(This is Jerome Kuseh’s third review for Kinna Reads; his previous reviews are Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen and Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather. Jerome is a “Ghanaian who mostly blogs about politics and business. He is also a fan of literature and has sometimes written poetry. His business blog is ceditalk.com and for his posts about politics, social issues and his attempts at creative writing, visit readjerome.blogspot.com.”)
Distant View of a Minaret is a collection of fifteen short stories by Alifa Rifaat (real name: Fatimah Rifaat 1930-1996,) written in Arabic and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies and was first published in 1983. This is the first book I’ve read by a writer from North Africa. This book also has the distinction of being in Kinna’s top 10 by African writers.
The title of the book, taken from the title of the first story in the collection, is indicative of the pervasiveness of the Islamic culture in the stories. The call to prayer, quotes of the Qur’an and the description of Islamic rites and beliefs give the stories an authentic Islamic Arab feel.
The stories are mostly told from the point of view of female protagonists. The issue of marriage is prominently featured, and a recurring theme is the giving out of girls to marriage by their family while they (the girls) are in love with other men.
The first story, ‘Distant View of a Minaret’, is about a sexually frustrated wife. Over the years, she got weary of the repeated refusal of her husband to attempt to satisfy her, as well as his infidelities, to the point where she was no longer bothered. The extent of her indifference is expressed in the closing scene, where she calmly drinks coffee and sends her child to call the doctor after her husband had died from a heart attack.
‘Bahiyya’s Eyes’, the next story in the collection, is a short but compelling portrayal of the life of a woman from childhood to old age. The story is an unhappy one, as the young protagonist is forced to undergo a clitoridectomy; forced to marry against her wishes; becomes a widow and is then left with the task of raising her children alone; and finally is overwhelmed by loneliness in her old age. Below are two quotes which nicely summarize the experience of the woman.
The fact is there’s no joy for a girl in growing up, it’s just one disaster after another till you end up an old woman who’s good for nothing and who’s real lucky if she finds someone to feel sorry for her. (AWS, 1987; Page 8)
Daughter, I’m not crying now because I’m fed up or regret that the Lord created me a woman. No, it’s not that. It’s just that I’m sad about my life and my youth that have come and gone without my knowing how to live them really and truly as a woman. (AWS, 1987; Page 9)
The story addresses the poor treatment of women in the society through the account of the woman’s life. Through the unhappiness of the main character, Rifaat shows the suffering of several other women who have been suppressed their whole lives.
The longest story in the collection, at 16 pages, is ‘My World of the Unknown’, a bizarre tale of a woman who falls in love with a djinn (spiritual being which can be good or evil) that appears in the form of a snake. In this story, the woman (who is married) has a sexual relationship with the djinn when it appears in two forms – as a snake, then as a woman. Below are some quotes that reveal Rifaat’s brilliance in storytelling.
There was no doubt but that the secret of my passion for her, my preoccupation with her, was due to the excitement that had aroused, through intense fear, desire within myself; an excitement that was sufficiently strong to drive the blood hotly through my veins whenever the memory of her came to me, thrusting the blood in bursts that made my heart beat widly, my limbs limp. (AWS, 1987; Page 71)
An idea would obtrude itself upon me sometimes: did Cleopatra, the very legend of love, have sexual intercourse with her serpent after having given up sleeping with men, having wearied of amorous adventures with them so that her sated instincts were no longer moved other than by the excitement of fear, her senses no longer aroused other than by bites from a snake? And the last of her lovers had been a viper that had destroyed her. (AWS, 1987; Page 71)
But it is natural for you to be a man,’ I said in a precipitate outburst, ‘seeing that you are so determined to have a love affair with me.’
‘Perfect beauty is to be found only in woman,’ she said, ‘so yield to me and I shall let you taste undreamed of happiness…’ (AWS, 1987; Page 75)
This love story ends when the woman’s husband, who is oblivious to the affair, kills a snake. This breaks the treaty the woman had with the djinn, and she and her husband move out of the building in which dwells the djinn. This story explores the sexuality of a woman. The sexual pleasure the woman feels is in direct contrast to the woman in the first story,’ Distant View of a Minar’et, who has lived her whole life in sexual frustration.
Alifa’s writing is not critical of Islam. It does not also seem to challenge traditional gender roles. It appears to criticize the failure of a lot of the characters (usually husbands) to live up to moral standards. It highlights the neglect of wives and the society’s disregard for the aspirations of the women characters.
The thing about a collection of short stories is that everyone can have a different story which they feel was the most compelling. So which of the 15 stories is my favourite? Well, why pick a favourite when I have the whole book? This is a must read and a delight at only 116 pages. Go get a copy.