The Journey of Hyenas (2013) by Egyptian writer Soheir al-Musadafah, sets the a story of a woman’s seventh-century slavery against the present day:
By Aisha Khalil Nasser
In the book, the oral transmission of history is interrupted when the protagonist decides to write her ancestor’s story in a manuscript, also titled The Journey of Hyenas. The great grandmother, who matured through her personal journey, wanted her descendents to benefit from her life lessons. Enter Nermeen.
But Nermeen is not the author of the larger The Journey of the Hyenas. The contemporary story is narrated by her husband.
Journey in the present
Nermeen has been married to Gamal, a copy-editor, for twenty years, but she’s been unable to conceive a baby. This creates tension in their relationship, as Gamal wants to have children, while Nermeen refuses to be part of a polygamous marriage. Gamal can find no fault in his beautiful, sexy wife who is also a great cook and an excellent housewife. At first, his mental, sexual, financial, and physical abuse, which attempts to drive her to ask for a divorce, is defused by her calm demeanor.
Yet when Gamal accidentally discovers that his wife is a creative writer, he plants cameras in the house to spy on her. Upon reading her manuscript, The Journey of the Hyenas, Gamal decides to move on with his mother’s plan to marry another wife. Nermeen, who seems to have inherited some of the qualities of her great grandmother, senses her husband’s change, and pours her thoughts into a second manuscript on the withdrawal of love. Here, she points to the various ways a woman can feel that her husband has changed towards her, and Nermeen insists on the need to move on without a word said. Which she does.
At this point, both of them are off to new beginnings. Nermeen becomes an acclaimed novelist and marries a supportive literary critic. Meanwhile, Gamal marries a woman who seems the antithesis of Nermeen, or “a classic example of divine punishment,” as he puts it. With this new wife, he has two boys.
The Journey of Hyenas manuscript is set in seventh-century (first century of hijra) Arabia, and tells the story of a slave girl who was struck by a vision about the absurdity of war, and who strived throughout her life to convey her message, without much success, in a war-torn region. Deserted by her lover under the guise of noble causes, but really in pursuit of war and women, the ancestor turns into a soothsayer/healer who roams the desert for twenty years and feels the urgency to forewarn her descendents about loving men.
Sawda‘ bint al-Rumi, the ancestor-protagonist, describes herself as an ugly slave girl of African origins. However, her true love, which she meets by the end of her life, has another view: ‘Arabs habitually attribute names, which are opposite to the real essence of things.’ He then describes to Sawda‘ how beautiful she really is.
Al-Musadafah draws more than one line connecting the storytelling great-grandmother and her descendent: They are both female, both have soothsaying qualities, both are in some sense enslaved, and both live in a patriarchal society with underlying misogynistic views towards women.
While Sawda‘ is literarally a slave, Nermeen is enslaved in an abusive relationship within a society that gives men the right to subjugate women. Both Sawd‘ and Nermeen are not cherished by their men in this misogynistic context, and both find truer love late in their lives. I suggest that the novel explores the theme of patriarchal societies, which have not changed over centuries, and which are built on coercion of women, who are valued only for their reproductive functions.
In thoughts and in actions, Gamal reveals the archetypical misogyny of males in contemporary Egyptian society. Gamal’s total subjugation of his wife, and his absolute authority over her, has been undermined by her creative writing. Her creativity is especially threating to his ego because of his failed attempt to write anything that warrants reading and referencing (19). In discovering her creativity, Gamal has in a sense discovered that he is the barren one, and had to assert his potency. By nature, he thinks, she should be less intelligent than he is (51), and her writing is a disturbance of this natural order.
This disturbance is probably why Gamal moves on with his plan to marry another wife when he discovers his wife’s talent. For a woman’s place is underneath a man (39), as Gamal describes it. In aspiring to be equal to, or higher than, her man, Nermeen is jeopardizing the natural order, and has to be banished.
Luckily for Nermeen (and for Sawda‘) the “natural order” is in the minds of only some men: those who believe in macho power as the assertion of their manliness. Other men, who don’t feel threatened by a woman’s creativity, and who don’t feel the need to remove artistry from life, support her endeavors. Upon listening to her inner self and the oral history of her family, Nermeen becomes free, just like her ancestor before her. If there’s a moral to the story, it’s that we should cherish the wisdom of old women.
A note about language
The Journey of Hyenas is the third novel by Soheir al-Musadafah, who is also an accomplished poet and translator. The lucid language makes this novel a gripping read with smooth transition in spite of the narrator, Gamal, shifting between present and future.
Gamal moves back and forth between his current life with Nermeen, and their lives after the divorce, but the transitions are smooth. The manuscript refers to historical incidents and uses classical language, and tends to be prolix at times. Nermeen also uses classical Arabic, which can be difficult to follow at time, but she masters her tools to such an extent that Gamal fails to recognize their originality, at first.
When Gamal first stumbles on part of the draft, he thinks Nermeen must have copied it off a book from the Turath. Although the manuscript is well crafted, the story could have been a shorter novella.
But, all in all, al-Musadafah’s poetic imagery supplements her theme and makes this novel an enjoyable read. The sensory suggestions and details in the novel are numerous, for example, Gamal experiences his loss as “my soul has become completely flabby, following the departure of my woman” (71). A critic who is interested in symbolism and imagery in literature would find plenty of material to work with. I read The Journey of Hyenas as a critique of the hegemonic social structure that subordinates females and enforces males’ supremacy, privileges, and prerogatives.
Aisha Khalil Nasser holds a PhD in Middle East Studies from Exeter University, and has recently completed an MA in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Oregon State University. Her research interest is in Cultural Studies and women in the Middle East.