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Fadia Faqir: Pillars of Salt
In some respects, this might be called a Jordanian feminist version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The story starts with two women in a Jordanian mental hospital, sharing a room, and under the care of an English doctor and Jordanian staff. Though Jordan had been under English occupation, by this time the English had gone. The two women, we soon learn, are a Bedouin woman, Maha, and a woman who had been born in Syria but had left Syria as a child, as her father had been fighting against the French who had then occupied Syria, and the family had settled in Amman, where she had spent the rest of her life. The chapter headings for her refer to her as Um Saad (i.e. Mother Saad, Saad being her married name) but her first name is Hanniyeh. The novel is their stories and what led them to the mental hospital (we only really find out at the end). It is told in three ways. Maha’s story is told by herself, in the first person, but also (with a very different and critical point of view) by Sami al-Adjnabi, who is referred to as the storyteller. It is not clear if he is a local who spies on Maha or if he is some kind of goblin. Hanniyeh’s story is told by herself, recounted to Maha as they lie in their beds in their room in the hospital. Indeed, their discussions lead to some criticism from the hospital authorities for talking too much and more than once they are drugged to keep them quiet.
Maha is the daughter of Sheikh Nimer and Maliha. She has a brother, Daffash. Both she and her father are devastated when Maliha dies. Though a woman in a very patriarchal society, Maha is tough, brave, passionate and hard-working. Her brother is something of a disappointment to his father. He is lazy, doing no work on their farm (much of which is done by Maha), does not hunt with his father (which Maha does), does not go on raids and hangs out with the well-to-do, particularly the English occupation forces. He enjoys the high life and is a womaniser. Early on, he rapes the innocent shepherdess, Nasra. There are virtually no consequences for him but it means that she will never be able to marry, as no Bedouin man will marry a woman who is not a virgin. Maha has an admirer, Harb. He is everything Daffash is not, tough and brave. He frequently goes on raids, against other Bedouin tribes but, more recently, against the English occupying forces. It is inevitable that they will marry and they do. Maha is a passionate woman and, apart from a hiccup on the first night, everything works out well between the two on the passion front. What does not work is that she does not get pregnant, which is a serious problem both within the family but within the tribe as well. She goes to a folk healer, who tries various folk remedies, apparently without success. Meanwhile, Daffash is partying while Harb is fighting the English with his fellow tribesmen. The English, of course, have the technology that the Bedouin do not, specifically, planes and tanks. Harb is wounded in the shoulder and, when he recovers, the tribe are betrayed by a spy and massacred by the English. Maha is devastated but has mixed feelings when she realises that she is pregnant. Daffash, now the ruler of the house, welcomes her back to the family. Maha looks after her son and her father and cares for the crops that Daffash has neglected and Sheikh Nimer is too old and tired to tend. But when the Sheikh finally dies and Maha receives a proposal of marriage from another sheikh, things start to go badly wrong for her.
Hanniyeh’s story is much simpler. Her father is a tyrant but she survives, till Muhammad want to marry her. Her father rejects him out of hand for, though he is a Muslim, he is a Circassian and not suitable. Eventually, he finds her a husband, Abu Saad, an older man, who is fat and ugly. She has no choice but to marry him. Eventually, she will produce nine children and work hard as well. And, eventually, he will take a new, younger wife and she is treated as a lowly servant. Naturally she will resent this and, like Maha, will end up in the mental hospital.
Faqir’s story, of course, is how even the mildly independently-minded woman in Jordan (and, presumably, elsewhere in the Arab world) is treated not much better than a chattel. She cannot do the things she wants to do and is capable of doing, she is completely subordinate to the men in her life, even if they are worthless, like Daffash and Abu Saad, she is discarded when she is older or widowed or raped, and she is brutalised by men. Faqir’s skill is not to rant about this but to incorporate it into a story that uses Bedouin myth, a hint of postmodernism and a gift for story-telling, though never letting go of her message. A fine book that should be better known.
First published by Quartet in 1996