Middle East/North African Lit discussion

Specters
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2012cruise book diving(official) > Specters (November - December 2012)

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message 1: by NG (last edited Nov 03, 2012 02:09AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

NG (ngnoah) | 276 comments Another very famous book in Arab world, by a favorite author.. Radwa Ashour's "Specters" is a unique combination between a novel and an autobiography..
I admit that while reading it, it looked strange that this woman is writing 2 stories.. But I'm interested to know how it ends.

Radwa Ashour is famous not only for her writings, but also for being wife and mother of 2 very famous Palestinian poets: Respectively, Mourid Barghouthi, whom we met in this group before as author of I Saw Ramallah, and the young Tamim Braghouthi, also very famous for his poets.

Together this trio have a very active political life in Egypt, especially during the 2011 revolution. In fact they have always been politically active. Those of you who read "I saw Ramallah" certainly remember all the trouble this small family faced due to their political activity.

In Specters Radwa Ashour takes us through the journey of her life and her country, along with the life of an imaginary character "Shagar" (which means "trees" in Arabic)..
I must point out here, that the period of time that this book covers is the most active in the Egyptian history. So this is not just the story of a little girl growing up, but also the story of the maturity of a nation.

So what happened in Radwa's life that made her the brave women she is now? How did she get involved with all these events in her life? And why am I talking too much instead of reading?!!
Let's start then!


message 2: by Marieke, Former moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 1179 comments Mod
i'm so excited to read this book!


message 3: by NG (new) - rated it 3 stars

NG (ngnoah) | 276 comments Marieke wrote: "i'm so excited to read this book!"

It's a very nice one, Marieke. I like it a lot so fare. :)


After reading a bit more in the book, it seems that the political and social events in the country do not get that much attention.. They seem to be 'the background' of the life of Radwa and Shagar, but not a main pillar of the book.
I actually prefer that. As an autobiography I am more interested to know about the events of the life of this women more than reading again about analysis of the political situation that I can read anywhere else.
I loved most of all the parts where she talks about her life with her husband and son.. It was painful and funny in the same time.

Of course once we get to chapters on Dir Yassin and Sabra & Shatial, things will get a bit different. The political (and humanitarian) aspects will be overwhelming. And that I didn't like much, I must say.. It was kinda "not in place"..
But then again, this autobiography is not exactly what it seems. It's a combination between 'autobiography', 'novel' and 'historical research'.
I'm not sure I like that much. I get lost sometimes in the details that I don't know who's life is she talking about.

What about you guys?


Niledaughter | 2275 comments Mod
NG , You are making reading this book very tempting ! :D hope to reach it in time .


message 5: by NG (new) - rated it 3 stars

NG (ngnoah) | 276 comments Nile daughter wrote: "NG , You are making reading this book very tempting ! :D hope to reach it in time ."

Hope you do.. There are so many things to say about this book, and it's definetely not a one-time read, and it has many layers..
Try to read it, it's a very good read.


message 6: by Melanie, Marhaba Language Expertise (new) - added it

Melanie (terrafern) | 426 comments Mod
Here's a recent review of Specters by a woman who is reading a book from every country this year...

http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/201...

(I've started the book, but have no comments of my own yet.)


Niledaughter | 2275 comments Mod
Melanie wrote: "Here's a recent review of Specters by a woman who is reading a book from every country this year...

http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/201...

(I've started the book,..."

I missed this post I will check the link ...

Sadly I couldn't reach a good copy of this one , so I can't read this book this time .


message 8: by Marieke, Former moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 1179 comments Mod
i just realized i still have Specters with me...but it's due. that means i have to read it right away so i can return it next week when i go back to work. :/

is it a fast-ish read?


message 9: by NG (new) - rated it 3 stars

NG (ngnoah) | 276 comments I don't know who decided to read it, but too bad that many members didn't get the chance to. It is such a nice read.. It's a very good book.

Marieke, try to read it, I think that once you start reading you will go one until you finish.
Let me know how it goes :)


message 10: by Marieke, Former moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 1179 comments Mod
NG wrote: "I don't know who decided to read it, but too bad that many members didn't get the chance to. It is such a nice read.. It's a very good book.

Marieke, try to read it, I think that once you start re..."


you were right! i started it this morning and i've read past page 100 already and i'm really, really enjoying it. :)


message 11: by Marieke, Former moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 1179 comments Mod
This was a really fast and absorbing read and i loved that i read it not long after reading Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and Gate of the Sun. it also made me want to go back and reread I Saw Ramallah.

there was a lot going on in this book...i wonder what others thought of the Shagar part of it. It was interesting to me to watch a writer at work, because that is what it felt like to me. But at the same time, i felt like maybe Ashour had come up with an idea, explored it, but somehow couldn't make it come to fruition as a book in its own right, so this was her solution. ?? i liked it and didn't like it at the same time. i didn't like it because i think i would really like to read that book about Shagar. :)


message 12: by NG (last edited Jan 01, 2013 10:22AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

NG (ngnoah) | 276 comments Marieke wrote: "This was a really fast and absorbing read and i loved that i read it not long after reading Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and Gate of the Sun. it also made me want to go back and reread I Saw Rama..."

I understand what you mean about Shagar. Sometimes I felt the same thing, I couldn't fully understand why would she tell 2 stories pretty close to each other, why not make a book for each? I don't think that this is the result of a failure idea though, I believe that she meant it that way, but can't figure out the reason behind it.


Lauren | 138 comments I just finished the book and agree - the parts that are autobiographical are much stronger than the ones about Shagar. It's like she couldn't quite make a whole book about that character which was unfortunate as I found her very interesting.

I have read I Saw Ramallah and so found the sections about their family really interesting. I can't imagine sustaining a marriage through that kind of exile.


Lauren | 138 comments did anyone else find the book oddly prophetic? Each time she mentioned Tahrir Sq, I felt a shiver! There certainly is a long history of activism in Egypt, esp among students.


message 15: by Marieke, Former moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 1179 comments Mod
Lauren wrote: "did anyone else find the book oddly prophetic? Each time she mentioned Tahrir Sq, I felt a shiver! There certainly is a long history of activism in Egypt, esp among students."

Yes! it made me reflect a lot on the history of Tahrir Square and revolution and activism in Egypt and i wanted to know more!


Lauren | 138 comments Me too! And the more I think about the book, the more I like it - even that final image at the end where she is imagining the goddess in the sky bending over Egypt. An amazing image.


message 17: by Marieke, Former moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 1179 comments Mod
Lauren wrote: "Me too! And the more I think about the book, the more I like it - even that final image at the end where she is imagining the goddess in the sky bending over Egypt. An amazing image."

oohhh i loved looking up those gods and goddesses from Ancient Egypt. that was another aspect of the book that fascinated me.


Lauren | 138 comments I had a harder time with the sections on Shagar. I couldn't quite get a handle on what she was trying to do there. And as much as I liked it, I am a bit baffled by those final images of the goddess.

I wonder what Ashour has written about what happened in Egypt last year?


message 19: by Marieke, Former moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 1179 comments Mod
I just had to return my copy but I think I will buy my own. In the meantime I will see if we have a second copy I can borrow. I want to reread the end now.


message 20: by Melanie, Marhaba Language Expertise (last edited Jan 03, 2013 01:57PM) (new) - added it

Melanie (terrafern) | 426 comments Mod
An Egyptian friend told me about a month ago that Radwa Ashour was a cancer patient, and had recently received treatment in the U.S. I was saddened by the news, especially because she has been my favorite author in Arabic literature ever since I read her trilogy, Granata, nine years ago. So I read aTyaaf / Specters, a deeply personal book, in a spirit of tribute to a woman who has been something of a hero for me.

As some of you have mentioned, she plays with the genres of fiction and memoir, raising questions for the reader: How are our memories colored by our imagination? How are our imaginations shaped by our experiences? How are each of us members of communities with real and imagined histories? Her switching from third person observer to first person experiencer reflects ways that we remember and dream, sometimes watching and sometimes participating. Her technique is similar to that of Alia Mamdouh in Naphtalene, but Ashour is far more successful, I think, because she reflects on the different perspectives and her position between them.

Her childhood memories start with her ancestors, especially Shajar, the capable and self-sufficient matriarch in her family who defied tradition, raising her children alone and managing her own farm. She sang in weddings, danced at circumcision celebrations, and eventually she was visited by specters--ghosts, memories, the voices in our imaginations that keep us company when we are all alone. These characters are similar to the ghosts in Ghada Semman's collection of short stories: Al-qamar al-murabba' / The Square Moon. Shajar learns to appreciate her name as a child by thinking of its meaning, 'tree', as referring to a mango tree. Radwa's "autoportrait" school assignment is similalrly innocent, full of simple confidence, hope, and happiness. One of my favorite parts of Ashour's writing is her ability to convey humanity in all its innocence and charm, its desperation and loss, all its strengths and many of its weaknesses.

In college, Ashour got involved in leftist politics. I had already read about her college days in the U.S. (in Al-Rihla, not translated into English to my knowledge). It was so timely to read about her revolutionary times in Egypt when Egypt's latest revolutionary times are still upon us. She read Latifa al-Zayyat's Al-bab al-maftuh / The Open Door, one of my favorite Arabic novels, and she participated in protests in Midan al-Tahrir / Liberation Square in the seventies. just as the characters in Al-Zayyat's historical novel protested British occupation of Egypt in the forties. There is an awareness of social class, shown for example in the decorum of middle class mourning. Along the way, the narrative includes bits about famous people: the singer Umm Kulthum, King Farouk, Latifa al-Zayyat, Naji al-Ali, Imil Habibi, Gandhi, Martin Buber. It also includes historical information about early twentieth century Egypt and British attacks on Egyptian resistance, massacres in Palestine, and Egyptian injustice and imprisonment of dissidents.

It's encouraging, to those of us who are rather bookish, to see Radwa become a frequent patron of the library, and to see Shajar working on several book projects. In a very bookish moment, she explores the meaning of aTyaaf / specters, and finds it related to 'flood,' 'the imagination,' 'a piece of wood that one seizes in the water,' and 'a visitor in a dream.' The meaning of the word generally seems to be something surrounding, overwhelming, that can make one wander like a crazy person. There's also a scene at an academic conference, which I see frequently in postcolonial novels (for example, Zoli by Colum McCann). I can relate to the personal effects academic work has had on Ashour. There's a very clear feminist aspect to Ashour's work. She shows how women play important parts in the ancient Egyptian conception of the cosmos, and how inspiring she finds this. At the end of the novel, Shajar seeks solace by journeying, particularly out of Cairo, where she can see the stars. I read a message here in support of freedom--especially freedom of thought, but also freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of personal choice, freedom to find one's own way. The intellectual life that Ashour depicts is not exclusively female, but it is significant I think that she depicts women living such a life.

In Arabic, the novel includes several varieties of language: mostly modern standard Arabic with Egyptian colloquial in dialogue, especially in children's speech and in a story for children; classical Arabic poetry; Palestinian Arabic in at least one anecdote; Egyptian Arabic entirely in the discussion of women imprisoned in Egypt. She mentions the power of everyday language, and it is clear that she has chosen to incorporate multiple language varieties in this work. She wants speech to capture human expression, and she wants her prose to sound its craft, her education, and the eloquence that she creates in standard Arabic. All of this is quite possible in Arabic, but writers in Arabic have seldom displayed the diversity of Arabic, so it is notable that Ashour chooses to do so.

She mentions how people saw a connection between her trilogy, Granata, and the plight of Palestine. I was one of those people, so I was particularly interested in her response. It seems that she had no intention of connecting the two different contexts. In fact, she was thinking more about the Gulf War than Palestine, but she seems open to the idea that authors don't always see all the connections in their own work. Literature matters to people for all kinds of reasons, and part of why we discuss literature is to discover and share those reasons. Fortunately, our discussions add to literature's meaning because no author can anticipate all the ways that their writing will be interpreted by readers.

Finally, the messages that I get from this book:
- Colonialism was a sick injustice that still causes pain and suffering through memories and precedents in building imbalanced social structures.
- Life and nature persevere. Life is beautiful and mysterious despite its pain. Life is simultaneously a comedy and a tragedy (for example, Cordova, Palestine, Egypt, the Gulf War...)
- Everyone has a right to pursue his or her own talents, and to find meaningful work.
- Each of us has our own personal responsibility, and we must accept that other affairs are largely out of our hands.
- There is power in humor in the midst of loss.
أطياف by رضوى عاشور الرحلة أيام طالبة مصرية في أميركا by رضوى عاشور Naphtalene A Novel of Baghdad by Alia Mamdouh القمر المربع by غادة السمان الباب المفتوح by لطيفة الزيات


message 21: by Marieke, Former moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 1179 comments Mod
That was really beautiful, Melanie. i don't have anything to add at the moment...


message 22: by NG (new) - rated it 3 stars

NG (ngnoah) | 276 comments Wow Melanie, that was a great review!

Melanie wrote: "She mentions how people saw a connection between her trilogy, Granata, and the plight of Palestine. I was one of those people, so I was particularly interested in her response. It seems that she had no intention of connecting the two different contexts. In fact, she was thinking more about the Gulf War than Palestine, but she seems open to the idea that authors don't always see all the connections in their own work. Literature matters to people for all kinds of reasons, and part of why we discuss literature is to discover and share those reasons. Fortunately, our discussions add to literature's meaning because no author can anticipate all the ways that their writing will be interpreted by readers."

This particular point captured my attention too.
This was not the only time where an author says that his readers found meanings or connections in his work more than he had in mind as he wrote it.

Now, in the case of Radwa Ashour this was the case maybe because of her family and political activism in the background, somehow we all expected that the trilogy refers to Palestine. Somehow it fits, although it was not her intention.


message 23: by Marieke, Former moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marieke | 1179 comments Mod
I'm happy to say I should have another copy in my hands by this afternoon so I can go back and reread some parts. :)


Lauren | 138 comments Melanie, thanks for such a thoughtful response to the novel. It really enriched my understanding of what she was doing, especially since I don't read Arabic.


message 25: by Marwa (last edited May 19, 2015 11:13AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Marwa (_MIA_) | 61 comments For this book I have some MAYBE'S and/or COULD IT BE'S?!

The resemblance between Shagar and Radwa is more than obvious that it came to mind that Shagar might be the literary undercover for Ashour's testimony on the corruption that extended far and beyond in the academic hierarchy in Egyptian universities. Could it be?!

As for proven facts on obstacles, political facts and imprisonment, Ashour had nothing to hide. But maybe at more delicate issues that remained unproven and hushed to a great extent she used the character of Shagar to steer attention towards these issues and responsibility away from her person.

Her family life didn't come as a surprise to me, since I've already read her husband's memoir I saw Ramallah and I could only look at their relationship with awe and reverence.


message 26: by Melanie, Marhaba Language Expertise (new) - added it

Melanie (terrafern) | 426 comments Mod
Thanks, Marwa, for sharing your thoughts with us. Yes, I agree with you that Shagar is a useful character through which Radwa voices her own concerns.


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