The defeat of the Arab states in the June 1967 war was more than a military setback. It was also a blow against the radical nationalist project and its modern and secular cultural orientation which bonded the Arab world and the West even as it provided a framework for resistance to Western economic, political and cultural domination. Since 1967, only the Palestinian national movement has continued to advance the flag of radical nationalism. Elsewhere, a romantic Islamism, brandishing the slogan of cultural “authenticity,” has posed the most consistent challenge to continuing Western domination of the Middle East. The Islamist upsurge has affected nearly every institution and mode of expression in Arab society, isolating and often silencing parties and individuals who continue to advocate secularism and modernism.
In this stifling atmosphere, fiction writing continues to provide a platform for the progressive spirit. Since the status of women has been one of the most prominent domains for the Islamist attack on modernism, novels by and about women have been especially prominent as vehicles of cultural resistance to Islamism at the same time that they question some of the patriarchal assumptions of the radical nationalists.
The contemporary Arab woman novelist best known in the West is Nawal El Saadawi. She first gained recognition with her nonfiction work, The Hidden Face of Eve (London: Zed Press, 1980). The preface to that book, written in the shadow of the victory of the Iranian revolution, was apologetic about the Iranian mullahs’ oppression of women and argued that “true” Islam was a force for women’s liberation. In her fiction, El Saadawi concentrates her attention on “actually existing” Islam as a component element in the social hierarchy of modern Egypt. Here she delivers a merciless indictment against prevailing norms sanctioned as “Islamic.”
Woman at Point Zero (London: Zed Press, 1983) and God Dies by the Nile (London: Zed Press) project an explicit feminism and critique of class domination that make them readily accessible to a Western audience familiar with the ideas of socialist-feminism. El Saadawi’s novels are sometimes artistically flat, in the worst tradition of socialist realism. But they cry out loudly against the prevalent gender and class oppression of contemporary Egypt at a time when few others have had the courage to raise their voices.
Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose (Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 1982, translated from the French by Georgina Kleege) and Ali Ghalem’s A Wife for My Son (Chicago: Banner, 1985, translated from the French by G. Kazolias), both previously reviewed in this magazine,  provide additional examples of fiction in which a woman’s perspective is used to attack oppressive social structures commonly justified in the name of Islam.
Sitt Marie Rose is especially remarkable because Adnan narrates the story simply and sparsely from the perspective of Marie Rose and her deaf-mute students. The reader is therefore unprepared for the powerful unfolding of the novel’s assault on patriarchy, which Adnan regards as responsible for the tribal barbarism of the Lebanese civil war. Adnan avoids turning her story into a vehicle for a narrow critique of Phalangist separatism and makes clear that she denounces equally the Muslim-based sentiment on the other side of the line. She uncompromisingly assails the suffocating lack of political freedom in the contemporary Arab world with a deft jab at the hero of radical Arab nationalism, Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, for failing to break the “concentric circles of oppression” surrounding the Arab world, thus challenging both the Islamist vision and the limitations of the radical nationalist project.
The novels of Etel Adnan and Ali Ghalem were originally written in French. Adnan’s has been translated into Arabic; Ghalem’s has not. Islamists would undoubtedly charge these two authors with lacking cultural authenticity. But the voice of Hanan al-Shaykh writing about the Shi‘a of Lebanon is undeniably genuine and expresses a radically different sensibility than that of the followers of Hizballah(Party of God). Her novel, The Story of Zahra (London: Pavanne, 1987), explores the same themes as Adnan and Ghalem: women exploited rather than protected by their male relations, forced marriage, life after divorce and illicit sex.
The Story of Zahra shatters every expectation in the reader programmed to anticipate the stereotypical image of the protected Arab woman in a benevolent patriarchal family. The novel opens with the love affair of Zahra’s mother. Zahra herself escapes from her Shi‘a neighborhood in Beirut by emigrating to West Africa, where she is victimized by seduction, abortion, electroshock therapy and a wretched marriage. After seemingly endless oppression she returns to civil war-torn Beirut and an affair with a sniper.
Because of the novel’s explicit sexual and political themes, it has been banned in several Arab countries — a sure indication that the author has told a truth. Hanan al-Shaykh’s bold treatment of the most intimate and forbidden personal and family topics has broadened the repertoire of themes of the Arab novel. Her skillful blending of Zahra’s personal story with Lebanon’s modern political history heralds the arrival of “the personal is political” in Arab fiction.
Many American public television stations recently aired The Sword of Islam (produced by Granada Television, UK; distributed in the US by Public Affairs Television, 356 W. 58th St, NY, NY 10019), an hour-long documentary of the Egyptian Jihad organization and the Lebanese Hizballah. The attempt to provide a serious treatment of radical Islamist tendencies is praiseworthy, and the result is an improvement over the usual lurid images on the evening news. But “Sword of Islam” does not entirely escape the general tendency to sensationalize and reify radical Islam. Rather than emphasize the diversity which characterizes Islamic beliefs and practices, the narration of the opening segment, after briefly acknowledging Islam’s past tolerance, defines a “potent,” “expanding” Islam “at war with the West” over a bloody scene of Shi‘as celebrating ‘Ashura. This scene is later repeated in the body of the film to amplify its impact. The film closes by reiterating the same ominous theme: “The word of Islam is being replaced by the sword.” The fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, even many affected by recent Islamist currents, reject the theology and practice of the subjects of “Sword of Islam” is easily lost on the viewer who is likely to remember the most extreme and gruesome images presented in the film.
Various Western and (commendably) Middle Eastern voices of authority punctuate the narration with capsule analysis. Some, like Mohamed Sid Ahmed, Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Augustus Norton are exceptionally good. Journalist Robin Wright’s alarmist and self-assured tone is the most offensive. Her claim that “Islam is the only major monotheistic religion in the world that also offers a political system” is incorrect. Biblical Judaism is exactly like classical Islam in this respect; and the theory and practice of the Christian Phalange and the Jewish Gush Emunim show that Islamic politico-religious fanaticism is not unique in the contemporary Middle East.
“Sword of Islam” is better than most Western representation in discussing the extent to which Israeli and American actions provided the impetus for the rise of Hizballah in Lebanon. Still, there are no scenes of the USS New Jersey bombarding the Shuf mountains, no scenes of the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982. Augustus Norton’s comment that “the Americans came to keep the peace [in Lebanon]” is far too generous to American intentions. The film also tends to equate the PLO with the Israelis; while the PLO’s behavior in south Lebanon before 1982 was indeed abusive, it certainly does not compare with the destructive impact of repeated Israeli bombings.
“Sword of Islam” correctly argues that Israel was militarily defeated in south Lebanon largely by Shi‘i insurgents. This is a highly significant but not unique historical phenomenon. Islam has been a cultural component of the resistance of Muslim peoples to Western domination since the movement of the Sudanese Mahdi in 1881 and the Iranian protests against the tobacco monopoly in 1891. During the Algerian independence struggle the colons cried “Vive l'Algérie francaise” and the nationalists responded “Vive l'Algérie musulmane.” Radical Islam does not therefore “turn its back on the twentieth century.” It is very much a product of it.