Maudie Bitar reviews

Image of Haifa BitarImra’a min hadha al-‘Asr [A Woman of This Modern Age]

by Haifa Bitar

Translated by Issa J. Boullata

Saqi Books, London 2004, 214pp,

ISBN 1 85516 625 9

Thoroughly modern Maryam

After a good beginning that casts a look at the outside world, A Woman of This Modern Age focuses inwards, its narrative becomes confessional while engaging iteslf with facts. Syrian author Haifa Bitar focuses on sexual freedom in her sixth novel and goes beyond narrow women’s discourse to “the transparent soul of an unknown universal passion that envelopes this world”. An encounter with cancer, two husbands and five relationships, leads her heroine Maryam to decide that man is not a natural part of her identity: she finds her cause in the sick women whose lives have been negatively influenced by man. After her successive disappointments, Maryam is certain that woman is the pioneer of change even if she falls victim to the conflict between the old and the new. She is certain that “Eastern” man is incapable of development even if he lives in a Western environment. As she says, “millions of others fall victim to inherited cultural indoctrination and information with regard to sex and love as ends in life.” She then moves from determinism to free will when she decides that she can live without a man and without sex, and chooses a different lifestyle involving only women.

In a beautiful scene at the beginning of the novel, Maryam’s denial reaches the point of separation from her self and watching herself. The doctor tells her she has breast cancer. She remains calm and asks him about a “melancholy” plant in one corner of his clinic. She lights a cigarette and imagines she is a film star acting a role in front of the camera. When she goes out to the street, her separation from the world starts. She sees the streets as “tender-hearted”, the coffee delicious and the world a paradise. She feels she is “a dying butterfly” and she thinks of her breast which “had dazzled” her lovers’ eyes and which will end “like the end of man in my life”. She is still subject here to “the sexual revolution” which requires that a woman have a perfect figure and femininity. However, her rejection of the doctor who had operated on her, gave her decision the credibility of having been a choice.

When she met Dr Ahmad, who was happy she was a virgin, she came to believe that man was her life’s god, to be worshipped and be faithful to. He loved her but wished to be free from the power of love that seemed to be a force his will could not control. She began having sex with him before marriage, and this strengthened his suspicions [after marriage] and he imposed on her certain patterns of behaviour that made her lose her identity, yet she yielded willingly in the name of love. She left her job, stopped drinking wine, and wore a veil and long overdress. She even thought of doing more things in order to please him. His domination began to increase, going back even into her past, and when she could not offer him a pure image of herself, Maryam found herself alone in her weakness and suffering. “She confessed” to having had a relationship and found herself a victim of the condition of woman. Her husband had the right to demand an accounting of her past since birth and to possess her present and her future. He was furious because “a stranger”, her brother-in-law, had brought her home. She tried to recall the woman that she had been, and realised she had been free then and had now become a slave. He divorces her and she loses her husband and her child as well as her “soul”. She returns to her job as an architect, but finds she is in “an unpleasant and inhuman situation: living without a man.”

Maryam’s fear of losing the potency of youth impelled her to have a relationship with a man she only calls “the miser”. She was thirty-eight and went to him with “an extinguished heart and gloomy features: with a deep feeling of disgust, scorn, and disrespect”. She was the one to pay the price of sex with gifts and she was disgusted with herself and utterly alienated. Her relationship with “the miser” was odd since she wandered between her belief in “the rights of the soul and the body” – and her “rejection” of the ills of repression under the cover of morality – on the one hand, and on the other her declaration that the modern culture of sex forced her to practise a freedom “I do not deeply believe in”.

However, her words do not stand up to any examination. “The time of the sexual revolution and explosion of feelings”, as she calls it, did not establish woman as an equal to man but rather made him the hero and her the object in traditional cultures, that is, in Arab culture; it limited her role to legal supply and demand. In this sense, these cultures have not known the meaning of “the sexual revolution,” which fundamentally concerned woman, except in the last few years, that is when Maryam was a woman in mid-life.

Haifa Bitar chooses men of authority, strong or famous men, for her heroine, whose women friends call “the embellishment of all women”, and write so on the cards accompanying the flowers they send her during her sickness. Maryam accepts the honorific name without questioning and dodges the friendship of the women who are housewives and whom “she can’t “compare with anything”. Once again, we see here the ideas, the haughtiness, the separation between the reality we live in and the image which we believe we deserve. Maryam is more profound when she talks about those women who surrender to abuse in their life and accept being humiliated as a way of raising their spiritual position and feeling their heroic faithfulness and the nobility of their souls. She says she is brilliant in her profession but she does not talk about it. She lived for a time in Germany but this country is absent from her story, as are the names of the cities and the cafés, as well as aspects of her profession about which we know nothing from the author except that it was “brilliant”.

Maryam’s story is unfortunately limited to her unsuccessful relationships, for whose failure man and time bear the responsibility. Her first husband was from a priggish conservative environment. The famous and enchanting president of the Society of Women Strugglers is a man who trades in women’s rights in order to hunt down women. Her second husband had lived in Europe since adolescence yet beat her and imprisoned her at home. The gynaecologist, who lives in a city she does not name, chases her and sleeps with her, then neglects her. The waiter, with whom she practised her sexual prowess and protected it from being worn out, is a lowly man inferior to her. And “the miser”, well, “perhaps he is jealous of my success and believes he defeats me when he sets up a relationship with me”.

Maryam is not a pure victim but she deserves to be saluted because she did not “learn” from her experiences as any authentic Arab young woman would. She did not lie to her first husband and those who came after him. She could have saved her marriage with a little deceit and some pretence of virtue. The author does not help her heroine to offer a consistent women’s discourse, but she firmly refuses to lie and, fortunately, does not lecture us on the heroism of telling the truth. Maryam, too, does not lecture us on women’s pioneering for she turns her back on it when she declares herself to be the victim of “the culture of sex” and ashamed of her hallucinations when in the company of “the miser”. Her relationship with the latter suggests coercive behaviour and an acceptance of any man without her decisively separating being “a modern woman who is liberated and not sexually complicated” from being a woman who searches for “comfort and friendship of one soul with another”.

Maryam recalls her men as she undergoes chemotherapy, and she makes that a journey of self-search through which she finds her identity, independence, and strength. After her fear, which is laced with humiliation, she decides to resist, to live and to accept herself as she has become: an asexual being who feels safe and self-fulfilled. She refuses to have an artificial breast and rejects Dr Mas‘ood’s attraction “to her soul”. She offers her help to the women suffering from cancer who have lost their hope in life because of the disease. She searches with them for liberation from her fear of it and she finds her new god in her son.

Man remains “the heart” of Maryam’s existence but his nature has changed. There is transcendence and altruism here, but they do not negate self-negation. Hope is clear at the end of the novel in which Maryam has been transformed through love into a healer.

From Banipal 21 - Autumn 2004

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