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by Miral al-Tahawy
translation and introduction by Anthony Calderbank
The American University in Cairo Press, 1999, 139 pp, pbk, ISBN 977424 4737
A story of Bedouin women
This is the first novel of Egyptian writer Miral al-Tahawy, who is of Bedouin origin. Published in Arabic as Al-Khibaa’ in 1996, it received much acclaim and interest, both for her unique insights into the life of Bedouin women and for the skill and beauty of her writing.
The translator of The Tent, Anthony Calderbank, who has lived in Egypt for many years and teaches English at the American University in Cairo, explains in his introduction that the Bedouin of Egypt’s eastern desert have been in contact with the peasants of the Nile Delta for many centuries, and have had a unique position in society. In the last century Muhammad Ali granted some of the more powerful tribes feudal lands in the Eastern Delta, together with the peasants who lived on and farmed the land.
Fatima, the narrator of the story, is the daughter of one such Bedouin lord. At the start of the novel she is five years old and lives with her mother, three sisters, family slaves and servants in a house within the family compound, which is surrounded by high walls and sealed by a heavy gate.
Overseeing this household is Fatima’s father’s mother, the dreaded Grandmother Hakima who bullies and curses the female slaves, peasants and family members alike. Through the eyes and vivid imagination of Fatima the reader enters the enclosed world of the women, who have various degrees of freedom. Fatima’s sisters will only leave the house when they marry, and the novel vividly depicts the weddings of two of them. The gypsy girl, Mouha, has more freedom, and roams the wilderness, while the slave girl Sasa, unlike Fatima’s sisters, can at least escape to the market. The peasant girls enjoy considerable freedom in their dress and behaviour, and while they load camels with grain and sing, Grandmother Hakima curses them as being filthy, shameless and immodest.
One theme of the book is the way women collude in their own oppression. The grandmother is an archetypal witch figure, and harshly enforces the strict social codes constricting the women. Fatima’s mother is traumatised by her inability to produce a live son to succeed her husband and keeps to her room endlessly weeping and suffering miscarriages, one of which kills her, while Grandmother Hakima endlessly curses her and blames her.
When Sasa starts to become a young woman, the slave woman Sardoub warns: “There’s a fire raging in that girl’s slumbering body,” and supposedly to preserve the girl’s honour, Sardoub and Sasa’s mother appear to carry out a home circumcision: “Sasa screamed in the locked room and the blood ran down between her thighs.”
Miral al-Tahawy faced a considerable challenge in telling the story of the Bedouin women through a young first-person narrator whose dreams and stories mingle with her everyday life experiences. She admirably meets this challenge, and takes the reader into Fatima’s consciousness as she drifts between reality and fantasy.
Fatima’s observations of the life around her are sharp, witty and unsentimental. But she pays a heavy price for her rebelliousness when she falls from one of the trees growing on the wall of the family compound. Her injured leg eventually has to be amputated, and Fatima’s status as a cripple puts her even more outside the norms of society.
In Fatima’s imagination, Zahwa is not only the daughter of Musallam, but also a genie who lives in the well. Fatima once had a gazelle called Zahwa, but at the grandmother’s insistence Fatima’s father slaughtered and cooked the animal and the grandmother threw its head in the well. Fatima often climbs down the well to be with Zahwa. On seeing this the grandmother declares fearfully, “She’s crippled and now she’s possessed”. Fatima realises that being possessed gives her some power against her grandmother.
Fatima seems to be offered some hope of a new life when Anne, a foreign anthropologist, takes Fatima to live with her and says she will educate her. Fatima’s descriptions of Anne, her language and her house are very entertaining – “Anne smiles greedily” and writes down Fatima’s stories and memories. But Fatima eventually becomes sick of this: “I am not a frog in a crystal jar for you to gaze upon”. Fatima returns home, descending into psychosis. She is split, one half jabbering away in foreign languages and the other singing traditional Bedouin folk songs.
Anthony Calderbank points out that one difficulty in translating The Tent was that English lacks the grammatical and morphological devices to express the feminine-ness that the Arabic language bestows on this text. English has no feminine endings, no feminine nouns and adjectives and he writes that it is hard to recreate the scent of woman that permeates the Arabic original of The Tent.
Despite this limitation of language, the translation is very sensuous, suffused with the sense of women’s bodies, their smells, bodily fluids, intimate hair. There are the women’s songs, stories, and traditions, and hints of relations between them. The novel weaves a magical spell that haunts the reader long after it is finished.