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Engaging the Middle East: A literary experience

June 21, 2011

By Heather Hoyt, ASU English instructor

Is there a way for Westerners to accurately interpret the recent upheavals in the Middle East?

Further, can we develop an understanding of the people in that region? Will the news or social media give us the insight we need to make sense of the current protests and the historical contexts that led to them?

Electronic media have allowed outsiders a glimpse of life in various Middle Eastern countries. But another way for us to develop perspective about the region in general is to read literary works by and about its people.

Arab and Muslim women, in particular, have been playing larger roles than ever before in socio-political movements. While the work of women activists and writers has been documented in the Middle East since the 19th century, Arab and Muslim women’s publications, both literary and theoretical – many with strong political messages – have been on the rise since the late 20th century.

The works of Egyptian author, Adhaf Soueif ("In the Eye of the Sun," 1992 and "The Map of Love," 1999), for example, cover a spectrum of historical, cultural and feminist issues. Soueif also is one of the leading commentators on current events in Egypt, including the recent and continuing protests. Her works and those of other prominent writers, such as Nawal Al-Saadawi (Emra'a enda noktat el sifr, or "A Woman at Point Zero," 1975), Leila Ahmed ("A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman’s Journey," 1999), and Samia Serageldin ("The Cairo House," 2000), address issues of women’s rights and roles within Egyptian society. But Egypt is only one of many Arab countries, and we need to examine the works of other Arab and Muslim women writers in order to compare and contrast the complexities of cultures in the Middle East and North Africa.

The cultures of Arab countries in the Gulf region, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are quite different from those of Arab countries in the Levant (the Arab states closest to the Mediterranean Sea), such as Iraq and Lebanon. The work of Rajaa Alsanea ("Banat al-Riyadh," or "Girls of Riyadh," 2005) from Saudi Arabia provides us with quite a different perspective from the writings of Hoda Barakat ("Hajar al-Dahik," or "The Stone of Laughter," 1990 and "Harit al-miyah," or "The Tiller of Waters," 2000) from Lebanon. The novels of both writers present similar issues regarding women’s rights and the social expectations of them through characters of diverse economic, educational, religious and political backgrounds. However, the ways in which these two cultures manifest and address these issues vary greatly in these texts. To say that the women characters’ outlets for feminist discourse are more limited in conservative Riyadh than cosmopolitan Beirut doesn’t do justice to the complexity of their situations. Nonetheless, in spite of differences, there are similarities, and vice versa.

Reading these works enables us to witness multiple perspectives and begin to understand the nuances that differentiate cultures and peoples often lumped together into the categories of “Arab” and “Muslim.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: ASU students have an opportunity to explore and discuss a variety of Arab women’s literary works through Hoyt’s course, ENG 364 "Women in Literature: Arab Women's Literature."