Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak

While there’s NO book I can recommend yet (except my own, recent one) as anywhere near accurate re origins & cultural position of Raqs Sharqi, since its geographical areas of origin are currently populated by Muslim majority cultures, understanding the vast differences between their ways of thinking & behaving & ours (recognizing that most of what we assumed previously re the East, especially vis-a-vis women, is based on fantasy & misinformation) is necessary to avoid inadvertent & often serious social faux pas while “there” or dealing with Mideasterners here, & adopting/absorbing unnecessary aspects of those cultures in the mistaken notion it’d add to the quality of one’s dance: forewarned is forearmed. Not to mention (but you know I will) that these books are really good “reads”, in & of themselves.

Quoting parts of the foreword: this anthology is a “valiant effort to unveil an important dimension of Middle Eastern history & society….hidden from view….conditions, aspirations, struggles & achievements of Middle Eastern Muslim women.” With this book, one must read & absorb the foreword & introduction before touching the body of the book: necessary foreplay to maximize understanding & enjoyment.

“Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak” has four sections: Tradition; Transition; Beginnings of Change: Colonialism & Nationalism; & Future Directions? (with question mark!). Each has several parts & can be read in sequence (preferable) or by selected parts. Personally, I read the whole book & then reread the parts that interested me the most.

Tradition: A beautiful poem by al-Khansa, an early convert to Islam; the Koran on the subject of women; & very short biographies of: A’ishah, favorite wife of the Prophet Mohamed, but a good introduction to her, nonetheless; Rabi’a the mystic (most revered Sufi saint); Walladah bint al-Mustakfi: daughter of the deposed Cordovan Caliph (Andalusia), famous for her intelligence, poetry, beauty & lifestyle (held salons for male & female writers & poets of her time & the great love of poet Ibn Zaydun); Rabiah Balkhi, pioneer of mystic poetry in Persian (Dari) & one of the most outstanding Afghan poets.

Transition: Tunisian lullabies (not at all what one would expect!) & an excerpt from Naguib Mahfouz’ first book, “Palace Walk”, of his Nobel-winning trilogy – a very revealing glimpse of a middle-class married woman’s life in Egypt in the first half of this century, entitled “The Mistake”.

Beginnings of Change: The largest section, comprising Women’s songs from Morocco’s Berber mountains (check “The Second Wife”); an excerpt about the start of her illustrious career, from Umm Kulthum’s biography; excerpts from the autobiography of Halide Edib Adivar, one of the most prominent intellectuals of her time & a leading force in Kemal Attaturk’s struggle – the first Turkish woman to become a public figure & national hero; a biographical sketch of Hoda el Sha’arawi, founder of the Egyptian women’s movement; a rural Moroccan woman, Zahrah Muhammad’s stream-of-consciousness recollection of incidents in her life – far more revealing than one realizes at first; in Umm Ahmad’s chapter, changes in Egyptian village women’s roles as they age (before the neo-”fundamentalist” movement) are detailed; examples of Iraqi Nazik al-Mala’ikah’s free verse poetry & her essay analyzing what she feels is “free verse”; two interviews with Jamila Buhrayd, legendary heroine of Algeria’s War; & a biographical sketch of Jawazi al-Malakim, wife of a “settled” Jordanian Bedouin sheikh.

Future Directions?: “A Space Ship of Tenderness to the Moon”, the short story that led to Lebanese novelist Layla Ba’labakki’s trial on charges of obscenity & harming the public morality, is printed, as well as an account of her trial; a chapter on Iranian poetess & free spirit, Furugh Farrukhzad, who would’ve been executed by the Iranian ayatollahs, had she not died, at 32, in a car accident in 1967, for she was the first Persian woman to write love poems with men as the object; a selection from “Les Algeriennes” (“The Algerian Women”) by journalist Fadela M’rabet, on the hard, unhappy lives of Algerian women & girls; A life history of Zaynab, a working-class urban Lebanese woman (before the Civil War); “The Arab Woman & the Challenge of Society” by Egyptian feminist, Aminah al-Said; & the book ends with “The Sexual Revolution & the Total Revolution” by modern Lebanese novelist, Ghadah al-Samman.

I think no other book to date gives such a comprehensive education in the reality of women’s lives (before the current “fundamentalist” movement changed them all for the worse) in the Islamic countries represented therein.