Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, click to look inside
The figure of the trapped Muslim woman, which stands at the center of the ongoing national debate on Islam, contrasts sharply with her representation in medieval European literature, where mainly male writers depicted her as a queen or a princess, often larger than life. Tellingly, Don Quixote de La Mancha, first published in 1605 and considered by many to be the first modern novel, is also the stage for the arrival of a veiled Muslim woman in Western literature. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “harem,” which came to be understood as a domestic penitentiary, an extension of the veil and its architectural double, entered the English language in 1634. Earlier, “seraglio,” a derivative of the Persian word saray, meaning palace, was used for Muslim women’s quarters. Demoted from a palace to a prison, the forbidden space warded off as it seduced. It appalled as it lured. Simultaneously, it represented sexual abandon and incarceration.
The emergence of the Muslim woman as prisoner in Western literature coincided with a time when work spaces and living spaces were becoming more differentiated in Europe, and the ideology of a “public sphere” for men and a “private sphere” for women was gaining ascendancy. Even as more Western women found themselves thus constrained, the sex-segregated space of the harem symbolized an absolute loss of freedom of movement that appeared worse in comparison. Embellished with a certain charm and allure, the Muslim woman was invoked in order to demonstrate denial of civic freedom. She was an expression of the conflicts and ambivalences engendered by the processes of modernization, a projection perhaps of suppressed European self-doubt and self-criticism.
The recent spate of memoirs and autobiographies involving Muslim captors and their native or non-Muslim victims, a mutant category I call “hostage narratives,” puts a new and fascinating twist on the familiar theme of women’s captivity in the Islamic world. It is no longer mainly Western men who recount the tales of confinement, but women who recount them firsthand. This is no longer an image foisted upon women; rather, it is self-perception. It is authentic. It is women’s own longing to escape, their own urgent plea to be liberated. The hostage narrative relies on the authority of personal experience, shares an insider’s perspective and commands more trust and legitimacy. Written in English, addressing Americans directly and concerned with national and international security for good measure, this category of literature fetishizes the veil.
With that in mind, I’ve become fixated on this bit of the Boston Globe’s review of Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, which is prominently located on the first page of my copy:
Like Anna Karenina, Madam Bovary, and especially Middlemarch, this novel glories in the 19th-century arts of description, characterization and episodic detail. Like Leo Tolstoy, Flaubert, and George Eliot, Soueif exposes her heroine’s inner life to searing scrutiny. Unlike other Arab Muslim women writers, Soueif deals with Asya’s sexuality, and the complex sexual and emotional dynamics with the men in her life, in candid, even blunt terms. In the Eye of the Sun provides a sympathetic look from within at Egyptian Muslim culture and family life: at the interactions of Egyptians at home with each other, and with Westerners on European soil.
To be clear, I don’t think it’s a good analysis or description of the novel at all; it’s not totally misleading, but neither is it particularly insightful. What it is is a nice demonstration of the discursive catch-22 the novel is both about and through which it’s also inescapably mediated. It is about things that are often not talked about, but the other kind of trap is speaking about things which are silenced without beings locked into simplistic and overdetermined fetish narratives of liberation and veils, and what’s marvelous about the book — one of the things that’s marvalous about the book — is how adeptly she manages it. Even if “unlike other Arab Muslim women writers” and “candid, even blunt terms” are very poor ways to describe what makes this book singular, there is something about how she does what she does, how she threads the needle, that is remarkable.
And at this point “remarkable” is the best I’ve got, but I’m beginning with that Globe review as a place-holder for the wrong way to describe the book: the thing that makes the novel brilliant is, it seems to me, something very different than its importation of the narrative engineering of 19th century realism, something much more like the ways it metaphorizes that very importation — not least in moments where a character says something like “this is real life, not a novel” — and the way, at some level, the incredible inadequacy of the realist novel as vehicle of liberation seems to be precisely the point. As the Eliot quote at the beginning powerfully underscores, sometimes that which is unsaid is unsaid for a reason, or at least, sometimes, saying the unsaid is precisely not the way to resolve the problem that silence represents.