A Radiant Woman

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Battling cancer, the literary establishment and at times the world, writer and journalist Nemat el-Behairy ruminates about life, death and triumphing over misery

By Manal el-Jesri
Source: Egypt Today

Agreat number of the women want to preserve their one remaining breast. The [letter] noon of the feminine is of no use in this tragic reality we, the one-breasted women, live in. So we come in single file, or in groups, to receive our share of radiotherapy, to go back out into the streets as radiating women who had previously received chemotherapy, which is worse than the illness itselfeach one of us has reached the expiry date of her ability to seduce, according to the standards of the mothers, grandmothers and folklore,” writes Nemat el-Behairy in her latest novel, From the Journal of a Radiating Woman, published last October by Maktabet el-Osra (The Family Library) in association with the Ministry of Culture.

Her book, which received a warm welcome from both literary and medical circles, documents el-Behairy’s struggle with breast cancer and is the first literary account addressing living with breast cancer written by a female Arab writer.

I confront my problems with writing. I wrote Radiating Woman to help me face the disease, but I was surprised that it was met as an unprecedented experience in Arab writing.”
Art has become like potato chips. People’s tastes are dictated by their stomachs, which have been corru! pted by American consumerism.
Oddly enough, like all of her works, finding a copy is like searching for a needle in a haystack — the Ministry of Culture, el-Behairy’s publisher, only printed a few hundred copies of the book, and these copies were only distributed to be sold at certain ministry outlets. With so few copies published and gaining so much popularity, it is no wonder that el-Behairy’s book has sold out. Her previous works, a novel entitled, Ashgar Qalila Enda El-Monhana (A Few Trees Around the Corner) as well as her short-story collections, are also difficult to find because of limited production. Many fans who were not lucky enough to own a copy have located excerpts of her work on several literary blogs that extol the book’s brilliance.

An Uphill Battle
Since her book was released last fall, her fight against breast cancer has been gathering clout in the public arena. Just two months ago, el-Behairy submitted a letter to the prominent Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama, telling him about her troubles getting medical compensation for her chemo. Salama then published the letter in place of his column. The letter got a lot of attention, especially when readers reali! zed that she was the same writer of the highly acclaimed novel, Ashgar, which drew upon her own experience as a woman living under the oppressive regime in Iraq before occupation. For readers to hear she was facing yet more oppression and especially in a time of illness was shocking.

Mohsen Allam
Writing short stories is el-Behairy’s true passion.

El-Behairy, who had to receive her treatment in government hospitals, compares her experience there to that of a concentration camp. “Disease is a cruel journey, but the cruelest thing about it is the bureaucracy of the hospitals, and officials’ feelings that have frozen toward people’s suffering. Em! ployees, doctors, technicians, nurses, have all acquired a rough coat covering their feelings, like a crocodile’s skin. They do not care. They tell you, ‘Go up, come down’ and drown you in horrible bureaucratic details. Do you deal with the illness, or with their stupidity? I used to say I am a writer, but then I thought, why am I different from Omm Khalil or Omm Abbas, they have the same rights as me. So I stood in lines, but then it has gone on for too long.”
Although her letter certainly did not fall of deaf ears, el-Behairy was disappointed with the overall effect it had—things, she reassures, have been better since her letter was published, but only for her. “You scream, and then they [officials] run to solve your problem, but your problem alone. I wanted everybody’s problem to be solved, not Nemat’s only. Now when I go to get my chemo, they keep me away from the crowds in an air-conditioned room, so I do not get to see all the problems going on and start complaining again. So I don’t say anything,” she says.

How is she doing now? “One year after the operation, it [the cancer] has reappeared in the bones. But I have come to terms with my fate, and have decided to fight to the last minute. My colleagues, the women writers, have stood by me: Hala el-Badry, Siham Bayyoumi, S! hawqia Hifzi, Wafaa Helmi. Resistance is the most important thing now. I am a human being and I have a project. I will keep at it until it ends, or until life ends, whichever comes first,” el-Behairy says.

Positive Thinking, The Best Therapy
“It [the book] tackles an area of a woman’s body that is perceived in the Arab region as a thing for pleasure. Thus, if a piece of flesh is carved out of a woman, the world loses balance. But I said no, I am a human being. If a piece of me is carved out, the world will still go on. I wish women w! ould learn this. A girl must not grow up thinking she is a piece of flesh. We must instill positive thinking in girls’ [minds],” she says.

El-Behairy herself is a study in positive thinking. We visited her in her cozy apartment in one of Sixth of October’s more remote districts. Overlooking her small garden, which she proudly shows to us, she says, “I love my balcony, I feel alive when I sit here and look at the garden.”

One of the upsides of being ill, she finds, is rediscovering one’s self, and discovering who your true friends are. “I discovered how much people love me, and I have drawn on this love. People I never considered [close] stood by me, yet others I had considered pillars of my life just crumbled and disappeared. I have taught myself since long ago never to stoop and pick up whoever falls away from me. But I have been blessed with better people who have shown me that life is worth fighting for.
“Now, I consider each day a compl! ete gift. I wake up, look out at the greenery, at the street, and I exclaim ‘God, I am alive’. Each day is a lifetime. I suffer, but everybody suffers, I just deal with it simply. What complicates matters is when cancer turns life into a transit station, and the patient believes she is a transit passenger, and when people start to treat you as a potential corpse.

Add to that the myths and legends which control people, who suddenly see you as a sheikh in a shrine. They call and tell me, ‘Pray for us,’ this from relatives I had not heard from in years. I think I should start a shrine project, and collect money to buy an apartment, especially that I am no regular green shrine, I am a woman,” she jokes.

El-Behairy’s predicament has helped her see the world and people more lucidly. “People are in a terrible crisis, and are completely controlled by a bunch of preconceived ideas about life and illness, which are all wrong.” In her mind patients surrender to cancer only when their negative thinking prevails, coupled with their relatives’ misconceptions. Chances of survival, in her opinion, would greatly increase if conditions for cancer treatment were more humane. “My friends and even relatives are bored. [I was] a dead person who was not willing to die or wake. That is when I decided to deal with life in my own way, resisting through my writing.”

Labors of Love
For el-Behairy, life has been a struggle, only this struggle has produced beautiful books instead of frustration. Her first novel was the result of a political struggle; this one is the result of a physical one.

“Life was never enjoyable for me. It was never easy, ever since I was a young girl. Life is cruel. I did not want to be an employee or a tame wife, I wanted to marry someone I loved, I wanted a job I loved. I was able to do neither, so I decided to face this with the only thing I do love, which is writing. I wanted to be a writer and write a different writing, which has nothing to do with anybody else. I have disregarded the writing legacy — men’s legacy — in writing completely. In Ashgar, Arab readers and critics said I was able to do what even Iraqis could not do, in resisting a hateful fascist regime which turns people into tools. I was writing about my own experiences. Fiction is minimal in this book, although it is not a biography, but a work of art. It took me 15 years to write it in its complete form. First, I wrote it as chapters, and then published these as short stories. Years later I decided to deal with it as a novel. You see, reality does not need to be doused in euphemisms and false classical language. A reader needs to see clear ideas. I am against 300 or 500 page novels. I believe a novel must be concentrated, like a flash that shocks the eye,” she says.

The Politics of Publishing
Best known for her short stories, el-Behairy sadly believes there is no longer a demand for this genre. “Publishers tell me, give us a novel and we! will pay you anything you want. But my short story talent is [in my blood]. I even write the novel with the spirit of a short story. Ashgar lacks the sequence of a novel; it is a group of units that you then connect together. I have never signed a contract that says this is the way a novel, or a short story, should be. Beethoven said, ‘Do not hold me accountable to laws. I compose first and then laws are written to fit my art,’” she says.

Yet sending a collection or a novel out to be published is never easy. “I deal with myself as a critic. I always go back to my writing and rework it. For! something to go into a newspaper is one thing, publishing work in a book is different. A book has its own aura, its own rituals,” el-Behairy explains.

Getting a publisher to publish her work is another story, but el-Behairy, confident of her talents based on the critical acclaim her works receive, believes she has been marginalized. “It is often female writers who work in the media who get the most attention,” she points out. El-Behairy is not alone in this. “There is a whole group of us female writers who have been marginalized. We work in jobs that have nothing to do with culture. We were not included in the Mak! tabet el-Osra project, were not invited to seminars, and our work was published by the most [obscure] of publishing organizations. Readers are surprised to know I have a collection called Nisf Imraa [Half a Woman] or Al-Asheqoun [The Lovers]. Nobody is able to get a copy of Radiant Woman now that it has sold out. Doctors had discovered it and bought many copies to give to their patients.

“The thing is, I do not believe in physical existence [in literary circles]. I believe I should exist through my books. I do not visit this person and that person and then go to seminars. As a result! , it took me 30 years to make a name which is this big,” she says as she makes a virtual pea-size with her index and thumb.

In protest of such politics of publishing, el-Behairy and her colleagues started a group they jokingly called the Black Duck Writers group. “We saw that all the attention was going to writers who were close to those in power, and who came from the cultural aristocracy. These are the white ducks, while we are the black ducks. We declared our mutiny, and suddenly were attacked by writers who claimed we had inferiority issues and that we just wanted media at! tention. But the declaration of the group did create real interest, and even some male writers wanted to join us. But we were infiltrated by the white ducks, who attracted one black duck at a time, giving her money, publishing her work, so she would defend them. As a result, I decided I was no longer a black duck, I am a fat white duck and I will only defend Nemat el-Behairy. I discovered that anyone who wants to say anything real will be marginalized, not just the female writers,” she says.

The Politics of Art
Considering el-Baha! iry’s endless talent and popularity, it was surprising to find out that only a few of her works have been translated. In fact, only isolated short stories have been translated, and never a complete collection. This was particularly perplexing when considering that both her novels would not only translate easily but would resonate with a large audience being that they deal with human suffering.
Yet this does not upset el-Behairy, who seems almost glad that her work has not been translated. “I am not concerned about translation. I will probably welcome it if it will bring me some money to face life. I respect the European reader, but unfortunately, I feel that the focus goes to novels that serve the Western mentality. Mo! st writers who are translated work according to a Western agenda.

This is not me. I focus on real writing, which pleases and surprises and even shocks. It is very easy to get translated, but I will not be me. I write to be myself. I do not want to write about the oppressed girl or the woman in the niqab, or about religious bias. I want to write about our reality, about the real issues of people who can barely survive. I am happy with the margin I reside in, but I am certain that real readers who have some sense of justice know who Nemat el-Behairy is.”

It seems she is more concerned with the newfound shallowness of our culture, and would rather write to salvage what little appreciation for art remains. “Culture has become nothing but a product. Anybody who thinks a little deeper is ostracized. This is why I failed at writing drama for the screen. I wrote one script that was turned into a television movie, and was welcomed by directors. I sold the script for a series, but it was never turned into a show because I cannot write about jealous wives or cheating husbands. “Art has become like potato chips. People’s tastes are dictated by their stomachs, which have been corrupted by American consumerism. Film, music, talk shows, they are all about entertainment only. Satellite channels provide nothing but empty entertainment, or religio! us programs that scare people and promote the culture of death. This is why the culture of death rules, not the culture of life. After I became ill, I did not cry, yet people kept saying you must cry. Why should I cry? I have decided to deal with my problem in my own way. We have forgotten about the art of life management. All we care about is the crust. Couples getting married concentrate on the apartment, the wedding and the furniture, but once they are alone, they discover they have no common language. This is why divorce rates are so high. Education, culture, and media are responsible for this. “‘Why should you think? We will think for you,’ regimes tell us. ‘All you have to do is eat and drink, we will give you art and culture.’ Appearances are all that matter.

This concern with money and artifice currently affects her on a very tangible level. “The man who bought my apartment from the original owner has never set foot in it. Now he wants to kick me out to get more money, although I have accepted his demand for rent increase. He probably wants to save money to give his son LE 1 million, at the same time compromising my humanity and his own.”

Ironically eno! ugh, the writer who came to Cairo from Iraq seeking refuge faces the danger of being evicted from her home by other, richer Iraqis, whom her landlord would rather rent to (Iraqis, seeking refuge in Cairo, have raised the rent value in many districts).

The idea of losing her home scares the writer. “I love the view, the walls, the place. I feel that it helps me overcome my crisis. I love my neighbors. My upstairs neighbor is a musician who loves carpentry. I joke with him that I should have lived next to a carpenter who loves music.”

Taking it all in stride, el-Behairy insists that all she is going through will help her produce good writing. “I am working on a nice idea. It is about the life of a female writer in a society that is only used to reading newspapers and magazines. One must not be overwhelmed by the state of collapse around us. We have to confront it. My project is not over yet. This world around us must be rewritten through art. Even the apartment problem would make a great book. Imagine living in a place which keeps changing landlords. Each comes with new conditions, and all is controlled by an ignorant broker who only wants to make money at the expense of everyone. It makes me laugh sometimes. Imagine going to the police and to court to discuss the apartment having just received chemo. How very humiliating. Yet I say if the world decides to destroy you, at least do not help it. I am working on the literature of small irks, which consumes my creative power. Yet I am determined to turn it into real art.”



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