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The Woman from Tantoura, by Radwa Ashour.

January 15, 2015

The Woman from Tantoura, by Radwa Ashour.  The American University in Cairo Press (2014), Paperback, 272 pages.  Translated by Kay Heikkinen.

5 stars: FAVORITE

A powerful novel, written by a leading Egyptian author, in the form of a fictionalized memoir of a Palestinian women reflecting on the unthinkable violence in her life and coming to terms with her memories and emotions.

Rwanda Ashour was prominent as a writer, an academic, and an activist. I learned about her when she died last fall. This book lived up to the accolades about her. A fine writer, she writes with clarity, transcending the horrors she describes by focusing on its survivors. In doing so, she reveals the resilience and strength of those who endure the destruction that uproots their lives. Ashour is an Egyptian, married to a Palestinian.  She has intimate knowledge of the experiences of Arabs driven out of their homes by Israelis and taking refuge in Lebanon, where they were attacked by both Israelis and Lebanese. Her book reminded me how much more strongly Egypt is connected to the Middle East rather than the African continent.

The Woman from Tantoura is composed as what Ashour called “autobiografiction.” The book is written as a memoir of Raqayya, a woman in her seventies, telling the story of her life. As she writes Raqayya ponders over her past and her memories of her violent expulsion from her home by the Israelis, of her life as a refugee in Lebanon, and of the massacres of Palestinians when she was living in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. Not content to let her past be distant, she considers the randomness of evil and of her own survival when her father and brothers were killed when Israelis invaded her village.

I wonder, what does a woman do who fells that she has remained alive by chance, by the purest chance? How does she act in the world if her existence, all the years and months and days and moments, bitter and sweet, that she has lived, is a byproduct of some random movement of a strange fate. . . . When I came out from under the ruins, there was a numbness in my mind, like the numbness that comes over a body. A small frightened animal, only. Later, a little while later, like all creatures of the earth I began to do what would keep me alive.

Raqayya married a cousin and raised four children, eventually moving into Beirut from the town in southern Lebanon where her family had taken refuge. Although her husband was a doctor and they lived outside the camps, Raqayya worked with the women of the camps, listening to the stories the women told of their own removals. Like Raqayya’s mother, and then Raqayya herself, the women wore keys to their former homes on chains around their necks. Following the women as they cared for others, she obsersed their compassion of the women,  and envisioned them as trees, lile the trees each remembered outside the doors of their former homes. The sense of “waiting outside the train” that had haunted her as a refugee gradually releases its grasp on her. Despite their pain, the stories she hears reassure her, in ways she cannot articulate.

But Palestinians were not safe in Lebanon. They came under attack by both conservative Lebanese and invading Israelis, and many were killed. Raqayya was caught again in the middle of destruction.

I said that I was beset by panic, and that my imagination was running wild. No, it wasn’t my imagination but the earth that had gone wild, making everything wild and savage familiar.

At this point, her husband brought home an baby girl, orphaned by the killings. Although the baby was unexpected she became a bit of hope and light.

It was love in the time of war, of killing for one’s identity, of rattling bullets and explosions and rockets and dynamite and car bombs; . . . in the time of chaos and stealing and confusion between a noble effort and the greed of petty thieves, Maryam was here before me gurgling like a bird, assuring me with every morning that in spite of everything, this life held something worth living for.

But the situation worsened. As Raqayya writes about that time she is haunted by questions. “How did I bear it? How did we endure and live, how did a drink of water slip down our throats without choking and suffocating us?” She learned to wait and endure because the only alternative was madness. But remembering and writing about the pain has no value for her. “Besides [the story being] too hard to tell, it’s not something to tell. It branches out and it’s heavy. How many wars can a single story bear? How many massacres?” Protesting to the son who had urged her to write, she says she can’t go on writing. Writing will kill her. He responds.

Memory does not kill. It inflicts unbearable pain, perhaps; but we bear it, and memory changes from a whirlpool that pulls us to the bottom, to a sea we can swim in. We cover distances, we control it, and we dictate to it.

Her sons contribute narratives of some of the most painful events, including the massacre at her husband’s hospital and his disappearance. And Raqayya does continue writing. The later section of her story is less intense and profound. In it she tells how she and her children survived and thrived after the violence despite the pain they have carried.

When I first began reading globally, I quickly noted that the books I read dealt with situations such as war that neither I nor the authors I had read had known first hand.  In creating Raqayya and her family and friends, Ashour does more than expose the horrors of the Arab/Israeli conflict. By creating real people living through the violence, hers is a story of  survival, not simply destruction.  It touches all of us who have memories that we believe we must forget in order to endure, and it shows us the falsity of that belief.  It addresses the larger question of how humans survive inhuman conditions.  Most importantly, it offers us hope.

I strongly recommend this book to all who appreciate books that are exquistly written and deal with significant questions.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2015 6:17 am

    I have added to my to read list. Interesting.


  1. Fireworks, by Sarah Houssayni | Me, you, and books

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