Most of It: Andrew Madigan on So That You Can Know Me: An Anthology of Pakistani Women Writers

So That You Can Know Me: An Anthology of Pakistani Women Writers, Eds. Yasmin Hammed & Asif Aslam Farrakhi, Garnet

So That You Can Know Me: the title says it all, or rather most of it. The stories in this collection betray a self-conscious and, at times, a relentless wish to make themselves heard and understood. Most of the selections describe a society–a husband, a teacher, a superior–that doesn’t want to listen. The stories are small, intimate and local, things whispered across the kitchen table. Featuring translations from Punjabi, Pushto, Urdu, Sindhi and Seraiki, this book was published in cooperation with UNESCO in their “Collection of Representative Literary Works.” According to the UNESCO website, this series was launched in 1948 as the result of a recommendation by the UN General Assembly at its first meeting two years earlier. Its mission is to “encourage and facilitate translation of the great works of different countries into the languages that are most widely spoken. It hopes in this way to contribute to mutual understanding between peoples…” (1).

What ties these stories together, aside from gender and nationality? First, the natural world is ubiquitous; the pages are filled with images of plants, animals and farming. Two, the focus is on simple village life. There are no computer programmers or graphic designers here; no one drives a car or pays $5 for a coffee. Third, much of the action is set in the home, which recalls the 19th-century domestic romance of European and American literature.

The fourth and most significant common thread is that that, in so many of these stories, the main character has an intense feeling of isolation, alienation and despair. She, or sometimes he, is suffocating in a rigid community that allows no deviation from the common path. The people are actors who must speak every line as scripted; ad libs and improvisation are forbidden. They live in a solipsistic world of anger, confusion and fear. Moreover, the characters’ inner world has a sharp affect on the style and structure of the stories. The writing often reads more like a lyric poem than short fiction. The narrative arcs tend to flat-line: there is often no beginning, middle and end; no rising and falling action. There doesn’t tend to be much dialogue. Instead, the writers concentrate on first-person narration and interior monologue with an emphasis on the main characters’ emotional, psychological and spiritual conflicts.

These characters find themselves in predicaments similar to those of early modernism. Take “The Poison of Loneliness” by Musarrat Kalanchvi (the title alone evokes the movement’s existential dread):

He knew that he was searching for something. His feelings were innocent and his sentiments pure. He had a simple heart full of longing. In spite of so many possessions he was marooned by a sense of deprivation. A moment of sadness engulfed his whole being. Immersed in a sea of loneliness he felt himself drowning. Something was choking him; he could not comprehend this feeling. He could not resist letting out a loud cry and this cry shook everything around him. He felt as if his blazing tears and sighs were burning everything… (16)

Like Jakes Barnes, like Vladimir and Estragon, this character is searching for something that will not be found. In “The Cow” Firdous Haider offers another Godot-like passage: “She kept on waiting. But everything was still; loneliness and restlessness persisted” (39). There is no anomie in his society, however, no devaluation of values, no lack of consensus regarding God, meaning, purpose. There is faith in the possibility of faith. In this story, and others, the crisis of modernism has been inverted. The main character has changed while society remains the same. In this sense, many of the characters in this collection are related to Sarty, the sometime-narrator of Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” who has evolved far beyond his parochial surroundings. He is the catalyst for change in a place of stasis, tradition and normalcy. The wasteland is not out in the world, but rather inside the character himself.

The greatest strength of this collection lies in the small significant details, the concrete images that, like shadows in a Platonic cave, allow fiction to pass for reality. In “The Magic Flower,” for example, Parveen Malik describes a destitute mother cutting wheat with a sickle. Her infant daughter lies under a tree in a knapsack. The mother “gave her a grain of opium to ensure the child would sleep” (27).

The preponderance of local color is also one of the book’s flaws. Many of the pieces seem to have been chosen because they tell, or seem to tell, the story of real, ordinary, downtrodden Pakistani women; quality, sophistication, variety and originality don’t seem to have been the primary criteria. The stories are meant to be representative, which is consistent with UNESCO’s mission statement, though only the underclass is genuinely represented. The opening line of “The Magic Flower” summarizes the collection: “Sakina was born into an extremely poor family” (27). “Descent” is similarly bleak and straightforward about the country’s economic conditions: “Their good looks had gone: poverty had snatched what little charm youth had lent” (Mumtaz Shirin, 54).

There are a few middle-class professionals here, but their stories are nearly identical to those of the poverty-stricken characters from the rest of the collection. “Paper Money” is about a writer, but he lives in a haunted house near a banana grove. We don’t learn about writing, writers, the literary community or the educated classes; he could have been a fruit vendor or a bicycle repairman. One of the stories is set in England, but the writer makes it feel like a Pakistani village: “Seated in that Birmingham apartment, Sikandar and Hirnam Singh talked for hours about crops, oxen and milk-producing buffaloes” (Bano Qudsia, “Many Faces of Truth,” 158). Pakistan is largely a poor, rural country, but that’s only one part of the story; it would have been nice to hear the others.

The characters, incidents and concerns, within these fictions, are quite familiar, expected, sometimes stereotypical. Fathers, husbands, teachers–and sometimes women–are cruel and bloodthirsty, while the women, children and servants are victimized. The search for peace, happiness and money is a common theme. The search is invariably futile, but for some the implausible dream is its own reward. In “The Coach,” for instance, the main character is mesmerized by a magazine picture of a magnificent carriage in front of a golden palace. He “lost himself in the beauty and glitter of the wheels” (Nilofar Iqbal, 23). The image is briefly comforting, though soon he will return to a father who beats him to the verge of death.

There are moments of innovation, quick excursions into fantasy, surrealism, stream-of-consciousness. On the whole, though, there is a sameness. Some of the pieces are only sketches while others are short stories in the commonly accepted sense. The plight of the disenfranchised is often handled with nuance and skill, but the collection would be more engaging and vibrant if the writing displayed a greater variety of themes, characters and settings. The work in So That You Can Know Me often fails to distinguish itself from other post-colonial traditions, especially those of the Subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf. The stories in The Literature of Modern Arabia (Ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, 1988) come to mind. The settings are often vivid and textured, but only in a localized sense: we can visualize the community but we rarely get the sense of a particular city or country.

The first story, “Munni Bibi Goes to the Fair,” owes a great deal to Joyce’s “Araby.” A young girl dreams of going to the local fair, but when she finally gets there she finds nothing but darkness and disappointment. The story ends with violence and disillusionment. This appropriation of Joyce shows us that the writers aren’t mere village innocents, despite what the stories themselves might suggest, but rather astute modern women who live in a country that isn’t entirely modern. Live might be the wrong verb. It isn’t clear whether the authors live in Pakistan, are from Pakistan, or are of Pakistani descent. It would have been useful if the editor had included an Introduction in order to provide a framework within which to better understand the stories.

In any event, the allusion to “Araby,” and other inter-textual references, tells us that the writers are familiar with the Western canon, which they’ve adapted to their own experience, something writers from all cultures have done and continue to do. At the turn of the 19th century, American authors such as Charles Brockden Brown and William Hill Brown were struggling to shape a distinctly national literature that was separate from its Europe and England antecedents, but they found themselves continually shoved back towards their influences. The result was a series of novels that weren’t independent or separate, but rather dialectic and interconnected: a dialogue with Continental fiction, a nasty argument with the English novel. The writers in this collection have found themselves in the same place.

So That You Can Know Me is, at times, amateurish, derivative and melodramatic. The prose is occasionally stilted as well, but perhaps these are only small crimes. The stories are filled with promise and passion, and the small significant details are sometimes impeccable. This collection is a welcome change of pace from what you find in American literary journals–tales of air-conditioned ennui, the fiction of comfort, works of suburban disgruntlement–that have been polished so vigorously, by teams of highly-trained workshop professionals, that you forget how dull they really are.

Work Cited
UNESCO. “UNESCO Collection of Representative Literary Works.” 30 September 1955. 10 September 2009

Imaginary Landscapes: The Village and the Desert in Egyptian novels, Ahmad Saidullah

Tales from Dayrut by Mohamed Mustagab001

Mohamed Mustagab. Tales from Dayrut. Translated by Humphrey Davies.
Cairo and New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2008. 204 pages.

gazelle tracks

Miral Al-Tahawy. Gazelle Tracks. Translated by Anthony Calderbank, Garnet Publishing, 2008. 94 pages.

  1. The Village

Cities, villages and deserts form the landscapes of the Egyptian literary imagination. The novel, which emerged in Egypt after the Napoleonic conquest in 1798, locates the tension between the traditional and the modern in these contested terrains.

In his essay on embargoed literature, the Palestinian thinker Edward Said noted with regret that Naguib Mahfouz was one of the few Arab writers known to the west, largely for his Cairo trilogy. Unlike Mahfouz, who spurned an academic post for a lifetime of bureaucracy, Mohamed Mustagab was born in Dayrut al-Sharif, a village in the Upper Nile Delta, and had little formal schooling. Despite his disadvantages, he became general director of the Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo.

Mustagab belongs to the sixties generation of writers who broke with the patrician literary traditions of Mahfouzian Cairo. Typically, these writers’ canvases were villages in the Nile delta, not cities, teeming with peasants looking for work. The Dayrut that is recreated in Mustagab’s fiction overturns the romanticized nativism of the earliest Egyptian countryside novels of Yusuf Idris and Haqqi (Idris is cited in one story). Gone is the ornate “fusha” of Ottoman-period writers replaced by a leaner, sparer prose that emits sparks of violence, deadpan irony and humour.

The grand themes of justice and the destinies of generations of old families in the face of change have also withered away. Salamah Musa’s Fabianism that had influenced Mahfouz’s generation did not appeal to the younger writers. The 1919 revolution, Nasser’s stillborn pan-Arab socialism, the 1967 defeat, and Sadat’s compromises marked Egyptian writings of that period, including Mustagab’s and El-Bisatie’s works, with a sense of the unreal and the absurd that was influenced by European existentialist, absurdist and surrealist writings and by the nouveau roman.

In Mustagab’s excellent Tales from Dayrut, a collection of fourteen stories and a novella, any attempt to impose order or bureaucracy results in chaos, a natural order of things which is unsettling but also, at times, humorous. In “Bughayli Bridge,” a police officer’s search for a murder weapon in Dayruti Canal leads to unending discoveries of various skeletons and body parts that result in wild scenes. An elderly man stops and requests that they search for his five children. The behaviour of the chorus of spectators leads the police, frustrated and rapidly losing control, to abandon the crime scene, but not before the bridge collapses and the spectators fall into the water.

“The water of the canal filled with wheat stalks, turmoil, sycomore-fig branches, divers, peasant caps, arms, legs, timbers from the boat, and weeds from the bottom of the bridge. The spume scattered by the raging waves took on a bloody colour, like that of wisdom.”

The inevitability of an order, that overpowers human laws and individual identity, and repeats itself indefinitely is exemplified in the folkloric telling of “Horseman Adore Perfumes.” In this story without an ending, three generations of riders meet their deaths at the hands of the enchantress, with identical re-enactments of the quest and funeral rites. In another tale, a man is squashed like a bug

Clan feuds, as in “The Battle of the Camel,” which also seem to exist above the law, are narrated baldly without mercy or explanation, as if to suggest a commonplace occurrence in the village, a ritual rural order. Mustagab invokes assassinations and kidnappings as part of Dayrut’s ineluctable code of follies but in “A Woman,” there is courage and humour. The beautiful Mrs. N who “suffers from conspicuous desire for unbuttonedness” manages to thwart her assassin through a stunning reversal from her rooftop.

In “The Edge of the Day,” Mustagab’s scene-setting is done through an exhaustive catalogue of details in which every human action is described simultaneously with the accompaniment of different events in nature, however infinitesimal, ranging from grass, leaves, birds to beetles. The effect of conveying a simple act through such minute parallels is alienating, and imbues the ordinary with an enlarged perspective that does not fit within the reader’s scope. We are left grasping for meaning.

The most daring of Mustagab’s stories is “The J-B-Rs.”  Told in the form of a hadith, it narrates the parables of the Great Jabir whose last words the superstitious villagers rush to obey. He changes his deathbed instructions from “get a camel” to “get a mule” with devastating and hilarious effect to his final wish, “get a pig.”

In other stories, Mustagab uses footnotes and gazette entries about Dayrut for effect. In “The Offering,” the village, again, is the protagonist. The inhabitants have lost their powers of speech and develop a language of gestures and percussion which they use at weddings and ceremonies. They adapt and become prosperous using their skills until another disorder overtakes them.

Mustagab’s setpiece is a novella, “The Secret Life of Nu‘man Abd Al-Hafiz,” which won the State Incentive Prize in 1984, and was named among the top hundred books in the Arab world of the twentieth century. Although the novella does not have a specific name in Arabic, the well-established form, supposedly the oldest in the region, is usually picaresque, with an anti-hero as the protagonist. Nu‘man’s birth, circumcision, his engorged member and wedding are narrated in the same deadpan, somewhat hieratic, semi-heroic style. Bathos results.

Mustagab, who died in 2006, deserves to be known better in the west for his work is inventive, horrifying and humorous in turn and has some similarities with Ismail Kadare’s novels.

  1. The Desert and the Village

Miral Al-Tahawy’s short, intricate novels focus on women and their lot in the patriachal society of desert dwellers. Born into a noble Bedouin family, Al-Tahawy, an associate professor at Cairo University, who is working on a thesis on the desert novel, has had to struggle against the wishes of her family who did not want her to teach in Cairo.

In Gazelle Tracks, Al-Tahawy’s third novel, Muhra, the heroine, is born to Mutlig and Sahla of the clans Al-Shafei and Minazi’ of the Bani Sulaym. Both sides of Muhra’s family had been granted the noble privileges of safeguarding Hajj and merchant caravans through desert routes.

Although Muhra’s ancestor Jidd Minazi’ had hunted with King Faisal ibn Saud (who had romanticized the Bedouin lifestyle for its purity and detachment but refuses to listen to Mutlig’s plea to return to his ancestral lands in the Hijaz), the discovery of oil, the post-colonial division of states, and the movement of Jewish immigrants into Palestine made the movements of Bedouin tribes across borders awkward for many rulers. Muhammed Ali, the suzerain of Egypt, gave the nobles Nileside estates where they put up their goat-hair tents in front of their lavish mansions and lived with their families, falcons and horses tended by Black slaves acquired through travels.

Muhra’s family regard themselves as the true Arabs, the real owners of the land that they opened up for hunting and commerce all the way to the Red Sea. Mutlig boasts that his ancestor Jidd Munazi was the first to discover the source of the Nile, much before the Europeans.

The Bedouin nobles see the Gharabwa and Baramwa, their neighbours in Egypt, as little more than thieving peasants whose Arab stock has been diluted with Turkish blood. This fixation with purity of lineage is evident in the pursuit of falconry and horses and is applied to human bloodlines.

Intermarriage, mostly to first cousins such as Mutlig, Sahla and Hind, is a way of preserving this purity. Although young Mutlig molests slave girls, Lamloum, Sahla’s father, marries her off and her beautiful younger sister Hind to their cousin against their will. Lamlam excuses this by exclaiming that, “a girl will marry her cousin even if it is the last thing she wants.”

Sahla’s father goes on to say that “an Arab girl is like an obedient she-camel. The place where you tether her is the place she kneels, the place you lead her, that’s where she goes.” Muhra remembers the women in the household mentioning the ballad of Khayaliyyah, a young women who caught the eye of royalty and was fed to the crocodiles by Muhra’s ancestor so that she would “remain a thoroughbred, and not be mounted by a peasant, even if he were Abbas I, King of Egypt.”

Al-Tahawy handles Muhra’s quest to find out the truth about her mother through memories, photographs and the paintings of one Pierre Kamm, a European artist also known as Sulayman, who was fond of Sahla and her sister Hind, and who perished in the desert. The presence of European adventurers and travelers such as Dorvetti are also evoked along with the fatal attraction to European luxuries.

As the presence of women (despite their storytelling) is muted in the book, it is Muhra’s father, ironically, who emerges as the most memorable character. A rake in his younger days, he now embodies the plight of uprooted Bedouin nobility. Steeped in desert lore, he keeps his nostalgia for the desert alive through his love of poetry and literature.

Mutlig sets himself up as a falconry and equestrian expert. He hopes to sell that one horse or falcon that would make him “Sheikh Al-Arab,” without realizing that the best stables and stud farms are now in Europe. He entertains visiting dignitaries and travels to the Alps with a prince to hunt for gyre falcons with a GPS. While he keeps up his petitions to King Faisal, he maintains his lavish lifestyle by selling his parcels of land to the peasants he despises.

Gazelle Tracks is a lyrical and powerful book that should win many readers in the west even if they are unfamiliar with Bedouin culture in Egypt. Al-Tahawy’s telling is fluid, with frequent shifts in perspective. She draws upon the apocrypha of Hatim Ta’i, and quartrains from desert lays, and desert lore to frame the narrative. The twisted loops and skeins that the senile bird trapper Abu Shreek uses to snare falcons provide the best metaphor for Al-Tahawy’s highly digressive narrative style which somehow ties up all the loose ends in the end. Fittingly, for this elegiac novel, the phrase “gazelle tracks” refers to a constellation of stars in the night sky whose origins lie in a myth of loss and grief.

In his essay, Edward Said imputed the neglect of writing from that part of the world to anti-Arab sentiment in the west. One should be grateful that occidentalist interest in Arab culture has been piqued recently, even if that is owed to a morbid and perverse post-9/11 curiosity.

Al-Aswany, Rafik Schami, Adonis, Hanan al-Shaykh, Al-Ghitani, Tayyib Saleh, Elias Khoury, Ahdaf Soueif, and Edwar Al-Kharrat are some fine writers whose popularity is growing in the west. The American University in Cairo Press has a current list of over 60 translated writers in its Modern Arabic Literature series alone.

Compared to South Asian writers, true, high literary honours may have eluded most of these writers (with the exception of Nuruddin Farah who writes in English) in the western world, but it’s only a matter of time before their works in English win a major prize or two.

This pair of fine translations of Egyptian writers sets a fine precedent.


Ahmad Saidullah is a prize-winning author from Toronto, Canada. A winner of the CBC Literary Award for the title story, his Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories, which was published in Canada and India in 2008, received rave reviews. The book was shortlisted for The Danuta Gleed Literary Award in 2009. A French translation of Happiness will be published in Canada by the University of Ottawa Press in 2009.