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ARAB WOMEN WRITERS AND THE "IMAGINED OTHER"

The imagined "Other" is still playing a significant role in the East-West relationship, because political geography has generated an ideology filled with conflicts, dispute and blood.The West has taken the dominant role in this imagined world, and since the 16th century. In Western eyes, the East was divided into the Far East, the Middle East, and the Near Middle East. In the Arab mind, the "Other" was the West as an occupation force, whereas in the 'invaders' eyes the East was the land of barbarian savages. This image was enhanced by the Orientalist representations that drew a portrait of the east based largely on Arabian Nights and the Turkish harem.

 This stereotype of the imagined East has aggravated the feeling of injustice felt by the Arabs, and threatened their identity in a changing world, in which they had no role in the sweeping political and economic transformations.

This feeling was reflected in both culture and society by going back in history in search of identity and definition of self. In these perspectives, the West became an enemy of the cultural, religious and national identity. Arab liberal thought, which had made gains from the 1950s to late 1980s, faced suspicion and even rejection and was accused of Westernization. The collapse of the Soviet Union also played a role in retreat to fundamentalist thought among socialist intellectuals.

Imagination is an essential medium of creativity. Narrative fiction is a complex composite of feeling, language, reality, hopes and sufferings in which the imagined literary text is merged into the socio- historical.

 The Arab human development report for 2005 on the "Rise of Arab women" and in the section on women's creative writing, argues that "Arab societies suffer a series of contradictions that combine both inferior values and liberation values in the men-women relationship".

 The battle for woman's liberation in thought and practice still calls for enormous efforts to overcome such notions and attitudes.

For Arab women writers; the directions of creative imagination have taken a number of routes. These include:

  Imagined Locale:

The actual and the imagined places have been shown in the works of Arab female novelists coming from -or writing on- the crisis of their countries during occupation or after liberation and independence, such as Algeria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.

The locale or place here is the defining identity for those who stayed on in these countries or went into exiles or Diaspora because of foreign occupation or for political, religious and social considerations. The imagined locale may, at times, be one way to escape censorship and repression. Historical as well as non-historical places and characters are often used in disguise to avoid political prosecution. They are also used at times to reflect nostalgia to the homeland.

 The imagined Other: the Western Invader

Writing is often governed by the social and cultural frameworks of human beings. These are the issues that have pre-occupied the champions of Arab Enlightenment since the beginning of the 19th century with the early contacts with the Western culture and colonial conquests by Napoleon. This has been reflected in the way Arab writers identified themselves and the "Other". For women writers, however,the experience was very much like a "double-jeopardy": the relationship with the Western conqueror, and that with the internal conqueror, that is to say, the socially superior male. This was followed by the colonial period, the Balfour declaration and the consequences of the war on Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other Arab territories.    

  Despite it's scientific and technological superiority the "Other" assumed an ugly and negative image in the creative works of many Arab writers including women. Women's rights and liberation or were associated with the concept of "Nation" and "identity".

 Combined with poverty and a series of political and economic crises, this had an adverse influence on the literary imagination, both written and read. Censorship was exercised not only by official government systems, but by religious institutions and advocates who took on the right to prevent and prohibit all published text and images, even on satellite channels and the Internet. A number of women writers had the courage to defy and challenge the patriarchal taboos and others, wrote and published in other languages, English and French. These include such writers as Assia Jabbar, Fatima Marneesi, Ahdaf Sweif, Fadia al-Fakeer and many others.

 The imagined "sacred", and the religious heritage:

 The relationship between the imagined and the sacred is based largely on the interpretation of religious tradition. In much the same way as the early Western novel was associated with the Old and New Testaments, The Quranic verses and the sayings and traditions of Prophet Mohammed represented important elements in the Arabic fiction, including women's writing. These sacred components are clearly manifested in the works of female novelists, both in positive and critical context, as citations and arguments.

 In all my fiction works, my five novels and one collection of short stories, I have defied and challenged the traditional taboos in modern Arab life: sex, religion and politics.

 My novel "Illusive Anchors", for instance, is a portrayal of Arab men in crises, and of the younger generation of Arab youth who are torn apart between Westernization and fundamentalism. The young Emirati, for example, represents an educated new generation in the Gulf, but he is a bohemian womanizer who interprets religion as he pleases.

 In my other novel, "Neighing of Distances", the gates of heaven are open to prayers in the middle of the fasting month of Ramadan. The main character in the novel, an oxford graduate university professor returns home still unable to make a choice between the Western culture he admires and an Islamic culture he is supposed to keep.

  The imagined history:

 The imagined historical narrative in most Arabic novels is usually a utopian world that supersedes the ugly current reality. Or it is often a way to escape the censor or search for identity,or a nostalgic attempt to create an alternative parallel world. Many female writers have superimposed history on reality. But the past hear is purified and all its negative points are eliminated. Contemporary history has been also used, in a well documented form, but with imagined characters again… because of the censor. 

  In sum, this brief survey of the "Imagined Other" in the writings of Arab women, suggests at least two features:

 FIRST: Imagination, the psychological faculty and ability to create perceptions, mental images, sounds, feelings, especially in literature and other creative arts, is NOT as free and unlimited as we sometimes believe. Its horizons are restricted, and its and its space is marked by an infinite number of limitations.

SECOND: and perhaps more important, such limitations and pressures on the imagination of Arab writers in general, and women writers in particular, are certainly more powerful, more strict, and more repressive.  For women writers, these "red lines" combine a series of patriarchal, cultural, religious, and social taboos, which we continue to face, defy, and challenge.