This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)
A woman narrates
Her name flashed in front of me as I was searching for Arabic novels on my first visit to Cairo. I was in my early teens at the time, full of childish pride in my newfound ability to read unillustrated books, which of course seemed more complicated without the colours or pictures, like those read by grownups. However, my real meeting with Radhwa’s words occurred a few years later.
I used to dwell on the limited space accorded to women writers – they are put in a straitjacket of preconceived notions that do not do justice to their literary abilities. Female writings are often dubbed as being hysterical and illogical, outpourings of emotions, or simply descriptive depictions of events. Put simply, this is the result of stereotyping; different writers follow different styles of writing, whether male or female. Yet male writers are applauded more than females, even if the latter are better than their male counterparts; whatever form they write in, they are still liable to experience criticism.
Radhwa… I felt a strange compulsion to meet her after my obsession with writers like May Ziadeh, for instance. I felt a strange connection with her, the reason of which I understood only much later. Radhwa had managed to break out of the mold and cut across all barriers in order to write about all the issues she had adopted in her life. For sure, there are other writers who have also done this, but I felt connected to Radhwa in a special way for several reasons, the biggest being that she always said what she truly believed in. The first novel I read was Granada. I read it in three days on the computer, as I could not find a hard copy. E-books were already in use, but I always preferred reading hard copies. However, my curiosity got the better of me, and I did not mind the tedium of the screen.
Both male and female characters in Radhwa’s books were depicted in different ways, unlike the stereotypes I had come across in the books I had previously read. Her characters were realistically drawn, exhibiting contrary traits like all normal human beings, akin to the earth that rotates and brings in day and night. Earth is itself day and night, and just because the sun rises and sets upon it does not mean that the earth itself does not have different sides to it. By virtue of this fact, why would anyone view a person as having one single trait that defines them, as though people cannot be portrayed in this complex manner and reflect humanity which is definitely not singular in nature? When I finished reading the book, I asked myself: How did you succeed in writing this novel, Radhwa? How did you manage to depict characters made of flesh and blood? My curiosity and passion for her writing increased. Radhwa wrote about issues that truly interested me.
Radhwa the poet?
Radhwa said that when she met her husband Mourid Albarghouthi, he was reading one of his poems at the University of Cairo. After that, she stopped writing poetry as she felt intimidated by the strength of his poetry. I know that love and genuine feelings draw out the best in us. However, I wonder if she stopped writing poetry because of that, or because lengthy narration suited her more? I am still curious to read Radhwa’s unpublished poetry. Did Mourid read her poems, or did she not reveal them to her love and life partner?
My relationship with poetry… this underrated genre…. I love poetry, but it isn’t my best vehicle of expression. I had tried to write poetry in my teens, but I ended up in the world of stories and narrative because of my love of telling stories. Was Radhwa obsessed with storytelling, which led her to abandon her attempts at poetry? I searched a lot for her poetry, but I only managed to read her translation of Tamim Albarghouthi’s – her son’s – poetry. It was a bit strange for me at first to see Arabic poetry translated into English, for my relationship with Arabic poetry is complex. I could accept translations of narrative into different languages, except when it came to poetry. To me, poetry was always associated with Arabic, so much so that I rarely attempted to read poetry in other languages. I read some of Radhwa’s translation of Tamim’s poetry, and then discovered that she had translated her husband’s collection of poems, Midnight and Other Poems. I found some of the poems from the collection and juxtaposed the Arabic and English while reading. I wondered at the time if Arabic poetry in translation would be able to retain its essence and form, as Arabic poetry has a unique structure and linguistic rules. If narrative often loses its meaning in translation, then so would Arabic poetry, being so complex in its meter and rules. This incident opened my eyes to poetry in other languages and prompted me to explore and search in my parent’s library for translations of poetry from different languages. I used to read my mother’s poetry which was originally written in English, but the spirit in the poems was Arabic after all. In translating poetry, the translators need to put themselves in the poet’s shoes and feel and understand what the poet wants to say, and not simply transliterate. Poetry also needs to be concise and economical in the choice of words, and Radhwa managed to silence the novelist and storyteller in herself and play the role of the seasoned translator – and achieved the requirements of poetry, which are different from narrative. Radhwa was content in translating Mourid’s poetry, which had enchanted her, and never attempted to write poetry henceforth. She went on calling herself an academician and writer, but never talked about her experience with the world of poetry. In one of her statements, she expressed deep regret that she had been unable to write poetry, describing a poetic scene (the January 2011 revolution) as its components:
“Poetry alone has the ability to describe the totality because poetic language embellishes the commonplace and stretches words to their fullest extent. It’s like poetry pushes words to the edge of a precipice and does not stop until it’s in danger of toppling over but does not really fall. I am not a poet, but a woman who has two eyes enabling her to see what she can see.”
Radhwa remained for me not just the woman who sees what she can see before her, but she also sees what is not easily seen by others. Because of her, I began to appreciate poetry translated from other languages, and that gave me pleasure that I had previously reserved only for Arabic poetry.
Radhwa takes upon herself more than she can bear
Whoever reads her biography or hears about her from people who knew her closely will know that she was a very strong woman, stubborn about the issues that she felt strongly about and adopted. However, what I observed from her writings is that all-pervasive feeling of guilt which seems to be common in people who always demand a lot from themselves. I do not know if it is fair to consider that the characters in her books are actually an involuntary depiction of Radhwa herself. Usually, a writer draws characters and lets them speak for themselves, but there was an invisible thread that I tried to follow which led me to the conclusion that Radhwa takes upon herself more than she can bear. When a person is as sensitive as Radhwa, it follows that she will have a deep sense of responsibility towards everything. This sense of responsibility springs from a deep-seated feeling of guilt at not participating in confronting all the injustices of the world. I felt that in her writings: she wanted to do many things, and she couldn’t achieve all of them. However, she does not absolve herself from blame, and thus she created parallel characters who do what she desired and failed to, not because she abandoned her beliefs, but because the painful circumstances of her life were sometimes stronger than her. In one of her novels, the heroine says:
“I feel guilty each time one of my colleagues dies… as if I did not share some of the responsibility… maybe my words are a camouflage for hiding my sense of guilt whenever I look around me and I realize that we are leaving destruction and rubble within which we ask our children to live.”
In a lot of her writings, her characters are burdened with questions about their world that are difficult to answer, and they are experts at punishing themselves with phenomena that are beyond their control. They seem to carry the world on their shoulders wherever they go. But despite the pain, Radhwa used to surprise me with her ability to keep hope alive and not accept defeat. I always wanted to ask her: How does one feel guilty without feeling helpless? How can one not succumb to despair, and yet have the ability to pick oneself up following one defeat after another? I found the answer to my questions in many of Radhwa’s words, where she presented the intense pain that her characters felt as though it was a normal occurrence that they could easily recover from. What’s more, they could rebel against it with facility. Radhwa’s characters make fun of the realities around them, in their own unique style. In doing so, she exhibits the typical Egyptian ability to use humour as a coping mechanism for the many disappointments in life. Radhwa also makes use of words and imagination in order to create a new reality for every issue, like writers who feel fulfilled by creating a new reality on paper.
In the same novel, Radhwa’s heroine states:
“Sometimes I say to myself Nada you are arrogant and vain. You are not so intelligent as to predict the future, but you were prompted by your mother instinct for two youngsters and you became engrossed in your own way and continued until the final stride to the ultimate goal… one of your many madnesses nothing more. Then I say this is not true. I knew intuitively that modest skills in gardening are most handy in years of scarcity. What is better, death in utter misery, or planting a seedling in my home garden, or sprouting beans in a wet piece of cotton in an old pot that stays on the kitchen window sill?”
I knew then that the modest gardening skills one has will be useful in times of drought and darkness, instead of us dying in misery and worry. It was then that I understood how a person can carry guilt without despair.
Acceptance when writing
Writing is a lonely and painful process, where the writer is burdened with expectations in writing on any issue, especially if the issue is close to the writer’s heart. The more passionate the writer is about an issue, the more the birth of the words and the creation of sentences become embroiled in doubt, fear and anxiety. These feelings become more excruciating with the isolation that writing demands, especially with long projects that stretch into weeks. Writers do not reach a state of acceptance when it comes to their writing unless they know that they are writing because of their passion alone. Only then do they accept and like the final product of their work. They could sometimes write something they may not like themselves but others like, and may write what others may not like but they themselves accept with all imperfections. Certainly, the process of writing, despite the exhaustion it incurs, results in feelings of contentment, even if the writing is far from ideal. This may be why a writer continues to write, although this may vary from writer to writer.
Radhwa talked about her experience with writing in one of her books, and I was surprised to learn that she was so hard on herself in seeking perfection at the beginning of her journey. I hadn’t realized that someone like Radhwa, who seemed so confident, would suffer from such pangs of self-doubt and anxiety. I felt then I could identify with her, since I too went through the same feelings when writing, and that it was an intense experience that drained the soul. Despite this, I felt that she had reached a kind of acceptance towards her writings in her later works… acceptance of the imperfections in parallel with the joys. This sprang from her true desire to express whatever moved her deeply; and in fact, this sheds light on what her characters have to say about issues and carrying their voices to the world at large. Radhwa talks about this in one of her writings:
“When I left my childhood and opened the knotted scarf that my mother and aunt left behind (their legacy… what they wanted to say and did not say) I found within its folds their defeat and I cried. But after my crying fit and deep thought, I threw away the scarf and moved on… I was angry. I went back to writing when I was faced with the question: ‘What if death comes to me?’ It was at that moment that I decided I would write in order to leave behind something in my own folded scarf because of this realisation. I was thirty-four years old then. Acceptance of the relative is better than clinging to the absolute is wisdom and that the time had come for me to free myself from the thought that I should write what no one else had ever written, or to turn my back on writing from fear or arrogance.”
Radhwa reached that beautiful stage of acceptance, albeit preserving her deep sense of responsibility towards writing as a humane endeavor that cannot be perfect, so much so that I felt that she loved everything she wrote despite the imperfections.
When I started writing this article, I remembered this quote, as it was quite difficult for me to free myself from the fear and anxiety of writing something about Radhwa, whom I deeply admire. However, I had to go ahead and write about her, despite realizing that I may not do full justice to her.
My meeting with Radhwa in a dream
A year before Radhwa died (may her soul rest in peace), I went on a short trip to Cairo, my dream city since childhood, and I resolved to meet Radhwa in person by any means I could and imagined the whole scenario before the meeting took place. I was a little apprehensive and embarrassed about being bold in undertaking such a step. But my desire to meet her and discuss with her and ask her opinion about my childish writings overcame my self-doubt. I remember how my eyes were filled with unshed tears when the secretary in the English section of Ain Shams University told me, “Dr. Radhwa is not here and will not be back for one or two months”. She continued after that in her sweet Egyptian dialect, “She never turns anyone away, please write her a note and I will give it to her upon her return”. She thought at first that my mother and I were Palestinians (as Radhwa’s husband was Palestinian), and I shyly informed her that we were Yemenis and that I was simply an admirer of her writings. How could I relay to her my complex relationship with Radhwa and her writings? How could I explain to anyone about my feelings for someone I had never met, and in fact had never spoken to, and my interaction with her was merely through my reading of her writings?
On 30 November 2014, I read on social media about Radhwa’s death. I felt then a cold feeling in my heart, and it was as though a piece of ice entered my soul with slow precision and coloured my brain with painful surrealism. There will be no more new words and writings for me to read after today, nor is there hope of ever meeting her. The natural reaction would have been tears, for tears always bring about the release of pain, but this release was postponed to days later, when the fact of her death seemed more real. Radhwa is dead. She will never grace us with her words and her enlightened spirit after today.
In 2015, I travelled with my parents to a much-needed trip to Cairo, and I was lucky that it coincided with an event at Cairo University commemorating Radhwa’s death. There was a notice in the papers “In remembrance of Radhwa Ashour”. I felt my usual embarrassment and self-doubt about attending, for everyone there would be people who knew her personally or knew her husband Mourid (may his soul rest in peace) or her son Tamim. Despite this, I felt I also had a right to Radhwa because she was my friend and companion all these years, and so how could I not attend such an event?
Many people talked about her at the event and quoted from her various writings, so I could imagine Radhwa very vividly from their talks… I asked myself… How did they feel when they met her? How did she react when her students asked her about issues related to them? How did Radhwa talk away from the few interviews of her that I had watched? (She was a very private person and did not like the limelight.) I went left that event, and Radhwa came back to my life more vividly. I wondered if this gave me the right to talk about her as a friend close to my heart… someone who had inspired me so much.
One year later, when I was within the throes of the war in Yemen and its darkness, I was reading one of Radhwa’s books as I went through one of my many sleepless nights. I was really shaken by the dream that followed when I did fall asleep. I saw Radhwa in a dream which seemed so real. She approached me and hugged me warmly with a gentle smile on her face, saying words I could not recognise, but felt they were words of reassurance. I woke up from my sleep hardly believing what I saw… in its stark reality. Did I really see her? It seemed as if I was not in touch with the reality of life in those moments. I felt a sense of indescribable peace afterwards, which lasted for weeks and months. I knew then she was my friend and that my interaction with her on paper would always remind me of this spiritual meeting as long as I lived… Her words are eternal.
** As I was writing this article, we lost a great poet and writer, Mourid Albarghouthi, Radhwa’s husband and eternal companion (may their souls rest in peace). Their relationship was unique, and they gave strength to each other to face the difficulties they had in their lives. Together they adopted important social and political issues for which they paid a high price at times. A relationship such as theirs was rare and genuine.
 Granada (Trilogy), Syracuse University Press, 2003, translated from Arabic.
 Athqal Men Radhwa (Heavier than Radhwa: Sections of a biography), Dar El Shorouk, 2013.
 Blue Lorries, Bloomsbury USA, 2015, translated from Arabic.
 Blue Lorries, Bloomsbury USA, 2015, translated from Arabic.
 Athqal Men Radhwa (Heavier than Radhwa: Sections of a Biography), Dar El Shorouk, 2013.