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Women at the Crossroads: from the Black Diamond to the Honor Victim

George Juha- Reuters

Beirut: Reading Laila Al Atrash’s “Women at the Crossroads”, especially after you hear the author describe it in a phone conversation as “real life tales”, is very surprising. The reader, with a description like that, expects a piece of work heavy on research, documentation and analysis, underscored by calm and cold precision. Instead, you find a unique style of writing that combines historical, geographical and social facts, with social problems, especially those facing women, in an artistic literary work beating with warmth and edginess.

Rarely does a reader encounter a piece of work that embodies what Oscar Wilde mastered: “life imitating art”. This Palestinian novelist’s work could be one of very few examples that present historical, geographic, and political information in a manner many literary and poetic pieces fall short of. There is an underlying warm emotional undertone, penetrating images, and musical rhythm without distortion of fact or over exaggeration of history.

There is an extra force to Atrash’s writing, and it is arguably one of the most effective teaching tools. She presents facts in a mold of unparalleled enjoyment.  

The book is medium size, 192 pages long, and divided into seven chapters. The cover is a painting by Russian artist Vladimir Koch.

The setting of each chapter is different, encompassing faces, history and politics that span the world in places like the United States, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco. In the preface, entitled “Thank You”,  Atrash delves into the depth of the human spirit, namely her own, “ You often hold on to what you know, and think your experiences are yours alone, they will not matter to anyone else, until someone demands them of you. A voice that believes that your memory is different, and with that you explode with the need to remember, to share.. That voice convinces you that your life might add to the life of others.”

“ The voices of those you have not met beckons you, calls on you to look into yourself and urges an awakening of those encounters you once had, with faces and places on your life’s journey. You become a travelling poet.”

The first chapter, “The Black Diamond” tells of warm stories and people and the struggle of women in the East, as mirrored in locations such as Africa’s Cameroon. The writer narrates fact with vivid picture and unparalleled passion. She tells us of a literary conference she was invited to, of who she saw and what she heard: “I met Mariam Abdul Dayem in the City of Bridges, Pittsburg, in Autumn 2008. A city whose inhabitants must cross 1700 bridges to leave, and 720 to stay and move around… Mariam’s eyes were two African sapphires carried by a wave to a foreign shore.. her hair hundreds of tiny braids done by her mother on a balcony overlooking the Atlantic. She had a young African face, combining the small features of its East in Somalia and Ethiopia, with the dark skin of its tribal centre..”

The author tells of this pretty, refined Muslim young girl’s life in her homeland, how she finds it hard to fit into her own country, where religious extremism grows every day.

Pittsburg was born in 1758, murdered in the industrial age, and resurrected in 1972… Visitors gasp when the train halts at the mountaintop, as they realize why the natives fell to their feet in awe of the creator when they saw it for the first time.. Fortune seekers settled in the most beautiful spot of this virgin land, they desecrated the sanctity of beauty and silence and built Pittsburg into a city of lust, and it grew old and dirty.”

“The area rocked with the roar of their machinery, they ploughed the greenery and changed the landscape, dug the ground looking for treasure.. the birds migrated, the wild buffalo, the symbol of strength to the  original inhabitants of this land, left it. Many rare species living in these woods since before man, went extinct. Those left were trapped in parks.

The natives walked a path parallel to that of their animals; “The path of Tears”.. The path of injustice and sorrow , that carried what was left of their tribes to special sanctuaries. They mourned their stolen homeland..”

The author paints a sad picture in the most famous of Native American poems; “The Trail of Tears”:

“I look to the long road behind 

My heart is heavy with my people's sorrow

Tears of grief I weep - for all that we have lost

As we march ever farther from the land of our birth

On the Trail of Tears

Mile after mile and day after day”

Atrash ends this very enjoyable read with a story entitled “Victim of Honor”, a tale of honor crimes committed to wash the family’s shame clean when a woman is accused, often wrongly, of adultery.

The killer usually gets off easy in court, and in the court of public opinion little is said, and many bless the practice. Atrash searches her memory for the story of the young brother, a child, who kills his sister at the behest of his family “I remember the victim of Bethlehem every time I read of a new “Honor crime”, her blue two-piece suit reveals her twitching snow-white leg as her body convulses and surrenders to death.. She bleeds her life away at doorsteps shut against her.. a child tramples her body, and a passing taxi driver looks away though he sees signs of life in her limbs.”