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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 ), 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
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.
'Adnan, Etel. Sitt Marie Rose. Sausalito: Post-Apollo, 1976.
Al-Mala'ika, Nazik. "Jamila." Women of the Fertile
Crescent: Modern Poetry By Arab Women. Ed. Kamal Boullata. Washington:
Three Contintents, 1981. 22.
Al-Samman, Ghada. Kawabis Beirut [Beirut Nightmares]. Beirut: Ghada
al-Samman Publications, 1984.
Al-Shaykh, Hanan. Story of Zahra. Trans. Peter Ford. London: Quartet,
Alloula, Malek. Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin
and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London: Verso, 1991.
Barakat, Hoda. Hajar al-Dohk [The Laughing Stone]. London: Riyad
Bhabha, Homi K. "DisseminaNation: Time, Narrative, and the
Margins of the Modern Nation." Nation and Narration. Homi K.
Bhabha. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A
Derivative Discourse. London: Zed, 1986.
Djebar, Assia. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. Trans. Dorothy S.
Blair. London: Quartet, 1985.
Franco, Jean. Plotting women: Gender and Representation in Mexico.
New York: Columbia UP, 1988.
Ghoussoub, May. Zukuriyyat al-Asala [The Masculinity of
Authenticity]. London: Dar al-Saqi, 1991.
Khalifa, Sahar. 'Abbad al-shams [The Sunflowers]. Beirut: Dar
-----. Wild Thorns. Trans. Trevor LeGassick and Elizabeth Fernea.
London: al-Saqi, 1985.
Khatibi, Abdelkebir. Love in Two Languages. Trans. Richard Howard.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.
Na'ana, Hamida. Al-Watan fil 'Aynayn [The Country in My
Eyes]. Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 1979.
Radhakrishnan, R. "Nationalism, Gender, and the Narrative of
Identity." Nationalisms and Sexualities. Ed. Andrew Parker, Mary
Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Saadawi, Nawal. "Nahwa Istratijiyya li Idmaj al-Mar'a
al-'Arabiyya wa ta'bi'atiha fil Haraka al-qawmiyyar
al-'Arabiyya" [Towards a Strategy for Incorporating and
Integrating Arab Women in the Arab Nationalist Movement]. Conference
Papers. Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1982. 471-91.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.
Trinh T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and
Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
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.