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Ahadaf Soueif, is a Cairo born, Egypt and U.K educated, writer, predominantly of fiction. She got major attention with her novel, A Map of Love which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.  A re-collection of earlier volumes of short fiction, titled I Think of You (my review) was published in 2007. She is also a translator of Arabic to English.  The Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah, came out in 2003 in her translation. (The Independent review).  What is of interest for this post is her non-fiction –political essays and literary and cultural reviews– as collected in Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground (Anchor, 2005)

Though somewhat dated most of the pieces are still relevant, and well worth reading.  I’ll comment on a few more below the fold, but the one I want to draw your attention to, as most enlightening for us still, today, and indicative of her thought and presentation is titled The Language of the Veil and was written for the Guardian, Dec 8, 2001.

“…having refused many times  to write about ‘the veil,’ I am now trying to put together some thoughts about the ‘dress code’ of Arab or Muslim women.  But I immediately run into problems.  Muslim women are not all Arab.  The conditions of Iranian women are different from those of Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and now, famously, Afghanistan.  And they are all different from the Arabs.  And not all Arab women are Muslim.  Thirty years ago, you could not have told whether an Egyptian woman was Christian or Muslim by her dress.  In Palestinian villages you still can’t tell.  So whose dress code shall I talk about?  Where? The clusters of women you see around the shops in Knightsbridge, tented in black, their faces muzzled with leather-and-brass-beaked masks, are from the Gulf States and would (and do) look equally out of place in the shopping malls of Cairo and Beirut.  Similarly, the women with layers of black chiffon over their faces and Jimmy Choo slingbacks tripping out from under their black abayas are Saudi, and their face coverings send a different signal from those of an Egyptian or an Algerian.  So let us say, for the moment, that we’re looking at the dress codes of Egyptian women.  Let us say further that the women we will look at will be urban.

…one of the pioneering feminists, Malak Hifni Nasif, wrote in 1906 that the veil was, so to speak, a red herring.  Her view was that the question of the veil was central in the debate about women’s place in society only because the West (personified in Egypt then by Lord Cromer) had made it so.  She urged that reformers should concentrate on questions of education, health and economic independence — i.e. the opportunity to work outside the home — and let the veil take care of itself.  In the Cairo of the time, women covered their hair with a tarha, a thin material in either black or white.  For their faces they had a choice of the white yashmak, which was drawn across the face under the eyes and connoted the aristocracy and their imitators; the bisha, which could be casually thrown over the whole face and was neutral in class terms; and the burqu’, a rectangle of the same fabric as fishnet stockings that was hung from under the eyes with a small decorative gold or brass cylinder at its centre over the nose.  This last was very much the accessory of the bint albalad, the ‘native woman’ of the working or lower middle class, who had no desire to imitate the yashmak or bisha-wearing ladies. …

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the tarha was generally worn by women of the working class and by traditional women over, say, fifty of all classes.  The burqu’ could still be glimpsed as a piece of exotica in some popular districts of Cairo, but the bisha and the yashmak were to be found only in sepia photographs.


There is much more to her essay — about the entanglements with the West and how its fashions have weighed in the Egyptian woman’s sense of image and thereby, meaning, to herself and to those who see her.  If only to read this essay find Mezzaterra in the local library or bookstore; plenty of used copies available.

There are plenty of other essays and review of interest as well.  The opening section is called Political Essays.  A 2004 title will immediately arrest your attention:  The Torture Started at the Top. It is an impassioned look at what the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib reveal, first published by the Guardian.

“The images those powerless naked bodies brought immediately to my mind were the images from the Nazi camps: groups of naked Semitic people controlled by a small number of clothed and armed whites. … I have not [however] come across photos of SS women officers laughing and pointing at Jewish genitals.”

The media in this country is politely shocked.  BBC’s newscaster says the pictures seem to have been ‘merely mementoes.’  That’s all right then.”

BBC commentators and British politicians have also been reminding us that the soldiers’ activities ‘do not compare with Saddam Hussein’s systematic tortures and executions’ —  a statement which draws the very comparison it pretends to deny.  The greatest democracy of our world is being compared with the tyrant it invaded Iraq to overthrow.  Saddam Hussein is now their moral compass.

“The world needs to see the photographs coming out of Iraq, not as ‘deviant’ but as an authentic message from the heart of the thought system that is seeking to control our planet.”

In the longer section titled Literature, Culture and Politics there are many review of books you may have read, or heard of at the time.

In the Beggars’ Cell (1986) –  is a review of Nawai el-Sa’adawi prison memoir.   And though Sa’adawi is a forerunner of hers as a female Egyptian writer, she is not afraid to say what she sees.  “The criminal prisoners assume a mythic stature.. they come to life under Sa’adayi’s touches … What is curious is the same can’t be said about her treatment of her own cellmates .. All of them are distinguished, fighting, articulate women who … are here reduced to the role of a chorus providing background for Sa’adawi’s courageous outspokenness.”

She also does a nice translation critique, which is not often done by reviewers of translated languages.    “Marilyn Booth has crafted a stylish and precise translatoni — no simple feet when working from Arabic to English.. [but] there are problems [which make us wonder]   “This can work in a certain rhetorical Arabic style– but in English?


Soueif really slams Oriana Fallaci’s : Inshallah 1992.. her contempt for Arabs, and particularly Muslim Arabs…


In Women: The Battles that have not Been Won a 1992 review of Susan Faludi’s Backlash, and Marilyn French’s The War Against Women…she  shows herself to be conversant with and part of western feminism.. She praises their work but bemoans their sometimes over-the-top rhetoric…

In Palestinian Writers 2004 she introduces us to several women from Gaza and the West Bank. Liana Badr’s – Balcony over the Fakahani (1983) established her as a major Arab writer.  Adania Shibli talks about the “kind of autism” she has to go into in order to write in the conditions of the West Bank.  This would be a good short introduction to someone wanting to start reading Palestinian, female writers.

And not only these.  She also writes lovingly of Genoa, Italy, with familiarity with Jean Genet and William Golding, and particularly Edward Said, with whom she was good friends..

For more current essays go to the Links tab on her own web site.  You’ll find an interview on Democracy Now, and notes from Tahrir Square in Cairo last month — with a video of some women there.

In The Language of the Veil she mentions Four Women of Egypt as “a brilliant documentary exploring the lives, arguments and friendship of four very different women.  It isn’t yet at NetFlix, though it is equally commended by others, here, here and here.  If I locate a copy I’ll let you know.  Meanwhile, here is a YouTube film using a similar organizing idea.  The sub-titles are sometimes hard to see, but seeing ‘regular folks’ talk about their lives is the only antidote to the pernicious spread of anti-everything-not-like-us now racing around the world.


p.s.  Want to internet shop for a veil?  Try alhannah.com or ArabAmericanMuseum.org For more on the history and variations you can take Wikipedia with the usual grain of salt and for a recent compilation of laws regarding head coverings around the world, HuffPo has it all.