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It is a relatively recent phenomenon that English translations of writings by Arab women are being published in the West, so this collection is certainly a welcome addition to this growing library. Aside from the well known Iraqi woman poet Nazik al-Malaika, credited for playing a leading role in the free-verse movement along with her countryman the famous Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, little has been published in English about Iraqi contributions to contemporary Arabic literature. With this selection of stories, Daisy al-Amir receives a long overdue recognition of her talent and creativity.
"Woman must write herself ... Woman must put herself into the text as into the world and into history by her movement," wrote Helene Cixous in her manifesto on ecriture feminine, The Laugh of the Medusa. Daisy al Amir, a distinguished Iraqi woman writer, is doing precisely this, "putting herself into her texts." With this highly individualistic yet universal view point, she shapes for herself a lasting place among the growing crop of writers, poets and novelists of her country, and within the select group of Arab women writers at large.
As part of an elite educated group, al-Amir, along with several Iraqi writers, investigates in her stories the pressures of Iraqi ideology among other topics. For, these writers see their commitment both as a challenge to history and a solemn duty necessary in times of social crises.
Daisy al-Amir, along with other leading Iraqi authors, sees herself engaged in the struggles she portrays. In many ways these writers are the true heroes and heroines of their novels.
To better understand the cultural and socio-political background against which the writings of authors like Daisy al-Amir can be rightly assessed, we may look at some historical facts surrounding the emergence of contemporary Iraqi fiction.
Very often, the fall of the monarchy, and the dismantling of the feudal system and the rise of the 1958 revolution are quoted as the pivotal events that have helped shape Iraq's destiny in the last four decades or so.
Prior to the recent Gulf War, Iraq was also positioning itself as one of the leading patrons of the arts within the Arab world. For instance, the Iraqi government had earmarked large funds from its oil revenues to support and sponsor symposia, conferences, art exhibits and festivals both inside and outside of its country. There was a time when Iraq was also sponsoring the publication of a large and varied number of literary and artistic magazines, which attracted the contribution of some of the best Arab authors, critics and journalists, and in some cases leading foreign contributors as well.
The Babylon Art Festival and the Marbid Literary Festival for instance were but two of the well established artistic events that yearly drew hundreds of participants to this Arab capital which was lavishly trying to recreate its pastglories. It had also established the highly coveted Saddam Hussein Literary Prize.
Poetry has traditionally been the dominating literary genre in Iraq. In the early twentieth century, Iraq had produced such towering figures as al-Rusafi, and al-Zahawi, to be followed by such influential poets as Nazik al-Malai'ka, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Buland al-Haydari, and Abdel Wahhab al-Bayati, who have revolutionized Arabic poetry and still continue to exert their influence on the younger generation of poets.
When we turn to fiction, we note that the novel and short story, as new genres have only begun to take their legitimate place on the Arab literary scene in the last twenty years or so.
Most critics agree that up to the Revolution of 1958, Iraqi prose writers were producing literature of uneven quality. The noted Iraqi critic Muhsin al-Mussawi commented that with the fall of the monarchy, the dismantling of the feudal system, and the rise of the Baath Party, new parameters for Iraqi fiction began to emerge. Early experimentations in novel writing were constrained by the notion of depicting the trials and tribulations of individual protagonists. Then the writers gradually and successfully ventured into creating larger numbers of characters, all the while maintaining their individualities. The multiple protagonists began to forcefully voice their views on politics, love and sex. That was a radical move from the traditional early novels and short stories which had uniformally used the undifferentiated voice of the author. Iraqi fiction comes into its own by creating a multiplicity of voices, well orchestrated as we note in the works of the writers of the seventies and eighties.
Emerging from a feudal society and getting their first exposures to the West, young Iraqi writers would often embark on writing careers upon their return to their native Iraq. These early attempts often took the form of didactic tracts, calling for reforms and challenging traditional structures, and were clearly influenced by some of the other Arab writers such as Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, Ibrahim al-Mazini, Salama Musa, Taha Husayn and, more recently, Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris.
Their writings were also reflective of British, French and Russian influences. There were also some attempts at reviving and drawing upon the Arab literary heritage, by incorporating narrative forms drawn from folk epics such as Gilgamesh, Siras, or the Alf Layla wa Layla (The Thousand and One Nights).
Similar to the course of development in other Arab countries, the early experimentation at prose fiction writing took the form of serialized installments of roman feuillton type of dramatic literature. These were typically highly melodramatic, romantic and often unrealistic stories.
It is only in the early forties that we begin to read writers who handle reality and fiction in more meaningful ways.
Dhu al-Nun Ayub, born in 1908, is one of the early pioneers of Iraqi fiction. His celebrated novel Al-Duktur Ibrahim is an Iraqi classic. It is the saga of one of those "hollow intellectuals," who upon returning from his academic sojourns in England, like so many Iraqis and Arabs do, becomes an exploitative and somewhat tyrannical intellectual in power. Disillusioned and embittered, he prefers to return to the West rather than struggle to bring about the dreamed-of changes.
Dhu al Nun Ayub wrote this novel in 1939, and proceeded to write more works that dealt with similar bourgeois intellectuals who flirt with revolutionary ideas but turn into parasites and tyrants. Alienation and disillusionment became the trademark of most of these heroes.
These works thus addressed with great courage endemic questions that beleaguered Arab societies. Ayub has often been dubbed as the pioneer of social realism in the novel in Iraq. His collection, The Toilers, was dedicated to the masses of peasants and workers. Another memorable collection, The Tower of Babel, harps on the endemic corruption among the Iraqi middle class and resonates with irony.
Another Iraqi writer who made a name for himself and who is of similar background is Abdel Malik Nouri, born in 1921. He and Fouad al Tekirli studied and practiced law. Nouri went on to become a judge and resorted to the use of symbolism and allegory in attempts at evading the scrutiny of censorship.
The decades of the fifties and sixties reflect more poignantly the polemics and controversies that have dominated the Arab world. A salient theme in recent Iraqi writings is the aftermath of the 1967 setback, forcefully expressing disenchantment with ruling regimes and the endemic lack of freedom in societies. Intellectuals, as portrayed for instance in Abd al-Rahman al-Rubayi's novel Al-Washm (The Tattoo), are totally disillusioned and alienated from their society and are left aimless at the end of the novel.
Iraq has also adopted some other Arab writers such as the Palestinian Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and the Saudi Abd Al-Rahman Munif, who have gained fame and recognition both in the Arab world and in the West.
Ala La'hat al Intizar (On the Waiting List) is in some ways a refreshing departure from these themes. Here we are introduced into the highly private lives of heroines and heroes and invited to scrutinize their innermost feelings about simple incidents that take on highly charged meanings. Al-Amir partakes of all that her compatriots experience, of loss and alienation but gives an added personal dimension that is uniquely discernible as her voice. Ghada al-Samaan the well known Syrian novelist, put it succinctly when she stated:
As an Arab citizen, a woman suffers from all the constraints imposed on any of her compatriots... in addition the attempt by women to restore their rights is part of the attempt by Arab individuals to restore their very humanity. (al-Qabila tastajwib al-Qatila, Ghada Samaan, 1981.)
Poignant questions besiege al-Amir's characters and pose a very intimate look at the inner workings of Arab individuals, mainly women, operating in an urban environment. It is the city and very often a foreign locale that operates as the backdrop for most of her stories and seems to mold the reactions of its protagonists. On the Waiting List has several of the stories taking place specifically in and around airports. Her protagonists seem to be constantly on the move, be it loitering in airports of moving from one location to another, always being threatened by losing touch with their roots. There is a lingering nostalgia for the past, as poignantly portrayed in the story "Thaman Bakhis" (For a Pittance). This story in many ways encapsulates the salient theme within this short collection. "In my travels I came to an unfamiliar city." Once in the faceless and nameless city, she searches for connections and in this case finds them in the unwanted memorabilia of a "weighty past" enfolded in a discarded picture album that no one seemed to want. She salvages the memories of those unknown individuals by buying that collection and tries to reconstruct the past of these relationships of seemingly "three generations" that made up the family that had sold "its past."
Michelle Murray, poet and novelist, in her introduction to the edited collection of essays A House of Good Proportion, points out that "Woman begins to be problematical to herself and others when her consciousness develops to a point where she sees herself as entitled to an individual life rather than to an impersonal predestination" (page 20). It seems that this is precisely what Daisy al-Amir is accomplishing in her stories.
Whether she uses the narrative "I" or the conventional third person, al-Amir is transparently narrating her present itinerant reality. She seems to be constantly roaming the globe, on a "waiting list" or pondering on papers from "ancient archives." Visiting and revisiting is also a dominant movement in these stories. Be it a "small notebook with yellowed papers" or "masses of letters," she is immersed in a past but also summoned to a poignant present which is forever changing. In "Fires of the Past" she puts it succinctly: "Yet she had never stayed in one house, and settling had not been part of her life."
"Doctor's Prescription" is another story which is telegraphically delivered with great economy. It is representative of Daisy al-Amir's economical style. There is virtually no redundancy in her narration, no repetitiveness but rather stark, denuded prose which hits its mark forcefully.
In what one may describe as vignettes, or impersonal dialogues, she investigates other narrative possibilities for transmitting her message. In a running repartee, which is faceless and nameless (a devise now widely used by several Arab women writers and journalists particularly in women's magazines), Al-Amir probes into the intricacies of human relations between husband and wife. At times these vignettes resonate with lyrical tones. A certain minimalism and terseness in her style speaks directly and convincingly to a hurried and on-the-go urbanized reader, who is probably also on a "waiting list" at a Waq Waq airport.
She had thought that seats on the plane were available any time she wanted. But when she went to the reservations office, the man in charge informed her that he would have to place her name on a waiting list!
Her vacation was almost over. She had visited the city, seen its tourist sites; now she missed home. A hotel is relaxing for a few days, then a yearning for one's own room returns, one's own pillow, one's daily routines in familiar haunts... but what's the use of talking to oneself?
A line of people stood behind her, waiting for their turn to talk to the reservations clerk, and this was no time for nostalgia. The clerk was looking at her, waiting for a response. She had no choice but to acquiesce. She picked up her passport and left the office, suitcase in hand. If she didn't get a seat the next day, where would she, a stranger, go? As it was, she had to spend twenty-four hours waiting, then go to the airport with her luggage, hoping that some other passenger wouldn't turn up so she could take that seat.
What if all the passengers appeared? How long would she remain waiting? And her job back home, would they accept the excuse that she was on a waiting list?
She stared at shop windows. There was no longer anything that enticed her, new things no longer seemed new. Waiting kills all sense of surprise and joy. She had often said that travel dissolves past and future, but now she felt the oppressive weight of the present.
She recalled her house, that past she had left behind, and her longing intensified. When would the future return her to it?
She walked without direction, wandering aimlessly, unable to plan even for the next day. Perhaps it would be the end of her trip, perhaps not. She had not paid attention to where she was going, and looked up to find herself in a residential neighborhood. Some of the houses were lit up, others were dark.
What were their occupants doing? Preparing for the evening's activities? Greeting guests? Are they happy? Tired? What's happening inside? Debates? Quarrels? Conversations? Boisterous or tranquil?
It was autumn and some of the windows were shut, their curtains drawn. Each house a world unto itself. Were people inside them waiting? Waiting for a seat on an airplane, or for something more important?
What was more important now? From her perspective, putting her mind at rest about her travel was most important. But for what were the inhabitants of these houses waiting?
She had wandered far into a new and unfamiliar part of the city. In her suitcase was a card with the name and address of her hotel. As dusk descended, all the street lights came on. How to get back? She had no idea which direction to go.
She stood waiting for a taxi, but none drove past. A large bus stopped, but she didn't know which number she needed to reach the neighborhood of her hotel. She asked the driver where he was going, and he replied that he was going near the hotel. She boarded. There were not many passengers.
People got on and off. Everyone knew which stop they wanted; she alone did not know how long her wait would be. She watched for the driver to indicate when she should get off. Her eyes fastened on his lips, but every time he announced a stop he motioned for her to wait. Finally, he indicated she should prepare to get off at the next stop. She stood up and waited close to the door.
She stepped off the bus and studied her surroundings. There was no street sign in sight. She waited, hoping to spot someone to ask, but no one was about. She walked, not knowing whether she was heading in the right direction.
She saw a car stop, and two people got out. Before they went into the house, she raced over to ask directions, and one of them pointed to the street leading to her hotel. She walked down it, anticipating seeing the hotel's name... expecting... waiting... then suddenly she saw the familiar square, the hotel's name in lights flashing, its garden in front. Cars were stopping at the door and people getting in and out. Suitcases were arriving, others leaving.
Cars continued on their way, the glass door continued opening and closing, a routine of waiting.
People in front of her headed toward the reception desk to retrieve their keys and ask about any messages waiting for them. She didn't inquire at the desk, for no one here knew her. If there was something sitting in the slot of her room key, she hoped it would be a letter. She decided not to sit in the reception hall where a number of other people were waiting.
A hotel employee approached, calling her name. He asked when she planned to depart. "1'm waiting," she replied
"Until when?" he asked.
When he saw the confusion and embarrassment on her face, he gently asked that she let him know when she was certain. She was about to answer that she would never be certain, but, on the verge of tears, she rushed to the elevator instead. She interpreted the employee's look to mean that he understood her situation.
She stared at the telephone in her room. She had become accustomed to its silence. How she wished it would ring now, though at home its endless ringing exasperated her.
In earlier times a camel would have been readied to take her, or a horse, carriage, or car. But now... that cursed machine, the airplane with its fixed dates, seats, destinations and departure times, stood in her way. They say the world has advanced, been modernized, its distances shortened, with no place too far. But that vacant seat on the plane, isn't it distant? Will the wait for it be short or long?
Her hotel room contained neither television nor radio. Should she go to the lounge to watch the evening's television programs, and be stared at by other patrons as if she was a serpent whose head needed to be struck and crushed?
Yesterday, she had gone to the lounge, thinking it was her last night. She sat watching television programs the entire evening. The children's shows! They made her feel old. The news? Full of natural and human disasters. The serial? She had no idea what had happened before and she wouldn't be here to see what came next... A moment in time disconnected from what preceded it and what would follow, so why bother watching? Then there was the Indian film, in which the actors had drenched their hair with so much oil she could almost smell it, reminiscent of fried fish.
So here was an entire day she must remain on the waiting list. She picked up the newspaper and magazine she had read earlier that morning. She had already perused the world news and the political editorials. Now she would wade through all the sections whether she enjoyed them or not. She must pass the time, willingly or otherwise.
A page of classified advertisements. Ads announcing houses for rent and others for sale. She looked over the details for each house. Nothing in them suited her. Some were too big, others too small, still others she just didn't like. Why not?
She read the employment section. She wasn't qualified to be a truck driver or master chef or electrician. She found no position appropriate for her. What if she had to remain here, buy a house and find work to make ends meet?
The horoscope page? She had never given any thought to the sign under which her birthday fell. She read all the predictions, picked the one that pleased her, and made it her sign, thus finding a future that appealed to her.
She glanced at the crossword puzzle, uncertain if crossing, intersecting and mixing words to solve the puzzle would dissolve the tension of waiting, or if it would be better to leave it as is.
On the page with letters from people seeking advice about affairs of the heart, she read about a sixteen year old girl who loved a neighbor boy two years her senior. He shares this deep love but is not yet able to marry and wants her to wait. Her family refuses to allow her to wait. This was a summary of the problem as the girl explained it, and she ended with a plea to the love doctor not to recommend that she give up his love or break off the relationship. So what was she to do?
Another heartsick soul, bewildered and seeking guidance, was in love with a colleague at work, and waited for him to fulfill his pledge made many years earlier to marry her. She was now over thirty, and he still asked her to wait until he could convince his aging parents who depended on his care. She had no option but to wait, for everyone knew of her attachment to him. Besides, who would propose marriage to a woman her age who was known to be already involved with her colleague?
A third letter concluded the section. The man whom this woman loved and had waited for had married someone else. The one whom she thought had asked her to wait no longer waited for her; he disappeared from her list, which contained no one else. She had waited years and he had broken his promise, so how could she restore in herself a willingness to wait? Now she despaired, for she could not wait again for a new man to marry her.
She threw down the magazine. She had no wish to deal with other people who were waiting, nor did she believe that waiting required two sides. If one side gave up, then the other might still be willing to wait.
In her baggage was a novel she had not yet finished. She returned to it, but when she reached the last chapter, she suddenly felt afraid. After she finished the novel, then what? What next?
The wait, the anticipation! What were the other people doing whose names were on the same list? Or those who weren't on the list? Or those whose travel plans were assured? Weren't they all waiting the end of their travels?
This newspaper which she had already read! How many people were waiting for the morning to read it again?
The classified advertisements! How many fates depended on those ads? Sellers of houses and buyers of houses ... weren't they waiting?
The job vacancies. So many were hanging their hopes on them, anticipating an announcement, an interview and then the first day of work.
The horoscope. Many believed it, waiting for what the future brings.
Every newspaper and magazine contained a crossword puzzle, so there must be countless people anticipating the pleasure of solving it.
The letters of the lovelorn and the television programs, and on, and on. Waiting... expecting... However long this moment persists, it will pass, but waiting for the next moment is still waiting.
And after this long empty night, then what? What? What then? The next day she was on the airplane. She slumped into her seat. The flight attendant offered a platter of sweets, just the kind she liked. She relished them. When she felt airsick, the attendants made a fuss over her. Was there anyone back home who would show such concern for her?
A tray of food came and they asked her what she would like to drink. just like that: she was asked, she answered, and the drink appeared.
Next to her was a bell. One touch if she needed anything... She slid her fingers over it then withdrew them. What did she want? She closed her eyes and relaxed. When she opened them again, the tray had been taken away.
A perfume cart stood beside her. The attendant bent down to ask her what perfume she preferred, for a price that was duty free.
It was as if she sat on a throne. Food and drink came to her. At the touch of a bell her requests were met. The attendants even demonstrated how to use the life jacket in case the plane encountered any trouble, so concerned were they for her safety!
In a few hours she would return to her house, the house she loved, the house for which she had been pining. She would open the suitcases, hang up the clothes and straighten her room.
She'd leap from the bed in the morning and rush to work. Heavy traffic might make her late to the office and make her nervous twitch worse. What would be waiting for her at the office?
She was accustomed to this morning anxiety, and her evening worries had been with her ever since she had begun to remember. Yet she was afraid to forget, to not remember.
After this restful time on the airplane, for which she had waited and worried about the uncertainty of waiting, she would return home, return to the familiar details, the familiar worry, the anxiety and tension she knew so well.
There she would not have to wait. Her life there was on a track, she couldn't change its direction. Her familiar daily routine would propel her, like a blindfolded ox walking round and round the water wheel. (The ox never realizes that he trudges only in circles.)
Her eyes were unfettered, seeing, knowing, understanding. But they would not have to wait any more.
She closed them again and imagined herself there, somewhere, waiting.