Like many wonderful short story writers, Rifaat works with a light touch, keeping herself modestly out of her work to let her characters emerge fully into view as believably autonomous. She tells brief tales from a wide range of perspectives: unmonied, wealthy, elderly, young, woman, man, struggling, comfortable. But perhaps most protagonists are middle aged women.
Superficially the stories are simple, but they gave me a glance of deep, ineffable complexities of desire and motivation. Women hide their passionate longings for sexual fulfilment and wider opportunities; whether they are thwarted by selfish, heartless husbands, social conventions or their own inhibitions.
The protagonist in Bahiyya’s Eyes weeps that she was born a girl, blaming the practice of female circumcision and her arranged marriage for her unhappy life. But a young woman who made a love marriage fares no better as her man is unfaithful and funds his smoking and drinking on her wages without offering love or help to her.
In another story a man persuades himself not to feel for his father until a sympathetic community gives permission for the expression of grief at his death. Though this idea isn’t made explicit, it suggests how masculine toughness and stolidity is culturally instilled and maintained. The painful consequences are made clear.
My World of the Unknown is perhaps the most idiosyncratic piece. Highly erotic, it’s told from the viewpoint of a woman in a harmonious marriage who moves to an old house in a small town, where she unexpectedly has a passionate affair with a female djinn, who tells her, as does the sheik who comes to exorcise the building, that their contact is sanctioned and watched over by Allah. When the human woman objects that ‘but it is natural for you to be a man’ the djinn replies ‘perfect beauty is found only in woman’.
Prayer and devotion are important to most of Rifaat’s folks. In one of the most touching stories, The Kite, an uneducated, poor widow kisses her hand to give thanks to god, unable to perform her prayers in the prescribed way without guidance.
I can’t recommend this edition, translated by this fellow, Denys Johnson-Davies, because of his grotesquely patronising orientalist introduction, which says things like ‘her reading has been restricted to Arab writers…’ and that while she speaks for women’s rights, ‘Rifaat’s revolt is merely against certain man-made interpretations [of Islam]’, in contrast to ‘the women writers of Beirut’ whose ‘Arab form of women’s lib. is inspired by its Western counterpart’. What this entails is left for the reader to assume, given our superior Western understanding and access to the great(!) Western tradition of describing and interpreting Islam and Muslim societies(!!!!)
He does drop a hint though: ‘For her there is nothing romantic about adultery: it is, quite simply, a sin’. So ‘Western women’s lib.’ is about promoting and romanticising adultery, perhaps. I’m not sure, at this point, if this admirer and champion(!!!) of Rifaat is actually making an antifeminist point. In any case, it totally belies the complexity and richness of Rifaat’s handling of love and sex in her stories. I don’t recognise Johnson-Davies description of her work at all. But perhaps in 1983 it was inconceivable to him, as to many Western women’s libbers(!) that a practicing Muslim could actually be a feminist.