By Radwa Ashour
Trans Barbara Romaine
Pleased to see my very short review, shortened further to fit, of Spectres in today’s Independent: “Personal, Political and Painful” [UPDATE see below for full original review & an update from MW’s obituary for Radwa].
“Spectres combines invention, unofficial history and human abyss in an elliptical novel in which Ashour articulates an ethics rooted in Arabian and ancient Egyptian cultures. The result transforms a bleak constellation into a quietly stirring beacon. Spectres provides an irresistible companion to Barghouti’s memoir I Saw Ramallah, and a contrast to Elias Khoury’s more traditional Gate of the Sun. Spectres is a boldly original novel by an important writer whose exemplary work we need more of in English.”
I had a little more to say, but would only add now that the companionship with those two titles was predicated crucially on the words, “in translation”, thus referring to the disgracefully small pool of Arabic writing yet in English. As it stands it might be read as a weird and old-fashioned kind of valorisation, no? The word “demanding” has also gone from elsewhere, and again, I only mention it because though it’s indubitably great to see the novel celebrated in The Independent, it is the best of things; a demanding read in more ways than one.
But pick up an Independent today; for Jonathan Raban’s sober notes on “a debased political culture” in America, in which the letter of an old text was used to generate murder. You know, the sacred right to bear arms and all that dribble, something that the congresswoman campaigned on/for herself -tragic rather than ironic. As a signatory to Charter 88, calling for a British constitution, it gives me pause and is a bloody advert for fudging I concede.
Elsewhere there are beautiful tributes to the thoughtful art critic Tom Lubbock who has just died -and whom I never knew, incidentally. If you missed the beautiful and very recent piece he wrote “on what happens when words slip away” [for some reason in The G.], please read it.
It’s another day, so there’s news of another heinous crime by Occupying Israeli forces in Jerusalem, but heartening news too;“EU officials propose help for arrested Palestinians” who protest against ongoing ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. Hey! Wow! Etc. [See this from yesterday’s Maan too, or Maan in general to get some idea of how constant this is, if you care that is.]
Also, declassified papers from Germany, revealing that they knew where Adolf Eichmann was in 1952. Though Hannah Arendt read the Eichmann trial right, the grotesque complacency across Europe about the entire arc of the Shoah is too easily and conveniently forgotten, even if something horribly similar -not comparing!- is happening to this day with regard to Palestine…
By Radwa Ashour
Personal, political, and painful
Reviewed by Guy Mannes-Abbott
Monday, 10 January 2011
The Egyptian novelist, translator and academic Radwa Ashour’s novel Spectres arrives in English at the same time as her latest novel, The Woman from Tantoura, emerges in Arabic. The latter chronicles the Palestinian “Nakba”, or disaster, during 1948, while Spectres details the ethnic cleansing of Deir Yassin in April that year. However the latter is not the only “paradigmatic event” rendered with exactitude in Spectres. Indeed Ashour broadens and deepens the responsibilities invoked by each one in this demanding book of questions.
Spectres assembles the lives of two main characters; Shagar Abdel Ghaffar and “Radwa Ashour”, women who share variant academic careers at a compromised institution and survive Egypt’s turbulence from the 1950s onwards. Both are writing books with a similar title that Ashour will link to notions of “analogous figures”, and binding connections. Both were born on 26 May 1946 at opposite ends of the Abbas Bridge in Cairo. This familiar literary device becomes something else in a novel built on a sophisticated as well as purposive metaphorical doubling. That purpose is suggested in Ashour’s take on Aristotelean universality; “a law that connects events and extracts from their ungovernable chaos … a guiding light.”
Shagar’s story opens the book with the ghosts of ancestors who died during the forced digging of the Suez Canal, and ends it with somewhat heavy-booted symbolism -at least in translation. Meanwhile, when she confronts her students over their collective cheating, she’s told that “our society annihilates us in a thousand ways”. Against considerable odds she completes her research on Deir Yassin and the nocturnal testimonies of Aziza, Naziha and Basma Zahran toughen and madden an already autonomous character. One determined to take responsibility for these spectres, responsibilities multiplied by Ashour’s further embrace of the silenced and dispossessed.
More compelling is the author’s startling presence as story and as teller. Ashour’s actual life fills the pages: heady commitments, writerly practice, and marriage to the great Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti. She attempts to write of unspeakable atrocities inflicted by British and Egyptian, American and Israeli despots. Her story is of Egyptian protests and the bombing of Baghdad, of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, familial exile and friends’ imprisonment. Also, she tells of a husband’s duelling with their poet son Tamim, using lines of al-Mutanabbi, the great Arab poet whose works Ashour’s grandfather edited.
Spectres combines invention, unofficial history and human abyss in an elliptical novel which is metafictional by peculiar necessity. Now more than ten years old, it bears substantive resemblance to Anne Carson’s Nox which is about the death of her brother in 2000. Both are categorically promiscuous, founded upon etymological exploration and the epitaphic. With this novel, Ashour is attempting to articulate an ethics rooted in Arabian and ancient Egyptian cultures; images and words, not least those linked to its Arabic title Atyaaf. The result transforms a bleak constellation into a quietly stirring beacon.
In translation, Spectres provides an irresistible companion to Barghouti’s memoir I Saw Ramallah, and innovative contrast to Elias Khoury’s formally more traditional Gate of the Sun. Much more than that, Spectres is a boldly original novel by an important writer whose exemplary work we need more of in English.
ARABIA BOOKS, £7.99 Order from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
From Marina Warner’s obituary in The Guardian for Radwa who died 30 November 2014 and was born 26 May 1946 (I prefer to put it that way around, esp. given the book title under review which Radwa titled Aytaaf on the document she sent to me when I discovered from her that a translation existed and was working its way out to us in English):
Radwa Ashour was a powerful voice among Egyptian writers of the postwar generation and a writer of exceptional integrity and courage. Her work consistently engages with her country’s history and reflects passionately upon it. “I am an Arab woman and a citizen of the third world,” she declared, in an essay for the anthology The View from Within (1994), “and my heritage in both cases is stifled … I write in self-defence and in defence of countless others with whom I identify or who are like me.”
… Like so many writers in the region, Ashour did not use historical fiction only to retrace the past, but adopted the form as a lens by which to look more deeply, often under conditions of censorship, into current oppression. In Spectres (1998, translated 2010), she ingeniously intertwined a fictive alter ego with remembered scenes from her own youth, producing a moving and vivid drama set in the political unrest of the Nasser and Sadat years, and giving shivers of uncanny deja vu throughout. In more recent publications, such as Heavier Than Radwa (2013), Blue Lorries and The Woman from Tantoura (both translated in 2014), Ashour experimented with inbetween forms: “autobiografictions”, imaginative essay meditations and allegory.
She was also a very fine, perceptive translator from Arabic into English and her translation of the collection Midnight and Other Poems (2008) by her husband, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, demonstrates her finely tuned knowledge of the metre and imagery of English poetry. They met as students in Cairo, and married in 1970. Their son, Tamim, also a poet, was born in 1977 ...
In Spectres, Ashour recalls scenes of exuberant family joy, as they quote strophes of al-Mutanabbi and other poets by heart in a friendly rivalrous counterpoint which resolves into a chorus of pleasure. One of Tamim’s poems, Ya Masr Hanet (Oh Egypt, It’s Close), was taken up during the Arab Spring to become a song of freedom for revolution all over the region.”