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Heinemann Educational Publishers.

Evelyne Accad, Wounding Words, Cynthia Hahn, tr. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1996. 183 pp. Paperback $13.95.

Evelyne Accad, one of the leading feminists in the Arab-American community and in the Arab world, is a fiction writer, poet, singer, and social critic. In her third novel, Wounding Words, the narrator and protagonist is Hayate, a Lebanese-American whose personal history largely parallels that of Accad. Hayate is on leave from a teaching position in the U.S. and is spending a year in Tunisia on an U.S. scholarship to study emerging Tunisian feminism and its formidable struggle in the face of Islamic patriarchal tradition. The novel is both a very sensitive portrayal of Tunisian society, mostly from a female perspective, and also a poignant description of the plight of the minorities in the predominantly Muslim Arab world. As a Lebanese-American, an Arab Christian, and an advocate of Western feminism, Hayate is obviously a very intriguing and highly sensitive character. If it were not for her clear-eyed humanism, Hayate would have fallen victim to ambivalence towards her own identity--a tragic ambivalence that plagues and spiritually paralyzes many minority individuals all over the world in their interaction with the dominant cultures.

Despite her awareness of the sharp binary opposition that has for centuries violently precluded the mutual appreciation between the West and the Islamic East, Hayate is determined to walk a fine line in Tunisian society, embracing what is essentially human and humanistic in both the West and Islamic East. Profoundly in love with Arabic culture, Hayate tries, throughout the novel, to inspire Tunisian women to fight for their human and civil rights in the face of resurgent Islamic fundamentalism that is determined to abolish even the little that Tunisian women have gained. Most of the Tunisian women Hayate encounters are highly educated and intellectual: they use their writing and their limited social space to critique and subvert the dominant patriarchal paradigm in hope of liberating all women. Hayate, Aida, Ahlame, Afafe, Nayla, and other women activists all have distinct feminist approaches, yet all know very well that without full liberation of women there will be no free society. Many feminists in the no vel argue that Marxism, a popular ideology of liberation in the Third World, unfortunately ends with the liberation of the working class; it has no provision for the liberation of women. To Hayate, the oppression of women seems to transcend social class and nationality. She seems to suggest that it is false consciousness that motivates some women to identify with nationalistic and patriarchal ideologies, ones that only continue to legitimate women's oppression.

The feminist awareness of the detrimental impact of patriarchy, whether Western or Middle Eastern, on the human integrity of both men and women is actually informed by the innovative, even rebellious, novelistic form of Wounding Words. Similar in many ways to African American Jean Toomer's Cane (1923)--a collection of poems, short stories, drama, and sketches that are united by one theme--Accad's novel is a collage of poetry, prose, and scholarly discourse. Most of the chapters open and end with poems, as if Hayate herself senses that peaks of passions naturally seek a more poetic language. The systematic destruction of the monogenre symbolically suggests the rejection of totalitarianism in celebration of natural pluralism of humanity. Further, by collapsing the conventional literary genres, Accad succeeds in grafting onto the Western novel form storytelling elements from the oral tradition of The Arabian Nights and the maqamat where poetry and prose are usually interwoven. [Maqama, p1. maqamat, is a classic al Arabic literary genre, developed in the tenth century, and was usually composed in collections of short independent narration written in ornamental rhymed prose with verse insertions, which shared a common plot-theme. (See Meisami and Starkey's Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature. London: Routledge, 1998)]

In addition, the narrative topography itself suggests the dynamics of the struggle of the Tunisian women and their innermost desire for a freer self and society. In many of the most memorable and moving scenes, the reader becomes aware of the oppressive male gaze invading female bodies in the public space, which in the novel is inherently a violent, male space. The only space in the novel that is peaceful and safe for women can be found in the sea, not only the literal sea, but the sea of imagination, which constantly counterpoints the suffocating public space, and in music which is used in the novel to objectify the inner female landscape. The sea and music, Hayate (or Accad) seems to feel, become the virtual objective correlatives for her feminist vision of a liberated self. Significantly, when the landlord attempts to sexually assault Hayate in chapter 13, the sea disappears because Hayate is forced to seek help from the US Embassy, whose personnel immediately come to move her away from the landlord and i nadvertently away from the sea and of her privacy. While joyfully empowered when she "recognizes American efficiency" (p.121), Hayate is deeply troubled because "she is not sure any more that she did the right thing by calling the embassy. She does not want to be labeled with what the United States represented in Tunis: imperialism and domination/oppression" (p.121). Although she succeeds in defeating the landlord, Hayate is very disturbed that she has to choose to use American colonial power, which is the maximal male power, against a native male power. The collateral damage of this moral and political compromise is Hayate's sea and the room of her own. Her sterile life in an American house away from the sea, a house which provides efficient security but at a heavy price:

She closes the door and examines the place. It is spacious and comfortable. The furniture is American taste. Hayate learned the embassy imports everything from the U.S. The furniture is massive and heavy, comfortable and practical, but totally lacks the aesthetic quality and life necessary to create an ambience. In the kitchen, there is the enormous American refrigerator with its enormous freezer and the enormous stove with its pilot lights--a useless waste of gas in this country where people live without necessities and do not even have the equivalent gas consumed by pilot lights or any appliance to cook with. The lodging is reduced to consumer goods! All of this disgusts her. Why did she agree to come here? But did she have a choice? (p.125-6)

Hayate's political and moral dilemma epitomizes the complex situation of many feminists in the Arab world, probably in the entire Third World, in which they have to simultaneously fight male power and colonial power. Yet Hayate is clear-eyed and is able to see the whole political picture of power whether patriarchal or colonial and does not hesitate in order to survive to play one power against the other. The issue of Arab nationalism and American citizenship does not blind Hayate to the fact that both concepts are essentially symptoms of male drive to control and to own: American racist treatment of Tunisian men and women is not different from the landlord's treatment of Hayate or of the treatment by rich Tunisians of the poor (p.124).

Throughout Wounding Words, the plot is driven by the conflict between women and male power represented by tradition and institutions. To Hayate and other major women characters, this conflict transcends nationalism, religion, and class. The novel therefore offers a lucid and sensitive depiction of the complex interactions of feminism and Islam, Arab nationalist struggle against Western colonialism, and the impact of class struggle in Tunisian society on the feminist movement.

Saadi A. Simawe is Assistant Professor of English, African American, and Middle Eastern literatures in the English Department at Grinnell Collage, Iowa.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Simawe, Saadi A.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Previous Article:Political Islam and the New World Disorder.
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