New Texts Out Now: Abir Hamdar, The Female Suffering Body: Illness and Disability in Modern Arabic Literature

by Abir Hamdar

Abir Hamdar, The Female Suffering Body: Illness and Disability in Modern Arabic Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Abir Hamdar (AH): The whole project was triggered by a question from a friend. She was suffering from a chronic illness and said she found solace in reading about the stories of women with similar experiences. As someone who works on Arabic literature, she had asked me to recommend Arabic literary works that narrate the experiences of women with a physical illness and that she could read—except that I couldn’t think of a single novel or short story.

I had readily available a list of Arabic literary works that narrate the experiences of women with mental illness, of men with physical and mental illness, but nothing about female physical illness—or disability, for that matter. The thought that the female body in pain could be absent from our Arab literary and cultural imaginary unsettled me, I think, because I suddenly felt compelled to investigate this further. So I wanted to hunt down female characters who suffered from a physical illness or a disability. But when I asked a prominent literary critic for help in locating some of these characters, he laughed and said, “You won’t find any—they don’t exist!”

In the course of my study, I discovered that this was not quite true. It is not that physically ill and disabled female characters do not exist in Arabic literature. They are present in many works, but they are positioned outside the major events of the plot, given minimal narrative voice, and represented in such a highly metaphorical or symbolic fashion as to render the physical dimension of their illness and disability impenetrable. That is probably why we don’t remember them as living, feeling characters. So, in short, I wanted to analyze the representation of what I call “the female suffering body” in Arabic literature. What forms does it take? How does it change over time? And why has it been marginalized for so long?

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AH: The book is the first major study of female physical illness and disability in modern Arabic literature. It seeks to fill a major gap in two distinct disciplines—Arabic literature and Illness/Disability Studies—which have, for different reasons, failed to deal in any detail with this specific topic. Accordingly, I seek to bring together literary criticism with the sociology and anthropology of health, illness, and disability to offer the first critical genealogy of what I call the “female suffering body” in Arabic literature.

To quickly summarize its contents, the book focuses on the representations of female physical illness and disability in Arabic literature of the Levant and Egypt between 1950 and the present. It examines a range of both canonical and hitherto marginalized Arab writers, including Mahmoud Taymur, Yusuf al-Sibai, Ghassan Kanafani, Naguib Mahfouz, Ziyad Qassim, Colette Khoury, Hanan al-Shaykh, Alia Mamdouh, Salwa Bakr, Hassan Daoud, and Betool Khedair. At the same time, the book places these works in the context of the dominant historical and political discourses of health and illness in the modern Arab world.

By focusing on the shifting representation of the “female suffering body” from 1950 onwards, the book explores how both literary and cultural perspectives on female physical illness and disability in the Arab world have transformed in our contemporary period.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

AH: This is my first book. It is the product of my main research interest in the medical humanities, specifically in the context of the Middle East. At the same time, I am interested in the relationship between literature and religion, and I often find that these different strands come together in interesting ways in my work. In one of the chapters in the book, for instance, I argue that one of the most problematic tropes that Arab male writers have deployed to represent female illness and disability is to transform it into the subject of a religious narrative of sin and possible redemption: female pain is a “punishment” for some kind of moral or social fault, but also an opportunity to “redeem” yourself.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AH: In 2004, the Syrian writer Haifa al-Bitar published a novel entitled Imra’a min Hadha al-‘Asr (A Woman of this Modern Age), which chronicles the experience of a woman with breast cancer who undergoes a mastectomy and aggressive chemotherapy. The importance of this novel is that it succeeds in writing the female suffering body into existence and offers a new aesthetic terrain through which the sick female becomes a speaking, living, affective subject.

Yet one Arab male critic attacked Bitar for her depiction of the sick protagonist, arguing that “this is not how women feel when they are sick.” He contended that the representation of the sick protagonist was deeply unrealistic because the character questions the status of her sexuality and her relationship to men as her body changes during treatment. The violent critical reaction to Bitar’s sick protagonist is revealing in that it highlights how our literary tradition has often kept the acute reality of the female body in pain shrouded in metaphor. Any attempt to change this long-standing representation is met with resistance.

So I hope my book will respond to these existing attitudes about female illness and disability. I want the book to draw attention to the ways in which female physical illness and disability have been occluded by stigma and over-burdened with symbolism, as well as how (thanks to writers like Bitar) the sick protagonist is becoming a speaking subject. My hope is that the book will act as an incentive for readers from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds to reflect on the larger social, religious, and political discourses that have scripted female physical sickness within the Arab world. The book will primarily appeal to academics, critics, and students working in the fields of literary and cultural studies, medical humanities, sociology of health and illness, gender studies, Middle Eastern studies, and disability studies. But I hope it would also be of interest to a more general public, as it is written in an accessible style and tackles the question of our bodies (in illness and in health) and their place in society and culture more broadly.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AH: I am currently working on a cultural history of the figure of the doctor in the Arab world. Specifically, I am examining the representation of doctors in Arab literature and film from the start of the twentieth century to the present to show that the story of the representation of doctors in the Arab cultural imaginary cannot be separated from social, political, and gender history more generally. In that sense, Arab fiction and film offer a compelling account of the discursive, cultural, and affective dimensions of the figure of the doctor. The project will ultimately investigate how Arab culture perceived and understood doctors and their medical praxis and the ways in which the trope of the doctor provides a portal into a wider set of issues marking the history of the region. In a sense, it is a sequel to my first book and explores some of the same territory, but from the perspective of the doctor rather than the patient.

J: Has female physical illness and disability moved from the margins of Arabic literature to the center over the past few decades, and if so, why do you think this has been the case?

AH: In this book, I try to show that the female suffering body has indeed emerged from the margins of Arabic literature to the point where, today, physically ill and disabled women are able to represent themselves for the first time. I think this dramatic change has to do with the radical social and political changes that have taken place in the Levant and Egypt over the last fifty years: changing gender roles, the collapse of pan-Arabism, and the wider disintegration of a sense of a collective self. For me, the trauma accompanying the loss of a collective Arab identity, which had been anchored in notions of liberation from colonial forces, has been compensated for by a desire to celebrate the freedom of the body from all social, cultural, and sexual restrictions. So my argument is that it is the turn to the individual body in the wake of external and internal trauma in the body politic that finally enables Arabic literature to write the female suffering body. In a sense, Arabic literature’s reflection upon the traumatized body—both natural and political—has finally broken the code of silence that surrounds representations of female illness and disability.

Excerpt from The Female Suffering Body: Illness and Disability in Modern Arabic Literature

In the closing pages of one of the most famous Arabic novels in history, a woman falls ill and dies. It is not the first time illness or death has afflicted a character in the course of the novel. As its readers already know, the woman's son has been violently killed years earlier during a nationalist demonstration, her son-in-law and grandchildren have also suffered premature death from disease, and her once-virile and patriarchal husband endures years of suffering and ill health before his own sudden death from a heart attack. Yet, there is a key difference with the depiction of the illness of this woman because, quite simply, it is not depicted at all. To be sure, we learn a little of the woman's illness through the testimony of her sons but—in stark contrast to the case of her husband and dead son—the reader is not permitted entry into the room of the sick woman let alone into her dying consciousness. The third person omniscient narrator does not even disclose the nature of the illness that kills her. Perhaps most interestingly of all, the novel does not end with her death but merely with the anticipation of it: the famous concluding scene describes two of her sons walking back to the family home in Cairo to await the inevitable end. In al-Sukariyya (Sugar Street) (1957) by Naguib Mahfouz—for, of course, this is the book I am talking about—the figure of Amina is quite literally hors-texte, outside of the text, a singular literary and aesthetic absence at the heart of arguably the defining Arabic novel.

It is the story of this absence, and of what comes to fill it, that the present book aims to tell. As I will seek to show in what follows, Mahfouz’s exclusion of Amina from al-Thulathiyya (The Cairo Trilogy) (1956-1957) is merely a symptom of a much larger abjection of the physically sick and disabled female body in Arabic literature more generally. To appreciate the extent to which the sick female body still remains largely outside the Arab literary imaginary, it is only necessary to recall the—rich, complex, and variegated—representations of female illness in Western literature over the last two centuries: where, for example, are the Arab equivalents to Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818), to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), Henry James’ The Wings of The Dove (1902), Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm (1981) and Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body (1992)? If the representation of gender and illness in European and North American literature has spawned an entire critical industry—including the now burgeoning field of the Medical Humanities—it is also striking that to date, few, if any, studies have appeared that address the field of Arabic literature. In the early years of the twenty first century, it seems that Arabic literary criticism still awaits its own Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, Elaine Scarry, Byron J. Good, or Arthur Kleinman.

To be fair, Arabic literary and cultural criticism—like its Western equivalent—has extensively mined the field of “the body” as a social, cultural, and political signifier over the last few decades. Nevertheless, such studies have by and large focused on the representation of the body in general, and the female sexual body in particular, rather than the impaired and ill body. Perhaps most problematically, Arabic corporeal criticism arguably remains trapped in an excessively linguistic or constructionist paradigm which automatically tends to depict the body as little more than a metaphor for some prior linguistic, social or political body—most obviously the body politic of the nation. In this respect, Arabic criticism has not undergone the affective turn that has been so prominent in Western literary and cultural criticism over the last few years: the body as a feeling and suffering somatic entity—rather than a social or cultural construct—still remains a largely undiscovered country.

Why does Arabic literature cast a veil of silence—if I may be permitted to use such a fraught metaphor—over female physical illness and disability? How have Arab writers covered over the body of the sick woman? And what might enable us to bring that body back out into the open? To even attempt to tell the story of female physical illness and disability in the Arabic novel, the critic is confronted with the problem of how to reckon with its (highly) conspicuous absence. Firstly, we should note that the number of modern prose texts in Arabic that depict the female suffering body are meager. Even when the Arabic novel and short story does represent female illness and disability, they remain spectral, barely visible presences at the margin of the text. For Mahfouz, just as for the Arabic novel and short story more generally, it is almost as if female subjectivity and female illness/disability are incompatible with each other: Amina effectively disappears from The Cairo Trilogy—a text in which she has arguably been the central character—the moment she succumbs to illness. If the story of the sick female body in Arabic literature is largely the story of an absence (an absence that persists even when the character is present), we will also see that there are some causes for optimism in contemporary fiction. The last few years have witnessed the emergence of a number of works that begin to fill in the gap where female physical illness and disability should always have been. In spite of such promising developments, though, it is clear that the task of textually recuperating the sick female body—of bringing it back to the center of the narrative, of allowing it to speak for itself in its own voice without subjecting it to external social, cultural, and political discourses—has only just begun.