Academic journal article Nebula

Engendering War in Hanan Al Shaykh's the Story of Zahra

Academic journal article Nebula

Engendering War in Hanan Al Shaykh's the Story of Zahra

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The urgency to retrieve memory in many Arab women's writings becomes the impetus to retell the stories of women silenced, marginalized, and excluded by their own communities. There is no doubt that with the retrieval of memory comes the resituating of the body from its condition as an object of male desire, and "its transformation into a desiring force that rejects its subjugation to a narrative of erasure" (Fayad 148). (1) Hanan Al Shaykh's The Story of Zahra (2) is divided into two books. The first book is entitled "The Scars of Peace". In it we find the central female character, Zahra, is silently victimized by the patriarchal structure through its variously ugly manifestations. The second book is subtitled "The Torrents of War". Here we find a completely different character, one who is ready to do anything to stop the war, even if it takes a relationship with a sniper--a symbol of patriarchal war--which ends in her tragic death.

2. Engendering War in Hanan Al Shaykh's The Story of Zahra

My argument is that women are victimized by both patriarchy and war, and the futility of deconstructing the concept of war from within the isolation of patriarchy. For example, Zahra's father is portrayed as a patriarchal tyrant to his wife, Fatme and daughter Zahra, who is ever fearful of him: "(a)ll I knew was that I was afraid of my father, as afraid of the blows he dealt her as I was of those he dealt me; while she continued to tremble and wail in his grip"(15). The attention lavished on Zahra's brother Ahmad as a child reflects the masculine ideals of the patriarchy and the strength of its grip on society. Zahra remembers the behavior of her mother towards her brother.

   Everyday, as we sat in the kitchen to eat, her love would be 
   declared: having filled my plate with soup she serves my brother 
   Ahmad, taking all her time, searching carefully for the best pieces 
   of meat. She dips the ladle into the pot and salvages meat 
   fragments. There they go into Ahmad's dish. (11) 

Such a masculine mentality continues to manifest itself later in the book, in Ahmad's addiction to hashish, masturbation, and goods stripped from the bodies of the dead. Zahra recounts how her own face and her inner psyche become scarred as a result of her society's descent into the abyss of war. In Zahra's early years, we also observe that her brutal father rejected her because she had acne, a symbol of her inner scars. Within this context, Ann Adams elaborates further how the conflicts in Zahra's home truly register on her body: "Zahra's abject and acne-filled face not only makes visible the emotional scars this upbringing has had on the sensitive young girl, but also literalizes the ever increasing gender conflict carried on in society--the 'battle' between men and women for the control and regulation of female bodies" (201). It is a problem that Zahra's father thinks might make of her a spinster with no marriage prospects. This drives him to beat and abuse her mercilessly every time he sees her fingering her pimples.

   He would scold me severely whenever he caught me playing with my 
   pimples.... My father would go raving mad every time he noticed my 
   face and its problems .He would nag my mother sarcastically : "That 
   will be the day when Zahra married. What a day of joy for her and 
   her pock-marked face! (24-5) 

Zahra's father's cruel behavior succeeds only in intensifying Zahra's sense of isolation in a patriarchal society in which she feels discriminated against, unwanted and unloved by the people closest to her. It also reinforces to some degree the patriarchally constructed notions of beauty and idealised femininity. (3) Resisting these patriarchal notions of beauty, Zahra starts a process of self-mutilation, a symbol of her rejection of her society and its conventions. With her nails, Zahra intentionally disfigures her face until the blood starts to ooze from her pimples to such extent that it has become her only reason for waking up early each morning: "(m)y pimples were my only reason for waking each morning. …

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