Zanna's Reviews > The Woman from Tantoura

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour
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it was amazing
bookshelves: 2015year-reading-women, bechdel-pass, favourites, translated, 500mab

This narrative opens with a gloriously ambiguous, searingly romantic image that heralds a lyrical portrait of life in the narrator's idyllic home town on the Palestinian coast. The seeds of a story are sown and I joyfully anticipate a woman-centred tale of love, tradition and modernity set in this paradise and told in the voice of a poet. By whetting our appetite for this tale, by showing that it would be worth the telling as well as worth the living, Ashour imparts bitter anguish and loss when that future is torn away by the Nakba. That the witness and victim whose eyes we peer through on the Catastrophe is a fourteen year old girl allows the full emotional impact of destroyed hopes to crash into my heart, while the more gruesome facts, the historical facts, that the people of the town were turned out of their houses by soldiers who stole valuables, lined men up and slaughtered them, are numbly reported, too impossibly horrific to be conveyed by adjectives.

I found the realism of Ruqayya's narrative breathtaking, and caught myself constantly forgetting that it is fiction. Part of what gives it the fire of truth is the reality of the events that shape it, never as a backdrop, but as hubs and spokes of relationships and hooks and poles of the warp and weft of daily life where Ashour maintains her foci. Realism is also created through Ruqqaya's patchy, selective recall, which so exactly resembles geniune memoir. However, this apparently simple, though brilliantly deployed and effective device, is counterpointed and complicated by stylistic and structural complexity.

For example, without warning, only a few pages into the novel, we are with Ruqayya as a grandmother, telling stories and describing an annual gathering, in a lucid, conversational style distinct from the sonorous, charged sections of recall. In this scene, she also abruptly answers several of the broad questions about her own future that the initial scenes, particularly the funny and touching recollection of her mother's fears, had set me wondering about. Narrative convention led me to expect a measured, ponderous unfolding of these plot points; but this is not allowed to happen, the plot is severed by the occupation like lives and limbs.

In my opinion, the power of this work is that Ashour refuses the occupation - she insistently draws us (not uncritically) back to life, to the gendered spaces of domesticity, to an inner world of contemplation. There is a passage of description of the sun setting over the sea in Tantoura at the start of the novel that is extraordinarily gorgeous and original, where Ruqayya reads and paints the landscape full of ambivalence, creating a shimmering, fragmentary surface that reflects the agitation of the novel's timeline and subject, but also itself forms a break in the flow of the plot as dictated by the violent agenda of an occupying force. This fiercely beautiful interlude underlines the endurance of nature and Palestinians' relationships with the land. The text itself, like the reiteration of memory, is an act of resistance. Indeed, telling the 'female' perspective is resistance, since the social domain embodies and reproduces that which is worth fighting for in the right of return. I was reminded of this video of Rafeef Ziadeh speaking her poem 'we teach life, sir'

Presenting her novel as a memoir unwillingly written by an intelligent but not highly educated woman whose violently exiled life contains, alongside unspeakable suffering and grief, many joys and countless acts of love, care, friendship, generosity, Ashour blazingly illuminates the will to endure and live above and beyond the misery of waiting, above and beyond survival. She questions the emotional truth of Homer's account of Penelope waiting for Odysseus - nobody, she declares, would undo the work of social reproduction painstakingly woven. The fruits of her own labours are dazzling; she somehow raises three brilliant, idiosyncratic sons and then a daughter who startles her constantly with her intelligence and maturity. I could not hold back my tears at the close of this vivid portrait of a life that cannot be occupied by hatred and death, that is outlined in love and defiant hope like a glittering constellation, lighting the way home.
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Reading Progress

January 8, 2015 – Shelved
January 8, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
January 8, 2015 – Shelved as: 2015year-reading-women
February 1, 2015 – Started Reading
February 18, 2015 – Finished Reading
March 8, 2015 – Shelved as: bechdel-pass
July 28, 2015 – Shelved as: favourites
December 3, 2015 – Shelved as: translated
March 13, 2016 – Shelved as: 500mab

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Jibran (new)

Jibran 'We teach life, sir', indeed. How can a story set in Palestine be free of the violence of existence in its most primal form? Wars start and wars end but in Palestine war is a daily fact of life - by design, for decades, seemingly forever.

A beautiful and heartfelt review, Zanna. Loved it.


Zanna Thank you Jibran!


message 3: by Dolors (new)

Dolors So many delicate issues elegantly portrayed and deconstructed in this review, Zanna! A compelling piece of writing that I am certain makes justice to the heart-wrenching account of life as "an act of resistance".


Zanna Thank you kind Dolors x


message 5: by Praj (new)

Praj Zanna, this is beautiful!

She questions the emotional truth of Homer's account of Penelope waiting for Odysseus - nobody, she declares, would undo the work of social reproduction painstakingly woven

The intriguing imagery concocted by your words is stuck within me. Thanks, sweetie! :)


Zanna Thank you Praj! <333


message 7: by Idarah (new)

Idarah Wonderful review! Something I'd definitely enjoy reading.


Zanna :-) i recommend it unconditionally. Thank you for reading!


message 9: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl "Inner world of contemplation" - yes! I love how you delve into explaining this book, Zanna ;)


Zanna Thank you Cheryl xxx


Laima Absolutely beautiful review, Zanna.


Zanna *blush* thank you Laima!


message 13: by PGR (new)

PGR Nair A comprehensive, well-structured review. Loved it.


Zanna :-) thanks!


ReemK10 (Paper Pills) This is an excellent review! I have truly enjoyed being witness to your journey of reading The Woman from Tantoura. As I said before, you are the perfect reader of Radwa Ashour's novel! I am humbled in reading your review.
Thank you for everything! Thank you Zanna! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vh33...


Zanna Thank YOU for all your incredible support xxx


message 17: by Ayat (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ayat Mahmoud A brilliant review indeed! Brought back the memories of and from this book, including the unstoppable cry at the end.

God rest her soul; she was truly a brilliant writer...


Zanna Truly. Thank you for your kind comment Ayat <3


message 19: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Fineisen Influential review--my tbr grows!


Zanna good news! this book is truly fantastic, not just because the story is so important


Rebecca Brilliant review.


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