Oil tanker, Persian Gulf
Participating in an Arab Book fair and Palestinian Week, organized by the Paris-based Institute of the Arab World, Sahar Khalifa was celebrating the first printing in French of her novel “Bab as Saha”. Published by Flammarion, every available copy of the book was sold out in ten days. “Bab as Saha” is being hailed by French critics as a classic of Arab feminist litterature.
“Since I published the “Memoirs of an unrealistic woman in 1986, I am now a professional feminist”, she says jokingly. She explained how had she arrived at such an unusual title: “Every time myself or other dreamers want to change the reality, we are told by our friends and family to “be realistic”. So, the women who dont accept the status quo are “unrealistic”.
Sahar Khalifa (born in 1941) has published six novels: We are not your slaves anymore (1974), The Cactus (1978), Sunflowers (1980), Memoirs of an unrealistic woman (1986), Bab as Saha (1991) and The Legacy (1997).
“Bab as Saha”, begins as a chronicle of the daily life of ordinary Palestinian women in the city of Nablus. Several characters are immediately introduced to the reader: Zakia, an old, traditional, midwife. Samar, the young university graduate daughter of a baker, who has a good job, with a salary based on the shekel (the Israeli currency). And Nouzha, the daughter of Sakina, killed by the hooded freedom-fighters. The only male in the story is Houssam, a young man who spends much of his time, with like minded friends, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the Israeli soldiers during the daily street battles of the Intifada. The Intifada is a permanent background as Sahar Khalifa’s story unfolds.
The tension rises sharply, as these characters face each other at Nouzha’s house. Structuring her novel like a dramatic play, Sahar Khalifa sets most of the action in a single room of Nouzha’s house, where the book’s protagonists confront each other, two by two. The young Houssam overhears the discussions from the next room through the chink of a door... as in a Shakespearian tragedy.
In one of the finest chapters of this excellent book, Sahar Khalifa allows one of her characters -- Samar -- to take the role of social researcher as she persuades Nouzha to tell “objectively” who she is, revealing details of her family background and income, as well as how, at the age of 15, she was forced into marriage with a man she did not love, reflecting the experience of the author herself, who was also forced into a loveless marriage at the age of 18.
Sometimes, the discussion looses its “objectivity” and tensions build to almost unbearable levels. One such occasion occurs when Nouzha shows Samar all the jewels given her by her “clients”. It suddenly becomes clear to Nouzha that Samar is a prostitute and the house in which they are sitting is where she conducts her business.
“Dont believe it is only Israelis who come here”, she tells Samar contemptuously, before going on to list a number of well known Palestinian men of Bab as Saha, including Ouajih Abdelqader who, it transpires, is the father of young Houssam, who is listening to the women’s conversation from the next room. “Some people say that using these social studies techniques in litterature is not good but I do not agree”, says Sahar Khalifa. “I am the only writer speaking about the social structure of the Palestinian society, other writers are evading it”. Why? “Because they enjoy privileges in the status quo”, says Sahar Khalifa with a wry smile, adding: “Men traditionally focus on the political rather than on the social, since they are not the ones in pain”.
Though an ardent Palestinian militant and a strong feminist, Sahar Khalifa never depicts her characters as being wholly “good” or wholly “bad”. “The Intifada revealed to me how destructive war is. It exposes the worst side of us. The world was seeing us as dynamic freedom-fighters -- something like David versus Goliath -- but this was a superficial view. During the chaos diorganised young men applied measures that were neither for the liberation, nor in the best interests of the country. They made themselves judges of other peoples’ lives, playing the role of police and court, often exterminating people they alleged were traitors”.
In Bab as Saha, the author describes Nouzha looking in a mirror and discovering a wrinkle on her young face: “She mused about her life which slowly wasted away, about her future frozen by the strikes, the mournings, and the curfews. No work, no activity, no real home, no children, no charming prince who would rescue her from the total wreck that was her life”.
It is true, says Sahar Khalifa, that “during the Intifada, women were everywhere, in the streets raising their voice, while the male leadership was in jail. The women became the leaders of Palestinian society in the political sense”. But now that power has dissipated.
“My book tells the secrets, the hidden levels of woman oppression. On one hand she is required to play the role of liberator, on the other hand, she is asked to continue to play the traditional cultural role she has played for centuries”. Bab as Saha is full of scenes showing how badly some Palestinian men treat women: “You want to hear the truth”? Zakia, the old midwife, asks Samar: “Frankly, nothing has changed, except that their old misfortunes have increased. More misfortunes and their hearts are burning. Pray God to help the women”.
And indeed when Samar returns to her home after a curfew of nine days that kept her locked in Nouzha’s house, she is savagely beaten by her elder brother Sadeq while her mother curses her. “Here, in this house, she was nothing more than an insect caught in a spider’s web”, writes Sahar Khalifa. In another scene, Oum Azzam, Houssam’s mother, arrives at Nouzha’s house and tells Zakia, Samar and Nouzha that she has decided not to go back home after 30 years of married life with Ouajih. She is, she says, fed up of being beaten by her husband. “You must go back home”, warns Zakia to her sister-in-law, “you have nothing else”.
“Another consequence of the Intifada”, Sahar Khalifa explains, “was that the fundamentalists became stronger. In one interview I gave at that time, I spoke out against the veil saying: “They veiled her, they minimized her”, which, in Arabic, sounds quite nice. However the fundamentalists were furious and held the comment against me. They named me at the Friday prayer at Al Aqsa, saying that I had to be stopped. They also spoke against me in two mosques in Nablus. I was scared”. “
But despite her fears Sahar Khalifa refuses to be silenced. “We, the women, we are really afraid of the expansion of fundamentalism, because we have seen what happened in Afghanistan and in Algeria. I believe the West is sincere about being worried about the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab world”, adds Sahar Khalifa, “but on the other hand the West is helping corrupt Arab regimes which are not working in the interests of their people. Keeping these dictators in power is affecting our society in a very negative way”.
However, Sahar Khalifa points out, hope is a diminishing resource. “What”, she says, “is left for people who used to take refuge in socialist ideas? Only fundamentalism. The West is accusing us of being backward, of being unsecular and out of date, but they don’t want to look at the intricacies of the situation. So we look at the West with suspicious eyes”.
Bab as Saha was first published in Arabic in 1991, at the beginning of the Intifada. Today Sahar Khalifa is more preoccupied with what happened after the Oslo agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis was reached -- which she describes in “The Legacy” (Al Mirath), published last march in Arabic, Sahar Khalifa describes it as “the most bitter book I have ever written”.
Summing up what the Oslo peace agreement brought her, Sahar Khalifa is quite bitter: “I expected that we would be getting the beginning of a State, that we would be liberated. Now I see it as a vicious conspiracy, a lie, a farce. Since Oslo we have suffered more intensive confiscation of our land and our country. The West Bank and Gaza, is split into cantons. Since Oslo, I have never been to Gaza, it became really difficult. The economic situation has worsened, the money the European Union used to give to NGOs is now channeled through the Palestinian Authority which has a large number of soldiers and policemen to pay.
During the occupation, we knew which was the right way to go, we had to fight. Now, of course, we can gossip, but we cannot raise our voice without expecting to be punished by the Palestinian Authority: it is a devilish situation in which we put ourselves”.
These days Sahar Khalifa is spending more and more of her time away from Nablus, in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Why? The answer is both clear and terrible: “Before, I could take all the harassment because I had hope. After Oslo, after witnessing how our Authority is directing its responsability, I felt my hope was fading. Now I feel that if there is any glimmer of light at all, it won’t be during my lifetime. I expect a lot of blood and a lot of chaos”.
(The Middle East magazine, September 1997)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002
(Work in progress)