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Rana Haddad’s debut novel shows a feminist literary voice from West Asia

By September 24, 2018No Comments

Source : Business Standard Weekend  –   Hasan Suroor

Some have likened the novel’s plot twists to a Shakespearean comedy but Indian readers may find this story of lost-and-found siblings and family feuds closer to Bollywood

Two years ago, as winter approached, Oset Babur, a Turkish-American writer, started to think what her friends might like to read over the Christmas holidays. After considering some popular titles, it occurred to her that instead of recommending familiar western writers how about trying out something different — something “about a region that you probably can’t get to so easily”. Female West Asian authors, for example? She settled on five writers who, she wrote in her blog, “will transport you to exciting new places and entrance you with characters you’ll feel like you’ve known your whole life”.

They included Elif Shafak (Turkey); Azar Nafisi (Iran); and Basma Abdel Aziz, Nawal El Sadawy, and Yasmine el Rashidi — all from Egypt.

To which one can add many more — Ahdaf Soueif, Sahar Khalifeh, Mona Eltahawy, Hanan Al-Shaykh and Ghadah Al-Samman. And these are only those who write in English or whose have been translated into English.

The latest to join the club is UK-based whose debut novel, The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, has been praised for its quirkiness and humour. Like most first novels, it’s strongly autobiographical. Haddad is of mixed parentage (half-Dutch, half-Syrian), and so is her main character Dunya Noor (daughter of a Syrian father and an English mother), who like her creator grew up in Syria before moving to Britain in her teens.

This forms the backdrop to the novel: what it’s like to be caught up between two very different cultures and the psychological effect of living under an authoritarian regime. It’s set in the 1980s Syria ruled by a “moustachioed military dictator with an abnormally large head”, Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar Assad.

At the centre of this burlesque tale is a rebellious teenager, Dunya, and her coming-of- age experiences as she picks her way through a cultural and political minefield. Her “unexpected love objects” of the title include an old camera, which she uses to create a world of her own; her dreamy astronomer boyfriend Hilal who has his own escape route from real life — his telescope; and Suha, a guitar-playing singer, who dresses up as a man — moustache and all — to explore the freedoms that she is denied as a woman in a deeply conservative patriarchal society.

Dunya’s first act of rebellion happens at the age of 13 when she refuses to join a school-sponsored march in support of the ruling party in defiance of head teacher’s instructions. “You will be crucified for this, Dunya Noor. You watch,” she’s told. Fearing for her future, her parents pack her off to England to live with her maternal grandmother. There she meets and falls in love with Hilal, son of a modest tailor from Aleppo, and they decide to return to Syria where they’re caught up in a series of dramatic events revealing the dark underbelly of a repressive state.

Arab critics have praised Haddad’s playful portrayal of life under the Assad dictatorship. Some have likened its unexpected coincidences and plot twists to a Shakespearean comedy but Indian readers may find this story of lost-and-found siblings, mistaken identities and family feuds closer to Bollywood.

There’s no single theme here, and Haddad tries to push through too many things at the same time — love, individual freedom, feminism, culture clash, class divide, opportunistic compromises, dictatorship . The result is a jumbled up story that sometimes strains credulity, especially the second part where her attempted play at magic realism descends into mindless horseplay. She has described Salman Rushdie as among her literary influences, but let’s not confuse this with anything remotely Rushdie-ian.

Oset Babur settled on five writers who, she wrote in her blog, ‘will transport you to exciting new places and entrance you with characters you’ll feel like you’ve known your whole life’

Some might accuse her of cashing in on the Syrian crisis but he has said she set out to write it “many years” ago; so it’s probably a coincidence that it has come out now. Yet, timing is important and one doubts if it would have got this sort of attention at any other time.

Meanwhile, there are some brilliant West Asian women writers who remain unknown outside their own countries or region because their works are not available in English.

Until the 1980s, even male Arabic writers suffered from “invisibility” because they were not translated in America and Britain. A New York publisher explaining the reason for this famously told Edward Said when he recommended to him certain Arabic titles for translation and publication that “Arabic is a controversial language”. It was not until the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988 that Arabic became kosher for western publishers; and since then, of course, a number of them have been published in the West.

The first Arab woman writer to make the grade in the English-speaking world was also an Egyptian: Nawal el Saadawi with her book, The Hidden Face of Eve, a work of non-fiction. It was translated into English in 1980 and became an instant hit. It was followed by a novel, Woman at Point Zero. Her success created interest in other Arab women writers, and today they are part of a growing niche market across the world. Some American universities are even funding research on them in order to get a better understanding of Arab culture through their writings and counter media stereotypes.

So, it’s a good time to be a female Arab writer. And Haddad is in the right place at the right time.

The reviewer is a UK-based journalist



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