Books · Colonisation · Political

Carrying the Keys

The Woman from TantouraThe Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This narrative opens with a gloriously ambiguous, searingly romantic image that heralds a lyrical portrait of life in the narrator’s idyllic home town on the Palestinian coast. The seeds of a story are sown and I joyfully anticipate a woman-centred tale of love, tradition and modernity set in this paradise and told in the voice of a poet. By whetting our appetite for this tale, by showing that it would be worth the telling as well as worth the living, Ashour imparts bitter anguish and loss when that future is torn away by the Nakba. That the witness and victim whose eyes we peer through on the Catastrophe is a fourteen year old girl allows the full emotional impact of destroyed hopes to crash into my heart, while the more gruesome facts, the historical facts, that the people of the town were turned out of their houses by soldiers who stole valuables, lined men up and slaughtered them, are numbly reported, too impossibly horrific to be conveyed by adjectives.

I found the realism of Ruqayya’s narrative breathtaking, and caught myself constantly forgetting that it is fiction. Part of what gives it the fire of truth is the reality of the events that shape it, never as a backdrop, but as hubs and spokes of relationships and hooks and poles of the warp and weft of daily life where Ashour maintains her foci. Realism is also created through Ruqqaya’s patchy, selective recall, which so exactly resembles geniune memoir. However, this apparently simple, though brilliantly deployed and effective device, is counterpointed and complicated by stylistic and structural complexity.

For example, without warning, only a few pages into the novel, we are with Ruqayya as a grandmother, telling stories and describing an annual gathering, in a lucid, conversational style distinct from the sonorous, charged sections of recall. In this scene, she also abruptly answers several of the broad questions about her own future that the initial scenes, particularly the funny and touching recollection of her mother’s fears, had set me wondering about. Narrative convention led me to expect a measured, ponderous unfolding of these plot points; but this is not allowed to happen, the plot is severed by the occupation like lives and limbs.

In my opinion, the power of this work is that Ashour refuses the occupation – she insistently draws us (not uncritically) back to life, to the gendered spaces of domesticity, to an inner world of contemplation. There is a passage of description of the sun setting over the sea in Tantoura at the start of the novel that is extraordinarily gorgeous and original, where Ruqayya reads and paints the landscape full of ambivalence, creating a shimmering, fragmentary surface that reflects the agitation of the novel’s timeline and subject, but also itself forms a break in the flow of the plot as dictated by the violent agenda of an occupying force. This fiercely beautiful interlude underlines the endurance of nature and Palestinians’ relationships with the land. The text itself, like the reiteration of memory, is an act of resistance. Indeed, telling the ‘female’ perspective is resistance, since the social domain embodies and reproduces that which is worth fighting for in the right of return. I was reminded of this video of Rafeef Ziadeh speaking her poem ‘we teach life, sir’

Presenting her novel as a memoir unwillingly written by an intelligent but not highly educated woman whose violently exiled life contains, alongside unspeakable suffering and grief, many joys and countless acts of love, care, friendship, generosity, Ashour blazingly illuminates the will to endure and live above and beyond the misery of waiting, above and beyond survival. She questions the emotional truth of Homer’s account of Penelope waiting for Odysseus – nobody, she declares, would undo the work of social reproduction painstakingly woven. The fruits of her own labours are dazzling; she somehow raises three brilliant, idiosyncratic sons and then a daughter who startles her constantly with her intelligence and maturity. I could not hold back my tears at the close of this vivid portrait of a life that cannot be occupied by hatred and death, that is outlined in love and defiant hope like a glittering constellation, lighting the way home.

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