Social history disguised as memoir

BEIRUT: Rajaa Nehme starts her newly released autobiography, “Memoirs of a Shiite Woman,” with Surat al-Fatiha – which begins “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim” (conventionally translated as “In the name of God, the Generous, the Merciful”).

Using the opening verse of the Quran to commence her memoir suggests the author has been caught in the wave of religiosity ravaging Arab countries.

Yet the opening gesture of the Lebanese novelist and semiotician is as misleading as the title of her sixth book. Everything about Nehme’s work catches readers by surprise, subtly yet systematically destroying any preconceived ideas you may have about the author and the plot.

If you are an avid reader of those popular accounts of oppressed and crushed Arab or Oriental women, you will be disappointed by this work, as will those voyeuristic readers on the hunt for the indiscretion and exhibitionism that memoir generally has to offer.

Nehme’s 415-page autobiography is not structured around the plot of her own life. Rather it chronicles the rarely tackled political and cultural history of her hometown, the south Lebanese port city of Tyre, from the final years of the Ottoman rule up until the Israeli invasion of 1982.

“On the first day of the [Israeli] invasion of the city,” she writes, “residents were ordered to gather on the shore ... all the men from age 12 to 80 were forced to kneel and crawl on the sand. Israel did not realize that it’s from that same shore, where [its soldiers] forced Lebanese men to kneel, that a ruthless resistance [movement] will be born.”

“Memoirs of a Shiite Woman” is also the story of Wehbe Nehme, the author’s uncle, who immigrated to the United States after a tragic love affair with Bahia, a Christian girl from Tyre, at the turn of the 20th century.

In the very rare passages that Rajaa Nehme devotes to her persona, readers learn that she has long been a revolutionary, who lobbied against Israeli occupation of Arab lands, and a leftist humanist, whose favorite childhood pastime was collecting icons of Mary and Jesus.

“Despite many obstacles we faced, my generation was really lucky,” she writes. “Watching the world change and actively taking part in making that change happen is immensely gratifying. Backward systems will continue to collapse. Justice will prevail and the mistakes committed by some revolutionary regimes will be fixed. Yes you are a leftist revolutionary. You are the center of the world and [Paris’] May 1968 revolution speaks in your name!”

Yet the author is also a critic of blind infatuation with the West. When Nehme touches upon her experience as a doctoral student in France, she criticizes the French education system as “elitist” and unnecessarily strenuous.

According to Nehme, she felt compelled to write “Memoirs of a Shiite Woman” dur to growing levels of sectarianism in the Arab world, that and a certain degree of accumulated experience and maturity she attained.

“The only pre-independence historical period we are taught at schools is when the Christians and the Druze massacred each other in the [Chouf] mountains in the 19th century,” she told The Daily Star in a telephone interview. “This is unfair to all the other communities and areas that make up Lebanon, because in the end we all share the same history and struggles.”

The author says “Memoirs of a Shiite Woman” is also meant to cry out against racism and pigeonholing. “I was revolted recently when a childhood friend, who supposedly knows me on the back of her hand, asked when I plan to take the hijab.”

The memoir describes how she will always be bothered by the recurring “Are you really Shiite?” interrogation she hears from several friends and acquaintances – as though Shiites all fit into one mold. Yet she says her book is not concerned the Shiite community alone.

“I admit that the title of the book is provocative and I meant it to be this way because my goal is to rectify misconceptions and stereotypes,” she explained. “When I talk about women collectively taking off scarves they were forced to wear to cover their hair and honor crimes, I’m examining phenomena that affected the Lebanese across the religious spectrum and not only the Shiites.”

Despite the universality of topics she treats, Nehme still manages to offer a novel perspective on the culture of Lebanon’s southern regions.

Unlike more intimate accounts of south Lebanon written by other female authors such as Hanane al-Sheikh and Alawiya Sobh – whose style and themes of discussion are as drastically different from each other as they are from her own – Nehme succeeds in detailing the psychology of this region’s residents.

“I am against the blurring of the public and the private,” she said. “Even if I’m writing an autobiography it doesn’t mean I have to resort to sensationalism.”

Nehme’s depiction of south Lebanon and its residents is subtle and suggests several explanations for their current choices and stances. She writes that southern women’s decision to wear the veil again in the early 1980s – after their mothers shunned it some 20 years earlier – was more of a political statement than a religious one, since at the time effective resistance against Israel was being carried out by Islamic groups.

“The older generations thought that [women] taking off the hijab was definitive and that there won’t be any going back,” she writes in one of the footnotes in the book. “Decades later, the scarf will reappear again in parallel with women’s engagement in public life and political struggle. In the 1980s the veil became a political symbol par excellence, namely in south Lebanon.”

Nehme’s account on the evolution of Ashura rituals from discrete yearly celebrations, as they were in the past, to extravagant shows nowadays is also highly revealing.

The author maintains in her book that the Israeli occupation made southerners more attached and more celebratory of Ashura, where each year and for 10 consecutive days, they remember the killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, in Karbala.

In “Memoirs of a Shiite Woman” Nehme recalls a conversation between a Tyre shopkeeper and an Israeli soldier, who was amazed by the intensity of the rituals. The shopkeeper told him that the men and women were “training themselves to [handle] pain because they cannot afford to give in.”

“If they are mourning something that took place some 1,500 years ago,” the soldier asked, “... what will they do to avenge something that is being done to them now?”Rajaa Nehme’s “Memoirs of a Shiite Woman,” 2013, is published in Arabic by All Prints, and is available in select bookstores across Lebanon.





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