Reinscribing identity: nation and community in Arab women's writing.
Several women writers in the Middle East have openly criticized the oppressive discursive practices that Arab nationalism has produced. Writers such as Hamida Na'ana, Sahar Khalifa, Nawal al-Saadawi, Ghada al-Samman and Hanan al-Shaykh have created alternative narratives that veer away from the conventional idea that women should be signifiers of interiority and traditionalism.

Women authors (Criticism and interpretation)
Arabic literature (Criticism and interpretation)
Fayad, Mona
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Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1995 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Feb, 1995 Source Volume: v22 Source Issue: n1
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One of the most difficult tasks confronting Arab women writers in inscribing themselves as subjects lies in resisting and renegotiating their role within a master national narrative that not only homogenizes the concept of national identity itself, but also assigns Woman a fixed role as an historical metaphor buried deep within the foundations of the narrative. Through this historical metaphor, Woman is appropriated as signifier of traditionalism, reservoir of a communal identity out of which the "imagined communities" of the nation, in Benedict Anderson's terms, can be constructed. The struggle to "plot woman"(1) by contemporary women writers is complicated by the fact that any attempt to transgress the nationalist discourse is read as a betrayal, part of a "triple jeopardy"(2) in which woman allies herself with Western colonialism against the authenticity of indigenous social practices, with a "modernizing" agenda that breaks away from and rejects Arab heritage and its roots.(3)

In the anti-colonial struggle, any suspicion of identifying with the West constitutes a betrayal of the nation itself. In other words, as Mai Ghoussoub puts it:

Arab women [in the postcolonial era] were the major victims of the complex Arab perception of colonialism, not as an economic, political, or military system, but as a "rape" of power in the first place, as well as the worship of the glorious past which was exposed to rape, and with it the insistence on the superiority of our values over those of the West. This led inescapably to the solidification of family structures and inherited family mores. (34)

The gendered nature of such a narrative, which posits the struggle for national identity within Woman, and establishes the connection between "rape" and the loss of family structures, is clearly expressed by Ghoussoub. Such a perception goes back not only to the violence of colonialism itself, but also to Western discursive practices as described by Edward Said and Malek Alloula in which the Orient is the exotic, erotic (feminine) other seduced and tamed by the Western "civilizing" mission.(4) The perception that feminism is a Western concept, moreover, dates back to actual colonial practices in places such as Algeria where "the woman question," became a deliberate way to undermine nationalist identity and to create a new Frenchified elite that separated "native" from colonizer.(5)

Within the twentieth-century Arab literary tradition, Woman as historical metaphor is most commonly represented through the allegory of mother/earth/country. Such a representation involves a reinscription of ancient Middle Eastern mythology. The original sacrifice of the god of fertility Adonis/Baal for his people, his dismemberment as he is scattered onto the earth, and his resurrection by the goddess-mother-consort Ishtar have been displaced from the god to Woman's body, specifically Woman as mother. Consequently, the mother is cast in a dual role: she must carry within her body both the dismemberment and the re-membering. Through this double role, Woman is written into history as the necessary blood-sacrifice that precedes the birth of the nation - al-umma, abstract feminization of al-umm, the mother, whose original name carried no sexual marker.(6)

Several Arab women writers have explicitly denounced the "martyrdom" role into which Woman has been cast. As early as 1968, the prominent Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala'ika objects to the mythification of a real woman, Jamila Buhaired, who was arrested and tortured by the French in Algeria, and who became a symbol of Arab resistance to colonialism. In her poem "Jamila," she attacks the "extravagant songs" that threaten to drown Jamila more than her tears:

We were convinced they nailed a heroine to the cross and we sang the glories of martyrdom . . . They have wounded her with knives we with words and the wounds afflicted by one's kin are far deeper than those afflicted by the French (22)(7)

Al-Mala'ika is only the first in a series of women writers who are openly critical of the oppressive discursive practices that nationalism produces. A more recent example is Sahar Khalifa, who in her novel Bab as-Saha (1990; the title refers to a neighborhood in Nablus) explicitly rejects the representation of woman along allegorical lines that reduce her to a signifier of nationalism: "Wake up, clever boy. I'm not the mother or the land or the symbol. I am a person, I eat, drink, dream, make mistakes, get lost, get agitated, suffer, and talk to the wind. I'm not a symbol, I'm a woman" (176). Nuzha's denial here is supported by the end of the novel, which rejects self-sacrifice for the "bogy-woman," her name for the nation, but advocates resistance as a response to personal loss.

Another way Woman is traditionally written into nationalism, specifically in the case of bilingual narratives, is as language/seductress, where the male conflict of identity is written as a confusion between two seductresses, as in the example of Abdelkabir Khatibi's Amour bilingue [Love in Two Languages] (1983). The emphasis on language adds another dimension to the "burial" of Woman as foundation for national identity. Here establishing the male subject is based on the repression of the Kristevan semiotic in favor of the symbolic, so that mother/earth only attains value once it has been inscribed into the symbolic. Consequently, the movement of national self-discovery echoes and reflects the psychoanalytic model in which the mother must be first seduced and then repressed in order for the male subject to construct himself. The memory of origin becomes an "amnesia" that constantly haunts the text, leading to the search for a substitute that will replace the loss. In the postcolonial novel the loss of origins through an encounter with the foreign tongue/culture confuses the boundary between patriarchal authority (the discourse of power) and the retrieval of roots through the mother tongue (the language of submission). Woman in such a narrative is consequently posited as the begetter, inspirer, and protector of male subjectivity. The disembodiment of Woman in the national narrative and her mythification render it impossible to position her as an agent of change.

Aware that such a process of mythification places Woman outside the movement of history, Arab women writers have developed a number of strategies to produce a counter-discourse to such ahistorical representation. One such strategy is a move to reclaim history and specificity. Nawal al-Saadawi stresses this point in her essay "Towards a Strategy of Incorporation," where she calls for a re-reading of Arab history from the viewpoint of Arab women:

so they can be aware that the struggle of Arab women against sexual, national, and class oppression is not newly born, and that the Arab women's movement doesn't come from the void, and is not modeled on women's movements in the West, but is evident throughout the course of Arab and Islamic history, extending over fourteen centuries. . . . Arab women protested their exclusion from the Qoranic text, saying: "We have become Muslims as you [masculine] have, and we have done what you did, and yet we are not mentioned." (478)

As a result of the protest, the Koran adopted a different form of address which specified both male and female believers, using both masculine and feminine plural forms (479). Saadawi here draws on the Koran itself to indicate the indigenous nature of Arab women's protest. Moreover, its written documentation within the Islamic discourse itself indicates Islam's recognition and support of women's voices. She continues:

The reformulation of history and Arab Islamic civilization from the viewpoint of half of society (women) and from all the Arab popular forces that were oppressed for a long time, is an essential dynamic component of this heritage. It is necessary to acknowledge, theoretically and in practice, this wide spectrum of Arab people, and in order for science and rationality (not superstition and myth) to form the basis for dialogue, discussion, thought, and work. (479)

Notwithstanding the language of "science and rationality" al-Saadawi uses,(8) her call for using history as a means of establishing agency as opposed to objectivity for women stems from a need to reject "natural law" as the "natural" (secular) or sacred (religious) order of things. It grounds women in history while rejecting a monolithic History that defines and establishes the boundaries of the nation. Such a process, as Trinh Minh-ha argues, corresponds to the capacity to see the past as part of the present and future, and to reject its solidification into an organized whole that is over and completed. History, then, can be transformed into what Homi Bhabha has called a "performative" act, as opposed to simply serving the aims of the "pedagogical."(9)

Once the ambivalent double narrative movement of nationalism as lying "in-between" the performative and the pedagogical is articulated, it no longer becomes necessary to represent the conflict between individual inscription and communal identity as mutually exclusive. Instead, they can be reconstituted as different levels in which the woman as subject operates, or as alternating spaces she can inhabit as she seeks to inscribe a multidimensional identity in which individual identity intersects and interacts with the communal and national as a process that resists closure.

This self-conscious writing of resistance into the narrative of nationalism, not as a resistance directed only towards the "outerness" of the colonizer, but also towards "interiority" itself,(10) marks an awareness of the function of writing in building the "imagined community" and of culture itself, which, as Bhabha argues, is "an uneven, incomplete production of meaning and value, often composed of incommensurable demands and procedures, and produced in the act of social survival" (470). As women writers redefine and renegotiate "culture," then, their writing both reinforces that culture, and, at the same time, questions the terms in which that culture has come to define itself.

An example of women's renegotiation of nationalism is the Syrian writer Hamida Na'ana's al-Watan fil 'Aynayn [The Country in Her Eyes] (1986), which, while it does not specifically break out of the traditional male model, nevertheless manages to transgress its boundaries throughout most of the novel. The novel is built around a conflict between Layla as a political activist, and Layla as a woman. As an activist, she is able to perform her role through becoming "masculine," during the course of which she is "married" to the cause, renouncing any claims to her own desire. She is able to perform top secret operations, including hijacking, because she denounces her femininity. Nevertheless, it steps in, intervening with her work as she begins to pity the victims of her operations and refuses to see them as dehumanized objects. Her "marriage," too, is tarnished by the love she develops for one of her fellow activists, and her fear for his safety. Having allowed both these things to happen, her organization excludes her from participating in any more missions. She has now been reduced to being only a woman, and for that she must pay a price. The price is actual marriage, but it fails because she is no longer completely a woman, both because she has participated in "male" violence and because after a miscarriage she finds out she cannot bear children. Even her identity itself is called into question. She has undertaken plastic surgery to have her face altered after her participation in the hijacking, and she carries false identity papers.

Layla's story is set within the context of a need for both amnesia and memory. As a Palestinian completely exiled from her home, her organization, and her adopted country (Lebanon), she cannot find the words to explain to her Western lover what her past is about. The novel consists of an attempt to remember in order to reestablish for herself the parameters within which she can construct her subjectivity.

The need to retrieve memory, generally, in many Arab women's writings, becomes a counterpart for the re-reading of history. With this comes the impetus not only to record their own past, but that of their community, to retell the stories of women who have been excluded. Hence the emphasis in many of these texts on characters who are reporters, who tell tales, or who can provide written testimony to the events women have encountered. In Khalifa's Bab al-Saha (1990), Samar is collecting information about the situation of women in her community, and it is through this role that she is able to transcend the limitations of her individual perception and provide a more extensive picture. In Khalifa's 'Abbad al-Shams [The Sunflowers] (1981), the whole novel is a testimonial to life on the West Bank, but more specifically to the lives of the different people who form the different layers of society there. It is no coincidence, then, that one of the women protagonists works for a newspaper. Similarly, Assia Djebar's protagonist in Fantasia, An Algerian Cavalcade (1985) is a serf-conscious historian who collects stories about women's resistance to the French, as well as a researcher who digs into the archives of French accounts of their conquest and performs a "speleology" that brings hidden evidence out into the light. The Lebanese writer Ghada al-Samman's Kawabis Beirut [Beirut Nightmares] (1981) provides a testimony of the repressed: the nightmares that shape the waking hours of the city. Her protagonist's role as a writer is self-conscious: it is she who provides her newspaper with a running commentary on the events, not through an objective and distancing reporting technique, but by making herself both the "victim" and creator of the nightmares. In Hanan al-Shaykh's The Story of Zahra (1981), Zahra is able to find a voice through telling her own story and her mother's, providing, instead of the reassuring voice of the radio announcer that denies the existence of the war, an account, not only of the Lebanese Civil War itself, but of the social systems that generate the violence of the war. And finally, the unidentified female writer/reporter who frames the story of Sitt Marie Rose (1978) reminds us of Marie Rose's death, refusing to allow it to fall into the anonymity of thousands of other deaths by reminding us that "[d]eath is never in the plural. . . . It happens millions of times that someone dies" (84).

With the retrieval of memory comes the reappropriation of the body from its condition as object of male desire, and its transformation into a desiring force that rejects its subjugation to a narrative of erasure. The grounding of identity not in the passive earth, which is the focus of the national allegory, but in a body that insists on its presence forms a notion of identity that resists being subsumed under sameness. In Fantasia, Djebar reverses the eroticism of language as the elusive feminine that needs to be captured and tamed, and constructs her own relation to language as a body that she interacts with, desires, and from which she longs to escape. But she also, through her research, disinters the dead bodies of her ancestors, particularly the women, who were killed by the French. Al-Shaykh's Zahra articulates clearly her own and her mother's desire, even if Zahra's body also, and at the same time, bears traces of the civil war. Marie Rose pays the price for her assertion of her own desire over "national" interest through her death. Samman employs the carnivalesque to topple abstract notions of sectarian affiliation and to focus on the immediate needs of a body that is constantly at the edge of survival. Through the figure of Saadiyya, a widow left with several children to raise, Khalifa presents a practical and immediate aspiration for comfort, a desire that is associated with ownership and independence, but which also establishes a collective sense of identity that manifests itself through a semiotic bonding of women on a number of occasions.

I would like at this point to examine in some detail three texts by Arab women that foreground the relationship between gender and national identity, bringing into question the representational structures that establish woman as bound by the national narrative rather than as agent of her own history. The three writers, Khalifa, Djebar, and Barakat, employ a number of complex strategies to subvert and re-inscribe nationalism, while at the same time writing resistance into their texts. Grounded in three different nationalist struggles, their work reflects a moment of crisis in national identity, where examining the basis of cultural coherence is of immediate practical concern: Khalifa as a Palestinian from the West Bank confronting Israeli occupation; Djebar documenting the Algerian struggle against French colonialism; and Barakat writing about the factionalism of the Lebanese Civil War. Their work nevertheless shares a common rejection of nationalism as a monolithic, univocal system opening instead the possibility of a multi-vocal construction of communal identity.

Sahar Khalifa's The Sunflowers picks up where Wild Thorns, her earlier novel, breaks off. Wild Thorns examines the choices available for the male subject to interpret and react to the Israeli presence in the West Bank. In many ways, Wild Thorns is about failure, primarily the failure to establish a community that is capable of collective action. The Sunflowers continues the quest for collectivity, but revolves primarily around women's role in creating and retaining communal identity. Dismissing elitist ideologies that fail to take into account the voices of the people, it emphasizes the spontaneous recognition of affiliation between the members of the group themselves.

Consequently, the novel is preoccupied with physical spaces as a way of organizing community, as opposed to an ideational mode that depends on rhetorical discourse to define its boundaries. Whether it is the prison, the board-room of the newspaper, or the steam baths, it is there that communality is established and the testing of individual freedom takes place.

It is no accident that the novel begins with Rafif running, as she is snatched back from danger (she is about to get run over by a car) and restrained by her male colleague 'Adil, and ends with running as a group of women begin to attack the soldiers. Both events take place outdoors and are unplanned. Rafif's running at the beginning is solitary, an escape, and a bid for freedom from 'Adil's oppressiveness, while at the end the women run towards danger to establish a collective right to freedom.

Khalifa's definition of national identity is inclusive rather than exclusive, breaking down the opposition between center and margins. In the novel we see three different women from various backgrounds: we have Rafif, who is the educated woman working for an Arabic newspaper in Jerusalem and who refuses the idea that the struggle for national independence must come at the expense of women's freedom; Saadiyya, the working-class woman who has lost her husband to the struggle and now has to fend for herself despite the disapproval of her neighbors; and Khadra, whose only way of raising money for her bedridden husband is through prostitution. All three women become part of a nationalist narrative partly by accident, partly through a coming to awareness that establishes clearly the link between their own individual identities and that of their communities.

The Sunflowers consequently emphasizes the performative, everyday redefinition of cultural identity, the "scraps, patches, and rags of daily life," through which the people become "'subjects' of a process of signification" that constitutes national identity (297). The novel subverts any attempt to categorize "the people" as a monolithic entity. The newspaper, reflecting the media as well as national leadership, represents this failure of homogenization. Instead, identity comes to be divided into smaller and smaller units that all contend for a position of power and/or the need for representation, from class and gender to Arab nationalism to religious values. The quarrel of the members of the editorial board is never resolved, and the novel ends without giving us a solution to the basic problem: that the newspaper has failed to fulfill the needs of the market and is therefore going out of business. The function of the newspaper as the pedagogical tool for homogenization of the various groups proves to be ineffective when it encounters the more specific demands of the performative: when the reporters rush to cover the uprising in Nablus at the end of the novel, they are forced to stop and wait out the curfew with scores of others, and are only able to get through with the help of their Israeli colleague.

Much of the definition of communal identity in the novel wavers between oppositionality, a response to an external threat, and communality, a sense of a shared experience. The central scene of the novel takes place in the steam baths, where the women have congregated because of the lack of water in their own homes. The occupation has forced them back into a traditional practice that the women had abandoned: the baths, in fact, crumbled and decayed, were only frequented by the poorer women of the community. However, as the women gather together once again, they retrieve the past, remembering events that draw them together both in celebration and in sorrow.

Gradually, the gathering becomes an occasion for the women to air their opposition to the occupation. Through satirical songs and laughter, a sense of collective identity is established between the women in which even Khadra, who as a prostitute is an outsider, easily shares. Moving from the collective to the individual, the women voice their grievances and confront their oppression on several levels. However, when Khadra suddenly challenges the women - who have been boasting of the role of Nablus in the resistance - by attacking the town directly (her anger stems from the way the town treated her as a child when she stole to save herself from hunger) the dynamics of collectivity change immediately. The baths turn into a tribunal in which Khadra's origin and her identity are questioned and found lacking. Khadra's refusal to identify herself as belonging to the group eventually leads to her being physically attacked by the women. Once the threat is removed, however, and Khadra has left, the sense of goodwill and common experience are again reestablished.

The basic metaphor of the novel, and one that recurs on several occasions, is that of the spider's web. The web is the delicate interconnection between the members of the community, a connection that needs to be woven by the people in order for it to function. Such a web also constitutes a protection against those who invade it. It does, however, claim its victims from within, victims such as Khadra and (almost) Saadiyya wlo go against the social mores and end up caught up in the web, unable to escape. Khadra's last words to Saadiyya, who wants to help her run away, express her despair: "'ala feen?!" [Where to?!]. She is able to escape from an Israeli jail, but she is unable to escape the web of the community.

Overall, the novel itself is structured as a web that provides connection between the diverse elements that make up the community. It uses language, rich with the colloquial flavor of Palestinian Arabic, to provide not the "unisonance" of the "imagined community" as established through an external historical narrative, but rather a multiplicity of voices that capture, through oral exchange, the beliefs, priorities, and concerns of various segments of society. Khalifa skillfully juxtaposes the stale discourse of people such as 'Adil and his brother Basil with his use of military terminology - they are from a feudal background - with the animated language of Saadiyya and Khadra, whose experience of oppression is more direct and immediate. The Standard Arabic used by the members of the newspaper board reflects the cliched, predictable ideological positions they have become entrenched in, as well as the hold of History, which Rafif calls "the Whale." Rather than constructing identity, adherence to the rigid rules of the past eradicate identity: the Whale swallows everything in its path, and reduces the details that in themselves constitute the specificity of a particular historical moment to insignificant trivia. It is by running, then, through movement, that the engulfing threat of History can be evaded.

Assia Djebar's Fantasia approaches the question of national identity from a completely different angle. While Djebar assumes that collective identity is possible if it allows a space for multiplicity, shesees any pure notion of self-definition as impossible, and introduces the inevitable hybridity of cultural practices. Her novel is a narrative caught between two cultures, that of Algeria and that of France, which has defined her country's history since 1830 both politically, through colonialism, and through its representation of Algerian history itself. Like many postcolonial novels written in a Western language, it finds itself trapped in a contradictory move towards rejection of the colonizing culture and an inescapable entrenchment in that culture. Djebar's novel deals with the frustration of attempting to construct a national history when most of the available records are French. The narrator therefore views her role as that of an intermediary, not only between her people and the French archives, but also between a male-centered history and one that focuses on the role of Algerian women in the struggle for independence.

Because of her extensive use of archival material Djebar clearly uses history to establish a concept of national identity. But her history is made up of the gaps between official histories, what has been left out. Aware that Algerian history walks an uneasy line between Arabic and French, she is concerned with articulating that in-between rather than attempting to dogmatically assert any sense of historical or cultural purity.

The novel sets itself up as a search, not for collective identity, but for individual freedom. Such a search, however, is doomed: the parallel between the narrator's struggle for personal independence and the nation's struggle for political independence are too inextricably linked. The unnamed narrator finds herself caught up in what she terms the "chains of memory," struggling to define herself but unable to do so without defining the history of her people. As she complains: "While I intended every step forward to make me more clearly identifiable, I find myself progressively sucked down into the anonymity of those women of old - my ancestors!" (217). In order to tell her own story, therefore, she is forced to tell the stories of those women, and the novel weaves their stories, actual oral histories that she records, with her own.

Her search for origins takes more than one form. Rather than undergoing the change that Barbara Harlow traces in resistance narratives from "genealogical or hereditary ties of filiation to collective ties of affiliation" (116), she brings the two together. The ties are represented specifically through the voices of the women who tell their stories. For the narrator, to listen is to learn, to trace back identity, to contextualize oneself. Writing about one of the women she listens to, she says: "I listen as she unravels the genealogical skein; the threads pass from such and such a mountain to such and such a hill, winding through zaouia and hamlet, and then round the heart of the city (164). The movement is from individual to collective, from house, to village, and eventually to the city. The voice, then, provides a link, not only between generations but also between the people and the land: "And my body reverberates with sounds from the endless landslide of generations of my lineage" (46). Unlike in the traditional nationalist narrative, however, the land is not simply a marker of stability. Here the land itself is unsteady, sliding out of reach, burying the past and building a new present. There is no easy way of establishing identity through the earth and geographical location.

Nor are the echoes that reverberate throughout the novel simple responses to a Narcissus seeking himself. The underlying narratives of the French massacres surface in these sounds that return again and again from the past, refusing to be silenced. The cries resulting from the fumigation and burning to death of whole tribes (1500 people from the Oulad Riah, 800 from Sbeah) in their hiding-places in mountain caves echo through the text, forcing the narrator to acknowledge her existence as a descendent of one of the few survivors who stepped out into the sunlight when the caves were unsealed.

But though Djebar is concerned with redeeming memory from the lost chronicles of official colonialist history, she is above all concerned with rewriting the past through the oral narratives of individual women who provide testimony to their resistance to French occupation. She underlines her dependency on the oral voice to provide a means of reading between the lines of the official narrative: "[W]riting has brought me to the cries of the women silently rebelling in my youth, to my own true origins. Writing does not silence the voice, but awakens it, above all to resurrect so many vanished sisters" (204). Overall, Djebar's narrative, through bridging Arabic and French, oral and written traditions, provides us with what Gloria Anzaldua, in the Latina context, has called a "mestiza consciousness," a hybrid identity that, once acknowledged, can provide the basis of both individual and collective identity: "The notion of the uprooting of dualistic thinking suggests a conceptualization of consciousness, power, and authority which is fundamentally based on knowledges which are often contradictory" (Mohanty 37). Such an identity draws its strength from the fact that it is not forced to be one or the other, at the cost of the repression of difference: rather, it is both, a new identity forged from two old ones. Nevertheless, Djebar does not end such a realization on a celebratory note. Rather she is aware that it is literally over the dead bodies of her predecessors that such an identity has been created, for, "[t]hough they will neither be washed nor wrapped in winding sheet" (74), the narrator can at least "reach out today to our own dead and weave a pattern of French words around them" (78).

If Djebar mourns the impossibility of the national narrative to capture an indigenous identity that can define itself against the "outerness" of the West, Barakat's Hajar ad-duhuk [The Laughing Stone] (1990) provides a more extreme reading of nationalism as an inherently gendered space that in itself denies agency of any kind to the subject, male or female. The novel consequently is a study of the coercive strategies used by the community to perpetuate its cohesiveness. Unlike the other two novels, which find in certain types of collectivity a source of empowerment that counters the attempt of nationalism to appropriate gender for its own ends, The Laughing Stone struggles with the impossibility of representing nationalism in terms other than through a rigidly dichotomized, gendered, fixed narrative.

In keeping with its focus on gender, the novel explores the ways in which gender is manipulated by using a gay male, Khalil, whose resistance to the Lebanese Civil War and his refusal to take sides can be articulated only through representing him in feminine terms. It is as if masculinity denies him the possibility of resistance. Gradually, however, for reasons of self-preservation, he is forced to take on masculine characteristics. By the end of the novel, he has turned into the perfect male national subject: a war machine that dehumanizes not only others but himself as well.

The laughing stone of the title refers to the transformation the protagonist undergoes, a "magical" process related to the promise medieval alchemists associated with extracting gold from the philosopher's stone. But as the medieval experiments failed to come up with any formula that guaranteed the production of gold, so, too, the new Khalil that is produced is far from being "gold." Moreover, the process is in fact reversed: it is only when Khalil is transformed from being a subject capable of interacting with his surroundings into a person who is emotionally a stone, able to laugh at the tragedy of violence, that he can realize his role as hero in the national narrative. Through Khalil, therefore, Barakat indicates that affiliation with a certain group that is based on the construction of absolute boundaries of exclusion can only occur when one simultaneously eradicates one's own identity. Her perception of nationalism underlines its fascist, indoctrinating undertones, and sees no place in it for a liberating, progressive force.

Within such a context, the notion of sacrifice itself, as represented in the novel, equates nationalism with death. The novel posits a complex metonymic set of relations in which death becomes the ultimate masculine ideal, while masculinity itself becomes unattainable because it is already doomed through its association with death. In the following, for example, nationalism is cast in a script that emphasizes gendered role-playing:

The only emotion appropriate to nationalist feeling is deep sorrow. Tragedy. Death. Nationalist feeling means death. Death. You walk with it side by side, converse with it, iron its clothes, feed it from your plate. Love it. Death.

The link between nationalism and death is established as a love relationship, one that is interdependent, in which death is posited as the dominant partner: "Nationalist feeling hurts if it is distanced from death, and history is made only through death" (131).

The notion of the mother/land, moreover, is problematized as we trace the development of Khalil. The more dedicated Khalil becomes to nationalist feeling, the more he finds himself rejecting his mother and turning misogynistic. It is only by separating himself from women in general, and from "femininity" specifically, that he is able to dedicate himself to achieving the distance necessary to take up his role. He dwells particularly on an episode in his childhood, when his history teacher tells the class about the grand heroic gesture of the Phoenicians who burned themselves alive in their temples rather than be defeated by the enemy. When he returns home, he tries to find out where his mother would position herself in relation to such a sacrifice:

If I were your only son . . . would you agree to send me with our soldiers to die defending my country? . . . "Against whom?" asked the mother, throwing washing up water onto the earth in the open space in front of their house. "Against the enemy who wants to take our independence from us," answered Khalil, "whoever the enemy is." "No," she replied laughing, arranging the shining kitchen utensils in the sun on the large rocks. "I would tie you by your ankle to the leg of the bed. "But that way the enemy would tear down our bastions and burn our temples and libraries and mutilate our corpses, and they would kill me anyway." "No," said the mother, "They'd kill the men, but I would tell their leader that you were a little girl, one of my daughters, and when he saw you he'd believe it and go away." "You mean I'd stay alive and my homeland would die in disgrace?" said Khalil. "I don't give a damn about a homeland or a thousand homelands. Come here." She hugged him. He ran away. She laughed loudly.

I have quoted the passage extensively because it reflects many of the novel's basic preoccupations. The child cries in bitter shame at night about his mother's response, and begins to hate her. Three problematic elements recur in the passage: the first is the presence of the mother herself, who is both naive and down-to-earth in her responses. Then there is her laughter, which goes against the association of nationalism with sorrow. The mother refuses to take nationalism seriously, concerned more with the survival of her child than with the honor of the nation. But worse than that is the fact that she is willing to sacrifice her son's masculinity rather than allow him to participate in the nationalist struggle. The passage as a whole displaces several typical nationalist themes. The mother is associated with nature - water, earth, rocks - but she refuses to become a symbol of the nation. She is not interested in his construction as male nationalist subject if it is at the expense of his life. She is also concerned with specificity and with identifying the enemy, in contrast to Khalil, who projects a vague other that is faceless and ahistorical.

The novel brings into question the notions of fixed identity that define gender. The beginning of the novel provides us with a fluid, open conceptualization of identity, where Khalil is free to follow his desire for another male and to lead an existence that defines him as neither one nor the other. The language of the novel itself is initially amorphous, poetic, relying on metonymic relations to establish meaning. However, the war entrenches a dichotomized, overdetermined set of categories to which Khalil has no choice but to submit. Ultimately, he needs to violate his feminine side (he literally rapes the woman upstairs) in order to move on to join in the fighting. The novel ends with the sudden appearance of the writer, who mourns, as Khalil mourned earlier, the absence of her lover: "Khalil disappeared, became a male who laughed. I remained a woman writing. Khalil: my beloved hero." Khalil the person has disappeared, and has been replaced, instead, by a "hero," whose fate no doubt will be the same as that of other heroes: his funeral picture will be displayed briefly on a wall before another one is placed on top of it. In such a conceptualization of collective identity, clearly, it is through gender roles themselves that nationalism constructs itself, effacing along the way all possibilities of defining subjectivity, and creating a coercive hegemonic narrative in which the individual is always already part of the collective. The language becomes spare, rigid. However, it is the woman/writer who has the final word, for it is she who inscribes the loss that such a process inevitably seems to entail.

I have provided three examples of Arab women writing in different contexts to indicate some of the divergent rearticulations of nationalism that women writers are producing. Khalifa's work reflects an intense preoccupation with the revolutionary potential of nationalism if it is allowed free play, and a desire to convey the role women actually have in enacting nationalism on a day-to-day basis. Djebar's novel, while retrieving the loss that lies at the basis of national identity and digging for origins through a rereading of history, takes a middle path in representing both the revolutionary potential of nationalism and its repressive aspects. Barakat does not write anything positive into a nationalist conflict that is, after all, situated specifically in the Civil War. While resistance to a colonizing power forms the basis of the two other novels, and hence defines nationalism in relation to an "outerness" that shapes its boundaries, this resistance is absent in Laughing Stone. However, Barakat's novel assumes revolutionary potential through its undermining of gender roles in relation to national consciousness.

It is their rejection of woman as signifier of "interiority," however, that brings these authors together. "Interiority," when presented as being synonymous with tradition and subsequently with Woman, is rejected as a foundation for any nationalist enterprise. Instead, the authors stress the need for agency in determining the parameters of cultural production. And it is as cultural production that the writings of Arab women can participate in and encourage the creation of alternative narratives of nationalism.(11)


1 I am using here Jean Franco's term in Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico, which she defines as "those moments when dissident subjects appear in the social text and when the struggle for interpretive power erupts" (xii).

2 Trinh Minh-ha's term is applied to the issue of ethnic identity within a U. S. context, but is reflective of ways in which women are coerced into a position of representing their community by hegemonic discursive practices. She explains the term as follows: "Triple jeopardy means here that whenever a woman of color takes up the feminist fight, she immediately qualifies for three possible 'betrayals': she can be accused of betraying either the man (the 'manhater'), or her community ('people of color should stay together to fight racism'), or woman herself ('you should fight first on the women's side')" (104).

3 R. Radhakrishnan, in "Nationalism, Gender, and the Narrative of Identity," presents the dichotomy of nationalist rhetoric as based on an inside/outside opposition that is translated into gendered terms, so that "by mobilizing the inner/outer distinction against the 'outerness' of the West, nationalist rhetoric makes 'woman' the pure and ahistorical signifier of 'interiority'" (84), with interiority assuming an essential identity that constitutes "tradition."

4 Edward Said's argument in Orientalism is too well known to repeat here. Said's reading, of course, does not present the issue in gendered terms. Alloula, in reading the erotic postcards sent home from Algeria by French soldiers, establishes clearly the metonymic relation between "possessing" the women and "possessing" Algeria as a country.

5 The perception that feminism is a Western ideology has continued in the West, which promotes the idea of spreading feminism in the third world as proof of its "enlightenment," while at the same time hindering it domestically. Fortunately, writers such as Alifa Rifaat (Distant View of a Minaret [1983]), who have had no exposure to the West, and who write very much from within a "traditional" Islamic perspective, counter the assumption of feminism as a Western concept by proving that a rejection of patriarchal society is not the sole property of the West.

6 I am using here the traditional term for nation (al-umma) that indicates a more ideological concept of nationhood (the Islamic nation or the Arab nation). Al-watan, which carries within it the notion of settling and rootedness, is the other term with equivalent emotional content, but it is less abstract. Both are amorphous entities rather than specifically geopolitical.

7 Nazik al-Mala'ika, "Jamila" in Kamal Boullata's Women of the Fertile Crescent.

8 In Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, Partha Chatterjee critiques the notion of scientific rationalism as reinforcing the dichotomy traditional/modern, and thereby placing the discourse of nationalism within the Western Enlightenment discourse.

9 For Bhabha, "writing the nation" involves a "double narrative movement," in which the people are both "the historical 'objects' of a national pedagogy, giving the discourse an authority that is based on a pre-given or constituted historical origin or event" and at the same time "subjects of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary presence" (297). The pedagogical involves a "continuist, accumulative temporality," while the performative is "repetitious and recursive." Bhabha's model is useful in the context of Arab women writers who stress the ambivalent relationship between historical origin and the process of reproducing national identity.

10 I am referring here to R. Radhakrishnan's formulation of Woman's position within a nationalist rhetoric (see note 3).

11 I would like to thank the Faculty Writers' Workshop members at Salem State College for their help in revising this article.


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Fayad has a degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois. She has written on numerous writers, ranging from Jean Rhys to Hanan al-Shaykh and Margaret Atwood. She is currently working on a book, Between Nation and Community: Shaping Identities in Arab Women's Fiction, while teaching at Salem State College. She is also writing a novel set in the Middle East.
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