‘Hot Whiteness’: A Commentary on Schizophrenic Egypt

Last month al-Dar al-Misrya al-Lubnaniyya published Soheir al-Musadafah’s fourth novel, Hot Whiteness (Bayad Sakhin):

By Aisha Nasser

hotIn all her novels thus far, Soheir al-Musadafah has chosen a female protagonist and has worked with some feminist themes. However, the philosophical quest in her latest novel, Hot Whiteness, is much wider than in her previous ones.

The narrator Abla/Loula tells her story – alternating between the two sides of her schizophrenic self – against the background of the turbulent political times that followed the January 25th revolution. The reader follows Abla/Loula through a fast-paced story as Abla/Loula roams the streets of Cairo and beyond, trying to make sense of the various layers of Egyptian history — from Pharaonic, to Coptic, to Islamic, to modern, to contemporary — and how each has shaped the Egypt we see today.

Al-Musadafah’s novel is riddled with allegories, and indeed the author is most successful when she is suggestive. One can read Abla/Loula as an allegory for Egypt itself. Several factors makes this a possibility, among them the mixed blood of the protagonist. Abla/Loula, a translator who speaks several languages fluently, is of the upper middle-class, with Turkish ancestors, but she is clearly anchored in the Egyptian countryside. This makes for a possible metaphor for Egypt, with its recent history under the Ottoman Empire, and its ancient history extending to the pharaohs through the fellaheen. And indeed Abla/Loula is most schizophrenic about her political views regarding the current situation: She is aware of the defects of the ancién regime but is willing to experience a replica of it.

Race and gender play important roles in the novel, but so does culture. The author juxtaposes gender and race when interrogating “insanity,” producing a narrative deeply anchored in intersectional analysis. She aptly shows how males and females experience “insanity” differently, and this is is a term that she problematizes by questioning what makes a person insane.

In similar ways, “culture” is brought under scrutiny: What constitutes a “cultured person” is a question that looms in the background of the narrative. The protagonist values the wisdom of her illiterate paternal auntie while exhibiting a high level of access to Western civilization. Taking the stance of the postmodern cultural elite, Abla/Loula, who is immersed in Western (high) culture, is very critical of the politics of Western government: (neo)colonalism. And so, American imperialism becomes the subject of one of her fits of rage.

In Hot Whiteness, al-Musadafah’s espouses the feminist stance that condemns any form of violence against women, whether domestic violence or harassment in public places. She also refrains from blaming the victims and holds the society that condones violence accountable. During a fit-rage, Abla/Loula gives perpetrators of violence a piece of her mind: a string of vulgar words flowing through the mouth of the otherwise perfectly contained protagonist.

Al-Musadafah’s poetic prose is well employed in this novel that visualizes the mind – and body – of “an insane [person].” For although this is a novel dedicated to describing the mind of a schizophrenic protagonist, body is a central motif. The author pays meticulous care to describing bodies: facial features, nails, hair, limbs, body positioning, cleanliness, etc. This quite an ambitious project, whereing al-Musadafah has taken on a lot of themes in a short novel, but the quick tempo of the narrative makes it an extremely enjoyable read.

Also by al-Musadafah:

‘The Journey of Hyenas’: A Novel That Contests the ‘Natural Order’

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.