Friday, January 4, 2013

Distant View of a Minaret

The first thing that struck me when I finished reading the fifteen stories in Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat’s spare if poignant collection, Distant View of a Minaret, is that essential truths are often to be found in between--in between sleeping and waking, in between dreams and reality, in between night and day. In fact nearly half of the stories in this collection involve a female character either just waking up or lying restlessly in bed at night. Clearly there is something significant, for the author, about these transitional times of day, ripe as they are for reflection and self-scrutiny, for the helpless cultivation of loneliness, doubt, and fear. Anyone who has ever spent an anxious night in bed, knows the clarity, the impotence--and sometimes the terror--of these strange and liminal moments when the terms of one’s life seem at once blurry at the edges and blindingly, painfully clear.  It is often at such moments when one has just risen from the world of dreams or is first feeling their pull—not quite body, not quite spirit--that some of one’s truest reckonings are made.  Such, it is clear, is one of Rifaat’s claims.

“Through half-closed eyes she looked at her husband.  Lying on his right side, his body was intertwined with hers and his head bent over her right shoulder.  As usual at such times she felt that he inhabited a world utterly different from hers, a world from which she had been excluded. Only half-aware of the movements of his body, she turned her head to one side and stared up at the ceiling, where she noticed a spider’s web.  She told herself she’d have to get out the long broom and brush it down.” So begins Rifaat’s titular story “Distant View of a Minaret”, a story--perhaps my favorite in the collection--in which a young woman puzzles over the emotional and sexual gulf that divides her from her husband.  While Rifaat’s stories are plainly feminist in nature, hers is—for all its  seeming contradiction--a distinctly religious, distinctly Muslim feminism that really gives these stories their novelty and punch.  In the words of her translator, Denys Johnson-Davies,  “Most of her stories express, implicitly rather than explicitly, a revolt against many of the norms and attitudes, particularly those related to woman and her place in society.  Her revolt, despite the frank terms in which it is expressed, remains within a strictly religious, even orthodox, framework… Rifaat’s revolt, therefore, is merely against certain man-made interpretations and accretions that have grown up over the years and remain unquestioned by the majority of both men and women.” Indeed, while her stories are well-crafted and often deeply moving in their own right, describing as they do the sometimes heroic struggles of everyday Egyptian women, what makes them such a marvel for the Western reader is Rifaat’s candid, if never dogmatic politics–a devoutly religious cry for connection and redress. 

 Peter Adam Nash 

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