Monday, January 10, 2011

58. Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat

Title: Distant View of a Minaret
Author: Alifa Rifaat
Translator: Denys Johnson-Davies
Genre: Fiction/Short Stories/Anthology
Publishers: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Pages: 116
Year of First Publication: 1983 (in translation); 1987 (this edition)
Country: Egypt

Alifa Rifaat is a voice for women. A common theme that runs through this collection of fifteen short stories is the mistreatment of women by men, fellow women and the society. Dealing with these issues, death, frustrations and changes have been used as the vehicle through which the story is told. As a Muslim, Alifa Rifaat, speak not against the dictates of the Quran, as the call to prayer was a phrase that was used in almost all the stories. What Alifa seeks to do is to address the human interpretation of this sacred book, what have been added in patriarchal societies that benefit only individuals with dangling 'appendages'. What society has taken as the import of what this holy book says and how this seemed to be skewed against women and sometimes perpetrated by women.

The stories discuss topics that would otherwise be regarded as taboo subjects in some Muslim countries. For instance the title story, The Distant View of a Minaret, tells of a sex-starved married woman. In this story, as in many others, death is treated as part of life, as an occurrence so that when it happens the people involved are scarcely seen to be mourning the loss but would rather be found preparing the body for burial. Even while writing about such privations, Alifa's characters are keen observers noticing a 'spider's web' in the ceiling and 'toenails [that] needed cutting' when they are by their husband's side. It is such a wonder that in ones period of extreme privations that acute observations are made, for haven't most powerful poems been written by authors who had been incarcerated during the period of the write? Privations are profoundly stated when the woman
No longer ... feel any desire to complete the act with herself as she used to do in the first year of marriage. (Page 2)
Yet, she does not leave behind her religion, her prayer to Allah. According to her
Her five daily prayers were like punctuation marks that divided up and gave meaning to her life. (Page 3)
But how would a woman who has been sex-starved since the beginning of her marriage feel when the husband dies?

Bahiyya's Eyes is a deeply moving monologue that narrates several problems pertaining to women such as the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), men lording over women and the choosing of husbands. It is a lamentful narrative from an old woman to her daughter about all that have happened to her including what she went through when she was caught having moulded male and female figures with their private parts intact
...they took hold of me and forced my legs and cut away the mulberry with a razor. They left me with a wound in my body and another wound deep inside me, a feeling that a wrong has been done to me, a wrong that could never be undone. (Page 9)
and how they didn't allow him to marry the man who loved her. So that when she married their chosen man and she wasn't happy with the marriage she began asking questions:
I wasn't all that happy with him, perhaps because of the bilharzia that was eating away at his strength, or perhaps the reason was what those women did to me with the razor when I was a young girl. (Page 10/11)
We see that though Alifa's characters married young, are not educated and are oppressed, in their intimate moments they are individuals who philosophizes like any other person. Who ask questions because they are smart. This trait of her characters runs parallel with Alifa's life when her desire to attend the university was opposed by her parents and instead forced into an arranged marriage. As a result this intellectual speaks only Arabic and leaving Egypt only to attend the hajj.

In Alifa's world, even the muteness of the telephone could signify death and loss as is told in Telephone Call
And here I am sitting for hours alone in my flat, knowing there is no one to ring, that there is no question of pleading or submitting to any terms, for there is no way of communicating from the grave. (Page 13)
And with this the widow remembers and waits for her husband to communicate with her, which is the significance of the 'forty days after death'. Note that this forty days is also celebrated by Akans of Ghana.

In Thursday Lunch, and unhappy married woman and her mother celebrates the death of the latter's husband, while the former broods over her sex-depleted marriage. In An Incident in Ghobashi Household the husband had travelled to another country to work and the daughter gets herself pregnant, the wife collaborates with the daughter to hide the pregnancy so that in the end it would be
better, when he returns, ... to find himself a legitimate son than an illegitimate grandson... (Page 27)
Again, Badriyya and her Husband revisits the issue of cheating husbands. There are times when some men want the wives of their friends or neighbours and would do everything to get these women and this is the story of Mansoura. In latter story and My World of the Unknown, Alifa delves into the spiritual. In this story, a woman falls in love with a djinn who visits her in the form of a snake. Another story that deals with forced marriages is The Long Night of Winter. However, there are some loves which cannot be extinguished no matter how long it takes. Such is the case in The Kite when two lovers, prevented from marrying while young, found themselves many years later to be single, love rekindled and they married. 

I quote this to give a taste of the beauty, the use of images that are scattered throughout Alifa's collection. 

In an instant between sleep and wakefulness, an instant outside the bounds of time, that gave the sensation of being eternal, the sounds of night, like slippery fishes passing through the mesh of a net, registered themselves on Zennouba's hearing, filtering gradually into her awakening consciousness: the machine-like croaking of frogs, and the barking of dogs in the fields answered the dogs of the village on the other bank in a nerve-ending exchange of information in some code language. (Page 55, The Long Night of Winter)
Hers is a collection that speaks to the marrow, with the capacity to freeze ones attention and open one's eyes to life and how issues of women are neglected by culture and society. I would recommend Alifa's collection unreservedly to anyone who wants to read from the perspectives of women in this region. What makes Alifa's works significant and unique is that she discusses all these without rejecting her belief, as most writers or 'revolutionaries' are apt to do. She is first a Muslim and then a writer, and this is what makes her work worth reading and her words worth listening to. It is devoid of prejudices and narrow-mindedness. Her writings are bold in their own way and clearly she tells what she wants to say without mincing words.

Brief Bio: Fatma Abdullah Rifaat, 1930-1996, was born in Cairo to a well-to-do architect and his wife. Raised in the countryside, Rifaat was a precocious child who demonstrated early her gift for writing. By the age of nine, she had written poetry describing "the despair in our village," and for which she was punished. Rifaat attended the British Institute in Cairo from 1946 to 1949. Despite her wishes to continue her education, her father forced her to marry a mining engineer; this unconsummated marriage lasted eight months. In July 1952 Rifaat married a cousin, Hussein Rifaat, who was a police officer and with whom she had three children. Traveling with her husband for his work, Rifaat had the opportunity to observe Egyptian life in all its diversity.

Rifaat began writing again and published a short story in 1955 as Alifa Rifaat, a pseudonym she used until 1960, when her husband demanded she stop writing altogether. For more than a decade, she complied with his wishes, during which time she avidly studied literature, science, astronomy, and history. After a bout of illness in 1973, her husband permitted her to resume her writing. Beginning in 1974, she published a number of short stories in a literary journal, followed by a collection of short stories, Eve Returns with Adam to Paradise (1975), and a novel, The Jewel of Pharo (1978). She continued to publish short stories through the 1980s following the death of her husband. In 1984 Rifaat won the Excellence Award from the Modern Literature Assembly. She has contributed nearly one hundred short stories to Arabic and English magazines, and her work has been produced for television. Her novel Girls of Baurdin was published in 1995. Distant View of a Minaret, published in 1983, is her best known work in English. (Source)

Distant View of a Minaret
Bahiyya's Eyes
Telephone Call
Thursday Lunch
An Incident in the Ghobashi Household
Badriyya and Her Husband
Me and My Sister
The Long Night of Winter
My World of Unknown
At the Time of the Jasmine
The Flat in Nakshabandi Street
The Kite
Just Another Day

ImageNations Rating: 5.5 out of 6.0


  1. I would get this soon. I thought was a novel but rather a book of short stories. I clearly see her voice for women in ur review. THE AFRICAN CHALLENGE IS ON! GREAT!

  2. @Geosi, it is definitely on and I am enjoying it. Couldn't have been better.

  3. this sounds like a fantastic book - I hope I can find a copy here at some point :)

  4. @Amy, this is a book I know you would LOVE. The subjects covered fall in your domain, I tell you. It's not religious at all. Not in the least.


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