Sin, Redemption, and Visions of Female Illness in Modern Arab Literature

Bobby Gulshan

The Female Suffering Body, Illness and Disability in Modern Arabic Literature
By Abir Hamdar
Syracuse University Press, Syracuse NY, 2014
Edward Said opened the space, Homi Bhabha articulated the next steps forward, and subsequently other scholars have emerged to take up the call. They desire to reckon with texts that examine specific regional or local traditions within the context of their own histories and cultural trajectories. Hamdar’s examination of the female body in illness and suffering presents a compelling contribution to the body of literary criticism of Arabic Literature. She invokes strains of critical thought — like Foucault and the idea of discourse — using them to map the development of the image of the female body in recent Arabic literature.
At the center of Hamdar’s thesis lies the presence or absence — and indeed, at points the presence as absence — of the female suffering body in Arabic literature, from the 50s on. She begins the text by outlining her project, and then providing a survey of the basic literary trajectory of the female suffering body. Using the lens of a New Historicist approach, she keenly argues the connection between the changing image of the female body and its role in text, as well as the changing social conditions of the social space in question. Hamdar finds early visions of female illness and disability use the female body as a site for examinations of sin and redemption. She cites the work of Miriam Cooke, who suggests that the literature of the 1950’s “ended up locking women into a new set of stereotypical representations,” namely that of the fallen woman, or prostitute.
Hamdar then examines the short story “Wa Usdilla al-Sitar,” the tale of an unknown woman, suffering from an unknown illness, who recalls the events of her “sinful” and “dark” life. Illness becomes a means for her to experience a kind of purification, a spiritual redemption. Hamdar’s main point — one that runs through the entire text — concerns this process of representation, which uses the female suffering body as a locus of discourse. Here, the body is injected and conflated with historical, cultural and even religious constructions, thus stripping the female subject in these works of a sense of agency and individual essence.
Hamdar carries this forward into examinations of Arabic literature in the 60s and 70s. She argues that writing from the period employs the female body symbolically, such that the “ill or disabled female body becomes the privileged sign of sick, wounded or fractured nations.” Her discussion of Ghassan Kanafani’s “Rijal fi al-Shams” proves quite impressive, and renders a compelling analysis of the character Shafiqa as a symbol of the shattered nation:
Shafiqa, according to the protagonist Marwan, is a woman whose leg had been ‘amputated at the top of thigh,’ leaving her as a ‘burden’...In short, Shafiqa is a ‘deformed woman’ whose physical imperfections are, to society, signifiers of an imperfect character as well.
Hamdar emphasizes the reader’s discovery of Shafiqa through Marwan or others. Shafiqa does not represent herself or speak in her own voice. In this way, Hamdar goes on to argue that the people suffering from illnesses constitute the “others,” they exist in their exteriority to subjects with agency. As she proceeds, Hamdar makes the case that Shafiqa, in her state of fracture and otherness, symbolizes the loss of Palestine, and perhaps even the inability for it to ever be regained.
In the remaining pages of the first chapter, she examines the trope of docile and traditional women, and then, in the second chapter, turns to representations of female illness in Arab literature from female writers. Hamdar points out a curious irony, that “it is arguably even more difficult to find representations of female illness and disability in women’s writing than it is in writing by men.” She does, however, find persistent themes in representations of suffering women. Exploring one such theme, that of barren women, she discusses Colette Khoury’s “Layla Wahida.” The protagonist of the story, Rasha, is infertile. Hamdar argues that “For Rasha, infertility constitutes less a physical defect than a failure to live up to her prescribed role in society...” Again, crucially for Hamdar, the body becomes a site for the discourses of others, for social, even national, constructions and aspirations. She reminds the reader here of a point she makes earlier, the idea of Palestinian women expected to literally be the mothers of the nation, giving birth as an act of resistance against disappearance. Infertility then emerges as a social failing as much as a physical one.
In her third and final chapter, Hamdar unfolds contemporary works in which the female suffering body finally achieves agency and presence. The authors use a style and material of analysis that reflects, and remains consistent with her commitment to root literary analysis in historical and cultural context. Her reading of texts proves nimble and insightful, and provides an imminently useful corpus of decoding. It represents the type of scholarship that can expand people’s understanding of the Arabic literary tradition in its complexity and depth, while providing an important perspective on the image of women within that tradition.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 69, 2015.
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