International Prize for Arabic Fiction Longlist: Habib Selmi’s ‘The Women’s Orchards’

The big controversy (so far) in the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF or “Arabic Booker”) longlist is its near-lack of women: Just one female name, that of Hawra al-Nadawi, graces the list of thirteen. You can read commentary on the controversy at the pot-stirring-prone Youm7 (in Arabic) or on Susannah Tarbush’s website The Tanjara (in English).

Of course, as Susannah notes: “Complaints about the low representation of women in a literary prize are hardly unique to IPAF or the Arab world: it was unhappiness about a perceived male dominance of the Booker Prize that led to the launching in the UK in 1996 of the Orange Prize for fiction by women.”

Should there be an Orange Prize for women who write novels in Arabic? A question for another day.

Meantime, that’s not to say there aren’t sensitive and interesting portrayals of women on the IPAF list. Note in particular Habib Selmi’s نساء البساتين, or The Women’s Orchards, an excerpt of which was translated by the esteemed Maia Tabet for Banipal 39 (Modern Tunisian Literature).

Selmi was previously shortlisted for the IPAF for his excellent The Scents of Marie-Claire (2009), which received a workmanlike translation and was published in 2010 by AUC Press. Nonetheless, Selmi’s lovely and memorable portrait of an intercultural relationship in decline, set in Paris, shines through.

In The Women’s Orchards (The Women of al-Basatin in the IPAF’s translation), Selmi re-visits the theme of cultural and personal dislocations, this time in Tunisia. The narrator returns (from Paris) to Tunisia to visit his brother Ibrahim. The narrator’s first big shock is that his beloved sister-in-law Yusra will no longer hug him, and has decided to wear the hijab. This is perhaps a well-worn path, but Selmi brings it to vivid life with the particularities of the characters’ psychological discomforts.

Here, over the gifts the narrator has brought from France:

Yusra remarks that she is well-acquainted with this kind of chocolate – many of her neighbors buy the very same kind for their children from the French supermarket, Carrefour, which opened in Tunis two years earlier – implying that my gift is of little value, and that it falls well short of what a man like myself, living in France, is expected to bring to the only son of his closest brother after a long absence.

When the narrator pulls out the clothes (too big) that he bought for his nephew, the description of his nephew’s reaction is pitch-perfect:

Summoning Ibrahim to bring it into the room, I open my suitcase and take out a plastic bag that I hand to Wa’el, whose eyes are shining as he follows the scene. Wa’el feels around the package, takes out the trousers and shirt that I bought for him and thrusts them at Yusra, as if the gift is for her.

Yusra, although she has changed her headwear, is not a passive character:

-“… Meaning that Tunisian women wear hijabs but don’t give up tight jeans ….”

-“And why should they? The important thing is to wear loose-fitting clothes over them…”

-“And miniskirts then…?”

– “What’s the difference between a mini-skirt and jeans? The main thing is for women to look modest in the presence of men …”

Ibrahim falls silent, and then resumes, with more derision.

-“And it doesn’t stop there either… I’ve heard that veiled women also wear thongs…”

Yusra bursts out laughing. Joining in her laughter, Ibrahim adds “Imagine, a hijab, up top, and a thong, down below …”

Turning to me, Ibrahim insists that I weigh in on the matter. But I hold my tongue.

– “Lord have mercy! Forgive them the errors of their ways…” Yusra intones as she carries the plates and dishes off to the kitchen.

Selmi was born in al-’Ala, Tunisia, in 1951 and moved to Paris in 1985. He has lived there ever since.

He spoke with Samuel Shimon for the magazine Qantara in 2007 about why he doesn’t write in French, although he has lived in France for many years.

Personally, I am not opposed to those who write in French or in English or even in Chinese. It is the right of every writer to choose whatever languages he or she pleases. And then, why should we ask of a writer who does not know Arabic or does not have a good command of it to write in it?

Unfortunately, some Francophone writers keep saying in the French media that Arabic is an “old”, “authoritarian” and “religious” language. Some even go as far as criticising Arabic by describing it as “dead” and “completely incapable of expressing the concerns, issues and problems of the modern individual”. All of this is categorically untrue.

The reason I do not write in French is because I love Arabic. The language through which I discovered the world, the language in which I dream, the language that inhabits the cells of my body, the language that runs in my blood is Arabic. I love French the way I love all the languages of the world, both “great” and “small”. But I cannot allow it to take the place of Arabic.

Selmi also said, unsurprisingly for one who focuses (so successfully) on psychological detail:

My criticism of the Arab novel is that it overwhelmingly emphasises the social aspect. I understand and like the novel to be a novel of the self as it intersects with its surroundings.

Read more:

A review of the novel by Iskandar Habash.

Also, on an unrelated note:

Congratulations to translator Judith Wilkinson on her Popescu win! You can read her “10 rules” for translation here.

Many thanks to @zuberino for helping out with the blog while I was at the sea. Tomorrow, I head to the the launch of the Sharjah Translation Rights Centre, but I believe they’ll have Internet for me there, isA.