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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Salwa Al Neimi's Proof of the Honey

The Complete Review's most recent addition to its ambitious catalogue is Salwa Al Neimi's The Proof of Honey, which will be published by Europa Editions in Spring 2009. CR finds the tale of an Arab woman whose scholarly devotion to erotica is matched by her passionate affair with the Thinker both overdone, linguistically, and underdone, in that it is riven with contradiction, concluding that
one wonders if she'd find all this anywhere nearly as arousing if all the Arabic sexual hang-ups suddenly disappeared.
But in the reviewer's reference to the nameless female narrator's "harping on," I can't help but hear a (symptomatic) misogyny that undercuts the novel's ambitious interplay of textual and sexual pleasures. While Al Neimi is not criticized for writing about sex, and writing sexually, the reviewer appears to want less talk and more bodice-ripping; or perhaps more talk (the narrator fails to husband all of her quotations and arguments into a scholarly thesis) and less sex. Al Neimi is expected to summarize, interconnect and improve Orientalism, feminism, Arab/Islamic gender relations, sex writing, European Islamophobia... all in one novel.

Surely that's an interlocking puzzle that would benefit not only from debate, but from a conversation within and across poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Joumana Haddad has created such an arena with her magazine Jasad (blogged about earlier); like Al Neimi, Haddad is outspoken both about rich traditions of Arabic erotic literature and contemporary Arab women's multiple solutions to, and arguments about, the interlocking puzzle created by a double bind of Orientalism and hardline Islamic interpretation.

It's a double bind as pressing as the one that Peter Ripken observes, in a long and thoughtful essay for Qantara.de on the under-representation of Arabic literature in translation in Europe and America. He points out that, despite few writers achieving the "Mahfouz effect" of a crossover appeal, a certain type of writing continues to attract publishers: books by and about Arabic women. He divides these into two categories, "veil" novels about women's oppression in Islamic societies, and "erotic" writing that is perceived as representing liberation.
There are, however, strong indications that European publishers, and also readers, have fairly strong convictions and pre-conceived ideas of what Arab creative writing should be all about. Titles with the word "veil" are selling better than titles which do not have direct connotations with things thought to be "oriental".

Autobiographies of e.g. women singers, although of a dubious literary quality, find more (women) readers than e.g. the autobiography of Latifa az-Zayyat (published in an interesting series of autobiographies translated into several European languages).

"Women in Islamic societies" is one of the cliché-ridden sales-oriented themes in publishing in Europe which of course also knows fads and fashions. For many years the "veil" has been instrumental in creating a certain interest, also "violence against women" (including novels written by men).

Of late there is a new trend: Arab women writing erotic stories. In some cases the author's identity is being mystified for marketing and other reasons (a recent case is a novel written in French by an unknown North African woman author with the name of "Nedjma", an interesting reference to the title of the famous novel by the late Kateb Yacine) and it is fairly likely that some of these books were not even written by Arab women.
Al Neimi's success bears out this trend: as Qantara reports elsewhere, no Arab book has ever been sold for so much money to foreign publishing houses (in German the book is called Honey Kiss, which leaves a different trace in the reader's mind). The novel's French publisher reports that "Not only did her novel break sales records since its publication (several weeks at #1 on arabicebook.com), it was hailed by dozens of critics all over Arab countries, even including newspapers with ties to Islamic factions (e.g. Al Akhbar, a Lebanese daily linked to Hezbollah)."

It's a sales tactic that reproduces the misconceptions of the Arab world's attitude to the erotic body that the novel claims to set right -- yet the novel makes clear that its narrator is exceptional in her dedication to cataloguing Eros. As Ripken goes on to observe, the veil and the houri, as two clichés of Arab female identity, are flipsides of the Orientalist coin. The dual image of the submissive/sexual woman in the harem is a conjoined fantasy that one could argue continues to appeal to Western readers, perhaps because feminism has complicated gender relations and drawn attention to these clichés. Even the narrator of The Proof of the Honey, an outspoken woman, draws on this appeal; in case a male audience should find the idea of an empowered and desiring woman (in the words of her love, "whose face proclaimed her 'erection' ") threatening, the narrator claims that a feminist "would damn [her] as a slave to male ideology and declare all out war on [her]."

Yet the combination of reverie and essay that Al Neimi presents is squarely in the tradition of l'écriture au féminin, the non-linear and genre-bending writing practice of French feminists seeking ways for women to speak differently. Al Neimi's meditation suggests that the source of that speaking might lie in re-evaluating history -- one's own, and that of the relationships between cultures. Readers going to the book for stimulation may want to open themselves to this intellectual, rather than solely sensual, pleasure.

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