Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies,
Shahrazad Tells Her Story
By Nawar al-Hassan
University of Texas Press, 2003, 236 pages.
In “Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies, Shahrazad Tells Her Story,” Nawar al-Hassan Golley brings history, contemporary literary theory and a culturally informed perspective to twentieth century Middle Eastern autobiography.
Drawing primarily but not exclusively on feminist and Marxist theory, Golley dismantles the simplistic generalities found in the Western discourse surrounding Arab women through a close reading of a variety of feminist texts. Although she acknowledges the similarities between western and Arabic feminists, like many Arab feminists, Golley asserts that feminism is not a Western import to the Arab world but an indigenous movement often ignored by western feminists.
Significantly for those Western readers unfamiliar with the complexities of Arabic culture or language, Golley, educated in both Arab and Western institutions, contextualizes possible Arab responses to the texts. By looking at the mode of production and comparing the original Arabic texts with the translated texts, Golley provides a valuable addition to feminist and Middle Eastern scholarship. Although her text contains some repetition and occasionally reads like a dissertation, this is a minor inconvenience for those interested in cross-cultural studies. Golley skillfully demonstrates how the conflicting allegiance to the family, community and nation and the need to assert an individual identity through the emancipating act of writing coexist in each of the texts.
“Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies” begins with a brief but thorough introduction to recent colonial discourse and some of the potential pitfalls of reading translated texts from the Middle East. Responding to the popularity of multiculturalism, Golley rejects East/West as an oversimplification of modern mobility. Subsequently she avoids the romanticization of the East and the uncritical admiration of the West. In her attention to the role of intended audience in the production of texts, she argues that these Arab women authors are writing both “to the West and probably more importantly...to Arab ‘patriarchy.'”
The chapter “Feminism, Nationalism and Colonialism” summarizes the history of Arab feminism, touches the veil debate, and notes the limitations of terminology such as ‘feminism' and ‘Arab.' These two chapters would serve as a fruitful introduction of the problematics inherent in studying the Middle East for Western students. To conclude her historical introduction of the feminist movement's intricate relationship to Arab nationalism, she compares the Arabic text of Huda Shaarawi's “Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist” with Margot Badran's English text published more than 40 years after the original in 1986. Shaarawi, the founder of the Egyptian Women's Federation, who was educated in French, dictated her memoirs in Arabic to her secretary. Golley's summary and comparison of the two texts reveals that the English translated edition omits “an important part of Shaarawi's concept of herself, namely, her political and nationalistic public self.” Here Golley's scholarship not only supports her argument but also provides a valuable resource for those readers not fluent in Arabic.
“Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies” locates autobiography or narration of the self “in the field between truth and fiction.” After a brief and informed overview of theoretical and historical approaches to Arab autobiography, Golley proposes that “writing for women is a process and a quest for dialogue, social change, and the possibility of saying ‘we' as well as ‘I.'” In the chapter “Anthologies,” Golley looks at “Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories” by Nayra Atiya, “Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women” by Fatima Mernissi and “Both Right and Left Handed: Arab Women Talk About Their Lives” by Bouthaina Shaaban. Golley examines the control structures, modes of production, targeted audiences and possible reader responses to these three anthologies providing thoughtful insights into gender and class issues. After comparing the Palestinian poet, Fadwa Tuqan's “Mountainous Journey, Difficult Journey,” with the fragments of Tuqan's autobiography translated into English, Golley distinguishes Tuqan's narration of self-creation from Shaarawi's memoir of achievement.
In her final and perhaps most innovative chapter, Golley tackles the diverse writings of the legendary Egyptian feminist, Nawal el-Saadawi, as well as the marketing of Saadawi's public persona in the West and the Arab world. Golley traces “the strategies used to develop the self” in Saadawi's early novel, “Memoirs of a Woman Doctor” to the structuring of a communal self in the later nonfiction, “Memoirs from a Women's Prison.” Golley identifies Saadawi's “My Travels Around the World” as a “new mode of writing about the self” in Saadawi's “quest for an international identity.” At no point does Golley presume to have the definitive reading of her chosen texts. Instead she notes the narrative trends and proposes to address some of the limitations in previous responses to Arab women who write or tell their stories. In “Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies,” Golley characterizes these female narratives as “counter-discourse or writing back discourse.” Appropriately, Golley's own critical reading takes the feminist counter-discourse another step forward.
This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 49 (Fall 2004).
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid