Alawiya Sobh on Writing: Sexuality is an Essential Part of Relationships

This week, Qantara talks to prominent Lebanese author Alawiya Sobh, whose novel It’s Called Love was longlisted for this year’s Arabic Booker. An excerpt of the novel appeared in translation in Banipal 36.

But Qantara’s Mona Naggar didn’t ask about this latest novel; instead, she focused on Sobh’s well-known Maryam of the Stories (excerpted here). Sobh told Naggar she feels irony is essential to the book: “In my novel there are passages to make you cry, but then you have to laugh again. Bitter irony is very important to me.”

But the core of the discussion is the feminist framing of Sobh’s work. When asked about the mother figure in Maryam of the Stories, Sobh says:

I think the image of the mother in Arab novels is one that is loaded with stereotypes. Mothers are weak, long-suffering, obedient and silent. I have freed myself from this image, given Maryam’s mother a voice…

Here, Sobh could be describing Amina, the main mom in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy (or maybe not, you can argue). And surely all of us mothers can appreciate a little stereotype-bending on our behalf. However, I’d just note that Sobh does not have the only stereotype-shattering mother in Arabic fiction: the mother in Sonallah Ibrahim’s Al Talossos (Stealth) defies categorization; Yusuf Idris’s mothers (Rings of Burnished Brass) can be quite world-defying. The mother in Taha Hussein’s Call of the Curlew is weak, yes, but her daughter lives in fury at this weakness. And there are the mothers of Hanan al-Shaykh, Radwa Ashour, Salwa Bakr.

Sobh also defends herself against the charge that she’s sensationalist:

If I want to explore the relationship between my male and female characters, then, of course, sexuality is an essential part of that. I describe the relationship between Maryam’s mother and father. The first time they have sex with one another is part of that. The scene reveals very strongly the patriarchal nature of the society and the pervasiveness of sexual violence. This has nothing at all to do with the kind of sensationalism that I am often accused of, but everything with the taboo that still surrounds this issue in our society. I write about repressed sexuality and about the tremendous fear men have of the female body.

I will not, now, go into the debate over sexuality in Arabic (women’s) lit: I’m burned out from the discussion of the phenomenon in Saudia Arabia. I’ll only note that there are at least two separate issues: 1) the sexuality-qua-itself, and 2) which (sexy, “taboo-breaking”) literature is celebrated in the West, and in what sort of Orientalist frame.

It seems to be Lebanese week in world-lit coverage:

  • A very milquetoast article from the Sydney Morning Herald about the Revolution in Lebanese literature
  • A short piece in the New Yorker book bench called On the Trail of Elias Khoury that focuses on his recent appearances and his newly translated White Masks. In it, Khoury has this interesting observation: “The writers of the Nahda—the Arab renaissance in the late-nineteenth century—neglected the civil war that was taking place in Lebanon in the eighteen-fifties because they were ashamed of the sectarian fighting.”