‘Dunya', New Novel by Alawiyah Sobh: A Look into Pandora’s Mid-Eastern Box

By Rafif Rida Sidawi

Dunya (Life)
By Alawiyah Sobh
Dar Al Adab (Beirut), 2006

In her new novel, “Dunya” (Life), recently published in Beirut by Dar Al Adab, author Alawiyah Sobh offers a radical critique of contemporary society. In her previous novel,“Maryam Al Hakaya” (The Stories of Maryam), Sobh offered a similar critique of the past, of her grandparents’ generation, and exposed a history of social hypocrisy and covert violence that has dictated relationships between individuals and groups in the Arab patriarchal structure.

In his book “The Patriarchal System,” Hisham Sharabi asserts that this Arab structure is dominated by a patriarchal mindset that “expresses itself foremost in its totalitarian tendency, manifest in rejecting criticism and accepting dialogue only as a means to impose its own domination.” It also “wants to know only its own truth and wishes to impose it on others through violence and coercion, if necessary.”

Sobh uses women to narrate her story, as she did in her previous novel, and the heroine Dunya and her friend Firyal alternate as narrator. Their words are emotionally strong, just as Maryam’s are in the novel “Maryam Al Hakaya,” particularly when they are spoken. Because of their strength, the reader investigates the depths of meaning in these words: what they meant before the Lebanese Civil War, during and after the war, and up until the story was written. Perhaps the strongly emotional words of Dunya and Firyal will condemn them in the same way words condemned their mythical grandmother, Pandora, when she opened a box to reveal evil and sin. Dunya’s and Firyal’s words act as warning signals, exposing the intensity of social decay that is overlooked in its social and cultural context, where the decay has settled in without any real challenge.

A Non-Typical Ideological Discourse

Sobh opens her novel with Dunya, who, during the last hours of the night, must leave her apartment and move to a new home and an unknown future. She and all the other residents of her building are being evicted so it can be bulldozed and demolished, then replaced with a new landmark. The discourse of the novel recounts the daily sufferings of life, instead of analyzing the reasons of corruption or war. “Dunya” points at, but does not directly evaluate, the reasons behind corruption, daily deaths, and the evils within society. The story compiles many tales, and freely moves back and forth through time, visiting and revisiting the near past, the present and the future. Out of this collection of stories, each one born of another, the reader will find the story of a nation killed by its own pretension.

The heroine, Dunya, narrates her personal story. It is the story of her marriage to Malek [which means possessor or owner], whom she considers to be the embodiment of truth and all that it entails, characterized by Malek’s personal balance and self-confidence. Malek served as a political party official during the civil war in the early 1980’s and used “to talk in a deep and confident voice and explain and analyze facts, categorizing them into one, two, and three” at his party’s headquarters. Malek’s confident attitude leads Dunya to imagine “that the truth appears as if it is born in his mouth and is embodied in the letters of his words.”

Their marriage, which ends in failure but not divorce, reveals to Dunya the real Malek, especially after his experience in the war changed him, “making him more violent.” As his violence intensifies, he begins to treat Dunya harshly without reason. The war had corrupted all who were involved in it, including Malek, but the novel implies that the characters could have avoided this corruption had they been honest with themselves. Malek’s self-righteous behavior was also rooted in his upbringing by his mother. Malek was a “child who was pampered and affectionately embraced by his mother. Later, as he began to reach maturity, his mother would caress his newly-grown chest hair and flatter him, treating him more like her man than like her son. This led Malek, in his adult life, to assume that all women would desire him sexually.”

Firyal also blindly, deeply loves Khaled. She recounts this love by reminiscing about their sexual relationship, at times with much romantic exaggeration. This romanticism is forgiven, however, because Firyal’s recollections elevate sex to an almost sacred level. However, Khaled is forced to sever their relationship; his mother has chosen a younger woman for him to marry. This heartbreak leads Firyal to reflect on the nature of woman and man, taking a realistic perspective and challenging idealized social relationships.

The story then moves to Firyal’s recollections of Khaled’s upbringing, which focus on the authority of his mother, “Um Issam.” Khaled’s mother is happy with the domination she has over her children. She is able to control them “just as she moves furniture from one place to another.” The mother’s dominance is proven when her married son, Hassan, is violent toward his wife, a sign of manhood in his mother’s eyes. Hassan tries to placate his wife by saying, “In the name of God, when I am violent with you, please do not respond to me. I do not want to upset my mother by seeming like your pet; I must appear a man to her.”

In organizing the stories and characters through time and place, the author seems to be a social scientist or ethnographer closely observing her society’s systems and looking piercingly at the center of society. She examines the family in particular, and documents the types of authority she finds there, as if the family is responsible for the resulting duality of the individual, particularly men, whose social and family culture reduces them to their sexual organs.

This perspective is evident in the portrayals of Malek and Khaled, and leads Firyal to say about Khaled: “We women are as pictures contained in a fixed category and carefully drawn in Khaled’s head. Women in his imagination are compartmentalized into various pieces that cannot be assembled into a whole woman. The various components: vagina, reproduction, sex, body and others of spirit and mind, separate the flesh from the guts of every woman as well as the soul from the body.”

Firyal adds, “I run from the idea that we women are mere possessions of man and that each man can own as many of us as he wishes… his own image is shaken with the realization that all of the world’s women are not awaiting the conquest of his penis or his possession of them. As women, we fear not seeing ourselves as men view us, for this will destroy our image of womanhood and its illusion in us.”

Malek’s violent conduct toward Dunya is perhaps the best example of the problematic existence of concepts of masculinity and femininity in our Arab and Lebanese society. Though his violence toward her temporarily softens after he is paralyzed in the war, it quickly returns with even greater intensity when he buys a machine which allows him to achieve temporary erections. After this latest development, Dunya says about Malek, “He returns to order me around, always grumbling and impatient, popping his eyes at me, reprimanding me for the pettiest of reasons, and humiliating me without cause.”

Firyal and Dunya’s logic leads Sobh’s discourse to the family. In examining the family, Sobh focuses on the backwardness of our society and its duality, the backwardness of the war, and the collapse of the just causes that formed the core of the programs the ideological parties advocated before the onset of the civil war. In Sobh’s discourse, the family is the nucleus of society and  therefore responsible for propagating fanaticism, social hypocrisy and dualism. The author does not present her discourse from a typical ideological perspective, but rather through the interaction of events and multiple nuances of meaning that are produced through the art of narration.

Sobh does not write about the war but writes about the effects war has on society. She writes of the passage of time, how places have changed, and the conduct of the characters within their network of social and familial relationships. Sobh uses Malek and other characters who were totally corrupted by the war to represent the military organizations and militias that were governed by money, weapons and drugs, as well as their desire to kill and annihilate.

The three previous decades of Arab and Lebanese history can be found in in Firyal’s library, in the dust-covered magazines like Al Wahda, Al Uruba, Al Ishtrakiyya, Democratiyya, Al Wataniyya, Al Fikr al-Jadid, and Al Risala. The dust penetrates Firyal’s eyes, nose and even her memory. The lower shelves of her library contain religious books, including “The Book of the Torture of the Grave,” which she had purchased to try to understand the horror that it produced in the hearts of her small pupils and which led them to wear the veil.

Through the martyrs of the Palestinian resistance and the National Movement with names written on their graves like “Oppressed Martyr,” “Devout Believer,” and  “Living Martyr,” Sobh presents the political and social change without having to include strict historical documentation. The places, particularly the main setting of the novel, Al Hamra Street, used to be full of orchards, fields, streams, goats and cows in the 1950’s. However, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the street was taken over by international corporations, movie and stage theaters, restaurants, coffee shops and night clubs. From the 1970’s throughout the war, until peace time, the features of the area changed once again, leaving the area lost and confused about its new identity.

Like Scheherazade, the symbolic character who kept death at bay through talking, the women of the novel take turns talking to resist their personal and social deaths. The narrative discourse has made this personal death equal to the death of a society, drowned in hypocrisy and governed by rampant development, as seen by the state of Al Hamra Street, where the narrator, her friend Firyal, and the author herself live.

This text challenges death and carves a place for itself in time. It is born out of the two narrators’ vision – a vision that differs from that of their environment. The shared vision of the two narrators differs because the two women rationalize and analyze their environment instead of offering automatic, thoughtless narration.

The women of the novel, including the author, are well-read and students of knowledge. Their longing for knowledge starts from their desire to visit the dormant levels of consciousness, and their proximity to discovering the nature of life from a subjective perspective. They are characters of unusual sensitivity who pursue the development of their stories and the stories of others. Through this pursuit they provide liberal commentaries about themselves and others in an attempt to discover the truth of existence.

The search for knowledge is a common characteristic shared by the three women and it is the one that unites them in a similar way – each may dream the dreams of the others. Dunya says, “My friend and neighbor Firyal speaks for me sometimes. The author wrote all the secrets and tales that we, Firyal and I, talk about every evening, after Malek is sleeping peacefully. What surprised me was that she [the author] was dreaming my dreams just as I was dreaming of stories of heroines. It’s as if my memory is her memory, though I was never introduced to her nor had I ever visited her home – neither I nor any of the neighbors.”

The author shares this confusion that Dunya speaks of, where sometimes the author ceases to know if she, Dunya or Firyal is the actual author. At one time Dunya was remembering herself in the story, which was written by the author, to the extent that she had to rely on reading the last section in order to recall what happened to herself.

Sobh’s women have formed an extension of Eve/knowledge when the snake, through its alliance with the woman, forced man to become conscious of his own nakedness; as if “eating the forbidden fruit is the knowledge that makes man recognize himself and forces him to question his fate and the secret of his existence in the shadow of God. This demands an effort in this world, not in the tranquil heaven.”

Before this trio – the author, the heroine Dunya, and her friend Firyal – readers cannot help but drift toward the trap set by Sobh, which serves to eliminate the boundaries between the author, the narrator and the characters.  

Before this trio, it is futile to explore whether the heroine actually exists, or whether it is Dunya who dreams and narrates and writes her own story. Similarly, there is no use in searching for answers to Dunya’s questions on who is the narrator and who is the heroine or whether the heroine was asleep or awake and whether the tale is a dream or reality.

Through Sobh’s use of these artistic traps (if such a term can be used), the author attempts to answer a difficult question in criticism that centers on the relationship between the author, narrator, and character. Her narrative offers a realistic example of the close interconnection between the narrative character and its special fictional context. It is this context which makes a critical reading necessary to avoid the mixture between the fictional character and the character as a human being or the fusion between herself, the narrator and the author. Allowing such a mixture would distort the text and deviate its discourse from its symbolic meanings. For example, it is fruitless to recognize the author Sobh through her characters because these characters, like the rest of the personalities, become creatures, mere elements existing within narrative structures created by the author. The characters gain symbolism, adding a narrative discourse that is revealing and enlightening.

The author has worked on confusing the story as an actual and real event; she intended from the beginning to raise doubt about the actuality of the story – do we know if the story of the heroine Dunya has taken place, or was it just one of the heroine’s dreams?

On the other hand, the story looks at the reality of women and men from outside the patriarchal approach. In the novel, woman has discovered herself and man from a humanist perspective to build a discourse that destroys the deception of unspoken social relations. It is a discourse that rethinks the meaning of womanhood and manhood, sex, love and marriage, etc., liberating the body of woman from the typical objectification which transforms it into a taboo.

Dunya achieved a victory of liberated word and free discourse in the novel. This victory predicts a victory of a realist vision of life itself, demonstrating the flimsy boundaries between dream and reality, between the imagined and unimagined. This discourse imposes itself against all elements of backwardness in our Arab patriarchal society and against the history of marginalization which affects both ordinary women and authors.

 

Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala
The Arabic version of this review appeared in the Lebanese daily As Safir. The translation and publication is by permission from the author and the newspaper

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, Nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid


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