Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Woman's Lament

"As for the rest of the world, it sees women's stories as effusive writings, not novels. In other words, they are seen as memoirs, confessions, scraps, a woman's way of unburdening herself and telling the world: This is all I've got; this is my pain; this is who I am, a victim" (Khalifeh 156).

The Image, the Icon, and the Covenant by Sahar Khalifeh unfolds from the first person perspective of Ibrahim, a Palestinian, Muslim writer. Consequently, this novel is as much about the creation of art itself as it is about the political, social, and cultural setting. Authorship implies a position of power, authority over information, ideas, and, ultimately, over the inner lives of the audience reading your work. For Ibrahim, writing is an act of self-affirmation, an endeavor that ebbs and flows in corresponadance with his general vitatlity. Once stricken lovesick, his artistic impetus dwindles. Furthermore, once devastated by the disappearance of his true love, he loses all creative drive and faith in humanity. "I am not sure anymore if I believe in people...I did not know if we were the soul, and if not, who was the soul?" (Khalifeh 96). Ibrahim settles for life as an entrepreneur, capitalizing on U.S. demands in the Middle East. Is there a profession greater removed from artistic ambition? He resigns himself to a life of misery, wallowing in old age and malcontent. Finally, after years of unsuccessful romances, Ibrahim decides to re-embark on his lifelong search for his lost love, Marian.

What he finds of Marian comes as a shock. Rummaging around in an attic containing remnants of her life, he stumbles upon her writings. Are these pages part of a novel? A memoir? He is deeply disturbed that she never revealed to him her writerly alter-ego. He is puzzled by the fact that this connection between them was never uncovered, that this additional aspect of their relationship never came to fruition. Once recovered from the initial surprise, Ibrahim, it seems turns bitter and egomaniacal. "...wasn't she mesmerized by my writing?" he asks (Khalifeh156). His reaction is both self-centered and misogynistic. He implies that it should have been enough for Marian to experience a writer's life vicariously through him. He is infuriated by the fact that she kept this aspect of her person concealed. As promised by the title of the first section, Marian was nothing more than an image to him. He, as he admits repeatedly near the beginning of the novel, created in his mind the Marian that he wanted to love, a facade of a human that fulfilled his every desire. That she too is an artist undermines Ibrahim's conception while also encroaching upon his writerly space in the universe.

Why didn't Marian reveal to Ibrahim her secret writerly ambitions? I wonder if she wanted to seem non-threatening to Ibrahim to aid in the process of seduction. Her behavior during their brief love affair -- her feigned weakness, the red dress, the perfect performance of the feminine ideal -- demonstrates that she knew exactly what Ibrahim desired of her. She had never planned to marry him or engage in any type of conventional relationship. Ibrahim, in the end, is betrayed, and all of his anger and resentment becomes clear when he uncovers Marian's writings. He is unable to accept the fact of a woman's creativity. Furthermore, the subtext of this scene reveals that he may even find her particular writings to be dangerously subversive.

Marian is responding to a tradition of subdued women -- quiet mothers and obedient housekeepers. Ibrahim characterizes women's literature as victim's literature. The plight, it seems, is the curse of Eve; the burden: motherhood. Ibrahim does not sympathize, for men can only consider birth a vehicle for male heirs. Women lament their existence because they are doomed to do so, and the fact that Ibrahim cannot fathom a woman's literature that expresses something other than pain and self-pity is a testament to his self-centeredness and bigotry. He cannot believe that Marian, a woman who has borne children, left a husband, and seduced a priest, would have anything to express aside from regret. To Ibrahim, if he is too miserable to create, then everyone in this world should share in his grief.


  1. I think you have some fantastic points about this novel. I wonder though, could the reaction that Ibrahim has to Mariam's writing also come from his idea that Muslim women are supposed to be submissive to men. It that one could draw a connection between submission, oppression, and victim in that sometimes people sumbit to oppression are thus made into victims. In this case, Ibrahim would expect to find a submissive piece of writing. What he finds instead is a piece of writing where the woman refuses to be made a victim, refuses to submit and thus fights her oppression through writing. This furhter immasculates Ibrahim as he has allowed himself to be oppressed and has not found a voice in writing to fight his oppression.

  2. Great entry, Katie. I loved the quote you started with. I think it holds so much power in what it is saying, and is definately not something that should be overlooked. It amazes me how much controversy and angst there is over women partaking in roles or activities (such as novel writing) that signify power or masculinity. It really makes me consider how far we have come in the United States in gaining women's rights, and lucky we all are to have, even though not perfect, the sense of equality that we do.

    Also, side note: For some reason, after reading your entry I am reminded of The Yellow Wallpaper. Perhaps it would be interesting to compare the concepts of this novel to those often analyzed in that story!