The Arab Woman Writer

December 1st, 2009

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My good friend, colleague, and Beiruti writer Lina Mounzer was recently invited to Belgium to give a talk, which was entitled “The Voyeur in the Mirror: Negotiating Arab Self-Representation in Western Language Literature.” Upon arriving to the auditorium where she was to give her talk, she found that it was moved to one that would accommodate the unexpectedly large number of people who had signed up to come listen to her. This is her account.

It was huge.
Lit with stage floods.
I had to either stand on stage or sit at the edge of it.
And there were so many goddamned people.

Why had they come? Why did I have at least twice, if not three times the number of people that Rachid El Daif – whose books are actually translated into both French and Flemish – had had?

I will tell you why my friends. It is not because they had heard wind of this next, great literary sensation, much as I would like to believe, and have you believe.

No.

They had come, very simply, to gawk. To gawk at this strange, bizarre contradiction  in terms – the Arab woman writer.

The Arab woman! Speaking freely! Expressing herself despite the tyrannies of patriarchy and Islamism that have her swathed in veils of self-loathing and oppression.

Oh the irony! That my entire talk was designed around deconstructing this notion, that my entire talk was about confronting and refuting the stereotypes about the fixed notions of “freedom” and “democracy” that stand ensconced in concrete in Western brains. That I began my talk by asserting the writer’s fundamental right to remain apolitical, that is, outside of the simplistic binaries of politics while fully aware of the fact that writing, that self-expression, is an inherently political act.

And what was my first question after this talk was over?

From an earnest-looking, bespectacled man in the audience, sitting with two female friends: “What do you think of Islamism?”

Head-Lina now, having had time to reflect in helpless rage, shoots back: “I don’t know, what do you think of European racism?”

But Then-Lina, Real-Lina, stumbled and half-giggled and said: “What do you mean? I don’t even know how to answer such a question.”

And the poor man, he really wanted to help me understand. Gently he explained: “Islamism. We’re very afraid of the threat of it here in Belgium you know, and I wanted to know how you felt as a woman.”

I explained that radicalism and extremism of all sorts terrify me, whether it be Christian-Jewish-Muslim-Hindu, whether it be the radicalism of free-market liberals, or the radicalism of staunch atheists who have as little room for doubt in their world-view as religious zealots. I did manage to get in a little dig about European xenophobia (careful, so careful not to use the word racism – why?) and finished by reasserting the need to remain nuanced in the way we see societies and people.

I make myself sound far more eloquent than I was at the time. At the time I was bewildered, held captive by the sudden realization that these people HAD HEARD NOTHING I HAD TO SAY. And aware, suddenly, that I was there to be gawked at.

The questions afterwards were no better. “What do you think of Terrorism?” (It kicks ass! Nothing like it to beat the boredom of a rainy Sunday afternoon.) “What do you think of the Palestinians?” (I like their food, but a lot of them are real stick-in-mud assholes, if you ask me.)

The only, only question remotely related to writing, from the same earnest man who asked the first one about Islamism: “Is it extra hard to be an Arab woman writing? You know, because people don’t want to listen to what you have to say?” (What, you mean people like you?)

I told him that all women have to struggle to be taken seriously as writers, that if you look at the history of literature and compare it to the amount of time that women have even been considered in the canon that it points to a desperate void of female voices and blah blah blah.

“Yes,” he said. “But it must be extra hard to be an Arab woman writer.”

And so we leave this audience to their fixed ideas, ideas I am sorry to say I did little to shake, and we go back to the bed and breakfast, where I invited Sarag to spend the night so we could explore Bruges the next day.

Read Lina’s fiction: The Girl in the Red Beret and Celebrations

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