Friday Finds: Miral al-Tahawy’s ‘Writing the Body and the Rhetoric of Protest in Arab Women’s Literature’

Miral al-Tahawy  has published four novels, all of which have been translated into English and published by AUC Press: The Tent (trans. Anthony Calderbank, 1998), Blue Aubergine (trans. Calderbank, 2002), Gazelle Tracks (trans. Calderbank, 2009), and Brooklyn Heights (trans. Samah Selim, 2012). The latter received the 2010 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and was shortlisted for the 2011 Arabic Booker Prize:

For Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), we feature al-Tahawy’s “Writing the Body and the Rhetoric of Protest in Arab Women’s Literature,” translated from Arabic by Shoshana London Sappir.

It opens:

“To my body, the peg of a tent, crucified in the wilderness.”

To this day I do not know why I chose to open my first novel, The Tent, with this dedication, despite all my attempts to cover the features of that body, whether by self-censorship, using rhetorical devices to connote and not denote meaning, or by pure denial of its presence in my writing obsessions.

At that time my body was enveloped in a hijab, disguised under the veils of virtue, and in harmony with tribal mores and the codes of shame. It was the body of a village girl who had learned the terms of social approval early on and evaded the sway of paternal supervision by making an emphatic show of puritanism and prudery. That was a girl who intuitively knew that modesty resides in denying her female identity. But writing came along, took my caution by surprise, and chose to uncover many of the features of the identity I was trying to disavow through denial.

Writing the female body and its representations in literature constitutes a fundamental theme in Arab women’s writing, not only as an expression of gender identity but also as a reflection of the peculiarity of the female space that is laden with diverse physical experiences such as motherhood, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. However, even though women’s writing acknowledges that connection between the body and the female identity of the writers’ selves, the prospect of incorporating the body into writing still arouses fears of the conservative tendency, which is apprehensive about the question of “the body in women’s writing.”

Keep reading on the Levantine Journal.