Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
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The recurring themes of this collection of short stories are sexual frustration, pervasive cultural pressures and death. The loneliness and emptiness of the lives of Egyptian women from every class and background are, in particular, well portrayed in an honest and bare fashion. Each and every story in this collection stood out for me and forced me to reflect on the lives of their imperfect characters. The melancholy that dominates the style is so reminiscent of Annie Proulx�s Close Range; with ordinary sad lives racing at breakneck pace from hope to the inevitable acceptance of no fulfillment. Rifaat�s characters, however, illustrate quiet perseverance along with their submission to their fate in a uniquely Egyptian way.
Rifaat is a very sensitive writer capable of conveying so much emotion and graphic detail with very few words. In the � The Flat in Nakshabendi Street� Rifaat talks of an elderly Cairo spinster who has nothing left in life to do but attend funerals and pick on others, she captures the image so well �Everyone else lived in hope yet her own life was a struggle to ensure that the present routine continued forever�.
In �The Long Night of Winter� Rifaat starts with an exceptional setting of the scene, a wife that knows of the never ending infidelity of her husband, �In an instant between sleep and wakefulness, an instant outside the bounds of time, that gave the sensation of being eternal, the sounds of night, like slippery fishes passing through the mesh of a net, registered themselves on Zennouba�s hearing, filtering gradually into her awakening consciousness: the machine �like croaking of frogs and the barking of dogs in the fields answered by the dogs of the village on the other bank in a never-ending exchange of information in some code language�. This first paragraph is typical of Rifaat approach to seducing the reader to relating to and advocating for her characters.
It was unfortunate that Johnson-Davis chose to use �Allah� in lieu of �God� in the English translation, apart from that the translation comes across faithful to the original, with thoughtful and beautiful often lyrical prose.
A number of the stories in the present book centered on women of the peasant or middle class, usually married, living traditionally and devoutly in Islam. Though often emotionally discontented with their lot as women, they coped as best they could, finding quiet strength in themselves and their faith. They weren't in revolt against their faith or society, but contemptuous of the ignorance of those who didn't truly practice their religion or fulfill their social obligations. In an introduction Rifaat's translator, Denys Johnson-Davies, claimed her approach differed from those of her younger contemporaries, the Lebanese writers Laila Baalabaki and Hanan al-Shaykh and the Syrian Ghada al-Samman, whose writing drew some inspiration from the women's movement of the West.
Many of Rifaat's stories touched on sex and death. Her directness in treating sexual themes and women's thinking about them has been called unusual for her time. In one piece, for instance, a wife described frankly her relations with her husband:
"She was suddenly aroused from her thoughts by his more urgent movements. She turned to him and watched him struggling in the world he occupied on his own. His eyes were tightly closed, his lips drawn down in an ugly contortion, and the veins in his neck stood out. She felt his hand on her leg, seizing it above the knee and thrusting it sideways as his movements became more frenzied. She stared up at her foot that now pointed towards the spider's web and noted her toenails needed cutting."
In another, the female character, an old peasant woman, mentioned genital mutilation suffered as a young girl. In the form of a monologue to a daughter, she recounted all her misfortunes as a woman since childhood, ending in her sadness about her life and youth that had "come and gone without my knowing how to live them really and truly as a woman."
In the stories I liked most, the feeling behind the author's writing was quietly and deeply religious, particularly in the face of mortality. Though it was difficult sometimes to accept her characters' resignation to their lot, I often admired the sensibility with which she described them.
In one work, for example, a widow was visited by a man she'd loved in her youth, now an old widower proposing marriage. She felt reluctant at first, but her heart warmed to him, and later she dreamed of him standing in her courtyard, protecting the beloved chickens she was raising. When morning came and the call to dawn prayers sounded, she dreamed she was standing behind him and following his movements as he prayed, and felt content. This was the story in which a man and a woman most closely approached one another and love seemed most clearly felt. At the same time, the woman remembered "there is a time for everything: a time for romantic dreams, and a time for marriage and child-bearing, and a time when God has decreed that you are left alone in this world in order to prepare yourself for the leaving of it."
And in the final story, an old woman relived the happiest of her memories and eventually took leave of life: "The sounds from the next room were drowned by the monotonous voice of a Qur'an reciter. He was reciting the final verses of the Chapter of the Dawn. When he repeated the words 'And enter My Garden,' a feeling of peace flowed over me and I abandoned myself to the hands of the woman."
In the only work told from a male point of view, a middle-aged man returned to the countryside to attend his father's funeral, playing the role expected of him in performing the rites, but recognizing with remorse the lack of understanding he and his parent had been unable to overcome and the hopes on both sides that now were left unfulfilled.
The pieces I enjoyed least were ones where a religious outlook was less prominent and the focus was on unsympathetic characters or naive ones lacking all awareness of misfortune: a complaining, miserly spinster, or a young wife who kept putting her trust in a worthless husband, or a young schoolgirl who didn't understand the sexual games of her sister and a boyfriend. Or what seemed to be merely a confused tale of how a woman drowned in a canal and some believed her spirit had taken revenge on a man who'd been involved.
In many of the stories, maybe the author was trying to show that characters who lacked a firm grounding in their religion would be unable to find any real comfort or peace. It's an outlook I haven't found in that many other writers of the past few decades from other regions.
I finished this short book wanting to read more of this author's writing. Two of her better pieces that don't appear in this collection have been translated into English elsewhere: "My Wedding Night" in Arab Women Writers: An Anthology of Short Stories (2005) and "Another Evening at the Club" in Arabic Short Stories (1983).
Most recent customer reviews
One thing that amazed me about Distant View of the Minaret was that Rifaat,
unlike most other...Read more