Badr's A Balcony over the Fakihani, Pillars of Salt, by Fadia Faqir, and Al-Atrash's A Woman of Five Seasons

Badr's A Balcony over the Fakihani, Pillars of Salt, by Fadia Faqir, and Al-Atrash's A Woman of Five Seasons

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Badr's A Balcony over the Fakihani, Pillars of Salt, by Fadia Faqir, and Al-Atrash's A Woman of Five Seasons


Struggles for independence from foreign conquerors, civil tyrants, and the hands of the oppressive have long been the backdrop for life in the Arab World. This struggle is compounded for Arab women, who have the added worries of societal and cultural constraints. The 20th century was a notably gory one, particularly in the Middle East. There have been numerous, almost continuous aggressive confrontations in the region since the dawn of the 20th century, beginning with Ibn Saud?s campaign against the Ottoman Empire (Diller 384) and concluding with the suicide bombings of contemporary daily news. Typically, the actors of this violence have been predominantly men, yet such far reaching, and pervading circumstances of violence have inevitably had an impact on the daily lives and consciousness of countless generations of Arab women. This impact has also saturated the minds of many Arab women writers, and the depth of this effect comes across very well in the works of Liyana Badr, Leila Al-Atrash, and Fadia Faqir. The political and historical contexts of each novel are extremely telling. This ever-present aggressive backdrop influences settings and personal storylines of characters in Badr?s A Balcony over the Fakihani, Faqir?s Pillars of Salt, and Al-Atrash?s A Woman of Five Seasons overwhelmingly.

Pillars of Salt, which is set in the early 20s in Jordan, has the earliest setting of all three novels and happens to be one of the more violent. In 1920, Transjordan was p! laced under British mandate. The British left in May of 1923, and then Emir Abdullah attempted to appease and unite various Bedouin groups and form a unit of men able to protect the land from invaders (Diller 261). It is with this historical context that we happen upon the story of Maha and her struggle for survival and independence.

The novel begins with the storyteller?s muddy mixture of fact and fable. The storyteller recounts his first encounter with the English, and describes the way ?their cars exhaled black smoke into the clear blue sky? (Faqir 3). The storyteller is somewhat removed from the political context because he is ?half-Arab? (Faqir 3), yet it is still evident that there is some ill feeling towards the English. Later on, we are presented with another political opinion of the storyteller. He describes the story of the Balfour Declaration, and portrays it in a very negative manner, calling i! t the result of Lord Balfour?

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s decisions to ?play a game called ?lands?? (Faqir 29).

Throughout the novel, Maha is portrayed in a very fierce manner. She is called a ?tigress? (Faqir 11), and is on more than one occasion described by the storyteller as a ferocious ?demon?. The storyteller also describes her as a ?sharp sword stuck in the sides of the Arabs? enemies? (Faqir 2), and the women in his narrative as violent ?birds of prey?. Maha is fiercely defensive of Harb, and tells him she will ?drink the blood? of the man who wounded him (Faqir 83). Again, she comes across as aggressive when a person she cares for is hurt. ! This image of Maha as a warrior reinforces the suggestion that the violence settings in which she lived had a very powerful influence on her. It is not only the women in this novel who are portrayed as warriors. It is extremely importantly to notice that Harb, Maha?s husband, is a fighter against the English. Maha is told that Harb ?was fighting against the mandate? (Faqir 55) and is ?upset? that he does not reveal this part of himself to her. They are both warriors in their own right: Maha is struggling for independence in her society, and Harb is struggling to keep his society?s independence.

In addition to the many instances of political and military violence in the novel, there are numerous occasions when the society itself seems to have some very forceful ways of dealing with women and their issues. The first instance of violence against women is Nasra?s rape by Maha?s brother Daffash (Faqir 11). Maha immediately springs to the defense of her good friend, and says she will ?drink [Daffash?s] blood? (Faqir 11). This episode is jarring, as we do not expect a sedate Bedouin woman to ?dig the metal barrel? of a rifle into her brother?s ribs (Faqir 12). Maha very much takes matters into her own hands, and rises! to the defense of her fellow woman from the man. However, Maha then resigns herself to her fate in her society, and realizes ?how high were the mud walls imprisoning [women]? in Bedouin society (Faqir 13). To further emphasize how poor the status of women in Bedouin culture was at the time, and to an extent still is in many Arab cultures, Maha?s father insists that Nasra ?should not have tempted [Daffash]? (Faqir 13). The effects of this physical and societal violence on Nasra are very great, as she is never the same from this point on. The tunes of her reed pipe ?lack the edge? they used to have (Faqir 15), and she is more wary of people. It is important to note that while Daffash gets away with a slap of the wrist, Nasra?s life is ruined. She is no longer a virgin, w! hich is a huge concern. Later on in the novel, Daffash rapes again, and similarly to the first rape, the woman bears the brunt of the consequences of the violence, even though she is the victim (Faqir 66). It is disturbing that after Maha and Nasra find Salih?s wife, Nasra?s first words to the victim are instructing her to get dressed, or else her husband will ?slaughter [her] like a chicken? (Faqir 66). To add to this shock, Salih?s wife is then forced to defend herself. Women clearly must bear the burden of societal violence. When Maha begins to worry that she is unable to conceive even though she has only been married for a few months, and her husband is always away fighting, she goes to the elder women in her village for a solution. The ?solution? they devise is cauterization. The description of this episode is extremely cruel. Maha describes the ?thin iron bar? that is heated in fire and then burned into her stomach (Faqir 92). This hardly seems like a peaceful method of dealing with her barrenness. The third major episode of societal violence against women is when Daffash beats Maha very badly, almost to death (Faqir 164). This is not the first time he beats her, but the most brutal. Maha describes how ?with his?boot he kicked [her] in the face?, and the ?cold metal bullets? of his ammunition belt whipping into her skin (Faqir 164). Maha then describes her ?anger and h! umiliation? at not being able to hit back and defend hersel! f (Faqir 165). The most disturbing aspect of this beating is that Daffash gets away free yet again. There are no repercussions for him, while Maha loses two teeth. Gender based violence is obviously a wide spread method of keeping women under control. Another example of domestic violence is Um Saad?s brutal courtship. She describes how her father?s belt ?reduced [her] to a heap of flayed meat? (Faqir 100). Her father beats her because a young man she met a shop asked to marry her. Um Saad?s first sexual experience is also very violent, especially when contrasted with Maha?s. She is raped by what she describes as a man with ! ?soggy cheeks?. Again, violence towards women is used to keep men in control.

When Maha is surveying her childhood home and belongings before her marriage, she gives us an inventory of items in the room. There are only seven items in this room, and one of them is her ?father?s English rifle? (Faqir 41). It is ironic and significant that of the seven meager, necessary items in this room, one of them is a rifle. Survival in Bedouin society at this time period was obviously at the forefront of concerns. In the beginning of the third chapter we are presented with a sharp contrast between Maha?s actions of milking the cow, and emptying Daff! ash?s pistol (Faqir 9). When Maha describes Harb?s suggestion that they meet alone at night, she says that for her to be out at that time is a ?crime of honor?, and that ?they will shoot [her] in the eyes? (Faqir 10). In this situation, violence is suggested as a method of keeping women under control. The beating is also very important because it springs from political turmoil. Daffash beats Maha because she became very angry when she discovered that she had been ?feeding the people who had chewed on [her] husband?s flesh? (Faqir 162). In this situation, the military conflict between the Bedouin troops and the English cause domestic violence. Yet Maha is not the only woman beaten in this novel. Um Saad describes how her husba! nd ?smashed on the chairs, picked up the legs, then broke them? on her sides (Faqir 179). Um Saad goes on to make her personal pain political be describing red as the ?color of Arabs? anger?, and the ?color of [her] heart?. Violent solutions to problems were evidently a necessary evil.

Harb?s death has a profound impact on Maha, which can only be expected because the two were very atypical of the other relationships in the novel: mutually respectful and loving. Harb frequently affectionately describes Maha as his ?Arab mare?, and ?deer-eyes? (Faqir 83). In addition to its effect on Maha, there is the inherently violent nature of Harb?s death. The storyteller depicts a very gruesome picture of Harb?s death, describing the ?eggs? dropped from ?metal eagles? (bombs dropped from airplanes), and the way the bombings ?split open the bodies of men, exposing their entrails.? (Faqir 115). Immediately following this very visual and perhaps exaggerated portrayal of the slaughter of the Bedouin soldiers, we are presented with Maha?s point of view. Harb?s death is a great loss for her, and she says, ?The twin of [her] soul had departed this earth.? (Faqir 117). Her immediate reaction to the wrenching of his love from her life is to start ?slapping? her face, and ?yanking? her hair (Faqir 117). Clearly, Maha is suffering greatly. Harb?s death is an example of the direct effect the political violence has on Maha. Curiously, it is also during this episode of severe emotional pain that Maha realizes she is pregnant. Her son, Mubarak, is in a sense born of the violence that took his! father, and we can only wonder whether this is the author?! s statement that the oppressive cycle of violence will be reborn with Mubarak. After Harb?s death Maha keeps ?the sheath of [his] dagger?under [her] pillow? (Faqir 124). Maha lives with this emotional turmoil, and it will follow her for the rest of her life.

The connection between Maha and the land in this novel is very interesting. Maha?s son Mubarak is literally born on the earth (Faqir 136-137). Maha is often seen in an agricultural light, and is described as very tenderly clearing stones and weeds from the earth (Faqir 132). Maha?s husband Harb is fighting for what Maha is so connected to ? the land. For this reason, Maha is inextricably tangled (emotionally and physically) in a violent struggle for her way of life. This connecti! on to the land also resonates with the character of Nadia, in A Woman of Five Seasons. In that novel, Nadia tells her husband Ihsan quite frankly that she ?wants land? (Al-Atrash 79). In this case, the female character?s attachment to the land is ironic because Nadia is as far removed from her homeland and the roots of its struggle as one can get, yet the connection is obviously powerful because it is there. If this connection is so powerful, it is not difficult to imagine that Daffash trying to take the land his father has willed to Nadia will cause troubles. In a sense, in taking Nadia?s land Daffash is doing to her what the English are attempting to do to his people, and thus there is another parallel between political and personal struggle. Anot! her more obvious parallel is when Um Saad describes how her! hatred for the French stems from how they make her father ?restless and dirty? (Faqir 37), and her hopes that moving to Transjordan will cause her father to ?stop fighting the French?, and ?leave [her] and [her] mother alone? (Faqir 37).

A Balcony over the Fakihani was written by Liyana Badr about the civil conflict in Lebanon, and is only fictional in design, as all of the places and events are real. The three novellas, of which the first two will be of interest, were written about the events the war of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The main characters are Palestinian refugees who have been uprooted many! times. This is an immediate clue as to how far reaching the effects of the violence will be in their lives. Again, historical context is extremely important in these novellas. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon from Jordan after Black September (19! 70), when tension between the Jordanian army and the PLO fi! nally broke out in war (Diller 40, 285). This sudden influx of refugees into Lebanon created more tension, and eventually very bloody battle. It is imaginable that under this amount of political turmoil, human beings would be hard pressed to live their lives to the fullest and occupy themselves with things other than war.

On the first page of the first novella, ?A Land of Rock and Thyme?, we are introduced to Yusra?s dream of waling past the Martyrs? cemetery. Yusra then recounts how she wants to visit her husband?s grave, but is wary of the ?tense? situation and the fighting that ?had broken out again? (Badr 4). We are immediately presented with a sense of what life is like for her, as she describes how it would be ?difficult to run? if shelling begins (Badr 4). The novel goes on to describe page after page of the violence of everyday life. Yusra?s eleven-year-old brother is hit in the stomach! by shrapnel (Badr 8). She describes how, ?Nada, a friend of mine, was killed by a sniper, and she was a volunteer nurse. Death even reached her.? (Badr 11). Yusra tells about a young man who has made his coffin from a cupboard door and is soon after killed by shrapnel (Badr 11). Yusra describes how during her family?s attempt to escape the warm she sees ?a woman dressed in the deepest black, more than forty years old.? (Badr 17). This woman is ?hitting a man over the head with a piece of wood with a nail on the end of it? (Badr 17). In this novel, even the old widows take part in the killing. A young very distraught Yusra describes how her hands ?beat helplessly agai! nst [her] cheeks? after being unable to find her grandmothe! r and out of fear of murder (Badr 17). The entire novel continues with short, objective descriptions of very graphic and extensive violence. In this novel, there is a notably thin distinction between life and death. Death chases life, and life pursues death while ?Young brides become widows. Wives become widowed mothers.

Sons are made martyrs in an afternoon.? (Raschka 70). The descriptions of loss are incredibly numerous. It is hard to imagine that in a situation of such extreme and extensive violence, there would be place in society for anything other than day to day survival tactics. Indeed, there is little room in this novel for personal discovery outside the context of the Lebanese civil war and armed confl! ict. It is perhaps for this reason that there is little if any mention in this novel of the Arab women?s feminist movement, as opposed to the frequent reference to it in A Woman of Five Seasons, which is also set in a world far removed from the violence Yusra and her family deal with day to day. The second novella, ?A Balcony over the Fakihani?, is told from the perspective of a second woman, Su?ad. Su?ad is confronted with the same cycle of shelling and hiding as Yusra, and faces many of the same issues. She relates the account of an attack on the Shatila camp, and how ?the constant din was like the noise of an earthquake swallowing up heaven and earth together.? (Badr 45). Soon after the attack Su?ad notices a white hair on her baby Ruba?s head. She is shocked ! that the pain and suffering has affected even her very young child (Badr 46). There is a period in the second novella that seems deceptively calm, and indeed culminates in a bombing. Badr changes her writing style, and uses very concise language and onomatopoeia to describe the atmosphere during the bombing, which is one of utter chaos and primal fear (Badr 72). In this novel, war is so connected to basic survival tactics that there is little room for anything but a profound sense of loss, chaos, and fear from both male and female perspectives. Though the female characters in A Balcony over the Fakihani are perhaps more liberated than those in Pillars of Salt in the sense that they are literate, it is impossible to work towards personal actua! lization under the political circumstances.

The constant conflict and genocide over Palestine have left entire generations with ?chronic insecurity? (Siyagh and Peteet 106). One of the consequences of this situation is that Palestinian women have even the most banal domestic issues politicized, as the distinction between front line and home front has been eroded (Siyagh and Peteet 106). According to Siyagh and Peteet, the woman?s world in Lebanese refugee camps is not at! all cut off from the rest of the world, and it ?teams with both political and personal news? (108). The authors go on to describe that the displacement brought on a sequence of change in the female workforce (108). Conditions of domestic work underwent ?sharp deterioration?; agricultural work was replaced with domestic work, and a large group was had no choice but to work outside the home to provide for the family what a man used to provide (Siyagh and Peteet 110). According to Siyagh and Peteet, female membership in the Resistance was rare before 1977 (113), yet even after women joined the movement, many still felt that ?their primary social roles? were to be ?wives and mothers? (116). The women?s movement was obviously politicized and used as a backdrop for recruiting support and sons for the Resi! stance.

Siyagh and Peteet also write that the resistance movement ?consecrated [women?s] reproductive role and charged it with new political meaning? (122). The sacrifice of a mother of a martyr was recognized and celebrated as a ?supreme political act? (Siyagh and Peteet 122). This is one of the reasons reproduction is such a huge issue for the newlywed Su?ad and Umar, and why Su?ad reports a ?feeling of defeat? on her way home from the hospital after her miscarriage (Badr 43). As quoted in Siyagh and Peteet?s work, a survivor of Tell al-Za?ter says, ?We Palestinian women, we give birth to them, we bring them up, and we bury them for the revolution.? (122).

The third novel, A Woman of Five Seasons, presents an entirely different socio-economic background than we have encountered in Pillars of Salt or A Balcony over the Fakihani. The main female character, Nadia, lives a very unchallenging domestic life in the fictional Barqais (which is a pseudonym for Kuwait) during the late 1960s. According to Mervat Hatem, ?Among the Gulf States, Kuwait has moved furthest to integrate women in the public arena.? (Hatem 35). She goes on to write that that the Kuwaiti Women?s Social and Cultural Society worked closely with the government on calling several conferences on Gulf women (Hatem 37). Clearly, this puts the historical context in a very different place than in A Balcony over the Fakihani or Pillars of Salt.

Nadia does not live in a refugee camp or in a Bedouin tent. She has lost no sons in the resistance, and she does not have to worry about where her water or next meal will come from. In fact, Nadia is extremely wealthy, and spends time in London, where she starts a real estate business on a whim. Her children spend their summers learning French. This apparent removal from everyday vio! lence and war gives her time to focus on other pursuits. Many times, Nadia is portrayed by her husband Ihsan as a hopeless intellectual with her head constantly buried in books. She has gone to school, and although she ha not yet earned her degree she hopes to earn it soon. Nadia is also portrayed as very fashionable, and her husband is always buying her fancy dresses and jewelry. In short, she lives an entirely different existence than her counterparts in the other novels. However, there is throughout the novel a distinctly political undercurrent of a violent movement. There are frequent descriptions of individuals who have involved themselves for ?the cause?. There ! is also a strong connection of the characters to the land, ! as we have seen in both other novels. When Ihsan deposits two hundred thousand dollars (an unthinkable sum to characters in the other novels, but almost trivial in this narrative) in gold in an account for Nadia, she replies ?Who said I wanted gold??, and, ?For a sum like that I?d rather have land.? (Al-Atrash 78). This desire for land is very different than the Maha?s struggle to keep the land given to her by her father, or Yusra and Su?ad?s struggle to simply have safe shelter, yet is tied to the same cultural background. At one point Ihsan hypocritically tells Nadia ?revolutionaries don?t care about this sort of luxury?, speaking of a painting in the room (Al-Atrash 65). Nadia replies that the artist was ?a man before he was a revolutionary? which sums up Nadia?s struggle to put being a woman, and! on a higher level a person above ?the cause? (Al-Atrash 65). It is only when the revolution and violence are put in the background that a woman can concentrate on truly becoming a person. In this novel, Al-Atrash writes about women?s perceptions and tasks from a human perspective. While other characters may be struggling for the independence of their nations, Nadia is struggling to allow her ?defeated person? to flourish (Al-Atrash 35).

Nadia is also indirectly involved in her husband?s clandestine operations, as she is a pawn for gaining influence with the influential. She expresses how she ?waited? for Ihsan to ?ask [her] to join in what he does? so she can ?shout and get angry?, but is disappointed when he does not (Al-Atrash 45). Using women in this manner is an accepted practice. A description of the methodology of arms smuggling on page 108 is eerily calm, especially when compared to the violence in A Balcony over the Fakihani. Again, this illustrates a degree of removal from the ?hands-on? approach to conflict, and therefore gives the characters time to focus on other pursuits.

There are many instances that illustrate Nadia?s search for self. She describes herself as being occupied by two ?persons?, one of which is a person who ?feels and thinks and suffers, and makes [her] suffer.?, and ?A person who doesn?t know the meaning of female and male, who rises above anything Ihsan ever thinks about? (Al-Atrash 34-35). Only when the violent nature of every day life is left behind can women actually begin their struggle to become not only women, but human beings as well.

As we have seen, there is an inextricable tie for the women in these novels (and very likely their writers) between the horrific and ongoing violence in the middle east and the personal experience. We cannot claim a well thought out analysis of the literature if we leave the turbulent political context out of the equation. What would Maha?s story be without her struggle to deal with her brother?s violence towards her, or society?s effort to keep her in control and submissive? What would Yusra and Su?ad?s daily struggles for water, shelter, and safety be without the circumstance of the refugee camps, and years of roaming ! and loss? Even Nadia, who lives in an entirely dissimilar universe of pearls, and designer dresses and vacations to Europe, is inherently bound to the conflicts of the region due to her refugee status, and the nature of her husband?s work. Compounding this difficulty is the fledgling status of the women?s movement in the Middle East, and Middle Eastern women?s great endeavors to become equal in their! society. Part! icularly from a comparison of A Woman of Five Seasons, and Pillars of Salt and A Balcony over the Fakihani, we gather that only with a cessation of conflict can issues of a humanitarian nature take the public interest, and it is only with this cessation that the women?s movement can progress.

Works Cited

Atrash, Layla. Woman of Five Seasons. New York: Interlink Publishing, 2002

Badr, Liyana. A Balcony over the Fakihani. New York: Interlink Books, 1993.

Faqir, Fadia. Pillars of Salt. New York: Interlink Books, 1997
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