26 April 2007

See and be Seen

I'm about half way through the first book in the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. Why am I reading the trilogy? First, because Mahfouz is the only Arabic-language writer to ever receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Second, it came highly recommended. Third, it is well written. Not even being translated into English could ruin the quality of the writing.

(those reasons are in chronological order, not priority order. Nobel Prizes have not redeemed other authors I’ve picked up in the past)

So, like I said, I'm about half way into the first book, Palace Walk, and I just (literally 5 minutes ago) read the passage where Amina, the mother in the story's central family, has been persuaded by her children to venture out into the street for the first time EVER. This is a very traditional family, with a very authoritarian, unkind, and distant father. He leaves for a short business trip when her teen-aged and adult children convince her that there is no sin in visiting a nearby mosque/shrine (Amina is devout). She covers herself with her maid's shawl, veils her face, and is accompanied by her male sons. We get a third-person omniscient description of it:

As she crossed the threshold of the outer door and entered the street, she experienced a moment of panic. Her mouth felt dry and her pleasure was dispelled by a fit of anxiety. She had an oppressive feeling of doing something wrong. She moved slowly and grasped Kamal's hand nervously. Her gait seemed disturbed and unsteady as though she had not mastered the first principles of walking. She was gripped by intense embarrassment as she showed herself to the eyes of people she had known for ages but only through the peephole in the enclosed balcony. Uncle Hasanayn, the barber, Darwish, who sold beans, al-Fuli, the milkman, Bayumi, the drinks vendor, and Abu Sari', who sold snacks - she imagined that they all recognized her jsut as she did them. She had difficulty convincing herself of the obvious fact that none of them had ever seen her before in their lives.

I've often thought about what the veil does both to the one veiled and to the one seeing it. It certainly sets up an uneven relationship, one in which I would guess that the concealed party has more power. Sort of like the soldier in camo--there's a degree of protection in being able to vanish.

I've also thought a lot about my relationship to the fact that some women cover (to varying extents). Our neighbors on the floor below are Muslim, and the wife covers her head and wears clothing that covers her from neck to feet (pant-suits, but the kind that reveal nothing). Inside the house though, she dresses just like me. My husband has never seen that. He's also never seen her hair, the way it compliments and softens her face. He has no idea that she is beautiful. I, because I'm a woman too, have access to a part of her world that is not available to any man who isn't blood-related to her.

Appearances, what we allow others (and which others at that) to see is ultimately about control. You can't stop others using their eyes to judge the world. The best you can hope for is to really get what it is that they might see in you.


dad said...

Interesting points. If I was interested in reading then I would definitely be interested in reading this book.

Vatti said...

Hmmm.... The power of modesty and concealment. That is a fascinating perspective.