‘The Female Suffering Body: Illness and Disability of Modern Arabic Literature’ reviewed by Madonna Kalousian

‘The Female Suffering Body: Illness and Disability of Modern Arabic Literature’ by Abir Hamdar (Syracuse University Press, 2014).

female-sufferingFrom Evelyn Accad’s Sexuality and War (1992) to Nawar Al-Hassan Golley’s highly condensed theoretical elaboration in Arab Women’s Lives Retold (2007), and more recently Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens (2015) to mention only very few examples, female sexuality has assumed a central focus in contemporary Arabic literary criticism. Although the body arguably remains one of its most celebrated and contested notions, narratives and readings of the female body seek to define and\or regulate the female body on the basis of ethnicity, gender, class, or sexual orientation. This review will examine the ways in which Abir Hamdar’s reading of the body, its form, and (dis)function in The Female Suffering Body not only produces a critique of this long literary tradition, but also raises a very important question about the discourses the body produces within contemporary Arab culture.

Hamdar’s analysis of a number of literary works by both male and female Arab writers is informed by theoretical discussions of feminist, cultural, and postcolonial studies, as well as the medical humanities which, in particular, is especially determining her own unique articulation of the concept of the body. Hamdar explores the interrelation between subjectivity, nationalism, postcolonialism, and female disability more broadly, setting up a polyphony of readings that overlap, contest, and digress from each other. How can writing about disability give Arabic literary criticism a new opportunity to explore the ways in which the body mediates individuality, notions of integrity, and sense of self? How much can medical humanities add to Arabic literary criticism? Who assumes the prerogative of (re)writing the female body within the discursive space of the illness narrative? It is in the context of these questions that Hamdar’s The Female Suffering Body becomes particularly valuable.

Hamdar’s critical engagement with the concepts of ‘illness,’ ‘sickness,’ and ‘disability’ in the introduction lays out the groundwork for understanding the politics of illness and the poetics of the illness narrative that emerged in Arab male and female writing from the early 1950s to the present. The first chapter of her book, entitled- ‘The Silent Subject,’- examines the way in which a number of Arab male writers, including Mahmoud Taymur, Yusuf Al-Siba’i, and Ghassan Kanafani represented female physical illness from 1950 to 2000. During this period, the physically disabled woman is positioned outside the major events of the plot, given minimal narrative voice, and represented in such a highly metaphorical or symbolic fashion as to render the physical dimension of her illness impenetrable (p. 24).

The female suffering body was conceived of as a subject narrative of sin and redemption, was a symbol of the (fractured) nation, or was situated entirely within the traditional parameters of the patriarchal domestic sphere. It is through these three modes of rare, yet significant, unrepresentation that the female suffering body is positioned, and it is at this point of her reasoning that Hamdar makes a significant reference to Judith Butler’s concept of materialisation with its ethical, political, and ontological connotations. Questions of when female bodies matter, of ways in which silence makes female bodies come to matter, and of who gets to take over the multiplying empty spaces that their absence are deeply embedded in Hamdar’s analysis at this point.

While female physical illness is hardly represented in Arab male writing, it is not represented at all in Arab women’s writing from 1950 to 2000. Returning to the very familiar trope of the sick mother in works by female authors including Colette Khoury, Huyam Nuwaylati, and Hanan Al-Shaykh, Hamdar’s second chapter accounts for the ways in which female physical disability is stigmatized for its failure to live up to a traditional patriarchal idea of womanhood shared by men and women. However, it is when this literature starts to explore the mother-daughter dynamic and add to the new realities it has gradually brought about to the textual embodiment of female illness that Hamdar identifies ‘a radical counter-history’ (p. 91) in the Arabic novel. The daughter now acknowledges her mother’s illness, identifies with it, and is able to speak out for and of it.

In order to further explore this transformation, the third chapter, entitled ‘Re-Writing the Suffering Body’, studies three authors publishing their work between 2000 and the present. Hassan Daoud finally deconstructs the politics of the gaze that has physically and aesthetically framed Fadia’s traumatized body, Betool Khedairi reveals the shifting gender balance in modern Iraqi society, and Haida’ Bitar reveals the extent to which a pre-illness, ‘healthy’ body was denied subjectivity.  and is now able to fully (re)write its own story.

Daoud, Khedairi, and Bitar, along with other narratives acknowledging and exploring the embodiment of the self, have so much more to say to us about the suffering (fe)male body in the changing geopolitical realities of Arab World today. This is not to say that it takes a female suffering body to say something about the Arab World, but this is where Hamdar’s conclusion is more pressing, more valid, and more valuable than ever before: ‘what will be the fate of the female suffering body after the “Arab Spring”’ (p. 134)? The question is left unanswered, and I do find it is rather ironic, yet understandable, that, not unlike the precarious (fe)male suffering body in the Arab World today, the book also ends in silence, one that bears a message for today’s readers and probably an ominous one!

Reviewed by Madonna Kalousian, a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

Correspondence to Madonna Kalousian

Works Cited:

Accad, Evelyn. Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East. New York: New York University Press, 1990.

Al-Hassan Golley, Nawar. Arab Women’s Lives Retold: Exploring Identity through Writing. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2007.

Eltahawy, Mona. Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2015.

Hamdar, Abir. The Female Suffering Body: Illness and Disability in Modern Arabic Literature. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2014.

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