The popular Saudi writer and TV commentator Badryah al-Bishr appeared at this year’s Emirates LitFest, where she talked about the explosion in production of Saudi novels, how she deals with controversy, her latest novel, and more:
By Sawad Hussain
Badryah al-Bishr is a Saudi writer whose last novel Love Stories on Al-Asha Street was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014. Through her fiction, newspaper articles, and television programme (Badryah on MBC), she explores the position of Saudi as well as Arab women as a whole in contemporary society. Her views have generated much controversy, as though she is poised and elegant, she does not mince her words. Hend Saeed of the Dubai International Writers’ Centre – which ran a reading and discussion group session on Al-Bishr’s novel in the lead-up to the festival – moderated the session.
The following are excerpts from her session at the Seventh Emirates Airline Literature Festival.
Your articles and novels have stirred up much heated controversy in the media, primarily because you challenge what society deems as normal. Can you expand on this?
After thanking the audience for attending the session, Al-Bishr’s remarked that controversy is a healthy sign of how successfully ideas and thoughts have made an impact. Debate, she stated, is a beneficial and wonderful thing. To her, a writer is someone who will make you confront your ideas and how you reason.
Relating the question to her own life experience, she said: “Traditional societies have one mould, [and] it’s alarming if you don’t fit into it. It’s appalling if you don’t resemble your mother or father. In the face of such confrontation, people ask, ‘How do you go on?’ To be honest I don’t see those who don’t support me, I don’t see their insults. I focus on those who support me.”
There is always a small section of society, she continued, that contradicts and believes that its view is the right one. This section voices its view the loudest, giving the impression to the rest of society (which is silent) that this minority represents all of society. But in truth, those who remain silent are a much larger group than those who loudly oppose.
In spite of all the controversy, she asserted that as a writer she is completely preoccupied with the profession and thoroughly enjoys what she does.
Many people stall in the development and advancement of their writing out of fear of criticism and what society will say. What is your view on this?
“Before 1990, we were living an illusion, that Saudi Arabia was not a place fit for writing novels. We can’t write novels, only short stories. Why? Again and again it was said, ‘Just write stories, short stories.’ As I grew up, I would hear from those older than me that Saudi wasn’t fit for novel writing; society is conservative, people will go to court if we write a novel.
“In 2005, the Internet revolution took place. A young girl came along, twenty-four years old, who didn’t ascribe to or believe this illusion. We always thought the door was locked. A young girl came along, opened the door, and walked through it. She wrote a novel called Girls of Riyadh. Though it’s a simple novel, there was much commotion. Between 1930 and 2005, only sixty novels were published [in Saudi Arabia]. But in 2006, Saudi Arabia published sixty novels in one year alone – because the illusion was broken!”
Al-Bishr shared her conviction that, as no one had taught this young girl that writing a novel is wrong or not the ‘done’ thing, she went ahead and did.
In your latest novel, you mention that the street Al-Asha is named after a poet called Al-Asha who lived on the street. Is there any other significance to the name?
Al-Bishr attested that, indeed, she intentionally tried to make the name symbolize more than one idea or thing. Asha literally means one who is deficient in sight, or incapable of seeing. The idea of not being able to see relates directly to one of the main characters, Aziza, who after struggling with an eye disease loses her sight. She also wanted to express that this period that “we lived through as Saudis,” that her characters lived through, was one where they had shortcomings of sight.
Another real-life link is that Al-Asha Street still exists today in Riyadh. She said it was to Riyadh in 1975 what Sheikh Zayed Road is to the city of Dubai today, and lined with neighbourhoods. Due to a gap in recorded history between the poet’s generation and hers, no one knows who this poet was or what happened to him.
Through the introduction of the colour television and the phone, it seems that familial relations as well as those between neighbours change in the novel. Would you agree?
Al-Bishr prefaced her response with a brief history of Riyadh’s societal dynamics:
“Before families moved to the city, they lived in villages and in the desert. Love stories were not unheard of in the desert, and they would happen quite often as the Bedouins had a shared code of values between families in their society. When meeting possible suitors, who were inevitably cousins or neighbours, families were secure in knowing that their daughters wouldn’t be harmed. We have the old love story of Qais and Layla, which happened in the desert. Everyone knows the story, and no one charged Qais with crime or accused Layla of impropriety …
“Such stories also took place in the villages and were allowed.
“Families migrating to cities were thrust into a strange environment among strangers. Fear and worry came to rule relations in the city. I didn’t intend to portray this sort of relational transformation in my novel, as it takes place earlier in history, but rather I aimed to illustrate how the neighbourhood changed after the events of 1979.
“Prior to the occupation of Al-Masjid Al-Haram in 1979, every house had and used a radio. People would listen to the news, songs and the happenings in Cairo. The neighbourhood in my novel was more tolerant towards women, as is depicted in their reaction to Wadha’s arrival. She came without a man, without a mahram, with no family except for her children…. They welcomed her, accepted her, adopted her and gave her a house. She also became a formidable trader in the market. The neighbourhood environment was laid-back and relaxed.
“After what happened in 1979, a wave of religious extremism came to the forefront. The neighbourhood lost its quality of tolerance towards women, became stricter with them and imprisoned them at home. People began to harass Wadha in the market, simply for being outside. They started hating music. Fairuz’s voice disappeared from the radio and women’s faces disappeared from the press.”
Al-Bishr confirmed that not only did the introduction of technology change the dynamics in her novel’s neighbourhood, but that real-life events from Saudi history played a critical role as well. One of the strongest themes running throughout the entire novel, which is strongly tied to the reality of Saudi women during the period the novel portrays, is each of the three main characters’ quest for freedom in their own way: Aziza is a young girl who falls in love with a man simply because his accent reminds her of the Egyptian film stars she daydreams about — she marries a man she doesn’t love, all in the effort to escape Al-Asha Street and get a passport; Wadha is a dirt-poor Bedouin woman seeking to free herself from the shackles of poverty by establishing her own source of livelihood; Atwa is an orphan who was abused by her father and mistreated by her step-mother before escaping by taking advantage of the boys’ clothing that she was forced to wear after her mother passed away. Disguised as a boy, in pants, Atwa can roam freely. If she wore an abaya, people would ask what a girl was doing out on the street, where she was going, and what was her purpose for being outside.
You’ve been inspired by real-life events that took place in Saudi Arabia’s history. Was there an influence from your own life on the events and progression of the novel?
“Since Hind and the Soldiers was published, I’ve been asked this question time after time. I always answer that if it were meant to be an autobiography, I would have labelled it as such. I don’t have the desire to write one. Rather, I try to express the views of and speak up for many women. I never intended to put a part of myself in the novel.”
On the other hand, in a follow-up question, Al-Bishr shared how, when writing a novel, she lives among her characters. She describes them as family members that come and go, think aloud to her and grow before her eyes. She shared the most intriguing insight, which was that she always hears her characters before she sees them, and in Love Stories on Al-Asha Street, she made a concerted effort to distinguish each character by their voice rather than their appearance. She also shared with the audience that she is currently working on another novel called Man harraka al-kanaba?, or Who Moved the Couch? Like Love Stories, it also delves into contemporary women’s issues.
Why do creative beings such as yourself tend to leave Saudi Arabia? Is it because you have more freedom to be creative outside of Saudi Arabia than in it?
“That’s a difficult question,” Al-Bishr offered with a chuckle, and the audience echoed her laughter. “I’m married to an artist, his name is Nasr Al-Qasibi, and he too endures another type of battle as an artist. As a writer, I need space to work, so that I can write without [feeling trapped in a] constant state of struggle and conflict. If I’m not being clear, I want my sentence to be for me, mine, and not simply a sentence responding to the comment of another. When I was writing articles for Arshaq Al Aswat, I found myself always being [in a state of] reaction, and not action. I believe a successful person is someone who does and doesn’t simply react. I think an intellectual shouldn’t spend all his time debating others.”
She elaborated that in a conservative society, any sort of talk outside accepted topics is considered shocking. Even simply talking about love is controversial. She challenged the room to imagine how many times a day one would be confronted with thoughts deemed as shocking. Dubai, she said, offers both her and her husband an environment where they can be free to imagine and not be confronted on a daily basis by societal restrictions.
“I have a café and I write in it. This is something in Dubai that really supports me as a writer. I have a café I write in, and where I drink coffee. I was surprised that my aspirations were as basic as these. I used to frequent places where my friends would go, but then I would end up chatting instead of writing. So now I go to places where I don’t know anyone, and simply write.”
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Through it all, one could not help but admire Al-Bishr’s bravery, as she, through her writing and speaking, continues to shine light on topics usually seen as taboo. That she delivered her answers with eloquence and insight brought home why she is regarded as a literary and cultural force.
Sawad Hussain is an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur residing in Dubai.