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Muhammad al-Saghir, the 32-year-old protagonist of Praise for the Women of the Family, is a man under stress. He is the youngest son of Mannan, the head of the al-‘Abd al-Lat clan based in Ra’s al-Naba’ near Jerusalem. Now, in 1982, the old patriarch is nearing the end of his life and he wants Muhammad al-Saghir to become leader after he is gone.
Mannan has eighteen sons, nine daughters and more than 200 descendants, and has had six wives, four at a time (two died). He looks to Muhammad al-Asghar to “achieve something beneficial for the family and clan”. Muhammad ruminates that “I carry the weight of the family on my shoulders, a weight that my father made me carry”.
At the same time the Palestinians in Beirut – including Muhammad al-Saghir’s militant nephew Omar – are enduring the Israeli siege of summer 1982. Muhammad al-Saghir and his wife Sanaa have had to cancel a planned trip to Beirut to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary in the city where they spent their honeymoon.
The bookish, reflective Muhammad al-Saghir knows that he cannot become a copy of his father. He is more interested in developing his writing career. He had been a clerk in the Jerusalem sharia court for 15 years from 1958 but then threw in his job to devote himself to writing and journalism. His job at the court had involved recording marriage contracts and divorces and had given him unique insights into the lives of women, which provided much material for his literary endeavours.
Muhammad al-Saghir defied his parents to marry Sanaa, a divorcee three years his senior. They had met when she appeared before the sharia court to explain why she wished to divorce her then husband. She had had no children by him, and after years of not conceiving during her marriage to Muhammad al-Saghir medical tests confirmed that she was barren.
Muhammad has come under family pressure to divorce Sanaa or take a second wife. His father has longed for him to have many sons, so as to strengthen the clan. Sanaa several times suggested they separate, but Muhammad has refused, “because I loved her, and because my work in the sharia court had given me an aversion to divorce, the burden of which usually fell on the wives”.
The women of the extended family gossip about Sanaa and her perceived lack of modesty. When Muhammad al-Saghir quit his job, and Sanaa reassured him in front of other family members that “all my salary is here for you”, there was uproar among the women, and eventually Muhammad al-Saghir shouted at them. He later regrets this, “for at the end of the day they deserved praise – not blame. Their predisposition for gossiping behind people’s backs was just an expression of their wretched circumstances and the poverty of their lives.”
One recurring element of the novel is the pain felt by co-wives in polygamous marriages. Some wives are abandoned, like the wife and son of Mannan’s son ‘Atwan, who were left behind when ‘Atwan migrated to Brazil and eventually married a Brazilian woman and had a son by her. ‘Atwan’s letters to his father, sent from Rio de Janeiro between 1958 and 1982, are reproduced at intervals in the novel.
Muhammad al-Saghir’s mother Wadha, Mannan’s youngest wife, is ambitious for her son and wants him to take over from Mannan as clan leader. She sees Muhammad al-Saghir’s half-brother Falihan and his mother Mathila as the main obstacles to this.
Praise for the Women of the Family consists of first-person testimonies, packed with stories, from Muhammad al-Saghir, Wadha and Falihan. These oral testimonies are compelling and moving. They have an intimate, conversational quality.
Falihan describes with relish his colourful exploits, political wheeling dealing, criminal activities including hashish smuggling, and tenderness for his second wife Rasmiyya. At the time he fell in love with Rasmiyya and seduced her in the desert she was engaged to her cousin Sirhan. In1967 Sirhan belatedly got his revenge and shot Falihan, who is impotent as a result and confined to a wheelchair.
The rich narrative moves in circles of time, the same incident repeatedly depicted from different perspectives. With consummate skill Mahmoud Shukair weaves together the tumult of Palestine with the history of the clan and its members. Mannan lived through Ottoman rule, the British mandate, the 1936 revolt, the 1948 Nakba, the repressive rule of Jordan, the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation.
Praise for the Women of the Family was first published in Arabic in 2015 by Naufal Books, an imprint of Hachette Antoine in Beirut. It is easy to see why was chosen as one of the six titles shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 2016.
The novel is beautifully translated by Paul Starkey, who captures a tone of gentle irony. Starkey was winner of the 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of The Book of the Sultan's Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars by Youssef Rakha (Interlink Books).
Mahmoud Shukair was born in Jerusalem in 1941. He has 45 books to his name, including short story collections and novels for adults and children. He has also written six TV series, four plays, a volume of folktales, a biography of Jerusalem and a travelogue. He was twice imprisoned by the Israelis for a total of nearly two years, and after being deported to Lebanon in 1975 he lived in Berlin, Amman and Prague before returning to live in Jerusalem in 1993. He has been editor in chief of the weekly magazine Al-Talia’a (The Vanguard) and Dafatir Thaqafiya (Cultural File).
Shukair’s short stories have appeared in several issues of Banipal as did his delightful photo feature “Windows of Jerusalem: A personal reading” which appeared in Banipal 32 9Summer 2008`0, translated by Issa J Boullata. In 2007 Banipal Books published Shukair’s short story collection Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats, and other stories, in translations by Issa J Boullata, Elizabeth Whitehouse, Elizabeth Winslow and Christina Phillips.
Praise for the Women of the Family is a most welcome addition to the body of Shukair’s work available in English translation.
See Banipal 70 for a special feature on Mahmoud Shukair, Writing Jerusalem.
Published in Banipal 65 (Summer 2019)