Author Archives: Hannah Potter

Women are the Backbone of late 18th-Century Cairo, Egypt in Samia Serageldin’s The Naqib’s Daughter

Posted By: Mansi Trivedi

In The Naqib’s Daughter Samia Serageldin describes the stories of several Egyptians during the late 18th-century French colonization of Egypt conducted by General Bonaparte. Serageldin’s vivid imagery, character development, and overall historical accuracy and research give the reader a startling image of Egyptian society under French rule. Though most Western societies generally associate conservative views, when it comes to women and women’s voices in society, to Middle Eastern culture The Naqib’s Daughter seems to break these notions by subtlety outlining the roles both men and women played in society, and reveals the momentous role women played in supporting the community through the French’s colonization of Cairo. Serageldin’s writing gives the women in her novel a strong voice, and its effect is to enlighten the reader of the central a role women played in 18th century Cairo.

With all the Mameluke leaders and men fighting the French along the Nile, the people of Cairo turn to Sitt Nafisa to protect them within the community. Even before the French invasion Sitt Nafisa is a prominent figure within the community, and has dreams to build a school for orphans and to complete the building of her sabil. Her influence is cemented within the community when her presence is able to calm down the riots that occur after the French defeat the Mamelukes along the Nile. The community storms Zeinab’s house and begins to harass her family until “…a voice [rings] out like a bell. Zeinab could not make out the words, only the calm authority behind them…the furious shouts died down to angry lowing, then to shamefaced muttering. Zeinab’s mother and father are released” (83). While men are the protectors within the community Sitt Nafisa takes on the part in their absence and shows the pivotal role women played in society’s function and protection, especially in the midst of an invasion that pulls the men to war. Initially it may be hard for the reader to accept that within a culture that calls for conservative women behaviors women can actually hold much influence in society. Serageldin effectively relays the essential function of women by giving Sitt Nafisa’s voice so much authority that one word from her can cause an entire mob to quiet down.

Sitt Nafisa’s influence does not only stretch across her own community but also across the French. She understands that she must be diplomatic, and in doing so she is able to keep her status not only among her own people, but among the French as well. She supports the foreigners in her community by providing them refuge in her home during the French Invasion. The French immediately realize the influence she has within the community and Bonaparte sends his son to her house to extend his greetings to Sitt Nafisa as soon as he arrives in Cairo. Furthermore the French continue to send diplomats to her in order to discuss matters of urgency such as the plague. For example, Magallon and the doctor come to Sitt Nafisa in order to ask for her aid in spreading proper hygiene and quarantine methods through the Egyptian community. Magallon claims that “[this] is where your help will be invaluable, madame. There is no one in this city with your influence, not even the ulema” (98). This quote only further validates the role Sitt Nafisa plays within the Egyptian community, but in the French community as well.

While it is easy to become lost in the description of the Mameluke men and the role they played in society it is much harder to notice the integral role women played in Egyptian society during the French invasion and colonization. While the Mameluke men are fighting the French to regain control of Cairo women such as Sitt Nafisa seem to take charge of the community, and act as diplomats between Cairo’s people and the French. Serageldin does a wonderful job in displaying all different types of women from strong, and influential (Sitt Nafisa), to young and naïve (Zeinab). Yet through her story the women’s strength stands out amongst the prideful strength shown by the Mameluke men in the novel such as Elfi Bey and Murad. Considering the rather conservative view Islam has regarding women in terms of gender relations, societal roles, and general behavior it was startling to read a novel based in Cairo where the strongest characters are women despite the hoards of men that play vital roles in society, yet it is the women’ s strength and stories that really seem to drive the plot of the story and effect the community despite the victimization characters such as Zeinab suffer due to the patriarchal culture. While the men fight to save their country from invasion the women protect the city’s people from injustice and harm making them the true heroes in Serageldin’s novel.



























Darina Al-Joundi’s Distinct Story Telling Makes Her Experience Come to Life in The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing

Posted By: Mansi Trivedi 

Experiences described in novels and memoirs are hard to imagine unless the reader can relate directly to these experiences.  While reading I was reading Al Joundi’s memoir it was very difficult to relate to the incidents that occurred in her life due to the drama and pain surrounding each experience. Rape, abuse, and identity crises are already topics that are hard to relate to unless the reader has experienced them himself or herself, but Al-Joundi’s experiences were even harder to relate to because she herself is so removed for them. In order to make her experiences as real and imaginable as possible she told “the story of her childhood, her wars, her drug habit, and her love affairs without any self-censorship” (5). The openness and frankness in the way Al-Joundi tells her story makes herself seem removed from her life events, but her distinct story telling style makes it easier for the reader to relate to her disturbing experiences.

Al-Joundi’s life is marked by many shocking memories of injustice. Many of the memories concern her inability to identify with any one religion. Her father is very anti Islam and sends his daughters to a Christian private school. Al-Joundi shows great interest in catechism where she learns stories from the Bible. One day she is prevented from attending her favorite class because she is accused of being Muslim due to her family’s Syrian heritage. In revenge she pees in front of the holy water. Al-Joundi describes her punishment in few words saying “She stopped my ears up with Laughing Cow cheese and then locked me up in the cell with rats, where I spent many hours. Only this time I did not expect Jesus Christ to arrive” (27). The lack of description in this quote gives the reader the ability to imagine for him or herself what Al-Joundi’s punishment must have felt like by literally putting themselves in her situation and envisioning what it must feel like having cheese shoved in their ears. Though Al-Joundi does not use emotionally charged language or give much description of her feelings the bluntness of her last statement reveals how this one incident in her life caused her to lose faith in god as a savior. And with one quotation the reader is able to fully understand Al-Joundi’s experience that day and feel sympathy for her despite the lack of sympathetic language, and her own obvious detachment to the event itself.

Al-Joundi’s almost cold and unforgiving story telling style was not limited to her scenes of punishment in school, but also the death that she witnessed while growing up during times of war. When describing death it becomes more apparent that she removes herself emotionally and almost physically from the events occurring around her. For example, she describes witnessing someone get shot “I saw a young man insult a pedestrian who was standing in the middle of the street. The latter pulled a gun from his pocket, ordered the young man to get out of the car…and apologize. He refused. The other put a bullet between his eyes and then went on his way” (92). In this example she maintains her distance from the event emotionally and physically by only describing the actions of the two men involved in the quarrel. Al-Joundi gives no hint to what emotionally she must have felt seeing someone get murdered. In fact the tone of the quote and her description of the man walking away almost makes the event seem normal. Yet, despite her ability to separate herself from the events the tone she uses gives the reader the capacity to realize how horrifying war is and its long lasting effects on people that can make murder seem like an everyday normal occurrence

This same blunt, frank, static tone is used to describe her most intimate encounters with people. For example, she describes playing a game of Russian roulette with her friends Ramzi and Hussein as they are taking hits of cocaine. Al-Joundi once again removes her self from the incident “He pulled. His brain spurted out on my hair. Crumpled in his corner, Hussein was shrieking at the top of his lungs. I picked up the song where Ramzi left off…I opened his left hand, I took his dose…’The hit is more important than death’” (114). While she describes what she physically did she does not give an indication to how she emotionally felt watching her friend die the way she does for Hussein. This lack of information forces the reader, just like in the previous example, to imagine for themselves the state Al-Joundi must have been in while playing this dangerous game. By giving very few details and distancing herself from the event Al-Joundi forces the reader to become one with the text by placing themselves almost literally in her shoes to get a better idea of what the effects the drugs and the pain had on her that she had become desensitized to death itself.

 In The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing the authors use of tone and style of writing greatly affects the readers ability to interpret the text. It seems that the more Al-Joundi removes herself from the text and her writing the reader is given more room for interpretation and understanding. And in the process the reader actually begins to understand some of Al-Joundi’s horrifying life experience and they begin to associate themselves with each one of her experiences.


Tragedy in the Eyes of a Child

Throughout the world, turmoil, war, and devastation occur daily, but life- long effects on the people that must experience tragedy are rarely recognized or examined, especially the impact on children. Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz gives readers a unique window into the thoughts and feelings of a nine-year-old girl, who plays a main role in the novel. Shirin must grow up fast in the short span of time that the story takes place. Reading Shirin’s innermost thoughts makes it hard to ignore that in the future, she will experience some life-long effects of that traumatic year.

The family that the book focused on had serious issues aside from what was going on in the outside world with the Islamic revolution. Communication amongst members of the family was absent, which does not make it surprising that her mother never explained where her father was, or how she felt about it. Left alone to her thoughts, Shirin felt a great deal of guilt, which led her to the risky, heroic activities she was involved with. Shirin began stealing files containing information of people who are supposed to be arrested, because she feels that she should try to help others not share the fate of her father. Through the same activity Shirin carried the guilt that she could be caught, and more harm would come to her family.

Shirin’s emotional state is clear when she says, “I am nine years old. Do I deserve to reach ten?” (Sofer, 183) A small girl questioning whether she should live to see her next birthday is heartbreaking. She continues to explain how she has lost her good friends, her brother is away in America, and her father is becoming harder to remember as well. Her mother, who is caught up in all of the drama of their lives is unable to be there to comfort and guide Shirin, which leaves Shirin further isolated. No one can answer her questions, because there are no answers to give. Everyone in the story is trying to figure out what they should do themselves. Young children like Shirin are left to try and figure out what they should do and to make drastic decisions that in normal conditions such young people would not have to make.

While she was in school, Shirin’s teacher discussed the war effort, and asked who would volunteer. Only two students volunteered, one of them being Shirin’s friend Leila. After class, Shirin and Leila discuss Leila’s will to volunteer for the war effort. Shirin had told Leila that she thought children were used to clear the mines, and Leila responded, “So what? Someone has to clear the mines.  And it’s better to save the grown-ups for the real fighting. You know, they give you your one key when you volunteer” (Sofer, 243). The fact that Leila was ready to commit a potentially suicidal mission is alarming. Even more disturbing is that the teacher gave the students who hypothetically volunteered to go to war a night off of homework. In the age Shirin was growing up, she was surrounded by the ideas that going to war and death were commendable actions. How would she be impacted for the rest of her life? It is at her age when we absorb what is around us and are easily swayed by higher authority figures.

Shirin’s role in The Septembers of Shiraz is a reminder that the children are immensely affected by war, conflict, and events greater than themselves. It is easy to ignore the children by telling ourselves “Oh they are young, they do not understand what is going on,” but we must realize that those children represent the future leaders, mothers, and citizens of our world, and what they experience in their youth can change their lives forever. What will they remember and learn from their childhood? Will children of tragedy remember that lying, death, war, and violence are necessary parts of everyday life or that they felt so alone that their lives were no longer worth living? These burning questions will stay with the children as they age, and become adults, forcing them to decide if the cycle of war and destruction will continue.

Removing the Veil: Women’s Empowerment or Western Assimilation?

In Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam, the argument concerning the act of wearing the veil or deciding to take it off is an intriguing one. Ahmed is clear in saying that “Islamic societies did not oppress women,” but the focus of the veil is based on Western society rather than the interests of the women in the Middle East (167). She points out that the first advocates of removing the veil came from men: men who Ahmed claim the West greatly influenced, and who only wanted their women to remove the veil in order to appear “modernized.” Ahmed argues that the men are not trying to empower the women, but rather strip them of their cultural heritage. When the woman is making the choice to wear the veil, any person telling her that she should not or that it is oppressing her is simply removing the woman’s freedom through his or her “advocacy.” The argument of the veil is a metaphor of a larger argument Ahmed is expressing. Ahmed notes that many “advocates” struggle with distinguishing between cultural and religious origins of practices and clothing, and that the distinction needs to be made before promoting any true change.

Ahmed feels strongly about increasing the rights and liberties of women and appears fed up with the concentration on clothing choices as the Western feminist movement. “The feminist agenda as defined by Europeans was also incorrect in it particularities, including its focus on the veil” (287). Ahmed goes on to say that because of this focus, many terms have become associated with the veil, and that the only way oppression can be fought is by the removing of the veil. The logic behind the focus of the veil does not make sense. There are definite rights that women need, but removing the veil is not going to gain those rights. There needs to be more awareness and understanding of the complexity of the veil. In a statement that sums up the message Ahmed wants us to understand is that “Arab and Muslim women need to reject the androcentrism and misogyny that they find themselves in, but that is not at all the same as saying they have to adopt Western culture or reject Arab culture and Islam comprehensibly” (166).

Most Western people share the feelings of the early feminists about the veil, but it is critical to understand the origins of the veil before creating assumptions. The veil is not something created by Islam, but it was adopted from the Greeks and Byzantines at the time of Mohammed. The prophet’s wives adopted the practice because certain people thought his wives should not be as exposed to the world. The Koran does not mention the veil. It only commands Muslims, men and women, should retain modesty. Most people follow from the example of Mohammed’s wives in believing that they should veil, but no one can be sure if Mohammed intended for people to veil in the name of God, and Islam. Even in recent American history, it was common for women to cover their hair in public. If they did not they would be scandalized by the community. Certain cultures retain similar beliefs, which is why the veil is so common in certain areas, and not in others. Societal pressures can have a firm hold over people’s everyday lives.

Ahmed’s arguments make the readers question the content of the progress that Western feminism is encouraging. Why should one group decide what classifies as right or wrong? There is constant pressure put on places to be and look exactly like the West, but what does that mean? To industrialize, become unsustainable, and begin destroying the planet? People in the West constantly worry over places not progressing, but what if those places have already found their ultimate, optimal state as a society. Nomadic communities in Africa are seen as “backwards,” but they are maintaining their land, self-sufficient, and are free of health problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other illness plaguing the “modern,” Western world. Maybe we should start stop looking for what we can change in these places, and see what we can learn from these societies to improve our own.

The issue of the hijab is an issue parallel to those issues of modernity and progress. Why should the West decide how women should dress and what is suitable? If women in the Middle East feel it is their right to wear the veil, and feel that it is the right decision for them, why should outsiders make such an issue of it? Some people may see the common act of piercing young girls’ ears as oppression, but it is done within our own culture, so there is no issue. People who feel it is wrong should at least seek to understand the cultural meaning and history of the veil before making rash comments about the women who wear it.  Ahmed knows that there is wrong happening in her society, but she makes a clear point that making a difference in the issues of women’s rights should not come through attempts to remove the veil or strip people of their cultural heritage. Ahmed feels that women should be empowered to make their own decisions, and have control over their own lives. Outside “feminists” cannot make any true change, especially without understanding fully the cultural implications of their advocacy.