Ibtihal Salem. Children of the Waters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 124 pp. (paper), ISBN 978-0-292-77773-6
Children of the Waters
By Ibtihal Salem
Introduction and Translation by Marilyn Booth
Ibtihal Salem's writing offers an anchorage--to borrow one of her own motifs--from which to regard Egyptian writing today. Over nearly thirty years of her writing life, she has moved toward what the eminent novelist, poet, and critic Idwar al-Kharrat has called "writing across genres." Her meteoric stories hover somewhere between the narrative demands of story-telling, the immediacy and visuality of vignettes or film takes, and the compressed depths of prose poetry. Salem's writings are difficult to classify. She is not alone in this experimentation, of course; prose poetry, for example, is a popular form of writing among Egypt's literary avant-garde now. Salem's writings evoke a literary ferment in Egypt today that is producing an outpouring of intriguing cross-genre writing. Balancing social messages and textual experimentation in varying ways, the thirty-five texts in this collection span Salem's career to date, from the early 1970s to the close of the 1990s.
Ibtihal Salem's writing reminds us of how visible women are on the Arabic literary scene, and this volume joins a growing body of writing by Arab women available in English translation. In Salem's writing "generation"--those who began to write and publish in the 1970s--as well as in the two-and-a-half literary "generations" of Arab creative writers that have followed, women are prominent voices, as novelists, short story writers, poets, playwrights, and critics. Salem's stories bespeak the centrality of gender in the cultural construction of Egyptian identities and experience(s) today. Most of her stories link the pressures of poverty to experiences of gender marginality--as Vivian Gornick, in another context, has put it with an edgy lucidity, "the damnable injustice of being born inside a body categorically destined for exclusion from the world enterprise." Yet, the women of Salem's stories--who range in age from early adolescence to the end of a long life--celebrate the heritages that have shaped their identities as much as they resist aspects of them.
Salem accomplishes this critical celebration by rewriting the Egyptian folk tale, and the long history of women's storytelling, in "Songs from the Tree's Core," "Passages," "Palm Trees and the Sea," and other stories. She is not alone, for interest in the turath, "the heritage," whether of popular and folk cultures or of the high literary and religious tradition, underlies the literary strategies of many writers in Egypt today, women and men, new writers and seasoned ones. Recently, Salem has pursued this interest in a different vein by writing stories for children, creating new "folk tales" for a new generation.
Concerned with communicating across generations, in her writings Salem also explores generational difference as a thematic and structural foundation for narrative. A young protagonist--an adolescent or a young married woman--will try to resist the social burdens that older women have chosen to take on and negotiate. Yet in Salem's stories, the younger woman's "negotiation" encompasses the gap between a resistant internal monologue and an outward silence. She resists, but her muteness reminds us of the strong pull of social compliance. The young girl in "February" cannot speak to her mother openly of her desires. Her resistance is physical, but it is also silent. The young mother in "Behind Closed Doors" knows the pressures of an extended family of in-laws; and it is she, rather than her wayward, husband who must bear family "honor" on her shoulders and preserve social pretense. Or, Salem's protagonists may be slightly older mothers, observing painfully the consequences of poverty on children without choices. Distance and silence may characterize the relationship, but--as in "Work Gang"--there is also unspoken connection, support and sympathy from those around, and a quiet, agonized love tested but not broken in hardship.
Indeed, for Salem writing is affirmation as much as it is critique. Both qualities mark the writing act as essential to her selfhood. She has said that--
writing creates a kind of psychological balance in the face of the many social, political, and economic transformations [that we are encountering in Egypt now].... For me, writing has long represented an exquisite sense of existence, beauty and self-realization. When I distance myself from writing for any length of time, I become frustrated and mentally confused. When I return to it I feel as if I've been born anew. Sometimes when I finish writing a story I take a long breath, comb my hair, and put on my nicest clothes, as if it is a holiday. These are simple moments of joy that make me feel as if I deserve to live.
But her stories do not romanticize the world that they affirm. Salem is particularly skilled at interweaving the perspectives of young and old, of listening to the world through children's ears and then bringing the adult world to bear upon that sensitivity. Her stories thus open questions that Egyptians today cannot ignore. What happens to moral frameworks when there is no money for food? How do material pressures shape, and stifle, creativity? What is the future for a demoralized middle class? Why does "woman" become the symbolic receptacle of social order and honor? Anda vital thread winding through modern Arabic literature-how does the continuing failure to satisfy Palestinian national aspirations permeate the everyday lives of millions of not only Palestinians but also Arabs throughout the region? Attending to contemporary global politics in a few stories, Salem suggests how the ongoing fallout from the Gulf War can become an agonizing and humiliating detail of mundane existence. In "My Friend Patriot" and "Fire," the hovering presence of Katyushas and Patriots becomes one dimension in a character's struggle to define self and future. In today's world, the ways that global politics contour personal selfhood and collective identities, which we ignore at our peril, must enter the domain of the short story.
Born in 1949 in Egypt's capital city, Ibtihal Salem is a child of Cairo. But at the heart of her identity as an Egyptian lie the waters of sea and river: the Nile--Egypt's lifegiver as Herodotus declared so long ago--the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea. After graduating from Ain Shams University in Cairo with a B.A. in psychology, Salem went to live in Port Saïd, native city of the husband she had met at the university and the setting of many of her short stories. Sitting astride the Canal and the Mediterranean Sea, Port Saïd has been a busy entrepot since the mid-nineteenth century when the Suez Canal was constructed. Geographical and historical continuity surface in the city's late twentieth-century manifestation, for it is Egypt's first duty-free zone. A story that appears elsewhere in translation, "City of Cardboard," summons Port Saïd's blend of free-port capitalism, sailors' haven, and lower-middle-class Egyptian daily life to portray the currents of Egypt's national economy in the mid-1980s. Booming for some with its new emphasis on imports of luxury goods, that economy was leaving many others behind. It is a prescient story, given the further developments of the last century's final decade as so glitteringly visible in Cairo's well-lit facades now.
Salem lives part of the time in October City, one of the "new towns" ringing Cairo through which the Egyptian government has tried to practice an urban version of desert reclamation, and part of the time in Giza, still home to the Pyramids but also a densely-occupied Cairo suburb. Yet, she continues to travel to Port Saïd and to other coastal towns, whence she has drawn much of her literary energy. Port Saïd, though, is also the hub of a difficult past: a war front, a family split by war injuries and underground political work, a child born in conditions of internal exile, and a constant reminder of both the colonialism and the cosmopolitan merchant activity that have marked Egypt's near past. Salem's novel Blue Windows (Nawafidh zarqa', Cairo, 2000) takes up this history. This novel, her first, won third place in the 1998 "Literature of the October War" Egypt-wide competition. In Blue Windows, the forces that have shaped Port Saïd--and Egypt--sculpt the extraordinary outlook of a young female protagonist who thinks of herself as a male, and refers to herself as "him." For the socially prescribed attributes of femininity cannot represent her story of political activism, personal separation and loss, hunger and desire, and connection. In the company of other writers of her generation who have moved from the short story to the novel in recent years--Siham Bayyumi, Sahar Tawfiq, Radwa Ashur, Selwa Bakr--Salem's novel relates a memoir of social memory rooted in the recent history of Egypt.
Ibtihal Salem's short stories emerge from that sense of social memory and collective responsibility, too. Like those other writers, Salem is not afraid to explore the dangers of identity-based political agendas in a society where economic hardship fuels mutual antagonisms as well as mutual support. Boldly, she alludes to the power wielded by various kinds of authority, especially in her stories about school-age girls. This is the stuff of controversy. Was it coincidental that a sentence mentioning the presence of a priest handing out treats to children was omitted from "Bags of Candy" when it appeared in Arabic? For the little Muslim girl thinks she must borrow a name that is identifiably Christian if she is to get her bag of candy from the priest.
Sectarian identities of any sort are a sensitive topic, even as most Muslims and Copts in Egypt live amicably together. Salem points out the disciplinary force of ideologies whatever their content in other stories. In "Rage," a walled private school run by priests and nuns has its own set of hierarchies into which the pupil is trained. Many Egyptians of Salem's age and class, Muslim and Christian, have attended these private religious schools, receiving their early education in French more than in Arabic. Where lies the source of a returning schoolgirl's alienation? In religious difference? Or in a history of colonization? Or elsewhere? And how do gender hierarchies fuel "Rage"? In "Bags of Candy," too, the authority of the school to define and divide people receives support from the patriarchal hierarchy of the family. "Pangs" alludes quietly to the divisions and communities wrought by politics and sacrifice, evoking a history of political activism that Salem's generation, as university students, experienced. Whether in Port Saïd at the tip of the Suez Canal, Cairo on the Nile, Alexandria on the Mediterranean, or elsewhere, Egyptians have fought on many fronts for internal justice and sovereignty over a land that so many outsiders have sought to control.
Waters mark the very different socioeconomic communities that Egypt holds, too: Nile fishermen and peasants, seafarers and the urban civil servants who make their insufficient livings in the mass of wealth and poverty that shapes the Cairene Nile skyline today, the Mediterranean from across which come many of the patterns of consumption reflected in Cairo's neon. Salem's narratives range across these Egyptian lives: moments, individuals, the dying elderly and the starving but playing child, the teenaged girl and the single mother, the bedroom, the garden, the street, the Catholic missionary girls' school, the printing house. The moments she crafts are anything but isolated from the society-wide political and economic shifts that have left many in Egypt desperate, unable to imagine a future or hold onto a decent present:
Writing is also intense pain. For instance, I'm from the generation [that grew up with] Nasser: I opened my eyes upon joyful dreams and fantastic ambitions. I continued to dream; to read, to imagine a better and more welcoming world through the stages of childhood and adolescence--until I was slapped by the Catastrophe of 1967. It shook me like an earthquake, yanked me apart from the tree [of my identity]. I saw with my own eyes the destruction of my early dreams and the hurt was born inside of me.... writing was the best, maybe the only, support as I tried to stand up again. I learned how art that is beautiful can also emerge from great pain.
If today's young writers are known for an extreme social alienation expressed in fiercely internalized writing where the outside world drops away completely, writers of "the 70s generation" like Salem continue to confront directly through their writing the social forces that most of their countrywomen and countrymen cannot avoid. Often poetic in its compressed language, Salem's writing is rooted in and expressive of the politics of life in Egypt.
Born into a middle-class urban professional family, lbtihal Salem retains the far-flung ties that still bind many Egyptian urbanites to the fields of the Delta and Upper Egypt. Her mother, a villager, raised her to value village practices and to be comfortable with the colloquial Arabic of a world far removed from the urban university where Salem's father taught. Her language juxtaposes the sayings of peasant women newly uprooted from the village with the punning possibilities of a language known for laughter; and this language poses the in-your-face tones of Egypt's fast-growing, young nouveaux riche class against the echoes of Arabic artistic traditions, from storytelling to the highly formal poetry that shaped an early Arab literary identity. In "February" the image of the small, round, firm, and yellow lupine bean, tirmis, a popular street snack in Egypt, is a down-to-earth aunt's metaphor for her little niece's budding breasts. But it yields in the aunt's colorful language to the more "adult" pomegranate, that might bring to mind both the metaphoric fecundity and sensuality of the Arabic ode, and also contemporary Arabic pop culture that bears some echoes of folk expression. If tirmis beans are so familiar as to breed contempt, pomegranates are the sensual future! Yellow to red, hard to soft, mild to tart, plain to sophisticated: color, taste, texture, and symbolic weight communicate a girl's growing up as they evoke shared cultural symbols. In "Passage" and in "Songs from the Tree's Core" Salem draws on the storytelling traditions that have given the world the richness of the Thousand and One Nights, and on the lyrics of childhood songs, to speak about both the shaping and the liberating potential of a storytelling imaginary that draws on a rich cultural past. With these cultural valences and linguistic compressions, Salem is not always easy to read, nor do her stories provide quick closure. Indeed, as noted novelist and critic Edwar al-Kharrat
said in a study written for Salem's first published collection, most of her stories have "endings open to the horizons, to the unknown, to the value of withdrawal, freedom, new embarkations...." The same adventurous openness is true of her latest work, a novel in progress that traces the difficult exiles and transnational odysseys of two hopeful young people, trying to maintain the positive identity of Arab in a world that obstructs multiple possibilities.
After a decade in Port Saïd, lbtihal Salem returned to Cairo. Since then she has worked as a translator (French to Arabic) for the state's radio and television agencies and as an assistant director in one of Cairo's public sector theaters. Widely published in Egyptian and other Arabic-language periodicals, she has brought out three short story collections: al-Nawras (The Gull, 1989), Dunya saghira (Small World, 1992), and Nakhb iktimal al-qamar (A Toast to the Full Moon, 1997), from which most of the stories translated here are selected.
In the present political climate, writers in Egypt--particularly women--may face censure or censorship for openly expressing critical attitudes about the interrelations of everyday life, national policies, and constraints imposed as well as possibilities opened by Egypt's implication in the global processes of twentieth-century existence. Poverty, unemployment, and curbs on labor organization; restraints on free expression and public behavior imposed in the name of religious community; taboos around sexuality and sexual freedom--all are realities of everyday life that today's writers address. Like some others, Ibtihal says she cannot publish all of her stories. Like many other women writing in the Arab world now, she believes it essential to write female sexuality into the equations of fulfillment and frustration that mark daily life on every level. Yet, as pen-wielding women across time and cultures have repeatedly discovered, they are attacked and denigrated for writing sexuality, especially through the all-too-familiar (and not culture specific!) tactic of branding women's writings as necessarily, transparently, and damningly "autobiographical."
lbtihal Salem's stories are not easy to read, or to translate. Their sharp juxtapositions, kaleidoscopic colloquial language, compressed descriptions, and open endings may not appeal to those who seek "sociological" satisfaction in writings translated from the Arab world. Her vignettes capture moments and situations with a suddenness that may be puzzling to readers from outside the society. Because of that, and with Ibtihal's approval and help, I provide brief introductory observations for each story, often drawn from conversations with Ibtihal. These are new; they were not part of the stories' original Arabic contexts. I also incorporate explanations of terms and usages unfamiliar to speakers of English. Through this intervention, I try to set the scene for the reader and at the same time bring reader and writer closer together, while hoping that these fleeting prefaces can fire rather than stifle imaginative readings. It is not easy to enter another world. But I hope and believe this journey to be worthwhile. In the company of generations of writers in Egypt, Ibtihal Salem gives life to the lives bounded by Egypt's waters.
In Egypt today, a growing number of women and girls are practicing the new veiling. They have a variety of reasons to do so, and a range of practices from which to choose, from a simple scarf over the hair to a more enveloping cloak that covers the hair and upper body, or to niqab, a further step adopted by a small minority of "veiled" women, which entails covering the entire face except for the eyes and wearing gloves.
"Some might think they can hide behind heavy cloth, but nothing in the end can veil the emotions. Feelings are the human condition, and it is natural to express and practice them, whether one covers one's head or not. We must free ourselves from sources and symbols of overbearingpower and authority, even if they are mere bits of cloth. "
The sea's touch did not pacify her. She slipped off her shoes and poked them under her arm. The smell of iodine doused her. The screaming of the waves forced itself into her waking mind. Her unbound hair floated away from her and toward the sails atop those distant boats, while the wind toyed with her dress, lifting it to sit meekly beneath. Her bare feet crunched oyster shells and conches that lay flung across the sand.
"You never listen! Here--take it."
She clamped the thermometer between the girl's lips.
"Going down to the sea in February! You're an idiot, young lady!" The loud anger in that bellow expelled an acrid breath full into her face.
She opened one eye, just halfway. She saw her mother's bloated face, mirroring the fleshy body, the rolls of fat that jiggled every time she sputtered her words of reproach.
She tossed her shoes some distance and waded in. The childlike caress of the water's surface tickled her legs. She angled her head toward the sky that had no end and noticed the murky wet ness gathering deep inside the clouds as the dark seagull shapes circled overhead.
Drops pelted her forehead. She stretched out her tongue as far as she could to catch the cold pellets of water. She invited the rain to come along. Lifting the two of them, the waves hurled both her and the rain, her companion, straight into the heart of the blue expanse. Cold and refreshed, she and the rain rose once more with the leaping wave, their delirium washed by salt and the fragrance of iodine.
One day as she was changing her clothes, her aunt had caught sight of her. Her own bosom falling in a sigh, the aunt gazed steadily at her breasts.
"The lupine beans have grown into green apples, and by tomorrow they'll be giving way to pomegranates."
When the aunt's eyes traveled lower, she hid her small nest, a laugh slipping from her pensive, half-closed eyes.
The squat houses on the beach were sheeted in silence and solitude. She ran barefoot, her clothes sticking to her simmering body, her cough getting ahead of her every few minutes.Her mother gave the thermometer a hard shake and smacked her lips loudly in dismay. "Now take us, for instance. Any one of us. We didn't dare even look out the window without getting permission first."
She settled another blanket over her warm daughter.
"You must sweat!" She turned to the door and switched off the light.
"I'll bring you some lemon drink."
Eyeing her mother's shadow as it moved beyond the door, still partly open, she tightened the covers over her chest and brought them up to her chin.
"Mama," she whispered. "I know my temperature will go up, I know the cough won't stop now. But it's just like last time, it's only a cold, and it will go away. Why would it be so awful, though, for you to take off that heavy thing hiding your hair, which is so pretty? Why can't you take off that thick cloth that jails your body and come down to the sea?
"I've never seen you go down to the shore, summer or winter, mama. If you would come once, just one time, mama, you'd fall in love with it. Like I have. Even in the middle of February."
Ibda', 13 no. 4 (April 1996), pp. 79-80
Nakhb iktimal al-gamar, pp. 27-31
Back to Top
© Arab World