- Elizabeth Drahab (Editor)
Voices in the Desert: An Anthology of Arabic-Canadian Women Writers. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Nasrin Rahimieh
This anthology features the work of nine Arab-Canadian women writers; eight of the writers represented in this anthology live in Quebec and write in French. The Arab-francophone writers’ choice of language does not necessarily reflect accidents of migration, but rather a colonial heritage that rendered French the language of education and status in countries like Algeria, Lebanon and Egypt. Dahab suggests that a multilingual writer “is chosen by the language which, for subconscious reasons, at a certain point of time, she feels closest to . . . the onset of her decision as to the choice of language, I believe to be, as a rule, spontaneous and involuntary.” Nevertheless, we cannot escape realities of decisions taken at the time of immigration: “Arabic-Canadian writers [who] immigrated to Canada between 1963 and 1974 inclusively. . . . settled mostly in Quebec and Ontario in this order.” In contrast, the Arab writers who immigrated to Canada at an earlier age such as Rubba Nada, the only Anglophone represented in the anthology, settled in English Canada.
There is, of course, a larger context beyond this anthology, of which Dahab speaks succinctly in the introduction. She states: “Roughly 15% of Arabic-Canadian literature is produced in Arabic, while 60% is written in French, and 25% in English.” Dahab has opted to call all writers of Arab origin Arabic-Canadian rather than Arab-Canadian, although Arabic would more appropriately designate the language of literary expression, rather than the accompanying heritage and culture.
Dahab is to be congratulated for her selection of authors, who represent a diversity of nationalities and religious backgrounds. They hail from Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, and Syria and are Coptic-Orthodox, Catholic, and Moslem. They have also settled well into their new homeland and they have contributed richly to its literary and cultural life. To quote Dahab: “They write plays or documentaries for Radio-Canada or Radio-Québec; they are radio-announcers, film-script writers (Nadia Ghalem), stage directors (Mona Latif Ghatttas) or write for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (Anne-Marie Alonzo). They contribute to newspapers, literary magazines and reviews.” In short, they are becoming part of the literary institution.
The poetry of Anne-Marie Alonzo, Nadine Latif, and Yamina Mouhoub has been translated capably from French and conveys the aura of the original. In each poet’s work, we encounter a different manifestation of exile and cultural displacement. Alonzo’s poetry is allusive, while Latif ’s poetry weaves together the concrete and the mythical. Mouhoub draws on all the senses to evoke some of the sharp contrasts in living two sets of memories and histories.
The prose pieces take up similar themes of exile. Sometimes an eerie sense of isolation and emptiness intrudes, as for instance in Nadia Ghalem’s “Blue Night” and Mona Latif Ghattas’s “The Double Tale of Exile.” The sense of being out of place is equally powerfully conveyed in pieces such as Abla Farhoud’s “Dounia-A-World,” which depicts an older woman’s anguish about a future bereft of the presence and company of the children she has raised in Canada only to find them distant and different from herself. Andrée Dahan’s “Spring Can Wait” and Rubba Nada’s “Daughter of Palestine” also take up cultural anxieties about the visible and invisible differences that erect barriers between Arab-Canadians and their compatriots. We glimpse the anger and the frustration experienced by young women struggling to integrate the past and the present and to retain an identity sometimes at odds with the norms of the dominant culture.
Yolande Geadah’s “Veiled Women, Unveiled Fundamentalism,” the only essay in the collection, tackles one of the thorniest issues concerning the visibility of Arab-Canadians of Muslim origin. The debate over the veil has a history that has long been entangled with the history of modernity and modernization in the Arab and Islamic world. For Geadah, the central issue becomes the apparent infiltration of fundamentalist thought among young women who willingly adopt the veil. It is difficult to address this complex issue in a brief essay. As many have argued, Islamic fundamentalist movements, harmful and misinformed as they might be, are byproducts of the colonial legacy that remains the unspoken subtext of most of this anthology. Geadah’s polemic is a most apt reminder of the anxieties that accompany any new immigrant group’s arrival. Not unlike the Arab-Canadian women writers striving for visibility and recognition in their adopted homeland, the veiled women will continue to struggle with the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate visibility and difference.
- revolushun in the t.dot by T.L. Cowan
Books reviewed: rivers . . . and other blackness . . . between us by d'bi.young .anitafrika and 40 dayz by d'bi.young .anitafrika
- Omnia vanitas by Nathalie Warren
Books reviewed: Les gens fidèles ne font pas les nouvelles by Nadine Bismuth, Scrapbook by Nadine Bismuth, Histoires de s'entendre by Suzanne Jacob, and L'espèce fabulatrice by Nancy Huston
- Quêtes féminines by Sylvain Marois
Books reviewed: Le nombril des aveugles by François Landry, Mademoiselle J.-J. by Louise Turcot, and Zig-Zag by Laurette Lévy
- Childhood Lost by Cedric May
Books reviewed: Am I Disturbing You? by Sheila Fischman and Anne Hebert and The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Sheila Fischman and Gaétan Soucy
- Feminist Paradoxes by Marie-Thérèse Blanc
Books reviewed: Settler Feminism and Race Making in Canada by Jennifer Henderson
MLA: Rahimieh, Nasrin. Emerging Solitudes. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 116 - 117)
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