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Posts Tagged ‘Etaf Rum’

My book group chose to read Etaf Rum’s debut novel A Woman is no Man in May – we meet by zoom to discuss it next Monday.

Etaf Rum is an American-Palestinian writer, and it is easy to see some of her own experiences in her first novel. Rum was born and brought up in the United States but her parents had lived their lives in refugee camps in Palestine. She entered into an arranged marriage at a young age, having two children before enrolling in university. University seems to have opened the world up a little more to Etaf Rum, was doubtless under the sorts of pressures her characters are to stay close to home. In fact, the fate of some of Rum’s characters is considerably darker than her own, reflecting perhaps stories of women in her community. An interview I found online reveals that Rum struggled with the idea that she was betraying her community in her portrayal of certain characters. Yet she felt it was a story she had to tell, she had to speak up for abused women, for herself and for her own young daughter. These stories are necessarily quite grim, women given little agency in their own lives, domestic violence swept under the carpet, hardly venturing outside the house.

“I was born without a voice, one cold, overcast day in Brooklyn, New York. No one ever spoke of my condition. I did not know I was mute until years later, when I opened my mouth to ask for what I wanted and realized no one could hear me. Where I come from, voicelessness is the condition of my gender, as normal as the bosoms on a woman’s chest, as necessary as the next generation growing inside her belly. But we will never tell you this, of course. Where I come from, we’ve learned to conceal our condition. We’ve been taught to silence ourselves, that our silence will save us. It is only now, many years later, that I know this to be false. Only now, as I write this story, do I feel my voice coming.”

It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, exploring the lives of traditionally conservative Arab women living in America. In alternating chapters, A Woman in No Man tells the stories of Isra in the 1990s and her daughter Deya in 2008. Both women born into a strictly traditional Palestinian family – where women’s lives are desperately narrow, revolving around the family, early marriage children and bowing to the vagaries of their men. Both Isra and Deya grow up being told that there are certain things that they simply cannot do because they are not men – any burgeoning ambition is quashed – they must marry, have children, stay at home. Although they live in America, it is drummed into them constantly, they are not American, they can’t expect to live as Americans do.

Isra is seventeen in 1990 when we first meet her – she is living with her family in Palestine – and already her marriage is being talked about. Isra has little choice in the matter – everything is arranged above her head. Guests come to the house – Isra is asked to serve the guests in the traditional manner – one of the guests will be her future husband, recently arrived back from America to look for a wife. She has never met him before. Adam’s family live in Brooklyn, where the family run a Deli – Adam is the eldest son, and much is expected of him.

Married to a stranger, Isra travels to America to start her new life with Adam and his family. Their rooms are in the basement of the family home, where Isra has just one small window from which to gaze out at the sky. Any ides she had of having more freedom in America are quickly dispelled.

“Ha!” Fareeda said. “You think women have it easier in America because of what you see on television?” Her almond eyes narrowed to slits. “Let me tell you something. A man is the only way up in this world, even though he’ll climb a woman’s back to get there. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Isra also learns that even in America a husband may use violence against his wife and no one thinks it is unusual. Negotiating a sometimes difficult relationship with her mother-in-law Isra sets about getting used to being married – four babies come in fairly quick succession, and they are all girls – no one tries to hide their disappointment. Isra is made to feel a failure.

In 2008 Deya is the eldest of four sisters being brought up in her grandparents’ home in Brooklyn. She is eighteen and coming to the end of her time at the Islamic school she attends. Deya would love to go to university, to travel to have some independence, but she has been told over and over that this is not the kind of life she can have. Already her grandmother is talking about her marriage. She has always been told that her parents died in a car crash when she was seven, her memories of Isra are fleeting, she remembers Isra’s sadness though and how she would read to her daughters from the books her young sister-in-law brought into the house. Her grandmother Fareeda arranges visits from a prospective bride-groom – the two young people allowed to sit together to talk and get to know one another. Nasser is a really nice young man, studying to be a doctor – he surprises Deya in a number of ways. However, she really doesn’t want to get married just yet.

So, everything Deya thought she knew is shattered when a note is left for her by a mysterious woman, who Deya thinks looks familiar. Deya begin to question everything she thought she knew – gradually she begins to understand a lot more about the dark secrets at the heart of her family and her wider community. We glimpse something of Fareeda’s past, her life in the refugee camp, her marriage and begin to see something of the pattern that is repeated generation after generation.

“Fareeda knew that no matter what any woman said, culture could not be escaped. Even if it meant tragedy. Even if it meant death. At least she was able to recognize her role in their culture, own up to it, instead of sitting around saying “If only I had done things differently.” It took more than one woman to do things differently. It took a world of them.”

A Woman is No Man is an excellent debut – a really compelling read – that often made me angry. It is important I think that stories like this are told – even if they don’t always make for comfortable reading. This will make for a fascinating discussion with my book group next week.

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