This is my second Ashour and takes its place beside The Woman from Tantoura as one of my favourite books. Once again, the author deals with tantalising and difficult material with poetic and thematic subtlety and affectionate warmth for her characters.
It opens with a woman’s ghost, naked and free, walking towards Abu Jaafar. This man we know first by his vision and second through the brief flashback of his young assistant, a refugee taken in and apprenticed by the elderly book-maker. Abu Jaafar goes out to hear the news on the streets of Albaicin, a Muslim neighbourhood of Granada, where he hears rumours and, days later, the town crier, all in this flowing sequence than unfurls like a banner, carrying us deep, deep, deep into the world of this history, as if we are diving, diving, diving through air, seeing the land and all its spirits spread around, rising towards us, details blooming one by one from the background, literary sorcery.
I would like to humbly suggest that Radwa Ashour creates in this novel a vision of Al-Andalus, Muslim-Arab Spain, as a radically open society. The Muslim-Arab population of Granada is living under Castillian occupation and increasingly draconian Catholic rule. Their rights to freedom of religion, association and property, initially upheld, are soon revoked and they are presented with the choice of conversion or exile. Those who stay and pretend to convert are ruthlessly persecuted for displaying any sign of their identity as Arab or Muslim, books are confiscated and burned, the bathhouses are closed (the Castilians, it seems, do not bathe). It is a genocide. So, what do I mean by open?
I mean that among the Muslim people, nothing is felt to be prescribed or prohibited. If I had been in the habit of considering religious practice as a combination of these two aspects, I can see from Ashour’s Granada that this conception is inadequate. I do not consider the society ‘permissive’ since permission is given by authority, rather the mode is affirmative; tradition and custom are structures that affirm and provide vehicles for personal freedom under occupation, and deviations from discernable norms transgress only occupier ideology and regulation.
The occupiers prescribe Catholic practice and prohibit Muslim/Arab traditions, but the identity of the people is intact, is maintained in their hearts. Anxious Hasan, trying to persuade his friend Saad not to join the bands of freedom fighters in the mountains, produces a fatwa he has obtained from Morocco that it is allowed to pretend to be a Christian and give every outward show of it ‘if they force you to insult the Prophet, do so with the devil in your mind’. The Muslims lead a double life, one language and religion outdoors, and another in the (increasingly invaded and policed) private spaces of the home and in the mind and heart. Thus, freedom is the inner space and the local and wider faith community (they have hopes of support from North Africa and Ottoman Turkey, and many flee across the sea to Fez, leaving the land of many generations of their families). Hasan is arguing that it is not necessary to risk one’s life fighting for freedom since it is preserved in this inner space Saad’s reply is illuminating: ‘this is a fatwa about something else’. He hears no prohibition in the sheikh’s words against his choice to fight, just as Hasan is soothed in his own commitment to protect his family by affecting to follow the edicts of the Castilians.
Hasan’s behaviour is treated with authorial understanding, but, I think, subtle criticism. The society of Albaicin is non-materialistic from my perspective. People delight in the beauty of objects, but this relationship is not a proprietary one: it is about memory, identity and sensation as pleasure. This is evident in at least three cases, firstly with the books Abu Jaafar makes and his granddaughter buys, which are clearly aesthetic objects as well as revered carriers of knowledge and culture. Secondly, there is Maryama’s chest, an ancient object treasured by generations of her family for its artistry and utility. Thirdly, there is Abu Mansour’s bathhouse, a labour of love for his ancestors and himself, deeply tied to his sense of self, his place in his historical family and his living community. Hasan’s employers from Valencia are different; they are wealthy and concerned with preserving their status. When Hasan comes to agree with them that the freedom fighters are a hindrance to Arab prosperity and safety, I feel that Ashour has gently placed him on the other side to her own allegiance. On two occasions the narrative suggests that there is no finer gift than a dance.
The radical openness/affirmation I discern is most interestingly explored in the character of Saleema, Abu Jaafar’s granddaughter. She is extremely intelligent, disposed to academic study and strong willed. After marrying and devastated by the death of a child, she devotes her time to the study of medical science, brewing medicines and tonics, testing them, drawing on folk wisdom as well as the renowned works of Avicenna and other stars of the field from the Muslim/Arab worlds. This both-and open-mindedness is mirrored by the acceptance of her involvement by the fields themselves, particularly the local community which values her work. Saleema’s mother, Umm Hasan, is highly critical of her daughter’s preoccupations and condemns her for abandoning her husband and her gender role, but there is no suggestion that religious framing underlies this attack (and Umm Hasan is generally cast as a difficult, censorious person). When at the end of the novel Saleema compares people to books and considers herself as a text, it is as if the open literary and scientific tradition she has steeped herself in welcomes her as a star in its firmament, riding Ashour’s writing of her into eternity.
If Ashour affirms Saleema’s academic intelligence, she is no less energetic in her praise of the more practical genius of her sister-in-law Maryama, whose inspiration and vivacity are ‘famous’ in the community and often save the day. Umm Hasan is dissatisfied with her daughter-in-law, but Ashour endows her with the crucial quality of generous compassion as well as cleverness, capacity for affection and homemaking skills making her unassailable as one of the warmest places in the novel’s heart.
Faith under pressure is a key theme from the beginning, and its centre is Umm Jaafar, who must bear the pressure of Abu Jaafar’s loss of faith as well as the weight of occupation and her place as a pillar of peace and faith in her family and community. Maryama to some extent takes on her role, or at least takes the weight off her, and it is through Maryama that Ashour points out that Islam contains a loving and affirmative narrative of christ as a prophet of god. In the church services they are forced to attend, the ‘converts’ are connecting with a tiny, potentially consoling part of their true faith. Islam is thus presented again as a larger, more accommodating space, capable of peaceful coexistence with other faiths, in contrast to the Castilians’ inflexible, restrictive and invasive religious governance.
My favourite theme of all is the decolonial one, begun when Columbus and his crowd parade their plunder from the ‘new world’ including captured natives, through the streets of Granada. Saleema is only eight years old, but she rationally rejects the premises of imperialism: ‘it’s not a new world, just a different one’ and the entire crowd is left depressed and haunted by the sight of chained prisoners in the parade. Naeem, one of the trio of men at the centre of the story, is so struck by the sight of a young girl in chains in the parade that he cannot think of any other woman. Amazingly, Ashour later has him travel across the Atlantic with his Castilian employer, and meet another native woman, with whom he exchanges love and gifts, she of language, he of a dance. Indeed, nothing could be finer.