Enacting Narrative Identity through Film An Iraqi in Paris infuses the world of cinema into many levels of the text. On the level of the story, the dream of becoming a Hollywood director propels the journey—and by extension, the narrative trajectory—in the first place. As such, desire is embodied by cinema, which is the autobiographical subject’s passion and greatest ambition. Films, movie stars, directors and myriad allusions to the world of cinema permeate the text. Film shapes the autobiographical subject’s aesthetic view of the world and his frame of reference through which he views his environment and circumstances, and through which he sees himself, specifically by constructing his character in reference to the figure of the cowboy from Westerns. The first film reference is in the very title, An Iraqi in Paris, which recalls the Hollywood film An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951), a juxtaposition that is playful and ironic, entrenching the story, even before it begins, in reference to classical American film.10 As a friend notes regarding the autobiographical subject, “For you, everything is like the movies” (loc 329 of 4081, Kindle). Indeed, they are his frame of reference, and they shape his perspective. As he notes regarding himself, “… I often felt I was living in a movie, not in real life …” (loc 197 of 4081, Kindle). More than just an offhand statement, this articulates a crucial peculiarity of this text, namely, that the boundary between the world of film and the “real” world is blurred. Film is
An Iraqi in Paris 145 not merely employed as a metaphor, nor is it represented only in terms of the activity of watching films; rather, film infringes on the reality of the autobiographical subject. This is exemplified by the anecdote about going to see the movie Midnight Run with his friends. After the movie, he goes to the café next door with his friends, and it turns out that John Ashton, who plays one of the film’s main characters, is sitting there at the bar. They sit and drink with him, and over the course of the following week John Ashton comes to the café every evening and talks with them (loc 1756 of 4081, Kindle). This anecdote undermines the divide between the world of film and the real world. The film actor turns up in the “real” world right after they watch the film, as though he had stepped out of it, like the character of Tom Baxter in The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1986), who breaks the fourth wall and steps out of the film. Although meeting the actor John Ashton is a real story, its telling conveys something of the magic of film for the autobiographical subject as it fuses with his real life. Film’s intervention into “reality” is most evident in the scene when it actually saves his life, when he lists actors and directors to his would-be executioner in East Beirut and in so doing convinces them that he is not a spy.11 In his brief comments on this book in the context of humor, Tarek El-Ariss focuses on this confrontation, observing that it “stages a humorous mise en abîme that brings cinema into the literary text and the literary text into film” (2017, 139). According to El-Ariss, This humorous encounter thus stages an aesthetic encounter that transforms political conflict into a literary and visual one … he shares with him [his executioner] the language of film, which allows them both to transcend in these comedic moment ideological and ethnic differences. (ibid.) It is significant that the scene in which film saves his life is presented in the first chapter because this establishes it as a literary birth. Not only does the autobiographical subject define himself through film, but his “textual self” (Eakin’s term, 1999, 101) emanates from the world of film; his very life grows out of film, and this is the symbolic significance of starting the book with the scenario in which film saves his life—or, seen in another way, grants him life. Film personalities overlay his character—principally, the figure of the cowboy—but on many occasions he is mistaken for filmmakers or actors. For example, in Paris, he is often mistaken for the Italian director Aldo Maccione.12 This not only symbolizes his fantasy of becoming a famous director but also reveals him in those moments as acting the part of the famous director. His fantasies of cinema blossom into real-life events, as exemplified when he convinces a female postal worker that his “colleague”
146 An Iraqi in Paris Robert de Niro is confined in a room in his borrowed apartment. The ruse works for long enough to get her to become romantically involved with him, exemplifying the intertwinement of cinema with “real life” as he “plays the part” of Robert de Niro’s friend and host. Another instance of role-playing occurs in the final scene of An Iraqi in Paris: He finds his parents’ house in the town of al-Khalidiyya, after an absence of several years. Rather than saying his name after knocking on their door (his father cannot hear him since he is deaf), he slips a Norman Wisdom poster under the door, as though it were his business card, symbolizing and signifying him. This act embodies the extent to which the autobiographical subject identifies through cinema. In another scene, when his food runs out at the place where he is writing, he draws inspiration from Kevin Costner in the movie Field of Dreams, hoping for a voice that would guide him: “If you build it, he will come” (loc 2321 of 4081, Kindle). These examples blur the boundary between life and film, and between film as metaphor and film as life and in life. Not only does Shimon characterize his autobiographical subject in terms of a cowboy (a metaphor), but the autobiographical subject actually embodies film personalities and enacts film scenes within the “real world” of the diegesis. In this sense, he does not need to reach Hollywood in order to live a life in film. This book is evidence of a life in film as a matter of choice and of outlook. Cinematic references and actual role-playing formulate and envision the autobiographical self, his world, and worldview in An Iraqi in Paris. In this sense, my analysis draws from Eakin’s concept of “narrative identity” and critic Rocío G. Davis’s exploration of the formal strategies through which the relational component of life writing is articulated. Both Eakin (1999) and Davis (2005) break down the “misleading distinctions between experience and expression, content and form, distinctions that need to be set aside if we are to achieve a useful understanding of … narrative identity …” (Eakin 1999, 100). Eakin further observes that the self “does not necessarily precede its constitution in narrative” (ibid.). That is to say, life writing is not merely a literary expression of a freestanding self that exists independently of the text; rather, its textual composition forges one possible version of the many vacillating selves of the autobiographical subject, a version of self-representation given life by the text itself. Self-representation is articulated not only through narrative content but also, as Davis elucidates, through narrative structure and strategy. Davis attests that [t]he self of the text becomes the self as text—the narrative strategies used reflect particular forms of perceiving and/or performing subjectivity. Selfhood in life writing is thus understood as a narrative performance and the text often exhibits the writer’s process of self-awareness and struggle for self-representation through the narrative structure itself. (2007, 42)
An Iraqi in Paris 147 In this light, what is striking in An Iraqi in Paris is not merely the multitude of film references, underscoring the centrality of film in the life of the autobiographical subject, but that the narrative identity is enacted in terms of the cinema. Here are some examples that show how film dominates his view of events and people around him: while on a romantic outing a lake, he reveals that he is thinking of a Hitchcock’s films (loc 2200 of 4081, Kindle); when his friend’s grandmother offers him her apartment for the summer, he sees her as the actress Jessica Tandy, and that becomes her moniker in the chapter (loc 1679 of 4081, Kindle); and in his reference to the film Ironweed (loc 1547 of 4081, Kindle), he seems to be seeing himself in the lives of the tramps in the film. By inculcating the world of the cinema so intimately, so frequently, and in both narrative content and strategy, this text expresses the role of the film in shaping the world of the autobiographical subject and the trajectory of his journey. It gives us insight into the worldview of the autobiographical subject, who sees the world as though he were living “in a movie, not real life” (loc 197 of 4081, Kindle). As Davis puts it, “it performs the writer’s process of self-awareness” (2005, 43). It reconfigures the autobiographical self in terms of multiple viewpoints and positionings. It construes his world as one of imagination and illusion, and his worldview as one colored through the lens of his unique artistic cinematic vision. This superimposition of the world of cinema on the narrative achieves the effect of positioning the autobiographical subject as both actor and director, and both within the film (rendition of a life) and as the creator of the script at hand. As Elsaesser and Hagener point out, “in classical cinema”—that is, cinema through the 1950s, the spectator is an invisible witness—invisible to the unfolding narrative that does not acknowledge his/her presence, which is why neither direct address nor the look into the camera are part of the classical idiom, and instead—as in the French Nouvelle Vague— signal a direct departure or break from its normativity. (2010, 18) When the cultural editor of the newspaper al-Dustūr accepts his story for publication, he says, “You’re a scriptwriter, boy” (loc 219 of 4081, Kindle). Let us regard this statement in light of the plot of the short story that is accepted for publication, as he tells it: it is about a man who constantly talks about his dream of working in the cinema. One day, while sitting in the Roman amphitheater in Amman he realizes that he is already fifty years old and has not yet worked in the cinema; shocked, he keels over and dies of a heart attack. The boss of the autobiographical subject/writer asks him if the story is a self-referential, thus prophesying his own future. The narrative offers no answer to this question. We can read this text within a text as a mise en abyme that illustrates
148 An Iraqi in Paris the blurring of the boundaries between the autobiographical subject as writer and as character within the stories. He is a scriptwriter, and as such, he scripts his own life. Other texts he has written are blended into An Iraqi in Paris, most prominently the script of “Nostalgia for the English Time,” and the novella “The Street Vendor and the Cinema: A Story of Childhood,” which the narrator talks about writing—and then actually appends as the last third of the text of An Iraqi in Paris. He thus multiply emplaces himself as the autobiographical subject of the text and its writer, the “scriptwriter,” directing the narrative, in which he also acts. Another facet of the fusing of film and reality is the representation of cinema as a means of escape—both actual and imagined. Cinema in this text, both as leitmotif and as narrative strategy, is the reason for the autobiographical subject’s actual escape from life in a small town in Iraq. In addition, the world of cinema allows him to escape to other places by virtue of his imagination, whether Hollywood, India, Egypt or America, as well as other time periods. I want to apply here what Elsaesser and Hagener maintain in their analysis of the opening scene of John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956): … the film is reflecting on itself as it highlights a moment that one can find in almost any film: the passage from one world to another which presupposes the co-existence of two worlds, separated as well as connected by the threshold. For the spectator, it is the threshold between his/her world and that of the film; for the film it is the threshold between myth and reality, and for the actor it is the threshold between role and image … The Western, as a quintessential American genre, tends to charge with mythological significance several kinds of spatial markers and points of crossing, and especially the fundamental threshold that makes possible the West(ern) as a cultural category in the first place: the ‘frontier’, that borderline between ‘civilized land’ and ‘the wilderness’ which in the nineteenth century relentlessly pushed from East to West across the North-American continent. (2010, 35–36) In An Iraqi in Paris, the cinema serves as a point of departure into other worlds. It is what exposes the world beyond his own small town, beyond Iraq, to the autobiographical subject. The cinema as an imaginary world conjured up by the autobiographical subject has a very real effect on the worldview and life trajectory in this text. In this sense, the opening scene of leaving his family and his country is already the fulfillment of a dream of escape, not merely the first step toward a goal he never completes. Just as he crosses the threshold into other imagined worlds through the medium of film from age five onward, in this first scene, he crosses the actual threshold of his house to set out on a journey to places that he had
An Iraqi in Paris 149 only imagined through their representation on the screen. It is as though he were crossing into the world of the cinema or the world it represents. It is only once he has experienced the world, always looking out at it as through a screen, always maintaining a dual, unsettled stance, that he can reflect on his childhood as a spectator, concocting it consciously as a work of art, no longer mired by representation of “reality.” Adopting the position of spectator in his perspective on his own life, An Iraqi in Paris reveals his propensity to step outside of the moment and view it from an objective perspective. In “The Street Vendor and the Cinema: A Story of Childhood,” he describes himself as a boy who returns from collecting salt from the salt marshes one morning, and as he returns, he sees in his mind’s eye the scene from the Indian film he has recently watched, crying as he thinks about it. In a later, unconnected scene, he is attacked but is pleased because he feels he is now identified with the autobiographical subject of that same Indian film which has so moved him, stepping out of his subjective perspective as though he were watching himself in the film. Another instance of acting as spectator of a scene in his own life is during his reference to the torture scenes in which he remarks that even as he is being tortured, he thinks about how he would film it were it a scene in a movie, were he viewing the scene—and himself—through the lens of a camera. This conveys, in the words of Elsaesser and Hagener in their discussion of film as film or as window, “an inherent split between passive and active, between manipulation and agency, between witnessing and voyeurism, between irresponsibility and moral response” (2010, 20). This tension is at the heart of the autobiographical self in An Iraqi in Paris, expressed through the structure of the text itself, by injecting the experience of the cinema into the literary narrative. This narrative strategy opens up the possibility of seeing the self as “other,” as when the autobiographical subject views himself from above as he is tortured, looking down on himself through the lens of a camera. Shirley Neuman discusses “the great problem of autobiography”: An autobiographer is really writing the story of two lives: his life as it appears to himself, from his own position, when he looks out at the world from behind his eye-sockets; and his life as it appears from the outside in the minds of others; a view which tends to become in part his own view of himself also, since he is influenced by the opinion of those others. (Neuman 1981, 321) In An Iraqi in Paris, Shimon’s descriptions of viewing himself as though through a cinematographic lens comprise a creative articulation of the tension between subjective and objective perspectives. By describing himself as though from a perspective outside of himself, he objectifies
150 An Iraqi in Paris the subjective viewpoint of the autobiographer. This is a tension present in every autobiography, since in describing experience, the autobiographer is always looking at a “past self” or at himself as an “other.” This divide can be addressed candidly, or it can be underplayed, as in Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone, which is written from the naïve perspective of the young boy, as though overlooking the perspective of the older autobiographer and the time that has passed since the events described. In An Iraqi in Paris, the writer does not claim objectivity, but describing scenes as though through a cinematic lens renders explicit the fracture between subjective experience and the shift in perspective when expressing that experience in writing, observing it as from afar. Moreover, representing the self as though through a cinematic lens merges literature with filmic expression and turns the autobiographical subject into actor, scriptwriter and director, by turns. Critic Fadhil alAzzawi suggests that in this way, the text is “perhaps unconsciously, the author’s long-dreamed of but unaccomplished film, some kind of compensation or attempt to arrive at his dreamland, even by other means of transportation” (2005, 140). This is an important point, especially when read in conjunction with the observation of the poet-friend “Adams” (his cognomen for the Syrian Adonis), who tells him that he talks a lot about the cinema but does not make any films, “like most Arab men who talk a lot about sex without having any” (loc 1826 of 4081, Kindle). There are many references to this paradoxical lack within the text: a narrative of one who portrays himself in terms of an actor-scriptwriter-director who, in reality, does none of these. The text is the fulfillment of this identity, and the text of An Iraqi in Paris is arguably that script.
Personal Myth and Self-Invention: An Iraqi Cowboy The autobiographer in An Iraqi in Paris is a mythmaker engaged in foregrounding the process of self-invention. Paul John Eakin observes that theorists have characterized “the autobiographical act as devoted to the creation of personal myth, to the practice of an art of self-invention” (1992, 63). He suggests that the making of fictions about the self, indeed the making of a fictive self, is a fact and likely to be a principal fact of experience not merely in the creation of an autobiography but in the making of a life. (ibid., 64) I am not implying here that the text is fictional13 but drawing attention to the choices an autobiographer makes in shaping his or her narrative. The “larger-than-life” hero in the first chapter recalls the itinerant lifestyle of the mythic cowboy of Westerns for whom each day brings on new adventures and in which his very survival is in question. The
An Iraqi in Paris 151 autobiographical subject is brutally attacked, and almost killed, in three different countries, portraying the Middle East as a Wild West. This portrayal is a commentary on the regimes of the Middle East and sets the mood for the text as a whole, establishing it in terms of a Western, with the autobiographer as cowboy-hero. Shimon specifically refers to the autobiographical subject as a cowboy: “Listen, Cowboy,” says Tony in East Beirut, as he takes the autobiographical subject to the river to be executed, “Let it be known that Hollywood cinema is weak compared with the films of the Nouvelle Vague” (loc 178 of 4081, Kindle). He is called a cowboy on other occasions, for example, when he is referred to as follows: “This is my friend the Assyrian god who escaped from the hell of Mesopotamia and the Arab Peninsula and wants to become a cowboy” (loc 582 of 4081, Kindle) and “Come here, you young rascal, you cowboy,” (loc 3726 of 4081, Kindle), among other references. The autobiographical subject is referred to as a cowboy, who is, in the words of British film expert Edward Buscombe, “a mythic figure, a free spirit relying on nothing but his horse, his gun, and his own manly virtues … a combination of natural gentleman and resolute man of action” (1996, 286). Here, of course, there is no horse or gun, but the comparison in any case is metaphorical: the Middle East is also not the Western frontier of America, and neither are the streets of Paris. By repeatedly referring to the autobiographical subject as a cowboy, by mentioning Westerns that he goes to watch, by inculcating references to film, especially to Westerns, including the homage to John Ford in the last third of the autobiography, Shimon directs a reading of the text through the prism of the Western. The filmic genre of the Western does not have a precise set of criteria for definition but has a combination of distinctive features. According to Buscombe, the films are set on the frontier, the dividing line between white civilization and its opposite, ‘savagery’. On the one side are law and order, community, the values of a settled society. On the other the outlaw and the savage Indian. (1996, 286) Following from this, I want to argue here that by superimposing the image of the cowboy onto his narrative self, Shimon foregrounds the tension between mythic hero and outcast, and between partaking and participating in culture while living on the margins of society. Once it becomes clear that the text aligns itself in terms of a Western, the environment of the autobiographical subject can be read as a “frontier,” as the opposite of settled society or civilization. This is not only relevant regarding the experiences of “savagery” that the autobiographical subject encounters in the escapades recounted in the first chapter but also a way to read the autobiographical subject’s homeless lifestyle in the
152 An Iraqi in Paris streets of Paris. The autobiographical subject creates frontier conditions for himself, living out a struggle between the forces of civilization and the forces of lawlessness, during his ten years of homeless living in Paris. This is nuanced by references to the autobiographical subject as a ṣuʿlūk, or “vagabond” (loc 1268, 2157, 2172 of 4081, Kindle calling to mind the ṣuʿlūk of Mohamed Choukri’s Streetwise, discussed in Chapter 6), thereby blending the “cowboy” figure with that of the vagabond in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, most famously that of the poet Shānfara, particularly in his Lāmiyyat al-ʿArab (“Arabian Ode [Rhyming] in L”). Michael Sells describes the ṣuʿlūk as a “brigand-poet” (1989, 6). This intertwines the figure of the cowboy from Westerns with a corresponding figure from Arabic literature and culture, drawing a rich analogy between the Hollywood Western and the pre-Islamic ode. In the particular representative ode noted above, the brigand poet begins by abandoning his tribe, “embracing a paradoxical community of marauding animals, weapons and self” (Sells 1989, 21). The opening of An Iraqi on Paris can be read in terms of such an abandonment, the trope at the incipit of pre-Arabian poetry, which occurs as the autobiographical subject gets up and leaves his house and his family forever—just as the brigand poet leaves what is left of the campgrounds (al-aṭlāl). Nuancing the cowboy imagery in terms of the pre-Islamic ṣuʿlūk complicates the binaries of good and evil, cowboy versus Indian. In fact, the text does not set up a binary of “good” cowboys and “bad” Indians. I would argue that both cowboys and Indians in this text represent the conflict with “settled society,” with the mainstream. This is exemplified when the text compares the father’s shouts to “the screams of Red Indians attacking cowboys” (loc 2665 of 4081, Kindle). Indians here symbolize the father’s “otherness” and divergence from the mainstream. This encapsulates a main theme in the book, that of exposing lives that do not conform to the dictates of the hegemony while at the same time not entirely dissociating from the mainstream culture.
The Figure of the Father: An Intergenerational Narrative of Relationality In thinking through the role of “others” in An Iraqi in Paris, I argue that the role of the father stands out as a “significant other,” Smith and Watson’s term for “those whose stories are deeply embedded in the narrator’s and through whom the narrator understands his or her own self-formation” (2010, 86). That the autobiographical subject recognizes the impact of the father on his identity to the extent of overlapping identities is epitomized in the narrator’s stated desire “to write a book about a man who wants to write about his father but who finds in the end he is writing about himself” (loc 2284 of 4081, Kindle). Elsewhere, when asked what he is writing when he is in Paris, the autobiographical subject answers, “Actually, I am not yet sure if I’m writing a film script or a novel … It’s about my father” (loc 650 of 4081, Kindle). If this is, in fact,
An Iraqi in Paris 153 that book, then the narrative can be read through what critic Martin C. Redman designates, “the condition of hybridity that is implicit in the compound term ‘auto/biography’” (2004, 129). This calls to mind the intermingling of voices that occurs in relational autobiographical texts in which the voice of the autobiographical subject is “intertwined” or even overtaken by voices of other characters. Some texts make it hard to distinguish between autobiography and biography when the voice of the proximate other is so prominent that it “competes” with that of the autobiographical subject, what David Parker calls an “intergenerational narrative of autonomy” (2004, 141). An Iraqi in Paris contrasts with such emphatically relational texts for two reasons. The first is that this text is dominated by the autobiographical subject’s first-person narrative voice and by his story, not that of the father. The second is that the father’s voice cannot, in any case, impede on the text in any conventional sense because he is deaf and dumb. We are confronted with an entirely different relational dynamic than in, for example, Hanan al-Shaykh’s My Life Is an Intricate Tale (2005), discussed in Chapter 2. When reading that text, the reader confronts a dynamic of entwinement between autobiography and biography, and between the voices of mother and daughter. Although An Iraqi in Paris states that the stories of father and son are entwined, in the text, the father’s presence is minimal, and his self-expression is voiceless. Therefore, rather than disentangling autobiography from biography as in My Life Is an Intricate Tale, in An Iraqi in Paris the reader is challenged to locate the father’s voice, or, in the words of autobiography critic Nancy K. Miller, “to read for connection, for the relations to the other” (1994, 5). Reorienting Bakhtinian terms, autobiography scholar Susanna Egan underscores that dialogism is a recurring feature of contemporary autobiographies … in terms of their dynamic and reciprocal relations between text and context; their revelation of the difference between self and other; the contestatory nature of these relationships … Dialogism provides a sliding scale between the monologic and the polyphonic …. (1999, 23) Not every autobiographical text is dialogic in the same way or to the same degree; in this vein, Egan suggests rereading even “presumably monologic texts positing an autonomous, authoritative self and find unexpected polyphonies” (ibid., 228). Following from this, this section attempts to aggregate the scattered references and to examine in what sense the autobiographical subject is constructed in relation to his father, to his father’s vision, undermining “the possibility of an insistently monologic voice” (ibid., 30) and of a stable and solipsistic self. I argue that the autobiographical subject locates his own otherness and his status as an outsider in that of his father, forging “an intergenerational
154 An Iraqi in Paris narrative of relationality” that recognizes “that the forebears”—here the father, embody specific values that have been unrecognized or misrecognized by the dominant narratives of culture. These forebears have tended to slip through the interstices of the available conventional languages, and sometimes the writer’s work, even life’s work, can be seen as an attempt to find an adequate language with which to articulate what distinctly makes them, and part of the writers themselves, worthy of notice. (Parker 2004, 142) The project of finding adequate language is all the more complicated given that the father cannot speak in a conventional sense. The narrative does not explicitly state at the outset that the father is deaf and dumb but rather punctures the text with his unique “language,” which I indicate in quotation marks because it seems not to be an official version of sign language but the family’s idiosyncratic formulation of gesture language. When the autobiographical subject leaves home in the first chapter, he turns to bid farewell to his father: I gestured to him, slicing through the air with my hand while blowing breath out of my mouth, then pointing with my right index finger to my chest and then to the ground. My father understood that I was telling him I was going. (loc 60 of 4081, Kindle) In response, his father smiles, goes to wash up so as “to look elegant while seeing [the autobiographical subject] off” (ibid.). The autobiographical subject leaves home, never to see his father again. This marks the ending of their actual time together in the real-time sequence of the narrative but only the beginning of the textual conception, as the memories percolate and rise to the surface of the text recurrently or are doubly inscribed in the text through scripts and stories. His father’s special language takes on added significance in a text charged with cinematic language. This gesture-language removes speech from its verbal articulation and is instead expressed physically and “heard” visually. I read this language in terms of the text’s overall preoccupation with language(s): homemade sign language; the Assyrian dialect of Aramaic; the Iraqi, Lebanese and Egyptian dialects of Arabic; standard Arabic; French; as well as German and English, which he notes studying. The profusion of languages (perhaps also including the cinematic language interpolated into the text) emphasizes a worldview that is characterized by a permeability of boundaries between places, cultures and people. The multiple languages in the text suggest
An Iraqi in Paris 155 an autobiographical identity that is heterogeneous and mutable rather than rigid and preordained. The autobiographical subject shifts with ease between different languages and different places, exuding a protean sense of unsettledness and openness. Perhaps because of this capacity, he has special access to the soundless world of his father—or perhaps the reverse is more accurate: his exposure to his father’s world of signs guides him to his cinematographic worldview. The next encounter with the father’s “voice” occurs when the autobiographical subject calls his parents from Cyprus before heading to the north of Lebanon. His parents do not have a telephone in the house; this seems to be the only conversation, or one of a very few conversations, he has with them over the course of his six years of peregrinations before settling in Paris. He calls the neighbor’s house, speaks briefly to his mother, and asks to “speak” to his father. In response, his mother laughs and says, “You’re still crazy, my son” (loc 333 of 4081, Kindle). This articulates the impossible nature of this request—given that his father is dumb, and this is the crux of the issue: this notwithstanding, the text reverberates with his father’s voice, peculiar and unconventional as it may be. After a few moments, his voice sounded: ‘Aa aa aa aa ho ho aa aa aa ho ho ha ha ha.’ I answered him, laughing, ‘I understand you, father. Yes I love you too. Believe me I’ve forgotten nothing, and I’ll never forget. Soon I’ll realize our dreams.’ (ibid.) His father then answers him with “his own language” (ibid.). Several things are worth noting here. The first is that the text raises the incoherent sounds that his father utters to the status of a “language,” and second, that he grants these incoherent syllables along with his father’s gesture-language representation in the text. Third, the autobiographical subject’s dream of becoming a film director in Hollywood is formulated in relation to the father, as originating from and emanating from him: “our dreams.” This reference iterates the father’s central role in shaping the autobiographical subject’s dream of Hollywood and is another indication of their mutually enmeshed identities because it equivocates between their—“our”—dreams. In other words, even though the father has minimal presence in the text, the dream that drives the narrative forward is also his dream, and therefore this story is also his story. Regarding the father’s language, there are several scattered references to the father’s shouts in last third of the text, formulated as a novella about the autobiographical subject’s childhood. There, the father’s shouts are compared to the screams of “Red Indians attacking cowboys” (loc 2665 of 4081, Kindle). This comparison is both critical and loving; it bespeaks the father’s crudity, vulgarity and otherness, as the sounds that
156 An Iraqi in Paris he utters are cast in terms of the cries of the natives. It also draws from imagery of the Westerns that the narrator so venerates and in so doing recasts his incomprehensible shouts in aesthetic terms. This is interesting to think of in terms of Bakhtin’s discussion of “artistically representing language, the problem of representing the image of a language” (1981, 336, italics in original), since the father’s language is primarily an image and only secondarily interpreted as words and sentences. In the refugee center in Paris, a passing acquaintance named Katie asks him to tell her about the script he is writing. The “answer” is portrayed as a narration of an excerpt from the script. There are many levels to this portrayal, as it can be seen as a piece of his Hollywood dream, as the script which is and which is not, as evidence of the fact that the script has been converted into or transposed into the text of An Iraqi in Paris. This narration, about a page long, depicts the “scene” in which “the boy” (al-walad) is led by his deaf-dumb father (al-akhrash al-aṭrash) to sit by the railway tracks near their house. With his right index finger, the boy asks him what they are doing there. The father answers in the same gesture language, which the narrator then “translates” into Iraqi dialect: “You’ll see.” The father then places a dirham on the track in advance of an oncoming train and reclaims it after the train has passed, flattened such that the picture and the inscription have disappeared: With his right index finger he prodded his son hard on his chest, pointed to the metal and then to the ground. The boy understood what his father was telling him: ‘If you stay in this country you’ll end up like this dirham.’ Then the father tossed the flattened coin high into the air and broke into loud laughter. (loc 511–512 of 4081, Kindle) This scene is significant not only because it exemplifies the intersection of genres and time periods but also because it epitomizes the closeness of the father and the son, and the defining role of the father on his son’s life trajectory. Although he faces both physical limitations and actual geographical boundaries, his father plants the idea of emigration in his young son, a message that molds the autobiographical subject’s burgeoning identity. The railway scene comprises a vivid expression of the idiolect between the father and the son. The father communicates not only by gesturing but also through elaborate concrete playacting of abstract ideas, suggesting an etiology of the son’s cinematic vision. This embedded script-excerpt-scene illustrates the special world in which his father lives and which he shares with his son. The father perceives the world around him in unconventional ways: he communicates through choreographed pictographs, through elaborate metaphors expressed in physical terms. In this sense, the significance of this scene goes beyond the specific message (to emigrate) or the fact of their special mode of communication
An Iraqi in Paris 157 (their idiosyncratic gesture language): the scene shows that the autobiographical subject’s worldview has its roots in that of his father. The repeated references to his drunkenness emphasize his father’s suffering from the feeling of being stuck—a situation he does not wish for his son. Whereas his father was stymied by his physical, geographical and temporal limitations, the son, at the father’s urging, searches for the space to express and live out his—perhaps, their—alternative vision and mode of expression. This search, and the journey it engenders, spawns the vagabond described in the text. That his father is captivated by faraway places and time periods is exemplified by his secret preoccupation with cleaning and polishing the silver cigarette box (al-ʿulba) presented to him by the English in 1958 when they still occupied Iraq, as a token of their appreciation for his work. He writes of the first time his father shows him this tin when he is five years old: It was in that box that I first saw a clear reflection of my face, clear and round, quite unlike the mirror at home, full of patches of rust that made us seem as if we had freckles. In the box, I saw my face, dark and soft, just like the faces of children in Indian films. (loc 2735 of 4081, Kindle) This box is richly symbolic of the entwined identities of the father and the son, the son seeing himself in the father’s prized possession. This box also symbolizes their joint love of the cinema and the fantasy of the son’s involvement in cinema. This box, which his father lovingly polishes, is compared to his father’s heart and symbolizes the secret worlds shared by the father and the son. Significantly, this box reflects his father’s individualistic, nonconformist worldview, as is articulated in the scene the narrator imagines, in which his father receives the box from the English. He imagines him looking at the tattoo on his arm of the lion and unicorn guarding the British crown, and at the face of the young woman wearing the crown, both portrayed on the cigarette box. When he sees the face of the smiling queen, the son imagines that his father “heard—for the first time in his life—a beautiful melody that carried him far away from the kitchen, from the commander, from Habanniya, even from my mother” (loc 3254 of 4081, Kindle). Of this tin, his mother laments, “He spent more than thirty years slaving for them like a fool, and in the end they just cheated him with a silver box that’s not worth a kilo of lentils!” (loc 2673 of 4081, Kindle). This is a more pragmatic view of the father’s obsession with the box. Both views portray the father from a different perspective: on the one hand, insular and focused on himself, causing his wife and children to suffer through his fixations and drunken fits, and on the other, possessor of a unique vision, of a secret, magical, artistic world. It is significant that when a fire erupts in the house, the
158 An Iraqi in Paris autobiographical subject bursts through the blazing flames to save his father’s silver box, an act through which he expresses sympathy with his father’s “madness” (in his mother’s terms). The character of the father is refracted through the aesthetic vision of An Iraqi in Paris. Regarding sons who write about fathers in autobiography, critic Martin C. Redman observes that “in locating himself in relation to the father, the son in effect gives textual birth to the parent” (2004, 129). Redman is mainly concerned with the idea that the parent’s life is depicted in terms chosen by the child, and as such, this is relevant for An Iraqi in Paris. However, what is so interesting here is that nowhere does the text provide any sort of draft or even intimation of the father’s biography. In fact, the autobiographical subject seems to know very little about his father. At one point, he asks his mother how his father became a deaf-mute (aṣamm wa-abkam) but does not receive any sort of clear response. Instead, he receives conflicting answers: he became deaf and dumb in a flying accident; or he never was a pilot since “What kind of pilot comes out of his mother’s belly a deaf-mute?” (loc 3689 of 4081, Kindle). Thus, the text portrays the father exclusively through his relationship with, and effect on, his son. In this sense, it is helpful to approach the relational aspect of An Iraqi in Paris through some of Roger J. Porter’s ideas on autobiographical texts in which the father as proximate other is actually absent—either dead, missing, elusive, secretive “or in some sense disembodied” (2004, 101)—and through the text the autobiographer attempts to reveal the father’s identity: … in these texts the line between biography and autobiography becomes blurred. They do not merely exemplify John Eakin’s category of ‘relational’ autobiography (43) but argue that these writers cannot understand themselves until they understand the parent, so inextricably are they bound. This may be the most crucial issue arising out of the quest for the parent: the search itself testifies to the nature of the relation and the identity of the searcher” (Porter 2004, 102) The narrator stresses the dearth of knowledge about his father, particularly regarding how he became deaf and dumb. The narrative points to a gradual realization that these “facts” are not as significant as images of his father, such as that of the father dancing in the rain “to the notes of a melody that only he could hear, a melody that transported him to a royal ballroom where, wearing a tuxedo among the princes and princesses and princes, he waltzed with his friend Elizabeth” (loc 3696 of 4081, Kindle). The other missing piece is his father’s voice, and in that sense, the text accords him expression through dancing—for example—and language, including the sounds he makes, the gesture language he uses and the ideas he imparts.
An Iraqi in Paris 159 The father is not cast in terms of a sequential account of a life but instead as a consciously aesthetic creation: the narrator not only regards his father as having spurred his cinematic-literary-artistic vision, but he portrays him through the prism of this vision. One example is that on hearing of his father’s death, three years after the fact, while in Paris, he writes a prose poem “to his father” with which the chapter entitled “The Father’s Death” (Mawt al-Ab) concludes. On hearing of his father’s death, he drinks himself into a stupor. This piece depicts awakening after the hangover, walking along the early morning streets of Paris, kicking along a cigarette packet (ʿulbat sijā’ir: the wording recalls the father’s precious cigarette box, also ʿulba) which he sees on the ground. The packet rolls, and as it rolls it gets bigger and bigger until it becomes the size of the statue of Danton at the Odeon. Thereupon, in order to reach the top of the packet, “He sliced into the wind with his hand and grabbed hold of an invisible staircase. He climbed to the top, and when he opened the huge packet, he found his father asleep inside, smiling” (loc 1368 of 4081, Kindle). His father is multiply positioned in this chapter: in the main storyline as an “actual” character who dies, as a character within a prose poem and as a figure within the image it envisions: an aesthetic, symbolic interpretation or expression of the father. Another example of the father transformed into the artistic vision of the autobiographical subject is in a scene in the novella “The Street Vendor and the Cinema: A Story of Childhood” that recounts the shadow theater first set up in the so-called cinema room when he was five years old. The text then proffers an example of a short scene that the autobiographical subject would enact with his shadow puppets: FIRST VOICE: Your father can’t hear, your father can’t speak. CHILD: My father’s like the movies, images, images. SECOND VOICE: My father can’t see. CHILD: He conjures up images, like the movies. FIRST VOICE: My father can see well, hear well, speak well, eat
sleep well. THE CHILD: He’s a policeman. I had composed this particular sketch to get revenge on Khachik, who, in our discussions about the movies, had said to me, ‘You prefer silent movies because your dad’s a deaf-mute.’ (loc 2691 of 4081, Kindle) This excerpt illustrates the positioning of the father as the subject of an artistic piece by the son. Over and above this, it draws an equation between the father and silent films, between the silent world of the father and its affinity with silent movies. In these terms, the father is far more than a character who has supported and encouraged his son’s interest and film: he himself is cast in terms of the world of film. On the one hand, the
160 An Iraqi in Paris “child” is upset by his friend’s taunting him about his father being deaf and dumb. On the other hand, his response is neither to defend these characteristics/accusations nor to deny them but rather to reformulate them into a cinematic articulation, which emphasizes, rather than negates, the parallel between his father’s world and a the world of silent film. Thus, the “textual self” of the autobiographical subject and the textual portrayal of the father are portrayed in terms of mutual conception: the father has shaped the son’s cinematic inclination and vision, has inculcated within him an atypical outlook on the world and has encouraged him to travel and to create. The writer-son, in turn, casts the father mainly in terms of his impact on his son: his broad view, his special language, his untapped artistic inclination and the unconventional ways in which he nurtures his son. In this light, the story in which the father and the son find a Carpenter typewriter while they are out fishing is significant and is recounted over ten pages. They hide the typewriter and later return to the spot where they enshrouded it, only to find it gone. Kiryakos, his neighbor from Habaniyya who planted in him his lifelong love of cinema, speaks of the lost typewriter in dramatic, almost prophetic terms, averring that it will certainly be found, especially since, “An artist without a typewriter is like a driver without a car” (loc 3723 of 4081, Kindle). Meanwhile, the autobiographical subject discovers that Nisreen, his crush, is the one who has taken the typewriter for herself. In time, she becomes engaged, and during her wedding, he and his father “rescue” the typewriter, in an adventure involving climbing and entering through the roof of her house. This adventure prefigures the picaresque life the autobiographical subject will lead in the future as well as the predominance of the typewriter in his adult life. Even when the autobiographical subject has hardly any possessions to his name, lives in a refugee center or is homeless, he clings to his typewriter. From a literary standpoint, this is not foreshadowing, since the typewriter and his passion for writing are anterior in the narrative, and this story within a story is located toward the end of the narrative. In other words, after learning who he has become, the story “The Street Vendor and the Cinema: A Story of Childhood” provides an etiology of his identity. Here the final sentences of the typewriter story take on added meaning, prefiguring the centrality of the typewriter in his later years: At home, to the rhythm of the drums and pipes wafting in from outside, I began tapping on the keys of the Carpenter while my father drank arak. From time to time he would breathe on his silver box (ʿulbatuhu al-fiḍḍiyya), then polish it against his shirt, the silver surface reflecting now my face, now the letters of the typewriter. (loc 3872 of 4081, Kindle) Once again, the autobiographical subject’s face is reflected in the silver cigarette tin, symbolizing that he sees himself within his father’s most
An Iraqi in Paris 161 prized possession. Just as his father believes in his own dreams and remains true to them, despite the calumny and censure of others, so the autobiographical subject remains true to his dreams, as symbolized here by the typewriter, which we know accompanies him throughout his adventures, whether in the form of a pen and notebook or an actual typewriter. With this is mind, it is important to stress that the father is mentioned rarely in the first 194 pages of An Iraqi in Paris, consisting of seventeen chapters, which takes place after the autobiographical subject has left home. This contrasts with the father’s presence in the final story-novella (spanning pages 195–306 in the Arabic), “The Street Vendor and the Cinema: A Story of Childhood.” The further his journey takes him from his father, the more he affirms their relationship, their closeness and his reflection in his father’s silver cigarette case. The father is missing, “absent,” “disembodied,” to recall Porter’s term (2004, 101)—but through the inserted novella, not only is the father written into the second half of the text, but retroactively, his presence is superimposed onto the first two hundred pages as well. Thus, to quote autobiography theorist Nancy K. Miller, this text is characterized by “the structure of self-portrayal through the relation to a privileged other” not only in the novella where this connection is more obvious but throughout (1994, 4). Redman’s words are applicable here: “it is in part through the writing of his father that the son forms his own identity” (2004, 129). Extending from this, he has also given his father a textual voice and representation. As Linda Alcoff argues, representing others is problematic, particularly “when a more privileged person speaks for a less privileged one” (1991, 7). I think that in this case this problem is treated by shaping the representation as an interpretation, formulating it in artistic terms, and always consciously through the prism of the autobiographical subject’s own point of view, drawing attention to the role of his own voice in shaping his father’s textual representation, not claiming to epitomize his “actual” objective presence. This subverts the “politics of the periphery,” giving a voice to a “marginalized subject”—to incorporate the term Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith use with regard to the marginalized female subject—someone whose existence would otherwise be completely overlooked (Smith and Watson 2010, xix). In this sense, autobiographical texts such as this can become a place of political intervention or, in the words of autobiography critic Linda Anderson, of “empowering the subject through their cultural inscription and recognition” (2001, 104).
Notes 1 An Assyrian Christian, Samuel Shimon was born in Habanniya, Iraq in 1956 into a family that spoke a form of Aramaic, alongside Arabic. He is a journalist, writer, poet, and editor. He started publishing short stories in Arabic newspapers in 1975, and poetry in 1985; his first poetry collection, Old Boy, was published in 1987. He left Iraq in 1979 traveling through
162 An Iraqi in Paris
8 9 10
11 12 13
Arab countries and Cyprus, working variously as a translator, a typist and an editor. He eventually arrived as a refugee in Paris, where he stayed for more than a decade, living on the streets from hand to mouth and eventually starting the small press Gilgamesh Editions. He has been living in London since 1996, where he founded (with his wife Margaret Obank), and now edits, the literary journal Banipal, which features Arabic writing in English translation. He is also the founding editor of the electronic cultural journal kikah.com, whose stated objective is to promote culture and tolerance by disseminating writing from the Arab world (Hawkins, 2011). The second volume of Choukri’s autobiography Streetwise, is the topic of Chapter 6. This raises the question of how to refer to the autobiographical subject in this study. In my writing on autobiography, I usually refer to the character of the autobiographical subject in the text by his or her first name. With An Iraqi in Paris, this is not so straightforward, so I refer to his character by the clunky term “autobiographical subject.” It is clearly influenced by George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1933). See, for example, Gusdorf’s “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” in the collection of essays edited by James Olney, (1980) published originally in 1956. Gusdorf’s examination of aspects of autobiography contends that the author is “the hero of the tale, wants to elucidate his past in order to draw out the structure of his being in time” (Gusdorf 1980, 54). See Eakin’s discussion of chronology in autobiographical structure in his introduction to Lejeune’s On Autobiography (1989, xi–xii). It is interesting to note that in the new translation of this text by Piers Amodia and Christina Phillips (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), the second chapter has the following subheading: “France, January 1985.” The translators apparently felt it was necessary to fit the text into a clearly stated chronology. The reader of the English version is “informed” that six years have passed and thus the narrative is emplaced in a clearer chronology. However, this mitigates the timeless, mythical sensibility that characterizes the Arabic original. All quotes are from the Kindle edition of the most recent English translation of An Iraqi in Paris by P. Amodia and C. Phillips (Bloomsbury: Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2011). See my study of this autobiography: “The Poetics of the Poet’s Autobiography: Voicings and Mutings in Fadwā Ṭūqān’s Narrative Journey,” Journal of Arabic Literature 43, pp. 102–131. It is possible that this title is also a nod toward Rifa a Rafi al-Tahtawi, who wrote Takhlīṣ al-ibrīz fī talkhīṣ Bārīz (1905 ) about his sojourn in Paris as an imam for a group of Egyptians sent on an educational mission to Paris from 1826 to 1831. Although the Arabic is actually a rhyme meaning something more along the lines of “The Quintessence of Gold in the Report on Paris,” the English translation was published by Saqi in 2004 with the title An Imam in Paris (Daniel L. Newman, trans.). It is more than likely that Samuel Shimon was aware of this translation, and this title gave him an opportunity to allude to it in his choice of titles, thereby situating his autobiography in the tradition of modern Arabic travel accounts to Europe, specifically to Paris. Because of this, he later refers to the director Jean-Luc Godard as “the man who saves my life” (Shimon 2011: loc 1441 of 4081, Kindle). See, for example, Shimon (2011, 144). On this point, see Hanna Ziadeh’s (2006) review, who at first doubts the truth of the “extraordinary events” described and then recognizes that they actually occurred.
An Iraqi in Paris 163
Bibliography Al-Azzawi, F. (2005). Dreams and Torture on the Way to Hollywood. Banipal 22, 140–142. Alcoff, L. (1991–1992). The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique 20, 5–32. Al-Shaykh, H. (2005). Hikāyātī Sharḥun Yaṭūl [My Life Is an Intricate Tale]. Beirut: Dār al-Adab. Anderson, L. (2001). Autobiography. New York: Routledge, 2001. Bakhtin, M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. M. Holquist, ed. C. Emerson and M. Holquist, trans. Austin: University of Texas Press. Bhabha, H. (1994). The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge. Barakat, S. (1980). The Iron Grasshopper (Al-Jundūb al-Ḥadīdī). Beirut: Dār al-Ṭalī’a li-l-ṭibā’a wa-l-nashr. Buscombe, E. (1996). The Western. In: Nowell-Smith, G. ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 286–293. Choukri, M. (1996). Streetwise. E. Emery, trans. London: Saqi. Davis, R. (2005). The Self in the Text versus the Self as Text: Asian American Autobiographical Studies. In: Guiyou Huang, ed. Asian American Literary Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 41–63. ———. (2007). Mediating Historical Memory in Asian/American Family Memoirs: K. Connie Kang’s Home Was the Land of Morning Calm and Duong Van Mai Elliott’s The Sacred Willow. Biography 30:4, 491–511. Eakin, P. (1989). Foreword. In: Philippe Lejeune. K. Leary, trans. On Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 119–137. ———. (1992). Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ———. (1999). How Our Lives become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Egan, S. (1999). Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. El-Ariss, T. (2017). Teaching Humor in Arabic Literature and Film. In: alMusawi, ed. Arabic Literature for the Classroom. New York: Routledge, 130–144. Elsaesser, T. and Hagener, M. (2010). Cinema: An Introduction through the Senses. New York: Routldge. Gusdorf, G. (1980). Conditions and Limits of Autobiography. In: J. Olney, ed. and trans. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 28–48. Hall, S. (1990). Cultural Identity and Diaspora. In: J. Rutherford, ed. Identity: Community, Culture and Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 222–237. Hawkins, K. (2011). Interview. World Literature Today, 76–78. Jackson, M. (2012). Between One and One Another. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Kerouac. J. (1957). On the Road. New York: Penguin Books. Miller, N. (1994). Representing Others: Genders and the Subjects of Autobiography. Differences 6:1, 1–27. Neuman, S. (1981). The Observer Observed: Distancing the Self in Autobiography. Prose Studies 4, 317–336.
164 An Iraqi in Paris Parker, D. (2004). Narratives of Autonomy and Narratives of Relationality in Auto/Biography. a/b: Autobiography Studies 19:1–2, 137–155. Porter, R. (2004). Finding the Father: Autobiography as Bureau of Missing Persons. a/b: Autobiography Studies 19:1–2, 100–117. Redman, M. (2004). Sons Writing Fathers in Auto/Biography. a/b: Autobiography Studies 19:1–2, 129–136. Reynolds, D., ed. (2001). Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press. Rushdie, S. (1980). Midnight’s Children. New York: Penguin. Sells, M. (1989). Desert Tracings. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press. Shimon, S. (2005). ʿIraqī fī Bārīs: Riwāya (An Iraqi in Paris: A Novel). Cologne: Manshūrat al-Jamal. ———. (2011). An Iraqi in Paris: An Autobiographical Novel. Amodia, P. and Phillips, C., trans. Bloomsbury: Qatar Foundation Publishing. Shuiskii, S. (1982). Some Observations on Modern Arabic Autobiography. Journal of Arabic Literature 13, 111–123. Smith. S. and Watson, J. (2010). Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Smith, T. (2004). Generating Selves: Issues of Self-Representation. a/b Autobiography studies 19:1–2, 59–70. Ziadeh, H. (2006). Incredible, But Totally Real: A Review of An Iraqi in Paris. Al-Ahram Weekly Online 30 March-5 April. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/ Archive/2006/788/bo8.htm. Retrieved 22 May, 2019.
Autobiographer as Auto-ethnographer Hanna Abu Hanna’s The Cloud’s Shadow
The Cloud’s Shadow (Ẓill al-ghayma, 1997) is the autobiography of Hanna Abu Hanna (b. 1928), Palestintian poet, writer, researcher on Palestinian literature and educator.1 From a chronological perspective, it covers his childhood from birth through age fifteen, in 1943, when he leaves his family to go study at the Arab College in Jerusalem. The protagonist’s father is a land surveyor and therefore moves very often, taking his family along with him much of the time. The significance of this peculiarity is that the childhood recounted depicts movement from place to place throughout Palestine, thereby piecing together a desultory map of Palestine that stems from the family’s peregrination. This autobiography has two central, intertwined preoccupations: the first is the individual story of the writer, and the second is a recollection of places, customs, words, beliefs, poems and stories about the people who populated his childhood and the places he saw, thereby offering an expansive and far-reaching—albeit subjective—portrayal of Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s. In this autobiography, there is little attention given to individual psychological growth, and instead the focus is on describing experiences and impressions of people, events, words, customs and places. The Cloud’s Shadow can be classified as an autobiography of childhood, the distinct subgenre of autobiography classified by Richard Coe. Autobiographies of childhood focus exclusively on the writer’s childhood, and their “structure reflects step by step the development of the writer’s self; beginning often, but not invariably, with the first light of consciousness, and concluding, quite specifically, with the attainment of a precise degree of maturity” (1984, 9 [italics in original]). Indeed, The Cloud’s Shadow centers on the author’s childhood, although in hindsight it is the first volume of a three-volume opus that depicts the author’s life story through about age forty.2 The second volume picks up exactly where the first ends, and it continues in the same narrative (third-person) voice.3 In this chapter, I address only the first volume as a stand-alone work of literature, given that it was published seven years before the second and third volumes, and that its literary merits set it apart from them as a tour de force.
166 The Cloud’s Shadow The “cloud’s shadow” in the title seems to allude to his father’s role in his childhood, since two of the four cloud references in the text can be read as references to his father. First, the movement in his childhood is compared to a cloud (18), spurred by the exigencies of his father’s work; second, his father’s attempts to discourage his son from pursuing his dream of a career in literature is depicted as “dispelling the cloud of his dream” (250). This metaphor, which conveys an image of dominance and distance simultaneously, situates the self-portrayal in this narrative in relation to the father: Abu Hanna writes in and against the shadow of paternal authority. This paternal “other” in this text is, to paraphrase Nancy K. Miller, “the one who is not us, even the one against whom we might be …[which] allows us to perform that which is most us: being an artist, for instance …” (1994, 9). Another possible way of understanding the symbolism of the cloud’s shadow is to read it as a reference to the impending cataclysm that was to devastate Palestinian society—the Nakba (literally, “catastrophe”) of 1948, which led to the establishment of the State of Israel and the shattering of life and of social structures for Palestinians in their homeland. This could then imply that the cloud’s shadow signifies the catastrophe hanging over the child’s future, known only in retrospect by the writer and narrator. By superimposing the naïve and curious child’s perspective on depictions of a society imminently to be shattered by the catastrophe of 1948, Abu Hanna conflates the ignorance of the impending of the Palestinian Nakba—what Nicola King calls “what wasn’t known then”—with the innocence (and ignorance) of the child’s perspective (2000, 12). In so doing, he draws an analogy between pre-1948 Palestine and childhood, both lost worlds that Abu Hanna reconstructs in this text in an attempt to “recover the self”—and the place “that existed ‘before’” (King 2000, 10). What John Pilling observes regarding Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is relevant here too: The Cloud’s Shadow is a “memorialization rather than a mere memoir” (Pilling 1981, 106); it portrays a bygone period congruous with the period when the child himself comes into awareness of the society the narrator remembers. It is instructive that the narrator occasionally calls attention to the boy’s “not-knowing.” For example, when he looks up at the night sky when he sleeps out on his grandfather’s roof in Nazareth, he imagines what children “nowadays” see in animated films. “The narrator says: the boy did not know about animated films that excite the imaginations of children today …” (148).4 Such statements call attention to the dichotomy between the all-knowing narrator and the naïve child, whose state of not-knowing is emphasized and preserved in the narrative, preserving the world of the text as a space of innocence.
An Intrarelational Life, A Relational Life Three conspicuous characteristics of The Cloud’s Shadow challenge the fundamental paradigm of the unified self of traditional autobiography. The first is that it is narrated in the third-person voice, not the
The Cloud’s Shadow 167 first-person voice, as is generally expected in traditional autobiography. The second is that the autobiographical protagonist is given a name (Yahya) that is not identical to that of the writer (Hanna).5 These first two strategies confirm that “the selves we have been may seem to us as discrete and separate as the other persons with whom we live …” (Eakin 1999, 93) and articulate what Paul John Eakin calls “an intrarelational life (ibid., 94). The author refers to himself as what Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson call a “subject Other,” exploiting the otherness of one’s own identity by referring to oneself as another (2010, 88). The third characteristic that challenges the fundamental paradigm of the unified self of traditional autobiography is that the narrative is preoccupied not only with self-narrative, but is also devoted to detailed portrayals of the milieu and the culture experienced by the child. Every child grows up in a particular setting and cultural context, constituting the environment in which one’s personal story occurs, and it would be impossible to write an autobiography that does not consider this. However, in The Cloud’s Shadow, the social and cultural contexts are not presented as background information, but are foregrounded as central elements of the narrative, and are no less significant than the personal story of the autobiographical subject himself. This characteristic consolidates The Cloud’s Shadow’s specific articulation of the “relational model” of life writing. According to Eakin, relational autobiographies are those that feature the decisive impact on the author of either (1) an entire social environment (a particular kind of family, or a community and its social institutions—schools, churches and so forth) or (2) key other individuals, usually family members, especially parents. (1999, 69) The autobiographical protagonist of The Cloud’s Shadow is situated in an elaborately articulated social and cultural environment, the telling of which occupies at least as much space as personal details about the autobiographer. The narrative incorporates copious details, descriptions and explanations of social, cultural, historical and linguistic aspects of his childhood milieu. In fact, the intrarelational strategies of employing the third-person voice and re-naming the protagonist serve to dwarf the protagonist’s presence, submerging it in the depictions of the people and places around him. The autobiographical mission of this narrative is based on the intersection of the personal and the communal: Abu Hanna consciously structures his autobiographical protagonist as the intermediary through whom he mediates a historical-cultural record of a now-vanished world. In The Cloud’s Shadow, as I will show, the autobiographer functions as what Eakin calls “an auto-ethnographer,” “the insider who explains to the uninitiated the customs, the way of life of the … community of his
168 The Cloud’s Shadow childhood …” (1999, 77). Through the story of the boy “Yahya,” two chronicles converge, one of an individual life and the other of a society. Yahya is the eyes and ears of that society; as witness, he conveys the conversations, stories, nightly discussions, radio updates, songs that he hears, and the sites that he sees, even when he plays a marginal role, such as at the demonstrations when the British arrest the older children. Writing about Asian American family memoirs, Rocío G. Davis suggests that “a shared identity [that] unites a social group, be it family or nation. Auto/biographical writing can thus be viewed as a cultural discourse …” (2011, 7). This underlines the interconnection between individual and communal identity in this narrative: the personal inscription of identity promotes collective memory; and conversely, his individual identity is embedded in its communal context. Through the relational strategy of incorporating the stories of and about so many members of his family and community—stories within stories—Abu Hanna discursively constitutes a lost community; he employs his personal story to recover the world of his childhood. I suggest mitigating the duality suggested by Faruq Mawasi who argues that The Cloud’s Shadow is “some kind of autobiography” as well as “a strikingly original depiction of society” (2007, 47). These two seemingly disconnected aspects of this text, the distinctly personal and the distinctly communal, are conflated because the cultural anecdotes and explanations also express the identity of the autobiographer, albeit in a way that it is not straightforward. The descriptions of people, places and language not only emplace the autobiographical protagonist in his particular environment but also express the significance of language, literature, and folk culture for him. They characterize his interests, and as such, they are not separate from the autobiographical thread but an indirect way of expressing his individual identity. The autobiographer is revealed as enthralled by language and literature, as someone who sees each person around him as an opportunity to recount a story, as though each person were a character in a tale waiting to be recounted. The relational configuration of this autobiography compels the reader to deduce the identity of the autobiographer from his impressions and experiences. For example, the chapter devoted to one of his grandfathers (Chapter 23) unfolds his grandfather’s life from birth to death, relays “clips” of the discussions between the grandfather and other men who fought alongside him in World War I as Ottoman soldiers, and describes how the grandfather rolls Yahya’s first cigarette, which he takes reluctantly. This exemplifies how the author constitutes his identity through the stories of others. The chapter reveals the significance of his grandfather for him, and that his reminiscences are part of the autobiographer’s inherited memory of a crucial chapter in local history. As such, the narrative blurs boundaries between the personal and the historical, facilitating the collective aspect of his project.
The Cloud’s Shadow 169 The ethnographic component of this narrative is broadly encompassing, devoting chapters to specific individuals or groups of people, and recovering overheard conversations or bits of song. In addition, because of the breadth and the tendency to incorporate words that may no longer be in use or known to the modern-day reader, the narrator intersperses explanations that punctuate the stories. These explanations disrupt the flow of the narrative, inserting digressions that make this autobiography so distinctive. I would like to build on this point to formulate the crux of my argument in this chapter: both of these unconventional narrative choices—to “other” himself by narrating in the third-person voice, and to disrupt the flow of the personal story continually with digressions about culture and community—embody a deep sense of fragmentation and internal rupture. These two narrative strategies create a sense of self-estrangement. They enact the internal rupture between the self before and after the Nakba, the cataclysm that devastated Palestinian society in 1948. I want to suggest that this autobiography is more than just a rescue mission whose goal is to vivify pre-1948 life in Palestine for the reader. Through the narrative strategies of third-person-voice to represent the author’s self, as well as explanatory “disruptions,” this autobiography actually embodies the autobiographer’s alienation from his pre-Nakba self and the sense of displacement felt by the Palestinians who stayed in their homeland after 1948. The third-person voice embodies (or disembodies) the sense of a self estranged from itself, the sense of brokenness felt by one who remains in a homeland that has become shattered and profoundly altered. Similarly, the constant sense of disruption caused by the anecdotes and asides embodies a sense of rupture and internal fragmentation. The Nakba is seldom mentioned directly in the narrative, since it occurs after the chronological scope of the events depicted (the narrative ends in 1943). However, an awareness of the impending catastrophe pervades the text. It is instructive that the direct reference to the Nakba found in the text is in the context of rupture: “News of this cultured friend was cut off (inqaṭaʿat) after the Nakba, and news of Nimr al-Sadiq from Syria where he sought asylum after the destruction of Mjaydal and expulsion of its inhabitants” (214). This anecdote “interrupts” the narrative flow, that sentence constituting a paragraph unto itself. After this sentence, the narrative returns to the narrative trajectory of the chapter in the present tense of the text, as though the explicit mention of the Nakba were an aberration. Other than here, the Nakba is not mentioned explicitly in the text. Yet a Nakba consciousness pervades the narrative, as the incentive for preserving these memories, sounds, songs, and the tiniest details of daily life in this autobiography. Abu Hanna manages the following literary achievement: while maintaining the illusion of the boy-protagonist’s ignorance of the impending
170 The Cloud’s Shadow Nakba, the narrative evokes the rupture caused by the disaster by imbuing the text with a deep sense of fracture. The fracture is twofold, both a product of the discontinuity between the writer and his earlier self as well as fracture caused by recurrent digressions, disruptions and stories-within-stories. At the same time, and in light of this rupture, the relational paradigm reconstructs and animates the vivid heterogeneity of an entire community. Following from this, the discussion in this chapter is divided into two main sections, corresponding to the two main relational strategies of the narrative. In the first, I characterize the distinction between the character of the boy and that of the narrator, through use of the third-person narrative voice and by representing himself with a name not his own. In the second section, I discuss the portrayal of the autobiographical subject’s “entire social environment” (to quote Eakin 1999, 69), fleshing out the prominent role of “others” seemingly to the point of eclipsing the focus on the autobiographical subject. This exposes the autobiographer’s position as receiver and preserver of stories, as mediator of his impressions of a past world, and allows him to articulate his identity through an intricate web of belonging.
The Self as Other: Narrating the Self in Third-Person Narrative Voice In The Cloud’s Shadow, the pronoun used to refer to the autobiographical subject is “he,” meaning that he refers to himself as though he were referring to another person, not himself. Most Arabic autobiographies (and autobiographical writings more generally) refer to the autobiographical subject as “I,” and therefore this narrative strategy subverts traditional modes of autobiographical self-inscription. Indeed, most of the Arabic autobiographies mentioned in this book refer to the autobiographical subject in the first-person voice. Notable exceptions are Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Story of a City (1994), the focus of Chapter 4, and Taha Hussein’s The Days (Al-Ayyām, 1929); as well as Sayyid Qutb’s A Child from the Village (Ṭifl min al-qarya, 1946), all of which represent their autobiographical subject through the pronoun “he.” Hussein calls his protagonist “our friend” (ṣāḥibunā) and “the youth” (al-ṣabī), calling the protagonist by name only once, in the third volume when the protagonist signs a letter with his actual name.6 Munif refers to his protagonist as “the child” (al-ṭifl—like Sayyid Qutb), “the youth” (al-ṣaghīr), “the grandson” (al-ḥafīd) and “the student” (al-ṭālib). The Cloud’s Shadow uses similar referential terms only rarely, such as “our friend” (ṣāḥibunā, 17). In both The Days and A Childhood in Amman, the use of the thirdperson voice is what Philippe Lejeune calls “a figure of enunciation” used for “internal distancing” (1977, 28). In his view, it does not undermine the reading contract (the well-known “autobiographical pact”) that “the
The Cloud’s Shadow 171 author, the narrator, and the protagonist must be identical” (1989, 5). In his discussion of the third-person voice to refer to the protagonist of an autobiography, Lejeune explains that this is a rhetorical device: The author speaks about himself as if another were speaking about him, or as if he himself were speaking of another. This as if concerns only the enunciation; the statement is still subject to the strict and distinct rules of the autobiographical contract. (1977, 29) Examining the distancing that occurs when we write about a dimension in our lives from which we feel dissociated, Mark Freeman observes, “Framed in more traditional developmental psychological terms, we are talking in this context about differentiation, a separation of self from self, such that the text of one’s experience becomes transformed into an object of interpretation” (1993, 45). In this vein, Abu Hanna’s choice to write in the third-person voice dramatizes the radical break between the autobiographer writing in the narrative present (and his explanations as narrator) and his younger self (the autobiographical protagonist). Not only does this narrative strategy accentuate the schism between the adult narrator, writing with knowledge of the Nakba and its aftermath, as I described above, but it also allows him to approach the child as though he were separate from himself; in a sense, he—the boy—is a past self, and as such, he observes him as though he were a distinct character. An important consequence of projecting the autobiographical subject in the third-person voice is that it facilitates shifting smoothly between a subjective, personal point of view and an objective point of view that conceives of the protagonist as paradigmatic of life in Palestine, not a distinct individual.7 The third-person narrative voice reduces the particularity of individual experience. Through this strategy, Abu Hanna blurs the distinction between the personal and the communal, and enables the conflation of personal story with cultural narrative. Third-person narration contrasts with autobiographies in which the narrative is in the first-person voice, without an additional narrator who explains what the naïve child may not know (in Genette’s terms, “the ideological function,” 1980, 256). In Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone (Al-Khubz al-ḥāfī, 1993 ), written in 1972, the boy-narrator witnesses events associated with Morocco’s struggle for independence. For Bread Alone adheres to the boy’s limited perspective and therefore the narrative does not offer explanations beyond the boy’s own understanding at the moment of experience. A reader may pick up hints from a name or two that the boy has picked up and mentions in passing. The reader himself/herself must turn to another source to fill in the historical details. In contrast to this kind of narration in which the reader is entrenched in the boy-narrator’s naïve perspective, The Cloud’s Shadow
172 The Cloud’s Shadow is characterized by a push-pull tension between the boy’s limited (and yet more “true to the moment”) perspective, and the older (and wiser) narrator’s informative elucidations.
What’s in a Name: From Hanna to Yahya Although both narrate in the third-person voice, The Cloud’s Shadow’s referential strategy diverges from Taha Husssein’s The Days (Al-Ayyām) and Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Story of a City (Sīrat Madīna) because in The Cloud’s Shadow, the protagonist is given a name—Yahya, and this name is not identical to that of the author.8 Both Hussein and Munif refrain from referring to their autobiographical protagonist by name,9 thus mitigating the discontinuity between the writing self and the protagonist. Abu Hanna’s decision to “name” his protagonist calls into question whether this is even an autobiography, perhaps suggesting a made-up character or a biography. The page following the dedication states that the names in the text are invented, leading the reader to think that this is not an autobiography. It is intriguing, then, that on the back cover, the book is classified as an “autobiography,” implying that although the names have been changed, the narrative is nevertheless the life story of the author. The back cover further discloses that this choice was actually helpful for the author himself. He explains that it helped him “to select the details which he sees as most important, and to avoid the confessional style of autobiography, and to narrate the events with the utmost objectivity, and has helped him to avoid being overly subjective.”10 The tension between the objective and the subjective, so common in autobiographies, is rendered explicit in The Cloud’s Shadow by the strategy of naming himself. This name change is effective in dealing with what Shirley Neuman calls “the paradox of historicity” in autobiography, which “demands that the autobiographer treat himself as continuous with the protagonist and that he treat himself as separate from that protagonist” (1981, 322). It helps to distinguish between past and present selves and allows for ironic distance that enables reflecting on the past self, as though the writer were standing outside his own life to assess it. This creates an illusion of the autobiographical subject as the witness and the observer, and thereby reduces the particularity of his own individual experience to create a document of social history that emerges from personal experience. The third-person narrative voice, reinforced by the “re-naming” of Yahya, enhances the overall objective, impersonal tone maintained throughout the narrative. Before even starting the book, the title of the first chapter, “His Name is Yahya” (Ismuhu Yaḥyā), conveys that the text is about him, not “me” (the author or a first-person protagonist whom one would expect to get to know intimately). The narrative shies away from discussions of the autobiographical subject’s emotions, other
The Cloud’s Shadow 173 than perfunctory mentions of “happy” or “sad.” Although the narrative emanates from the point of view of the autobiographical protagonist, revealing (more and less) intimate moments in his life, it does so from an emotionally detached perspective, focusing on description. However, other than this appellative distortion, the text is chronologically straightforward, corresponding to the unfolding of events in his childhood, and the movement from place to place. This distinguishes it from City of Saffron (Turābuhā Za‘farān, 1986) by Egyptian novelist Edwar al-Kharrat, in which the protagonist is also referred to in the third-person voice and is given a name different from that of the author despite the fact that it, as has been argued, possesses autobiographical elements.11 Some scholars have argued that City of Saffron is autobiographical, despite the author’s explicit statement to the contrary. A critic who maintains the autobiographical-ness of City of Saffron must contend with the fact that the protagonist’s name has been changed to Mikha’il, and that in any case, the dream-like stream-of-consciousness narrative style avoids chronology, and thus it is hard to distinguish actual life events. Al-Nowaihi observes, City of Saffron, is a work of fluid boundaries and multiple shifts … Yet this work, far from being an incoherent jumble of names, places and events, is a superbly crafted, tightly-knit narrative in which not the smallest detail or expression is used randomly. Its shape follows the process of a remembrance that is tinged with imagination in an exploration of how a child experiences his world, and how his experience converges with that of the adult he has become. (1994, 34) In contrast to City of Saffron, in which al-Kharrat’s use of voice adds to the overall disorientation, Abu Hanna does not employ a modernist style. His decision to “re-name” his main character does not undermine the narrative’s self-referentiality. In fact, Abu Hanna’s decision to call his autobiographical subject “Yahya” becomes increasingly awkward in the ensuing two volumes wherein he refers to famous people by their actual names, describing their encounter with the “fictionalized” character of “Yahya.” Fictiveness and representation of reality noticeably clash in those two volumes. Of names in autobiography, Leigh Gilmore observes, “The expected claims about names in autobiography emphasize their stabilizing function: a name identifies a person, a family, a history, and focuses attention on the solid corporeality to which it refers” (2001, 129). Building on this, the decision to make up a name for himself functions to destabilize and to defy coherence. I suggest reading the name change as signifying a rupture between the pre-Nakba child-self and the adult writer. This change adumbrates the name change of the country itself.
174 The Cloud’s Shadow In this context, it is illuminating to consider one of the few instances in the narrative when the Nakba is insinuated indirectly. At the end of the Chapter 6, devoted to the period “Yahya” spends in the town of Asdud, the narrator expresses wonder—who would have imagined?!—that this place would change its name to Ashdod and undergo such a “thunderous storm” (45). It is significant that in this succinct reference, the rupture is epitomized by a name change—Asdud to Ashdod. This resonates the name change to Yahya, which, I argue, can be read as an indirect expression of the rupture between pre-Nakba “self” and the present-day writer. The first chapter explicitly addresses the power and significance of naming, starting with the title: “His name is Yahya.” The importance he attaches to naming is reinforced by the attention he gives to the etymology of the name of the midwife (who births him), to his own naming story, and to a conversation about naming that he recounts. In addition, the narrator launches into lengthy reflection on the significance of names in both Western and Eastern cultures (quoting from Shakespeare: “What’s in a name?”). He then returns to the storyline, the mother asking the father: “Have you named him yet?” referring to the newly born protagonist (16). There is a distinct irony in drawing out the significance of naming as the background for the story of his own naming, since he then recounts many details—except for the actual name his father gives him, changing the name to one he chooses for himself.12 By naming himself exactly at the moment his father designates his name in the story, he undercuts his father’s influence, subverting the name as a signifier of familial belonging by using it to write against the shadow of paternal authority (one of the significations of the “shadow” in the title of the book). This weakens Sulayman Jubran’s claim that The Cloud’s Shadow stands out from other Arabic autobiographies for not “settling scores,” or any discussion of “personal issues” (2006, 247). It may be true that Abu Hanna does not settle scores explicitly, but by eclipsing the name his father gives him, Abu Hanna undermines his father’s authority and expressly constructs his narrative identity against his father’s plans for him. In this context, it is significant that his father opposes his son’s stated desire to be a poet. When he shares this dream with him before going off to college in Jerusalem, his father retorts, Have you ever heard of a poet dying while wearing clothes? I am asking you about a profession, and writing is not a profession. In this country, writing does not yield bread and poetry does not cover nakedness. When you have a profession you can delight in writing. (250) His father, who is portrayed as severe and as negligent in a number of poignant anecdotes in the autobiography, does not support his son’s
The Cloud’s Shadow 175 career in letters. Yet, the literary excerpts and references that permeate the narrative testify to how deeply literature is engrained in the identity of the autobiographer, despite his father’s demand that he find another profession. In naming himself, Abu Hanna articulates his resistance to his father’s attempt to “dispel the cloud of a dream hovering over him” (ibid.)—the dream of a life in literature. His identity is constructed in opposition to his father’s intentions, as what Nancy Miller calls “identity through alterity” (1994, 9). This is further reinforced in the anecdotes about his father: “they show how representing the other—the one who is not us, even the one against whom we understand who we might be – also allows us to perform that which is most us: being an artist for instance …” (ibid.). The figure of the father, whose absence is noted through the narrative, creating an active presence, is described as eliciting fear: when Yahya comes third out of thirty-four in his class, his father reprimands him, causing Yahya to run from the table (183). Another anecdote relates the father’s predilection for striking Yahya with a branch from a pomegranate tree, which would leave blue marks all over his body. The degree of striking depended on his father’s mood. The boy eventually learns that the longer he takes to get the branch from the garden, the more his father calms down and the less he hits him. Sometimes if he lingers long enough, his father forgets to punish him entirely, but then sometimes one of Yahya’s brothers would mischievously remind him. His father was known for having a quick temper and also for quickly calming down (99–100). In a third anecdote, his father sends him out to buy a pack of cigarettes late on a winter’s night when Yahya is only seven years old. The mission proves terrifying as he walks alone through olive groves, threatened by dogs. Even the storekeeper, whom he wakes from his sleep, tells him his father should have waited until morning. In light of these anecdotes, his decision to omit the name his father gave him can be read as an indirect way of expressing criticism, as a way of engaging “the discourses of self-representation as much to lose a name as to find one” (Gilmore 2001, 130).
Autobiography in Relational Context The Cloud’s Shadow conflates the personal story of the autobiographical subject (“Yahya”) with cultural narrative. This narrative progresses according to the chronology of the first fifteen years of his life and it is focalized through his personal experiences and memories. Yet this narrative is a distinctly relational form of autobiography, because the writer functions as auto-ethnographer, what Eakin describes as “the insider who explains to the uninitiated the customs, the way of life, of the … community of his childhood” (1999, 77). What Caren Kaplan says in her discussion of hybrid autobiographical forms encapsulates the immediacy of Abu Hanna’s cultural project to preserve the culture in which he grew up: “Here, narrative
176 The Cloud’s Shadow inventions are tied to a struggle for cultural survival rather than purely aesthetic experimentation or individual expression” (1992, 212). The Cloud’s Shadow’s relational strategy is constructed around a tension between the individual story of the autobiographical subject and the ethnographic portrayals of the entire social environment. According to Adams, Holman Jones and Ellis, auto-ethnographic stories are “… stories of/about the self told through the lens of culture. Autoethnographic stories are artistic and analytic demonstrations of how we come to know, name, and interpret personal and cultural experience” (2015, 1). Such stories confront a tension between insider and outsider perspectives. They interrogate the intersections between self and society, the personal and the political, the particular and the general. In The Cloud’s Shadow, these intersections reveal the relational aspect of the narrative, and its deep commitment to preserving local folklore, culture, custom and language through self-narrative. In constructing the self as integral to cultural history and as the source of eclectic anecdotes and explanations, Abu Hanna adopts what Eakin calls “an ethnographic posture toward the world of his childhood” by offering narrative attempts to recover and recapture a vanished world (1999, 75). The scope of the auto-ethnographic observations is diverse and idiosyncratic, and as such eludes any attempt to reduce it to a single goal. In some chapters, the autobiographical protagonist is more “present,” and his schooling or experiences are the focus; other chapters revolve around the different people he encountered in his childhood. Chapter 20, for example, recounts the men’s talk at his grandfather’s house, enumerating many details about the lives of the various men who attended the nightly gatherings. Chapter 25 describes village customs, and the clash with the refugees from the village of Safuriyya who took refuge in Yahya’s village. Chapter 33 is devoted to the story of a murderer; Chapter 35 introduces the storyteller Harmazan and recounts one of his stories. The objective tone of the narrative overall is reinforced by Abu Ḥanna’s choice to insert a distinct narrator to recount the digressions, whom he occasionally refers to specifically as al-rāwī (“the narrator”), and alshāriḥ (“the explainer”) to introduce a digression from the chronological pattern of Yahya’s childhood.13 When the narrator is specifically introduced before a digression, the text does so with the formula Qāla al-rāwī (or Qāla al-shāriḥ): “The narrator said.” These introductions emphasize the narrator’s tendency to “digress” into explanatory asides not of direct concern to Yahya’s life trajectory. However, it is important that the narrative abounds with “interruptions” of the protagonist’s personal story even when the interruptions are not specifically introduced. For example, in the first chapter about Yahya’s birth, when the midwife is mentioned, the narrator “interrupts” to explain the etymology of her name: Naffaja is the name of the village qābila—the colloquial word for dāya, or midwife. In those days women from the villages did not
The Cloud’s Shadow 177 give birth in hospitals. The midwife would be called from her home when the woman went into labor. Even if she was sleeping deeply, Naffaja would come running, throwing a black covering over her head, arriving more quickly than an ambulance, and without causing the uproarious noise of its sirens. (11) This excerpt manifests the informative style of the digressions, and that they tend to be humorous and lively. Their most significant contribution to the narrative is to relay cultural, ethnographic and linguistic explanations on words and customs that are no longer widespread. They give background information about the topics mentioned and allow the text to deviate from the specific focus on the protagonist. Abu Hanna seeks to provide a vocabulary, quite literally, for portraying the world of his childhood: people, places, customs and language. In a reflexive statement, the narrator explicitly refers to the literary device of istiṭrād, or “digression,” common in premodern Arabic texts such as that of the ninth-century theologian, al-Jahiz14 (and also in al-Shidyaq’s autobiography, 1855).15 At the end of one such digression, the narrator exclaims, “May Allah save me (lit.: I take refuge in Allah) from digressions (al-istiṭrād) which lead one away from earnest narration and force us to twist his neck in resignation. Let us now return to ʿAdla and Faris and Yahya” (209). This statement is ironic since the statement itself is an example of such a digression from which he begs “to be saved.” Given the prevalence of digressions in the autobiography, it is clear that he intends them as a conscious literary technique, and does not actually wish to be saved from them. These digressions are deliberate, and comprise a crucial technique through which the author expands the scope of the narrative to include many other topics, explaining things that the boy-protagonist himself cannot know, and in doing so, expands the boundaries of Arabic life writing. I want to connect the signification I suggested for the strategy of name change (from Hanna to Yahya) to this narrative strategy of digressions. The interruptions infuse the autobiography with deliberate fractures. The narrator rāwī repeatedly intervenes and cuts into the narrative, adding to the sense of discontinuity and displacement generated by the name change. The digressions generate a narrative that is not smooth but rather one that is structured around disruption, perhaps analogous to how the Nakba disrupted individual lives. Abu Hanna makes the extent to which he stands outside his own text explicit in his decision to start by describing his own birth. This involves an inherent paradox because it is at once singularly personal—the moment of one’s own coming-into-being—and yet no one can remember his or her own birth. In order to know about this personal event, one is obligated to rely on other people’s accounts of it, and therefore it necessitates seeing oneself from the vantage point of others. The decision
178 The Cloud’s Shadow to start the text with an account of his birth encompasses the inherent tension between a personal subjective perspective and an objective outsider perspective, as the story of his own birth is a story he gleans from other people’s accounts. One’s own beginning, in the words of Adriana Cavarero, “is the essential chapter in which the self becomes narrated before even knowing herself to be narratable” (2000, 86). Yet he manages this paradox by downplaying the centrality of his actual birth in the account, which emerges as a minor part of the chapter, and instead uses it as a platform to “take control” of the story, discussing customs, words and names connected to birth. The birth story is emblematic of the intertwining of the personal and the communal in Abu Hanna’s narrative strategy throughout the autobiography, and of the shifts from an ostensible focus on the individual autobiographical subject to expansive discussions on social history. In this particular case, he expounds upon the midwife who lived more than 108 years: sweeping accounts of her children’s lives, and how people dated events (i.e. connecting a birth-year to an event that occurred that year and not to a numbered year). In so doing, he turns the chapter into a window into the role of the midwife in the village, and into specific (and vivid) information about this midwife and her family, vivifying not only the customs of the village but offering a record of the people who lived there. The ethnographic aspect of this autobiography is not constructed systematically, and for this reason the concept of “digressions” is important, not only as the rhetorical device for conveying the information, but also for conveying the tone of “happening to remember” some detail or some story—not of an organized agenda. This makes an organized discussion of the topics, or of the people mentioned in this autobiography difficult, since the effect of this rhetorical device is that the remarks seem random, and the topics are diverse. This is also what is special about this autobiography: that it is not a systematic portrayal of pre-1948 Palestine but rather explanations and descriptions that stem from the personal stories that “happened” to be recounted. In this vein, Faruq Mawasi suggests creating an index for the autobiography so that someone wanting information on a particular topic “would not have to browse through the entire book” (2007, 49). However, the autobiography is not constructed as an organized reference work of customs and cultural observations. Incoherence and haphazardness are distinctive features of this book, and they contribute to the deliberate sense of fragmentation and fracture that characterizes the book. The associative narration conveys discontinuity—but, importantly, it also allows for the abundance of characters and contextual details that make this narrative so much more than a personal story. Forcing this book into a coordinated arrangement would detract from the worldview it presents, one of rupture and incoherence. In addition, this is what is “personal” about the book. The digressions and explanations, tales and stories that shift the focus
The Cloud’s Shadow 179 from the personal to the communal are unmethodical and stem from the autobiographical subject’s personal point of view—what he saw and heard; what interests him. They are spontaneous, arranged only around what comes to mind. That said, the chapters flow according to an internal coherence that revolves around a chosen topic: life in a particular town or village, schooling, his grandmother, demonstrations against the British, the gaze and the evil eye, water and more. The chapter on water, for example, begins with a discussion of women getting water from the well. It notes that “Yahya’s village was blessed with many sweet springs” (103). Some of the wells were actually discovered by the British in their archaeological activities. It then moves on to recount a story of a merchant on his way to Tiberias who fell into a well and had a pomegranate in his hand when he was pulled out, given to him, the man claims, by a jinn in the well. The chapter then describes the centrality of water in their lives and ways of storing water in the winter. The chapter concludes with depictions of ceremonies and actual wording of prayers for rain. This summary gives a sense of the breadth of content and ethnographic material on beliefs and ceremonies combined with practical matters of water storage and meetings by the well. The first part about getting water from the well includes tidbits of talk of women gossiping at the well, recounting a “remembered” dialogue. Like all the dialogue in the autobiography, it is in the spoken dialect and not in the Standard Literary Arabic of the narration. This not only gives a realistic feel to the speech in the text but also seems part of Abu Hanna’s overall ethnographic project, since this speech conveys the specific way of speaking in the area and from the time of his childhood, an important part of the world he preserves. This demonstrates that each chapter is structured around a clearly chosen topic, and within that topic, the narrative is associative, recounting personal anecdotes, cultural or linguistic explanations, literary excerpts, reconstructed dialogs and discussions, all revolving around the stated theme. In another chapter, “Salma and the Moroccan,” he recounts sitting around the fire with his Aunt Na‘ifa with two of his brothers who did not go to Ramallah with his mother to visit their father. Aunt Na‘ifa was an expert at storytelling and would enchant the children with her stories. The rest of the chapter unfolds a story she tells, that she herself heard from her grandmother, of a neighborhood girl, seventeen or eighteen years old who disappears after a Moroccan enters her house. Through a magical ceremony, the Moroccan is able to open a crack in the wall and disappear with the girl. A torn piece of the girl’s dress is found sticking out of the crack in the wall, but the girl is never found. The story is recounted as though his aunt is narrating. The boys are skeptical of the “magic” and ask the aunt questions, and they wonder, if the girl did, indeed, disappear, then how would anyone know what happened when only she and the Moroccan were together in the house?
180 The Cloud’s Shadow This story exemplifies how the narrative does not just tell about experiences but rather lets the reader feel as if they were there actually experiencing them. The effect of turning the narration over to the aunt is to turn the autobiographical subject into a listener. This is congruous with his narration in the third-person voice, and is another way in which he turns himself into an “other,” from speaker into an addressee and a listener. Rarely does the narrator comment on the experiences, or describe how certain things made him feel. In that sense, the narrative is impressionistic, ushering the reader into his world of experiences, but not into his inner world. The reader experiences the moment as though he or she were actually sitting and listening to the story as the child did. We can assume from the decision to include this ostensibly marginal anecdote that it affected him, but we are not told why. We can speculate on the significance of this episode and how it affected him or contributed to the person he became, but we are never told: perhaps this anecdote is important because it illustrates the importance of storytelling for him, and his experience of it in his childhood, or because it conveys something of the magic of his childhood. This anecdote exemplifies how relational others permeate the narrative, which incorporates “a web of voices from the oral life of his culture” (Smith and Watson 2010, 80). The aunt’s story, narrated ostensibly in her words, allows the reader to experience his experience, to hear her words. At the same time, it articulates a crucial aspect of the identity of the autobiographer, as sharing other people’s stories is for him an act of self-definition. This is apparent also in the chapter about his father’s own childhood, in which he describes an encounter with a hyena, and relays anecdotes about his own strict father, each narrated in his father’s first-person narrative voice, as though he were telling the story to Yahya. These stories allow insight into the autobiographical subject’s attempts to understand his father, and the roots of his severity toward him, attempts that are all the more poignant in a narrative that does not discuss his inner life but leaves the reader to draw the connections. The voices of the aunt, the father, and others that populate the narrative convey the texture and sounds of the autobiographical subject’s childhood experiences. This epitomizes the role of the relational others in this narrative: whereas the narrative strategies of The Cloud’s Shadow convey rupture, as I have argued, the voices of many “others” treat the wound by piecing together the vanished world, even if only in a literary reconstruction. The contingent others so crucial to the relational strategy of The Cloud’s Shadow effectively communicate the diversity of the world of his childhood and vivify a wide range of experiences, beyond the specific experience of the autobiographer. For example, his chapter on an Arabic teacher he particularly liked (Chapter 24) offers asides about students’ pranks and punishments inflicted by teachers, while also illustrating the autobiographer’s love of learning and of Arabic language
The Cloud’s Shadow 181 and literature in particular. This epitomizes the intertwining of the personal and the communal, and the weaving together of the personal and collective experiences to preserve cultural memory through personal experience.
Conclusion In this chapter, I have shown that through this autobiography’s commitment to preserving folklore and local stories, culture, custom and language, Abu Hanna constructs the self as part of history. Abu Hanna opens up the possibilities for self-representation in his twofold autobiographical project that unfolds a chronology of his childhood experiences while concurrently aiming to preserve and create cultural memory. As Rocío G. Davis observes, cultural memory invites us “to reexamine our perspectives on uncritical narratives of history” (2007, 30). Autobiography can be a tool of cultural memory: Cultural memory is the innumerable ways in which so-called individual memory is socially and culturally shaped—for example, by institutions, cultural myths and traditions. Cultural memory also encompasses challenges to official or historical memory—for instance, facilitating the emergence of new or counter-memory … (Douglas 2010, 7) Moreover, cultural memory provides countermemories to official portrayals of history. Individual lives can be emblematic of wider social concerns: “When authors write about their childhoods, the personal is inevitably political …” (Douglas 2010, 6). The individual life story is not separate from the cultural narrative but is imbricated within it and cannot be disentangled from it. Through the boy-witness, Abu Hanna reveals a lost cultural and geographic landscape whose force is in its personal perspective. By animating pre-1948 Palestinian life through personal memories and stories of people, not objectively, he reinforces the political force of this autobiography, which destabilizes discourses of, “A land without a people for a people without a land.”16 This autobiography is about a life lived and the lives that touched this life; its power is in its panoramic vision that emanates from one man’s personal experience.
Notes 1 Abu Ḥanna was born in the village of Raineh, near Nazareth (according to autobiography, p. 17). He has published twenty-one volumes of poetry, fifteen books for children as well as literary studies on Palestinian literature (https: //zochrot.org/en/event/56286). According to Khaled Furani (2013), he is a retired school principal of a Greek Orthodox Arab high school in Haifa (88).
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184 The Cloud’s Shadow Mawasi, F. (2007). What Kind of Autobiography? On Ḥannā Abū Ḥannā’s Ẓill al-ghayma. In: Studies in Modern Arabic Literature. Antwerp: Garant: 47–51. Miller, N. (1994). Representing Others: Gender and the Subjects of Autobiography. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6:1, 1–27. Munif, A. (1994). Sīrat madīna: ʿAmmān fī ’l-arbaʿīnāt (Story of a City: Amman in the Forties). Beirut: al-Muʾassasa al-ʿArabiyya li’l-dirāsāt wa’l-nashr. Neuman, S. (1981). The Observer Observed: Distancing the Self in Autobiography. Prose Studies 4, 317–336. Pascal, R. (1960). Design and Truth in Autobiography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Pilling, J. (1981). Autobiography and Imagination: Studies in Self-Scrutiny. New York: Routledge. Qutb, S. (1946). Ṭifl min al-qarya (A Child from the Village). Beirut: Dār al-Shurūq. Rooke, T. (1997). In My Childhood: A Study of Arabic Autobiography. Stockholm: Stockholm University. Smith, S. and Watson, J. (2010). Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2nd ed. https:// zochrot.org/en/event/56286. Retrieved January 23, 2019.
In this book, I have addressed seven autobiographical texts culled out of a broad corpus of life writing in Arabic. What makes these texts stand out from more straightforward, or more “conventional” autobiographical texts, is a distinct ambivalence toward their focus on the self, on what is usually at the heart of the autobiographical. Each of the texts, and each in its own way, destabilizes the focus on the self in a narrative that, nevertheless—often paradoxically—manages to convey great chunks of the life story of the writer, often embedded in the stories of “others” or refracted through their stories. The strategies they employ to obscure and decenter the self, or to shift the focus from the self to an “other” or to the collective, can be read as discursive articulations of the self that foreground the interrelation of the self with his or her surroundings. This interrelation is usually revealed as a dynamic between identification with others and dissociation from them and entails a wavering perspective between closeness to others, an insider perspective and a disjunction that allows for a unique perspective of the outsider looking in, sometimes even as though outside of himself or herself. My purpose in the analyses in this book is to show how individual textual identity is constituted in relation to various “others”—other people, places and genres. My readings unraveled how the authors mediate their own attitudes, beliefs, personal trajectory and developing identity through a relational configuration of intersecting stories of the self with that of others. The very downplaying of a monologic “self,” or shifting it from the center, suggests that the writers’ identities, as represented textually, emerge in relation to their surroundings. My goal is to examine how this intersubjectivity has been performed in each of the texts and how the dynamic of self and other configures an intricate, often evolving, not static, identity. In this sense, the texts I address are retrospective life stories to the same extent as autobiographies that employ the first-person narrative voice throughout, those that ensure that the unified autobiographical subject is represented monologically and is constantly and consistently at the center of the action. I locate a profound tension in these texts, which stems from the idea that the same strategies that unsettle their focus on the self are also what
186 Conclusions express the self most penetratingly, if indirectly or enigmatically. Relational autobiography, which Anne Rüggemeier (2014) has argued is a genre in and of itself, goes well beyond the idea that there are other people, places or genres in the autobiography. It has to do with an extended focus on one or several of those other people, places or genres, on the entwinement of their stories in that of the autobiographical subject. The relational aspect of the autobiographies I examined in this book takes diverse forms. Some are relational in that extensive space was devoted to another family member and the self’s story was enfolded in that of a family member or told through that family member’s story. Some are relational in that the individual self was narrated through a group consciousness, consistently part of “they” or “we,” rarely “I.” Other relational strategies I have identified include entwining the story of the self with the story of a broader place, such as an entire city; or permeating the story of the self with other genres to the extent that the genres themselves tell a portion of the story. As a matter of course, such texts cannot establish or define a canon, as what unites them is the diverse strategies through which they convey narratives of life writing. In this sense, I acknowledge and build on Julia Watson’s disputation of relationality as a circumscribed genre. She grounds her view on the significance of “emphasis on negotiation among personal histories and the competing demands of individual and collective stories” [which] “suggests a view of relationality as an ongoing process among modes of storytelling rather than a fixed form” (2016, 17). Following from this idea of relationality as a process, my analyses expose the possibilities inherent in life writing, and the breadth of literary strategies for formulating one’s own self-story. It is clear that all life stories involve “others,” and this point is not the crux of my intervention. Rather, my studies centered on those textual moments that foreground “others” to such an extent that the self almost seems drowned out or lost in the stories or voices of others—such as the mother’s voice that narrates part of or an entire autobiography (Abouzeid and al-Shaykh respectively); when the story of the city and its inhabitants seems to dominate (Munif); when ethnographic comments eclipse the subject’s story (Abu Hanna); when the self is muffled to the extent that he is routinely expressed as part of a group (Barakat); when the self is merged into filmic descriptions (Shimon); and when the author digresses into intricate stories of each of the people he happens to encounter, recounting stories of others as though “forgetting” himself (Choukri). There is another problem with delineating relationality as a genre, which the analyses presented in this book bring to light. This is that an author can write relationally, but the reader can also read for relationality. Most of the autobiographical texts I analyzed feature relationality as a primary mode of autobiographical expression; for example, al-Shaykh entwines her autobiography with that of her mother and Munif entrenches his autobiographical
Conclusions 187 subject in the chronicles of a city. However, one can argue that Shimon’s An Iraqi in Paris is not a relational autobiography. Nevertheless, I read it for its relational tendencies, examining how his cinematic references articulate the tension between subjective and objective perspectives, allowing him to look at himself as “other,” blurring the distinction between subject and object. By overlaying the text with film references, Shimon articulates the dialectic between belonging and unbelonging; he identifies through film, and particularly through the figure of the cowboy, who is himself a sort of hero-outcast. These references encapsulates the text’s central ambivalence between association and dissociation, between identifying with and identifying against, between affiliation and estrangement, issues that are at the crux of relational autobiography. The mythic figure of the cowboy through whom Shimon represents himself reinforces this ambivalence. Considering the spectrum between writerly and readerly approaches to relational autobiography, rather than circumscribing rules and criteria, my project was to expose ambivalence at the heart of these idiosyncratic forms of self-representation. I think that one of the contributions of relational autobiography is its tendency to destabilize or subvert prescriptive definitions of autobiography, and so defining relationality as a genre would defeat this point. The concept of relationality in itself reconfigures identity and foregrounds ambivalence, whether regarding an exclusive focus on the autobiographical subject, or ambivalence regarding its standing in one clear-cut genre. Relational autobiographies hinge on the interrelation of the individual and one or various others, “the dynamic between connectedness and autonomy serving as a crucial point in the development of textual identity” (Davis 2011, 11). I have identified two main expressions of ambivalence, the first relating to self-representation and the second to the emplacement of the autobiographical subject in his or her community. One expression of ambivalence dominant in these texts stems from the texts’ vacillating self-representational nature: do they constitute self-writing or not? Do they convey a retrospective life story or not? These questions articulate the tension expressed to one degree or another in each of these texts, which rarely decisively and unambiguously foreground their selfrepresentational nature and maintain explicit self-representation continually. This form of ambivalence is expressed in different ways in some of the texts I have examined. In Story of a City, Munif narrates in the third-person voice, a strategy that immediately calls into question the autobiographical quality of the text. That the stated focus of the story is on the city of Amman further obscures the autobiographical intent of the text. However, as I have shown, the story of the city is unfolded through the perspective of the young boy, the child-author. Story of a City therefore conveys his personal story as though from an outsider perspective, focusing on the city where he grows up but focalized through
188 Conclusions his childhood experiences. By obscuring his distinct voice, he integrates himself into the life of the city and into the groups of friends and siblings through which he is embodied. Self-representational ambivalence is expressed differently in Hanan al-Shaykh’s My Life: An Extended Commentary. There, the “I” is stated starting from the very first paragraph, referring to the author’s mother, and continuing even after the mother’s death, revealing the use of voice to be a rhetorical device. Not only does the text waver between autobiography and biography of the mother, but, as I have demonstrated, the author’s autobiography is articulated indirectly by way of the mother’s story. This is a story of self-discovery through the story of the “other”: the author comes to deeper self-knowledge through her mother’s story, and therefore the autobiography is told in a way that embodies the entwinement of both stories. Hanna Abu Hanna’s The Cloud’s Shadow also undermines facile identification of the text as autobiography by unfolding the story of a boy named Yahya, yet at the same time signaling that Yahya refers to the autobiographical subject, hence also to the author, who he has “named” himself as a strategy for distancing and obscuring self-representation. Moreover, Abu Hanna’s relational strategy incorporates the communal into the personal by providing ethnographic digressions from the main narrative that entail information about customs, words no longer used by the younger generation, and explanations about historical moments from the time and environment of his childhood. Abu Hanna thereby expresses a preoccupation with cultural memory of the Palestinian community from before 1948. He integrates his individual story into that of a generation of Palestinians from the northern part of the country. In addition to ambivalence with regard to self-representation in the texts I have examined, I have identified another form of ambivalence in these texts. This ambivalence relates to the role of the autobiographical subject: does she or he portray himself or herself as a part of, or apart from the community, society, or group identity in which she or he lives? Relational autobiographies accentuate and draw out this question, turning it into the nerve center around which the autobiography revolves. The ways in which the autobiographers express attachment and identification, as well as the ways they express dissociation and autonomy, are diverse and expressive of irreconcilable tensions that never wholeheartedly enact a complete rupture but also undermine unqualified belonging. This is also connected to the dialectic stemming from the vacillating role of “others” to limit, control and oppress, on the one hand, and to engender intimacy, to liberate and to reinforce and facilitate individual desire, on the other. This exposes a key theme in the relational strategy of these autobiographies, namely, of the gap and the tension between retreat and engagement. Abu Hanna, for example, embeds himself in his community by incorporating a wealth of ethnographic comments,
Conclusions 189 but at the same time expresses sharp criticism of his father’s views and his father’s form of parenting that involves violence and neglect. Leila Abouzeid appropriates the maternal voice to narrate portions of Return to Childhood, but gradually curtails the mother’s interventions, thereby expressing the dynamics of a struggle for autonomy and self-expression. She roots her struggles in the views of the older generation of Moroccans, establishing it at the base of her identity, while at the same time detaching herself from them by gradually weakening their narrative hold on the text. Her distancing of their voices from the narrative parallels her process of formulating and consolidating her own distinct views on women’s rights and on Moroccan politics and culture. I show in many of the texts how distancing one’s own voice, or the voices of others, allows space and perspective for reflection. This “space” also allows authors to view the environment of their past from an outsider perspective in order to understand how their own individual stories encompass broader political significances. I would add here that the autobiographers of these texts are themselves often outsiders in their environment to one extent or another, which precipitates their special role of writer-observer. The tension between retreat and engagement is constituent of all of the autobiographies I have addressed, but both Salim Barakat and Mohamed Choukri articulate a particularly fraught dynamic of identification with their community and society, together with dissociation to the point of revulsion and abhorrence. On the one hand, in The Iron Grasshopper, Barakat implicates many people from within the community of Kurds in which he grew up in Syria, describing stories of many individuals in explicit detail. On the other hand, the people he describes tend to be outcasts, people who for one reason or another are on the margins of a community, which itself is on the margins of Syrian society. Along the same lines, his autobiography is permeated by violence, from which the autobiographical subject suffers, but in which he also engages. Barakat’s autobiographical subject is portrayed as deeply entrenched in the community in which he grows up, to the extent that he is almost always portrayed as part of a group through the pronoun “we” (not “I”). This is reminiscent of Munif’s autobiographical subject, but for Barakat, being a part of his surroundings means suffering, causing others to suffer, and being a witness to suffering—hence expresses a dubious sense of belonging. The autobiographical subject is situated precariously within a community that itself is hostile and antagonistic toward its members. In Streetwise, Choukri chooses not to identify himself as part of a particular community (neither specifically Amazigh nor Moroccan nationalist) but contrives a paradoxical identification through dissociation on many levels. Like Barakat, he also devotes much space to describing other people. Whereas in Barakat’s autobiography these were misfits within his community, people whose marginal status was part of their status in the community, the people described in Choukri’s autobiography traipse
190 Conclusions through his life for moments, days or months and then continue onward. These people are not part of a defined community he can join, but they do have in common that they are from the bottom rungs of society, that they tend to be destitute, sometimes criminals, vagabonds, vagrants, people without fixed homes and people who are usually invisible to mainstream society. He identifies with and through people who by definition are not a part of a fixed larger group; Choukri therefore identifies through dissociation, through being a part of outcast culture, that is, by being a part of a non-group. The dynamic of ambivalent engagement, of identifying through outcasts and marginal characters, as I have shown in my discussions of the autobiographies of Choukri and Barakat, is important for bringing out the concept of autobiography as an act of political resistance and expression. This brings out the need for perspective from the margins in order to sharpen and broaden political sensibility. This combination of a perspective from outside of the hegemonic mainstream of society, which leads to political criticism, resistance or intervention, is something that can be discerned in all of the autobiographies I have examined. Both Choukri and Abouzeid express penetrating criticism of aspects of Moroccan society—Choukri of the neglect of the destitute underclass and Abouzeid of the postcolonial Moroccan government’s treatment of its citizens and of traditional Moroccan superstitions and oppression of women. Barakat’s personal story resonates on many political levels, due to its explicit focus on Syria’s treatment of its Kurdish population and of the violence turned inward of the Kurds toward each other. Abu Hanna similarly imbues his personal story with political significance by entwining his it with broader Palestinian society and culture prior to the shattering entailed by the Nakba in 1948. In so doing, his personal experiences serve as a form of testimony that undermines the myth that Palestine was a land with no people before the waves of modern Jewish immigration. Further acts of resistance in the texts I have examined are accomplished through strategies of voicing and silencing. For example, Hanan al-Shaykh’s decision to write her mother’s story is an act of resistance since her mother was illiterate, and her story, like those of others like her—illiterate women—would not otherwise be heard. On the other hand, this also raises questions of speaking for other people, especially when a privileged person—one who is literate—speaks for others who are less privileged and do not have the means to make themselves heard to a broad audience. Samuel Shimon’s autobiography can also be read as an act of political resistance, particularly because of how it exposes the treatment of the Assyrians in Iraq, but also for its portrayal of aspects of refugee life in France, and for how it gives voice of a sort to his deaf-mute father. As personal documents, the political interventions of these autobiographies have the power of personal testimony. This spells out one
Conclusions 191 of the most conspicuous implications of contextualizing the personal story profoundly and extensively, merging the individual story with the story of the broader milieu. Such relational tendencies conceive the text as an act of resistance to prevalent cultural assumptions and widely held political stances. The studies in this book have revealed a tendency in Arabic autobiographical writing to rework the conventions of autobiographical self-representation. I have shown how their exceptional and original literary strategies broaden the scope of modern life writing in A rabic, which has, lent itself to creative, innovative and hard-to pin-down generic forms since its inception (notably in the autobiographical writings of Taha Hussein and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq). In the texts I have examined in this book, form and content work together: these works, each in their own way, resist dominant expectations for autobiographical writing, allowing for writing in unconventional forms that grant the distance and perspective necessary for many levels of political and social criticism. By having the audacity to be outré, these texts in themselves engender acts of resistance, expressing voices from parts of the population who are not often heard and encompassing broad slices of community and society as experienced or witnessed by the authors. The writers challenge literary conventions and in so doing interrogate social and cultural norms by calling into question the place of the individual within family, community and society. The use of voice and the emplacement of the autobiographical subject reveal the subject as ever oscillating between belonging and alienation, and between insider and outsider perspectives. In so doing, these texts blur established boundaries between the personal and the communal, and between individuality and tradition. They subvert official versions of historical narrative by presenting empowering narratives that voice iconoclastic perspectives through an original and creative poetics.
Bibliography Davis, R. (2011). Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Rüggemeier, A. (2014). Die relationale Autobiographie: Ein Beitrag zur Theorie, Poetik und Gattungsgeschichte eines neuen Genres in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur [Relational Autobiography: A Contribution to the Theory, Poetics, and Genre History of a New Genre in English-language Narrative Literature]. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier. Watson, J. (2016). Review of A. Rüggemeier, Die relationale Autobiographie: Ein Beitrag zur Theorie, Poetik und Gattungsgeschichte eines neuen Genres in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur [Relational Autobiography: A Contribution to the Theory, Poetics, and Genre History of a New Genre in English-language Narrative Literature] (Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2014). European Journal of Life Writing 5, 15–25.
Note: Page numbers followed by “n” denote endnotes. Abd al-Dayim, Y.51 Abouzeid, Leila 21, 190; Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman 20, 26n17, 48–65, 138, 189; Year of the Elephant 51, 59 Abu Deeb, Kamal 96, 98 Abudi, Dalya 49 Abu Hanna, Hanna 73, 119, 137, 166, 167, 169, 171–179, 181, 181n1, 182n2, 188; The Cloud’s Shadow (Ẓill al-ghayma) 23, 85n9, 92, 98, 165–182, 187 Alcoff, Linda 40, 161 Allen, Roger 26n14; The Locust and the Bird 20 Anderson, Linda 46n4, 54, 161 Anishchenkova, Valerie 12; Autobiographical Identities in Contemporary Arab Culture 11 al-Arabi Batma 62 Arabic life writing 6, 177 Arab Women’s Lives Retold: Exploring Identity through Writing (Al-Hassan Golley) 16 “autobiographical ambivalence” 104 Autobiographical Identities in Contemporary Arab Culture (Anishchenkova) 11 “autobiographical pact” (Lejeune) 15, 16, 24n3, 25, 26n13, 34–36, 46n5, 170, 171, 182n2, 182n6 autobiographical self 9, 13, 22, 25n6, 32, 76, 81, 83, 101, 103, 117, 138, 146, 147, 149; dominant 5; by fusion into group 104–105 autobiographical text 4, 8, 12, 14, 15, 18, 19, 46n8, 64n2, 73, 74,
121, 135n10, 138, 158, 161, 186; conventional 102, 185; “first voice” of 72; intersubjectivity in 70; premodern 17; relational 153; relational aspect of 7; selfreferentiality of 35 autobiographical writing 3, 4, 23, 24n3, 36, 81, 90, 101; conventional modes of 18; convention in 11; the idiosyncrasies of 13; premodern 25n4; voicings in 9; women 6, 16 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Stein) 76 Awad, Louis: Life Papers: The Formative Years 46n2 al-Azzawi, Fadhil 150 Bakhtin, Mikhail 37, 42, 156 Baqāyā Ṣuwar, Fragments of Memory (Mina) 11, 12 Barakat, Salim 20, 22, 119, 190; The Iron Grasshopper: The Incomplete Memoir of a Child Who Never Saw Anything but A Fugitive Land and Shouted: These are my Traps, O Sandgrouse 21, 88–113, 138, 189; The Jurists of Darkness 90, 96; Play the Trumpet, Play it Highest: Autobiography of Youth 88 Baridi, Muhammad 15 Basrayatha: Story of a City (Khudayyir) 74 belonging 189; in arabic autobiography 9–13; collective 107; in corpus 19–23; through exclusion 108–112 Bin Jallun, Tahir 60 bin Jalun, Abd al-Majid 62
194 Index Brodzki, Bella 6 Brownlee, Marina 135n7 Bruner, Jerome 26n11 Bullough, Edward 123 Buscombe, Edward 151 Cavarero, Adriana 178 A Child from the Village (Qutb) 85n9, 170 Choukri, Mohamed 20, 60, 62, 117, 119, 120, 190; For Bread Alone (al-Khubz al-ḥāfī) 22, 26n14, 27n22, 75, 113n8, 115, 116, 120, 123–124, 129, 134n3, 134n4, 135n10, 135n12, 137, 150, 171; relational strategy 118; Streetwise (al-Shuṭṭār) (Choukri) 22, 27n21, 115–134, 134n2, 135n6, 189 City of Saffron (al-Kharrat) 75, 85n15, 173 Civantos, Christina 135n10, 135n11 The Cloud’s Shadow (Ẓill al-ghayma) (Abu Hanna) 23, 85n9, 92, 98, 165, 187; autobiography in relational context 175–181; from Hanna to Yahya 172–175; intrarelational life 166–170; narrating self in thirdperson narrative voice 170–172 Coe, Richard 165, 182n2 “collaborative autobiography” 32 communal autobiography 135n12 communal violence 105–108 Confessions (Rousseau) 124 “convoluted self-reflection” 76 Cosslett, Tess 52 Couser, Thomas 31 cultural memory 181, 188 Davis, Rocío G. 6, 36, 49, 76, 84n4, 117, 146, 147, 168, 181 The Days (Hussein) 18, 24n4, 45n2, 73, 75, 76, 80, 85n11, 85n17, 85n18, 86n21, 170, 172, 182n6 Days of Youth (Haykal) 78 Deleuze, G. 100, 110 diasporic autobiography 83 Down and Out in Paris and London (Orwell) 162n4 Eakin, Paul John 7, 23, 25n5, 25n7, 32, 37, 38, 46n3, 50, 54, 70, 80, 81, 101, 102, 106, 117, 119, 146, 150, 158, 162n6, 167, 175, 176
Egan, Susanna 4, 8, 13–14, 19, 20, 25n5, 25n7, 32, 44, 46n3, 76, 153; Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography 8, 32 El-Ariss, T. 145 Ellis, C. 176 Elsaesser, T. 97, 147–149 Enderwitz, Susanne 26n15, 69, 75, 78, 85n11 Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna 37 Ezli, Özkan 127 Fī al-Adab al-Jāhilī (Hussein) 86n19 Fay, Mary Ann 4 Fernea, Elizabeth 62 The First Well (Jabra) 85n16 Fischer, Michael M. J. 8, 9, 72 Fivush, Robyn 58 For Bread Alone (al-Khubz al-ḥāfī) (Choukri) 22, 26n14, 27n22, 75, 113n8, 115, 116, 120, 123–124, 129, 134n3, 134n4, 135n10, 135n12, 137, 150, 171 Ford, John 151; The Searchers 148 Franco, Francisco 133 Freeman, Mark 171 Friedman, Susan Stanford 6 Furani, Khaled 181n1 Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (Smith and Watson) 25n8 Gibran, Gibran Khalil 126 Giles, James 21–22, 89, 93, 94 Gilmore, Leigh 7–8, 19, 32, 39, 81, 101, 173; theory of autobiographics 45 Granara, William 121 Guattari, F. 100, 110 Gudmundsdottir, G. 45 Gusdorf, George 24n3 Gusdorfian model 7, 13, 162n5 Hafez, Sabry 15, 25n9, 37, 80, 120, 134n4, 135n6 al-Hakim, Tawfiq: The Prison of Life 80 Hall, Stuart 141 Hanna, Hanna Abu 20, 23, 45n2, 73, 85n9, 92, 98, 119, 137, 165–182, 188, 190; The Cloud’s Shadow (Ẓill al-ghayma) 23, 45n2, 85n9, 92, 98, 165–182, 188 Hart, Francis R. 24n3
Index 195 Al-Hassan Golley, N. 16; Arab Women’s Lives Retold: Exploring Identity through Writing 16 “heterobiography” 37 Hirsch, Marianne 53 Holman Jones, S. 176 Hussein, Taha 191; The Days 18, 24n4, 45n2, 73, 75, 76, 80, 85n11, 85n17, 85n18, 86n21, 170, 172, 182n6; Fī al-Adab al-jāhilī 86n19 Ibrahim, Sonallah: Stealth 26n14 Ibrahim the Writer (al-Mazini) 75 “intergenerational narrative of autonomy” 39, 50, 152–161 intrarelational life 100–103, 166–170 An Iraqi in Paris: An Autobiographical Novel (Shimon) 13, 22, 137–162, 187; beginnings and circularity 140–144; enacting narrative identity through film 144–150; intergenerational narrative of relationality 152–161; personal myth and self-invention 150–152 The Iron Grasshopper: The Incomplete Memoir of a Child Who Never Saw Anything but A Fugitive Land and Shouted: These are my Traps, O Sandgrouse (Barakat) 21, 88–113, 138, 189; actual violence and symbolic violence against Kurds 95–96; al-Sīra al-nāqiṣa 103–104; autobiographical self by fusion into group 104–105; communal violence and alienation as relational strategies 105–108; embedding the self 91–92; identification through outsiders and misfits 108–112; intrarelational life 100–103; Kurdish identity, counter-exclusion and beginnings of violence 96–97; subversion or repression 97–100; violence as fourthspace 92–95 Jabra, Jabra Ibrahim: The First Well 85n16 Jackson, Michael 10, 139; Between One and One Another (Michael) 9 Joseph, Suad 45 Jubran, Sulayman 18n10, 18n15, 174 Kaplan, Caren 3, 11, 175 Kerouac, Jack: On the Road 125, 142
al-Kharrat, Edwar 85n14; City of Saffron 75, 85n15, 173 Khazaal, Natalie 116, 129, 135n12 Khudayyir, Muḥammad: Basrayatha: Story of a City 74 Kohstall, Florian 123 Kozma, Liat 60 Leg over Leg (al-Shidyaq) 15, 17, 182n8 Lejeune, Philippe 15, 16, 24n3, 25n9, 34, 35, 46n5, 171, 182n2; initial theory 36; see also “autobiographical pact” (Lejeune) Life Papers: The Formative Years (Awad) 46n2 life writing 2, 5, 9, 19, 186; Arabic 177; premodern 17; relational 6, 7, 69; relational component of 146; “relational model” of 167; Western theories on 4; women 16, 24n3 literary autobiography 10, 18, 19 Lodge, David 18 Machut-Mendecka, Eva 11, 12 Malin, Jo 42 De Man, Paul 35 Manfaluti, Mustafa 126 Mason, Mary 6 Mawasi, Faruq 168, 178 al-Mazini, Ibrahim: Ibrahim the Writer 75 Meyer, Stefan G. 99 Miller, Nancy K. 6, 13, 14, 19, 25n4, 38, 41, 74, 78, 82, 153, 161, 166, 175 Misch, Georg 24n3 Mountainous Journey (Tuqan) 120 Mudhakārāt Jurjī Zaydan (Zaydan) 24n4 Munif, Abd al-Rahman 5, 20, 22, 84n1, 103, 119, 137, 186–187; Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman 3, 21, 68–86, 90, 92, 105, 138, 170, 172, 187 My Life Is an Intricate Tale (al-Shaykh) 1, 3, 20, 30–46, 63, 119, 138, 153, 188; illiteracy and self-representation 39–40; indeterminate self and double-voicing in text 42–44; overlapping worlds, entangled identities 40–42; relational model of identity in 37–38; theories of autobiography 34–37
196 Index Nabokov, Vladimir: Speak, Memory 166 Naficy, Hamid 71, 83 Naqqash, Samir 71 “narrative identity” 11, 117, 139, 146, 174; through film 144–150 “narrative of filiation” 31 Nasser, Tahia Abdel 18, 26n14 Neuman, Shirley 149, 172 al-Nowaihi, M. 173 Olney, James 24n3 On the Road (Kerouac) 125, 142 Orwell, George: Down and Out in Paris and London 162n4 “out-law genres” 2–3 Parker, David 50, 139, 153 Pascal, Roy 182n2 “performative agency” 39 Perfume (Suskind) 125, 126 “personal and generic encounters” 14 Pilling, John 166 Porter, Roger J. 158 The Prison of Life (al-Hakim) 80 “processes of identity formation” 72 al-Qasim, Nabih 35 Qutb, Sayyid: A Child from the Village 85n9, 170 Rastegar, Kamran 17 Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (Smith and Watson) 26n12 Redman, Martin C. 153, 158, 161 relational theories, autobiography 12, 16, 23 Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman (Abouzeid) 20, 48, 138, 189; individual voice and selfhood 54–56; narrative voice and registers of language 61–63; narrative voices of grandmother and mother 51–54; self-definition, voice and national story 59–61; silent/silenced authority 56–59 Reynolds, Dwight 17, 24n2, 25n9 Ribeiro, Raquel 100 Rooke, Tetz 25n9, 60, 84n3, 116, 182n2
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Confessions 124 Rüggemeier, Anne 13, 186 al-Sabbagh, Mohamed 126, 127 Sadiqi, Fatima 49, 62 Said, Edward 53 Schenk, Celeste 6 The Searchers (Ford) 148 self-in-autobiography 36, 37 Sells, Michael A. 129, 152 al-Shaykh, Hanan 2, 5, 36, 38, 45, 45n1, 48, 103, 119, 137, 186, 190 al-Shidyaq, Ahmad Faris 15, 17, 18, 24n4, 177, 182n8, 182n15, 191; Leg over Leg 15, 17, 18, 24n4, 182n8 Shimon, Samuel 20, 138, 161n1, 162n10, 190; An Iraqi in Paris: An Autobiographical Novel 13, 22, 137–162, 187 Shuiskii, Sergei 144 “sīra dhātiyya” 24n2 Smith, Sidonie 5, 6, 24n3, 118, 152, 161, 167; Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography 25n8; Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives 26n12 Smith, Thomas R. 13–14, 25n5 Somekh, Sasson 25n9, 65n10 Sontag, Susan 56 Speak, Memory (Nabokov) 166 spectrum of relationality 13–17 Stealth (Ibrahim) 26n14 Stein, Gertrude: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 76 Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman (Munif) 21, 68–86, 90, 92, 105, 138, 170, 172, 187; autobiographical subject 78–81; autobiographical subject through geographical “other” 70–72; firstperson voice 72–78; personal and geographical boundaries through death 81–82; self between home and exile 83–84 Stover, Johnnie 49 Streetwise (al-Shuṭṭār) (Choukri) 22, 27n21, 115–134, 134n2, 135n6, 189; embedding self in stories 131–134; relational tendencies in 123–131 al-Sufi, Hasan 89 Suskind, Patrick: Perfume 125, 126
Index 197 al-Tahtawi, Rafi: Takhlīṣ al-ibrīz fī talkhīṣ Bārīz 24n4, 162n10 Takhlīṣ al-ibrīz fī talkhīṣ Bārīz (al-Tahtawi) 24n4, 162n10 Tejel, Jordi 95 textual self 89, 119, 131, 145, 160 theories, autobiography 34–37; formalistic 32; relational 12, 16, 23 A Thousand and One Nights 138, 143 traditional autobiographies 6, 24n3, 25n5, 166, 167; theory 15 Tuqan, Fadwa: Mountainous Journey 120; Riḥla Ṣa’ba, Riḥla Jabaliyya 25n6, 120 al-Udwan, Majid 78 Villar, C. 54 Vinson, P. 51, 64n5, 65n9
violence 88; acts of 99, 103, 106, 108, 111; communal 105–108; fourthspace of 22, 89, 92–95; Kurdish identity, counter-exclusion and beginnings of 96–97; silent 111; symbolic 90, 95–96 Wachtel, Andrew 53 Watson, Julia 5, 6, 13, 24n3, 118, 152, 161, 167, 186; Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography 25n8; Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives 26n12 Weintraub, Karl 24n3 Wild, Stefan 26n14 Zaydan, Jurji: Mudhakārāt Jurjī Zaydan 24n4 Ziadeh, Mai 126