If framed as a variation on the motif whereby an oppressed people struggles desperately against a brutal tyrant—a theme enacted in real life upon various world stages with lamentable frequency—Radwa Ashour's novel Siraaj: An Arab Tale is a familiar story, deceptive in its apparent simplicity. Its uniqueness derives in part from its depiction of the Africans who are so central to the narrative; implicit in this portrayal is an acknowledgment, rare in Arabic literature, of the practice of slavery within Arab societies. Very few modern Arabic works take up the theme of African slavery or connect Africans and Arabs as Siraaj does. The immediate historical model for the setting of the novel is nineteenth-century Zanzibar, which was ruled by an Arab dynasty (ancestors of the present rulers of Oman), whose working population consisted of African plantation slaves and poor Arab fishermen. Arresting in itself as a feature of this modern Arab novel, the theme of slavery here also serves a particular purpose, inviting us, the readers, to interrogate the notion of bondage, and find a meaningful difference—if we can—between outright enslavement and life as a supposedly free agent under authoritarian rule.
Siraaj, originally published in Arabic in 1992, is an allegory of contemporary political realities, drawing on the conventions of traditional Arabic storytelling, and the poetry and cultural nuances of those styles. The novel tells the story of two late-nineteenth-century thwarted rebellions: a fictional uprising on an imagined island in the Indian Ocean, and Ahmed Orabi's historic—albeit ultimately unsuccessful—revolt against the khedive of Egypt. Orabi's revolt began in 1881 with a demand for constitutional reform, but collapsed in 1882 with the invasion of Egypt by the British, who opposed the Egyptian nationalist movement that Orabi and his followers represented. The setting of the main plot is the aforementioned island, located in imagination off the east coast of Africa, with an Arab sultan who rules over a population consisting of Arab laboring poor and enslaved Africans. The subplot concerning the character Saïd and his journey is told in the context of the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, culminating in Orabi's defeat and the British occupation of Egypt.
Much of Siraaj's subtlety is in the secondary strands of the tale, or its subplots: Saïd's journey to Egypt at what turns out to be a crisis in the history of that country, for example, and Tawaddud's fascination with narrative, along with her passionate craving for the written word—the literate world from which she is excluded by her own lack of formal education. The importance of stories, in particular of allegorical or historical narratives, is fundamental to Ashour's sense of cultural survival. This is quite natural in a writer, but especially true for those who have borne witness to the ways in which a ruthless attempt to obliterate a society's essential narratives can be, short of actual genocide, one of the most annihilating features of an assault upon a people.
Some excerpts from Radwa Ashour's essay "Eyewitness, Scribe, and Storyteller: My Experience as a Novelist," published in the Spring 2000 issue of The Massachusetts Review, will provide an insight into the way in which she conceived and spun out the tale of Siraaj. She refers to modern Arab novelists' alertness to time and place, and their need to bear witness—to record—as common characteristics among contemporary Arab literati. She casts light upon what drives her as a novelist and storyteller not only in the particular time and space that she occupies, but also in the context of storytelling—particularly storytelling that is also witness-bearing—as a human occupation, with complex motivations and underpinnings. Ashour observes that she writes partly as the only means she has "to conceptualize my existence and reconstruct it into meaningful categories"; "meaning," she points out, is often elusive, but she hopes that greater lucidity is attainable through the process of writing, that things may begin to "make sense, become a little less unintelligible." More significantly, the creation of a fictional landscape reflecting history and present reality constitutes for Ashour the "reappropriation of a threatened geography and a threatening history [as well as] a retrieval of a human will negated." She elaborates:
I am inclined to think that the need to record, for the writers of my generation, was also a response to a growing awareness of the constant threat of word manipulation, what I would call ultra-modern germ warfare tactics. What we lived through and witnessed was denied and disfigured. Our collective memory was subjected to a double pressure, it was attacked from within and from without, with the kind of political language which Orwell once described as, "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech writer Milan Kundera, recalling the fall of Prague during the Soviet invasion of 1968, describes the problem thus: "It is 1971, and Mirek [a character in the novel] says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." In a later passage from the same work, another character elaborates:
"The first step in liquidating a people," said Hubl, "is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster."
The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish posits this notion in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as a result of which thousands of Palestinians have been left homeless and stateless. After the founding of Israel in 1948, many newly disenfranchised refugees wound up in camps in Lebanon, and the difficulty of their plight was greatly exacerbated by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Darwish evokes a bleak landscape in which a whole culture is expected to efface itself:
Why . . . should those whom the waves of forgetfulness have cast upon the shores of Beirut be expected to go against nature? Why should so much amnesia be expected of them? And who can construct for them a new memory with no content other than the broken shadow of a distant life in a shack made of sheet metal?
That the suppression of collective memory and the enforcement of widespread ignorance (through propaganda, impoverishment, sustained violence, or a combination of these) may be stunningly effective tools in the hands of a conqueror or dictator is self-evident. For Ashour, a professor of literature and a citizen of Egypt, where as of 2005 the adult literacy rate was only about sixty percent and the government is a democracy only according to the fiction sustained by those whose interests it serves, the relationship between ignorance and oppression has profound significance. Concerning the role of the Arab novelist in preserving the collective memory, Ashour comments:
[Naguib] Mahfouz, [Emile] Habibi, [Mohamed] Deeb, [Latifa] Zayyat, [Tahir] Wattar, [Abd al-Rahman] Munif, [Ibrahim] Aslan, and [Bahaa] Taher, to name but a few, have directly or indirectly assumed the role of national recorder, half storyteller, half historian . . . To challenge the dominant discourse . . . to attempt to give history visibility and coherence, to conjure up unaccounted-for, marginalized, and silenced areas of the past and the present, this has been my endeavor.
The Arabic word rawaa, meaning "to narrate," also has meanings associated with the drinking of water, and with irrigation. Just as drinking water and irrigating crops are fundamental to existence—to survival—so is the story. At one end of the power hierarchy this is fully appreciated by those who will make every effort to counteract or neutralize the power of narrative. At the other end it is apprehended by those who struggle to maintain their claim on the stories—the histories—that belong to them, and to keep those narratives alive and dynamic. In Arab societies, collective memory as the repository of cultural heritage has always been transmitted orally in part; the oral tradition is, however, concomitant, and to some degree coterminous, with the Arab-Islamic world's long and very rich history of literatures that have evolved over centuries into a striking variety of genres. In recent years, literature for oral performance and transmission has been increasingly restricted to conventional theatrical settings, while literacy has become a prerequisite to empowerment in the developing world, if it is to stand a chance against imperialism and occupation—political, cultural, and otherwise. Thus illiteracy, too, can become a form of privation, a fact of which the underprivileged are not unaware.
The Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri, who grew up in extreme poverty in an environment dominated by violence and starvation, was illiterate until he became an adult. After years of struggling simply to survive, he found that his determination to gain access to the world of those who could not only tell their stories but also tell them to a wide audience—the intellectual world to which the key, he knew, was literacy—overcame any inhibition he might have felt at the prospect of sitting in a classroom with young schoolchildren. Thus at the age of twenty he became a primary school student, not stopping at merely learning his letters, but going on to achieve literary prominence as the author who produced, among other writings, a memoir of his childhood, For Bread Alone. When I think of the fictional Tawaddud and the book she stole out of sheer longing, even though she could not read it, I think also of the real-life Choukri, who overcame staggering obstacles to accomplish what Tawaddud's childhood friend Saïd began during his sojourn in Egypt, but Tawaddud herself never got the chance even to attempt.
In Siraaj, the importance of the spoken word is embodied in the character Ammar, the African slave who once served as personal attendant to the sultan of the island-state where the novel is set, and who is also the long-time friend of Amina—the novel's central character—whom he has known since she was a child. Ammar, himself unlettered, carries a wealth of stories in his head with which he has entertained generations of the island's children. Ammar's character testifies—as do other features of the novel—to the richness of oral tradition. At the same time, the association between the written word and empowerment is clear, for as a rebellion takes shape on the island, the written messages carried by its emissaries are of crucial importance to the strategic advancement of the revolutionaries' plan. The fatal flaw in the plan is a function of the islanders' naïveté in the presence of an unknown enemy with whom they could not have had the knowledge or experience to know how to contend: a condition education might have alleviated, which is precisely why, under an authoritarian sultanate, formal schooling has never been an option for most of them.
Radwa Ashour received her doctorate in African-American Literature in 1975 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she wrote a dissertation entitled "The Search for a Black Poetics: A Study of African-American Critical Writings." She would later publish a book in Arabic on the West African novel. Ashour is not unconcerned with the issue of slavery, but in Siraaj, the condition of oppression that the Africans have in common with the freeborn Arab subjects of the sultan is far more significant than their status as Africans enslaved by Arabs.
In this novel, the fate of the Arabs who are subject to the sultan's rule merges with that of the Africans bound to the plantations or to the palace. Although the Arabs' situation is nominally better than that of the Africans, in that the Arabs are not technically chattels, the two groups nevertheless labor under the yoke of a common oppressor, and the result is a unified front for resistance. This begs the question: in an actual revolution, if the conjoined forces of two such groups did manage to overthrow a tyrant, how would those two groups organize themselves after the successful conclusion of their coup d'état? Would the fact that the revolution was in effect an indigenous one—setting aside in the present fictitious case the Africans' external origins—result in greater cooperation between the parties in building a new society? Would they continue to believe they held a common cause after the removal of the power against which they struggled as brothers and sisters? What, for example, would have happened in Iraq if Saddam Hussein had been ousted without foreign intervention?
It is part of the function of a novel like Siraaj to invoke such questions; it cannot, nor should it necessarily attempt to, answer them. To quote Milan Kundera once more, this time in the context of literature and its function in society:
The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything . . . The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead . . . In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.
These words of Kundera's, spoken in the course of an interview with Philip Roth in the early 1980s, seem prophetic now, as the cacophony of trumped-up, trumpeted certainties that engulfed dissent and led the United States into war with Iraq in 2003 comes to light as the political maneuver it actually was.
Radwa Ashour's novel is similarly apposite, for all that the original Arabic version was published in 1992. In much of the world tyrants impose an iron-fisted rule, and many of them are propped up, overtly or covertly, by the West. Dictators continue to thrive, as the countries they rule stagnate, or are riven by savage conflicts that drive those who can to flee and those who can't, in some cases, to turn to ever more radical and extremist interpretations of religion, politics, or whatever ideology appears to offer them the voice and the empowerment that they are officially or circumstantially denied.
Notwithstanding the warning implicit in Milan Kundera's observations, wherever books may be written, published, and read, the novelist may still serve as one of the most important exponents of social reality. In Egypt, Radwa Ashour joins her voice to those of her contemporaries—whose number includes Sonallah Ibrahim, Bahaa᾿ Taher, Naguib Mahfouz, Latifa Zayyat, Tahir Wattar, Hoda Barakat, Ghassan Kanafani, and Abd al-Rahman Munif, among others—in calling upon Arabs not only to resist foreign coercion, but also to interrogate themselves, their societies, and in particular their leaders. The means to accomplish this rests in recognizing and respecting their own narratives—their stories—and never allowing them to be silenced, or censored out of existence.
Amina is afraid of the sea, but to her heart she pretends otherwise: she gets up before the rooster crows, and begins her day by going down to the beach. She stares through the darkness out to sea and whispers a prayer. After that she makes her way to the port and inquires, "Any news?"
She walks along the path that leads to the hill, then begins her ascent to the high house. She passes by the dungeon and hears the murmurs and muffled voices. She continues the climb to the women's quarters, which are wrapped in silence and the crash of the waves.
By the time she reaches the kitchen courtyard, the darkness has faded and the sky has burst into the colors of sunrise. "Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim," she says, as she hauls out the sacks of flour and commences opening them one after another. Then she begins the process of sifting. The other women don't arrive until after Amina has finished kneading the dough and left it to rise. The women flock to their tasks, while the slaves carry in the daily provisions of fresh-killed meat, baskets of fish, and crates of fruits and vegetables.
After the call to afternoon prayer, Amina knots her handkerchief around two loaves of bread—her day's wages—picks up her bundle, and retraces her steps homeward, grains of flour still clinging to her dress and headscarf. Her body gives off mingled odors of the day's sweat and baked bread. She stops by the port.
She proceeds to the beach, sits down facing the sea . . . and waits.
She had been a lisping child not four feet tall when her grandfather took her with him. It was a night when the full moon cast its light on the men and the sea. Mounted on camels, they made their way along the beach, singing. She was afraid, despite the singing, the moonlight, and her grandfather's strong arm encircling her as she rode before him on the camel. The sea was at ebb tide, and they advanced farther and farther into the wet sand, searching for ambergris. She stared at the moon in alarm, then turned and buried her head in her grandfather's shoulder, and began to cry, begging him to take her back to her mother. Did her heart know, then, and speak to her?
Men go to sea, they go and then they come back . . . they go and then they don't come back, so the women go out to wait for them, their shoulders rigid with fear, furrows of anxiety etched in their faces. Amina saw it all: the women striking their cheeks in lamentation, when they knew for certain, rending their garments, wailing with cries that split the air, cleaving it in two as the executioner's blade cleaves the living head from the body.
They say that the sea is generous; even as she fears its treachery, she never admits her fear, but rather dissimulates, even to her own heart.
Amina awoke and breakfasted on a loaf of bread, three dates, and a draught of water. Then she set out for the high house. As usual, she heard the muezzin give the call to dawn prayer as she was climbing the hill, but contrary to the normal routine, she found the manager, Umm Latif, and Tawaddud receiving the daily provisions from the slaves, who had also arrived early. When Amina began opening the sacks of flour, she noticed that there was more than the usual quantity; then she saw the slaves coming with extra meats and baskets and crates. "Is it Thursday?" On that day the women would prepare foods both more plentiful and more enticing because the Sultan would take a new concubine and it was necessary that the household be submersed in a festive atmosphere and a sense of abundance. But it wasn't Thursday, and what the slaves were bringing in was many times more than the usual quantity, so what could the occasion be?
By daybreak the kitchen courtyard was teeming with women preoccupied with food preparation. Umm Latif announced in her strident voice that the work in the kitchen would go on for two days in a row because the Sultan was to host a great banquet the following day.
Was the Sultan planning to take another wife besides Lady Alia Bint al-Mohsen, his lawful wife who wielded absolute authority in the high house? The Sultan had more than fifty concubines with whom he slept by turns, and God had blessed him with dozens of sons and daughters. Some of them had married and begotten him grandchildren, and some were still infants at the breast. But Lady Alia—by the will of God the most high and powerful—had remained childless, stalking about in her sandals of wood inlaid with gold and jewels, so that hearts trembled with fright and children ran in terror, and none in the high house could breathe freely except when Bint al-Mohsen, bearing lavish gifts and accompanied by her serving women, set out for Yemen to visit her father. But she was never away for more than a month, after which she would return to spread gloom and fear wherever she went in her fancy sandals. An austere and coldhearted woman she was, who never smiled—had the hardness of her heart spread to her entrails, turning them to stony ground in which no seed could take root, or had her heart turned to stone from grief over the absence of offspring? Amina pondered as she stood before the fire flattening the loaves. The absence of children wouldn't harden a tender heart. Ammar used to hide lumps of sugar in his pocket for Saïd—Ammar, cut off like a tree limb, fatherless, motherless, wifeless, and childless, yet for all that, he spread as the branches of jasmine spread over the walls of the houses, telling the children stories that they would then demand from their mothers at bedtime: "We want one of Ammar's stories"—the same stories he had told Amina when she was a child.
"Tell me a story, Ammar . . ."
"The story of the frog who married two wives and took to croaking his complaints all night long, or the story of the box in which the children collected stars?"
"The story of the sun and the moon."
Ammar told her the story, and Amina laughed, clutching the hem of his jilbaab to keep him from leaving her.
"I must return to the palace, Amina."
"I'll let you go after you tell me the story of the box of stars."
So he would tell her the story and then go to work.
"The absence of children wouldn't harden a tender heart," murmured Amina as she attended to her baking.
After the dusk prayer, the women stopped working and sat down to eat: a loaf for each and a few dates. One of them asked the manager, "What do you say, Umm Latif, what's the occasion for this banquet?"
Umm Latif dodged the question, though she was bursting with the secret of what the women wanted to know.
"Is the Sultan going to take a new wife?"
Umm Latif leapt to her feet as if Bint al-Mohsen had startled her with an unexpected appearance. Her heavy body shaking with agitation, she shouted a rebuke, "You crazy fool, I'll cut out your tongue if I ever hear you speak like that again! Lady Alia is the daughter of a sultan, and mistress of the island, so how could the Sultan take another wife?"
"So what's the occasion, then?"
"Distinguished guests are to visit the island."
"Is the Sultan of Zanzibar coming to visit us?"
"Is Lady Alia's father coming from Yemen?"
"Has a prince of Oman asked for the hand of one of the Sultan's daughters?"
The women's questions rained down upon Umm Latif as they clustered around her, but she said nothing, only rose heavily to her feet and went to the toilet. She returned with a supercilious, all-knowing smile, and sat down in silence, although her eyes never left the women's faces, as she waited for them to resume their talk. But the women, plainly exhausted, lay down and gave themselves up to fatigue. Then Umm Latif could not bear to wait any longer, and she announced in a voice she tried to keep to a whisper, but which rang like a bell, "Tomorrow the queen of the English is coming to the island."
The women who had lain down but not yet succumbed to sleep got up again, while the others adjusted their positions in order to hear better.
"That's right, the queen of the English!"
"Does a woman rule the English, then?"
"A woman rules them. Such are foreigners: with them everything is upside-down!"
Tawaddud said, smiling mischievously, "Everything is upside-down with them: they wear their sandals like gloves and walk on their hands!"
"Good heavens!" exclaimed a woman in astonishment. Tawaddud laughed.
Umm Latif whispered, as if she was revealing a vital secret, "The queen of the English will come with her husband, but her husband is not the king; he's only the queen's husband."
"There is no god but God!"2
"And can the queen buy slaves?"
"Of course she can."
"Is she allowed to sleep with them?"
At this point Umm Latif was brought up short, for the question perplexed her, like a riddle without a solution. She made no reply.
Tawaddud said, "If it were permitted by English law for the queen to sleep with her slaves with impunity, then there would be no doubt that the children were hers—right, Umm Latif?"
Umm Latif kept silent until Amina's question came to her like a lifeline.
"When will the ship arrive, Umm Latif?"
"Tomorrow after the noon prayer—that's what Lady Alia says."
Amina was not concerned with the women's talk, or with the solution to Umm Latif's riddle. Her heart was quivering with hope, for who could tell, perhaps the crew of the queen's ship had seen him, or perhaps he would return with them. Would he return with them? Amina spent a sleepless night thinking about a ship at anchor from which gazed Saïd's face, like the moon.
In the morning the kitchen courtyard was filled with women already busy with preparations for the banquet. They were mixing rice, spices, raisins, and almonds, stuffing lambs, cleaning and frying fish, and preparing vegetables for stewing. The Sultan's women came to assemble luscious concoctions the secrets of whose preparation none but they knew. The Circassians, the Ethiopians, and the Byzantines—each group withdrew to a corner to prepare dishes with which to dazzle their peers and prove the superiority of their race.
Then Alia Bint al-Mohsen appeared, and walked around the courtyard scrutinizing the work, giving instructions and orders. The Sultan's women were frightened of her, concealing their hatred behind friendly smiles and greetings, while Umm Latif followed her around, out of breath, repeating over and over, "As you wish, my Lady," and "Your wish is my command," and "You command and we obey, oh jewel of the island and saint of its blessing." No sooner had Bint al-Mohsen left the courtyard than Umm Latif rushed to the toilet, where she stayed until it seemed she would take up residence there.
Tawaddud laughed, and leaned toward Amina, whispering, "Bint al-Mohsen is as tall as a palm and Umm Latif follows her around, so short she's hardly any taller even when she stands up! Poor Umm Latif!"
"Tawaddud, will you come with me to ask the English sailors about Saïd?"
As soon as Amina finished her work, she requested permission from Umm Latif for herself and Tawaddud to leave.
The manager objected, saying that there was "no time and no reason to leave." She made a tour of the courtyard, attending to the work. Then she came back and said, "Go, Amina—perhaps you'll hear good news . . . God is generous. Go with her, Tawaddud."
On their way, Amina and Tawaddud heard the reports of the cannons, which were usually fired only twice a year, on the night of the Lesser Feast and on the night of the Great Feast. Hoping it was a good omen, the two continued on their way down the hill, until they caught sight of the tumultuous crowd and, at the entrance to the port, the men whose job it was to greet important guests by blowing brass horns and beating drums that were suspended from their necks.
Then the queen appeared: a stout woman wearing a gown that left part of her bosom exposed, defined her waist, and—below the waist—spread voluminously in stiff, heavy folds, like a tent set up to accommodate several people. Her delicate features were all but submerged in the round face that seemed to rise directly from her shoulders as if she had no neck. There was a crown on her head, a necklace round her neck, earrings in her ears, rings on her fingers, bracelets on her wrists—all diamonds sparkling and glittering in the noonday sun. The queen proceeded slowly and deliberately; the Sultan walked with her, and beside her massive form he appeared slight and insubstantial. He was wearing a white jilbaab and an embroidered abaya, with a turban on his head. Following them were white men in uniforms that looked like the attire of navy captains.
The Sultan accompanied his guest to the center of the square, where there was a large model of a scale. The queen climbed into one of the pans. Amina wondered at the customs of the English, who would weigh their queen thus in a public square. She turned to Tawaddud, and whispered in disbelief, "Are they doing that so as to find out how much weight she'll put on in our country?"
Slaves approached the scale and began to fill its other pan with ingots of gold.
Tawaddud exclaimed, "The Sultan wants to honor the queen with a gift of her own weight in gold!"
A man standing near her commented, "But she's so fat that it will be the ruination of him!"
Tawaddud replied with an ironic smile, "Not to mention all the clothes and jewels she's wearing, which must weigh a good many rotls!"
"Heavens!" Amina murmured. "Oh, the ways of the wealthy are odd."
The queen got down from the scale and shook hands with the Sultan. The procession moved toward the castle amidst the hubbub of the crowd, the drumbeats, and the blasts of the horns. Tawaddud went to get Hafez to help them find someone who spoke English, to make inquiries with the English sailors. Amina sat down to wait until Tawaddud returned with Hafez and an interpreter, and then they all set off to look for the sailors.
"A fourteen-year-old boy named Saïd, son of Abdullah and Amina. Brown skin, curly hair, green eyes, and an old scar under his right eyebrow. He was wearing a white jilbaab and was guarded by an amulet half the size of my palm."
"His name is Saïd, his father is Abdullah the pearl diver, and his mother is Amina the baker."
It grew dark outside as Amina, Tawaddud, and Hafez followed the youth who spoke the language of the English, and who repeated the same words time after time for the ears of the sailors who had come on the queen's ship. They listened, and shook their heads, "No."