Barbara Harlow’s lavish celebration of the “prison text” The Shamed (MER 164-165) has considerably clouded her aesthetic judgment. “The Shamed presents itself as a novel at once realistic and allegorical, mobilizing social forces against each other,” she tells us, and then “Adel Amr’s prison text must also be read as a counter-novel, a cultural documentary and political manifesto, in which the traditional novel’s conventions and paradigms of romance and family are precisely those formulas that are manipulated by the Israeli state and its prison apparatus.”
There is no need for the “also.” The Shamed is a political manifesto (even a manual for activists) parading as a novel; the allegorical motifs acclaimed by Harlow fall on the reader with the subtlety of a Kim II Sung text. To wit: Harlow correctly identifies class metaphors as a dominant theme in the “role distribution” of the novel’s main characters, but this is as far as it goes. Fatin and Wahid “represent” the urban bourgeoisie and rural feudalism respectively; and Majd, Wafa’ and Maata personify the urban poor (the peasants are mercifully absent from the stage). But as soon as we are introduced to those heroes, all allegories are abandoned: we move directly to the realm of trench warfare. Wahid, the mukhtar’s son, doesn’t have to be entrapped by the security forces. As a representative of a dying social order, he offers his services free of charge. Fatin doesn’t have to be seduced by the mukhabarat. Like all middle-class women who studied in the West she is addicted to fornication with all sorts of men, and she views her relationship with the Israeli officer as a civilized gesture to the superior Western culture he represents. Wife swapping is the order of the day within Palestinian middle-class society and this debauchery (graphically depicted by the author) sets the natural terrain for individual acts of collaboration. The class is collapsed into its fictional representatives, and those in turn perform their roles with the zeal of foot soldiers. The narrative reveals much more the inner working of the author’s tormented mind than a coherent reading of clandestine struggle. While alcohol-sex-collaboration seem to be the triad modus operandi of the bourgeoisie, defiance runs in the blood of all the plebeian characters — including Wafa’, the one case of a vacillating proletarian, who threatens at the end to circulate copies of photos showing her in the nude in order to expose the techniques of the Shin Bet. In short, class reductionism of such crassness that it actually provides for addictive reading.
The Shamed, Harlow tells us, posits a political and structural argument premised on “the projected popular effort to counter Israeli occupation [by challenging] traditional narrative paradigms and social romantic conventions.” The problem here is not the abandonment of traditional narrative paradigms, but in maintaining any reasonable literary standards. Harlow failed to inform the reader about the author’s peculiar, almost pornographic, obsession with mechanical sex as his answer to “traditional romantic conventions.” The novel is permeated with scene after scene of sexual entrapment in which the Shin Bet sets the innocent victim up in a video-monitored room. In most cases women are drugged and acts of passive penetration are performed while the cameras do their work. In all of these scenes the absence of originality is compensated for by a consistent seduction formula: a few drops of the sedative in tea; the stripping of clothes; the motionless body; nibbling on the lower lips; nibbling on the bosom; down to the tummy; and finally the triumphal entry into the great tunnel. Cut. Throughout the novel all acts of heroism involve defiant (and very gory) cases of resistance to torture; and all sex (indeed even the one case of romantic attachment) involves acts of entrapment performed on a sedated body. At last, the entry of Palestinian literature into the S/M bondage genre.
The only way to appreciate The Shamed is to view it as a parody, a spoof of Committed Resistance Literature within which every aspiring young writer has been trying his/her hand lately. As such it is a classic caricature of the caricature. Alas, such was not the intention of the writer (unless he has played a trick on all of us), nor was it the manner in which this novella was received by the public. (Incidentally, considerable criticism has been leveled against the book by young activists for its sexual crudity, but not for its literary attributes.)
The central weakness of The Shamed as a pedagogical novel is that it unwittingly trivializes political struggle. It does so in two ways: First, it posits narrow parameters of political activism which allow the young activist only two options — total commitment ending in martyrdom, or concessions to the degenerate cultural world of the enemy that inevitably leads to the road of betrayal. The second and more serious objection lies in the manner in which the novel dehumanizes its main characters. Virtually every one of them is a prototype; their lines are as predictable as their predestined roles. They are faceless, odorless, unloving and unlovable.
Barbara Harlow’s sophisticated theoretical tools have misfired. Instead of raising serious questions about the nature of the political culture that elevates such a trashy work of fiction to the status of a mini-classic, she heralds it as the counter-cultural critique of the Israeli paradigm.
Barbara Harlow responds:
Salim Tamari’s critical comments are well taken and important, too, in signaling the controversial significance of this text, invoking as it does some of the more taboo social constructs that can only be rethought when they become “speakable.” I am less clear, however, with regard to the literary criteria and aesthetic standards that these comments invoke, since such paradigms are themselves most often constructed out of a given set of political interests. What is most compelling about Tamari’s reading of the text (novel/documentary/manifesto) is precisely this, that, through its critical engagement, it raises the possibility, if not necessity, of still another critique of the work — one that, it seems to me, neither of us has yet advanced — namely a feminist critique.