deutsche Version
Contemporary Arab Artists from the Middle East
Writing as an autobiography of the soul
Is writing an adequate alternative to despair?

Miral Al Tahawi
Intifada, Islam, desert, identity, remembrance, violence
Picture Gallery
Procreation and Ambivalence
A Sky so Close
The Jordanian Desert
Bedouin, satellite dishes and mirrors of stone

Paths through Literature and Exile
Thoughts on Music from the Orient
Imagining a Different Future
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 1
A Diary of Disorientation: Part 2
Miral Al Tahawi
With her two novels "The Tent" and "The Blue Aubergine", the young Egyptian author Miral Al-Tahawi also received considerable attention in Germany. Her books deal with social traditions and constraints, especially for women, and also confront the insecurities and fears of young Egyptian intellectuals. In 1999, Miral Al-Tahawi wrote the following passage about herself, explaining the literary themes and influences that have shaped her own writings.

When did I become obsessed with writing? It was at the time when I was about to finish my university education. I was engrossed in the religious movements, particularly their social and political dimensions and, like a good religious girl, went about with my head covered. Yet this was also a time of doubt when I seriously began to question my engagement in the Islamic movements which I had believed for so long yet which now no longer seemed able to address the restless, anxious, questions that I was asking myself about my life and my world, about our social situation, about oppression and those values that seemed to me, above all, to hamper an individuals abilities and his or her right to self-fulfilment.

Finally, after more than eight years as an Islamic militant, I decided that the Islamic movement was too restrictive for my ambitions and desires, and left.

Ever since I can remember, I have always been overwhelmed by a sense of enslavement to many of our social institutions. It took me a long time to realise that writing gave me the freedom to ask questions, to express my anxieties and particularly to share with others the process of understanding and contemplating my soul and its many wounds.

At the time, I was still a teacher in a small school in may home village, trying to convince my young students of the beauty of our ancient literature, knowing all the while that within me the feeling, the desire for rebellion grew incessantly even as oppression grew with it.
For, despite the rising number of educated women, my environment was still particularly backward. My family background is Bedouin. In Egypt, we are known as those nomads who colonise the very peripheries of the Nile Valley, an ambiguous people in their habits and traditions, and, particularly, in their isolation from the rest of Egyptian society. It is true we remain Bedouins, though Bedouins without the benefit of oil, desert people whom Egyptians call the “Arabs”, those who betrayed Mahammed Orabi, the great Nineteenth Century Egyptian rebel leader of the peasant revolt against the British.

When I tried to incorporate this world of the Bedouins into ma literature, I created my first little heroine, Fatima. She is the principal character of The Tent, which was to become my first novel. Fatima observes the world of the Bedouins around her, a world full of oppression: the over-powering mother, the absent father, the mother who is punished because she cannot bear male children, the little girls who are each married off, one after the other, in the traditional tribal way, to a cousin. There is even in this novel Anne, the foreigner, who comes to buy an Arabian thoroughbred and who takes Fatima away as assort of companion. But Fatima has a troubled conscience which makes her unable to choose between the old oppressive world of the Bedouins and life with Anne where she finds herself estranged and without identity. Overwhelmed by the desire to rebellion and the same time, conscious of its impossibility, Fatima returns to live alone with her old maid and spends the rest of her life talking to ghosts abs conversing with gins.

The Tent created quite a stir and was quickly translated into English and French and recently into Spanish. After it came out, I found it difficult to decide what to write about next: should I return to the same old world which only I know, I who for so long had lived in a metaphorical tent; or should I speak of another aspect of life, for example my profound desire for political change during my few years as a university student when I lived veiled, marching in demonstrations, shouting “Islamic! Islamic! Neither Western or Eastern!” I chose to write of a new heroine whom I called the blue aubergine and described three stage of her life, dividing the book into three separate but coherent sections which both in style and content were to depict the evolution of my heroin’s consciousness.

The Blue Aubergine has stirred a lot of controversy in Egypt. Many considered it a shocking word, particularly for its confessional and intimate nature, which they found unacceptable. Others saw in it a critique both of the Left and the religious right and rejected its announcement of the end of all ideologies. How dare I compare the liberal, leftist and fundamentalist movements as being all essentially opportunistic and empty rhetoric and in the end discovered that it led to nothing but recurring defeat.

It was a painful experience writing this book. My view was that our generation could no longer in good faith adhere to the great, sweeping hopes of the generation before, for we have become outsiders to history. This is what the heroine of Blue Aubergine says, expressing thus all the confusion that she has lived since her childhood: her warped image of herself, her fear of rebellion, particularly politically and social rebellion. In a way, I tried to write an autobiography of my soul and the pains and dilemmas of millions of women. For in the end, I am a woman and this is part of my social and biologically baggage and of my life experience. However, my experience is not limited to my femininity for I am also an Arab woman who comes from a tribal background where tradition is overpowering. I am also a Muslim who grew up in an atmosphere where religion had become heavily politicised and retrograde. And, finally, I am a human being who loves and despairs, and has both small and large dreams which she cannot realise. All my heroines live in these closed circles of oppression.

Therefore, I write about these realities, about these memories, because writing may allow me to create a reality with some degree of freedom and justice, as well as self-fulfilment.

Author: Miral Al Tahawi