Always Coca-Cola by Alexandra Chreiteh (tr. Michelle Hartman)

a nutshell: Abeer, a 20ish-year-old woman from a conservative family in dusty Beirut, lets us into the concerns preoccupying herself and her friends (think: virginity/pregnancy, sanitary pads, appearances)

a line: “Should I wait for an Always pad to fall from the heavens like rain, or a white dove, flapping its wings that keep the moisture from leaking out onto my clothes?”

an image: a boy informs Abeer that just as lemonade has three essential ingredients – water, lemon, sugar – so does a woman have three attributes; she must be a virgin, a wife, and a mother, in that order (blergh)

a thought: even with its attempts at humour, this is a sad novel voiced by a young protagonist with a blinkered attitude to women’s rights & essential freedoms; also, the second half contains a harrowing incident that is somewhat skimmed over

a fact: according to the blurb, the book received a stormy response in Lebanon (“an electric shock … grave social anomalies”) despite Chreiteh centring the book around Abeer, rigidly conservative & dogmatic, with her friends as the far more progressive characters

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The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal El Saadawi (tr./ed. Dr Sherif Hetata)

Nawal el Saadawi's The Hidden Face of Eve

a nutshell: published in 1977, this landmark discourse on women in the Arab world is as disturbing and compelling as ever – probing FGM, sexual violence/suppression, fertility, marriage, injustice, sex work, religion, history and literature

a line: an extract from Article 67 of Egypt’s Common Law on Marriage here typified the prevailing attitude to women – “No alimony is liable to a wife if she refuses to yield herself to her husband … is the victim of a rape … or if she is suffering from any condition which might prevent the husband from utilising her as a wife”

an image: though the opening scene of Nawal’s own circumcision made a profoundly indelible impression, another image that stayed with me was her depiction of Arab feminist writer May Ziade’s exceptional mind & tragic end – personal setbacks prompted relatives to force her into Asfouria Hospital for Mental Diseases where eventually a report proved she was of sound mind; she returned to Egypt and died alone, aged 55, in a small flat in Cairo 

a thought: Nawal often returns to an essential paradox in how girls are brought up in the Arab world – the insistence on the need to attract an eligible husband, but simultaneously to put her ‘dangerous seductiveness’ out of sight

a fact: scholars have uncovered many depictions of women as the same size as men from the preliminary stages of ancient Egyptian society, indicating gender equality; a subsequent decrease in their size in such drawings/engravings corresponds with the appearance of private property (2420-2140 BC) – Nawal also points out that among ancient Romans the word ‘familia’ constituted a man’s possessions i.e. land, houses, money, slaves, women, children

 

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