"No stereotypical views of Arab women"

Asmaa al-Atawna's debut novel "Missing Picture" has been published in German translation (Keine Luft zum Atmen – Mein Weg in die Freiheit). In it, she describes life in Gaza from the perspective of a rebellious girl who is struggling to fit in at school and home. After fleeing to Europe, she also has to fight for her self-determination there too. Claudia Mende spoke to the author

By Claudia Mende

Ms Al-Atawna, in your novel you describe how you fled a highly restrictive, violent life in Gaza; arriving first in Spain and then in France, where you live today. What parts of your novel are fictional?

Asmaa al-Atawna: When I wrote my novel I had to grapple with a huge torrent of emotions and recollections. Whenever I start finding the writing really tough, I try and present things in a lighter way. That's because much of what I experienced was really difficult.

So, I fleshed out the fictional bits and incorporated elements of irony. The things in the novel really happened, but I have, for example, changed the names to make the story sound more dramatic. For instance, I chose fictional names for the male figures. In the book, my grandfather is called Abu Shanab, "Father of the Moustache"; another man is called Abu Harb,"Father of the War". The names are intended to emphasise the patriarchal character of the events.

I worked with my memories, but if I could no longer recall a scenario from the past, I added to it a little. I call this "documentary fiction". I wanted the reader to be able to smell and feel what I experienced.

"It's about my life"

Did this allow you to create some sort of distance between yourself and the text?

Al-Atawna: Yes and no. There is a distance because I waited 20 years to write this book and tell my story. Nevertheless, when I was writing, the pain was still there.

Cover of the German edition of Asmaa al-Atawna's debut novel "Missing Picture/Keine Luft zum Atmen – Mein Weg in die Freiheit" (source: Lenos Verlag)
"In the Arab cultural sector […], women are expected to keep their mouths shut, particularly if they are expressing criticism of our societies. When they publish something that shocks society, they are rejected and everyone points their fingers at them. But this is something we must go through, otherwise nothing will ever change and we will continue to be afraid to be ourselves," says Asmaa al-Atawna

On the other hand, there's no distance because it's about my life. The best way I can describe it is that I wrote this novel with my blood, sweat and tears.

The travails of the Israeli occupation feature heavily in Palestinian literature. But you also write about how you, as a rebellious girl in a conservative family, were constrained, or about the discrimination of black Palestinians.

Al-Atawna: There is a tendency in Palestinian literature to say, we're living under Israeli occupation, you'd better not write about this or that – as if to hide our failures and shortcomings behind the occupation. Of course, one influences the other.

But while we're fighting against the occupation, we can also fight against conservative society. We can work on both at the same time. Just because we're living under the occupation, we're not always just victims, no.

We must also tackle the discrimination of women in our society. Just because I'm living under occupation doesn't give me the right to repress my neighbour because he is black or because she is a woman.  

Aren't the two interrelated? Pressure from outside intensifies violence within families.

Al-Atawna: Precisely, that's why I don't judge in my novel. That is perhaps the distance between myself and the text. I write about the Gaza neighbourhood where I grew up.

Gaza is one of the poorest regions in the world, encircled by the Israeli army. The people have no work, no money and can't leave. So what can you do? There's a lot of gossiping and looking at what the neighbours are up to. Violent and traumatic experiences are passed from one generation to the next.

My grandmother lost her mind when the Israelis drove her from her home in Negev and she and my grandfather had to run to Gaza to survive. I've also lived through her trauma.

"Please don't pigeon-hole me"

"Arab woman liberates herself from her repressive culture" is a common stereotype in the West. How is it possible to write about discrimination, while at the same time avoiding this cliché?

Al-Atawna: I have no intention of promoting this cliché. At my readings I regularly find that women – here in Germany too – see themselves in my experiences. Women suffer from discrimination everywhere, whether in Gaza, Germany or France. We're all battling it.  

I don't want to propagate this stereotype of the repressed, veiled Arab woman. That's what the West wants to see in us, but that's not us. This form of Orientalism is a Western fantasy that doesn't correspond to reality. My mother, for example, can neither read nor write, she only went to school for a short time and had to give it up to help at home, but she is very strong.

In Europe, there are Arab women who deliberately promote this stereotype in arts and culture as a way of building a career for themselves there. They feed this fantasy and I don't think it's good. Women are repressed all over the world, not just in our Arab and Muslim culture. Please don't pigeon-hole me. Take a closer look. I want to open the debate instead of shutting it down.

In her ambivalence, your mother is the most engaging character in the book. On the one hand, she beats her children and can't cope; on the other, she knows exactly what she wants.

Al-Atawna: Oh yes, my mother is a strong woman. When I was about 11 years old, I saw her running after a man and biting his ear (laughs) because he had continually harassed my father at work. My father didn't want to do anything about it, but my mother did. As we sat outside and the man walked past, she chased after him, bit him and screamed that he should leave her husband alone. I remember it to this day.

Asmaa al-Atawna (photo: Lenos Verlag)
Asmaa al-Atawna was born in Gaza in 1978. At the age of 18, she fled the country, eventually settling in France. She studied political science and experimental film and worked as a journalist and writer. She lives in Toulouse

Nevertheless, there's a huge difference between the older and younger generation of Arab women. Younger women are much more radical. That's also evident in literature.

Al-Atawna: Yes, today the young generation is making its voice heard in literature, music and film in a totally different way to the older generation. Where we come from, there's a lot at stake. There are women risking their lives to be able to attend school.

In Europe, feminists debate whether or not we should be shaving off our hair. I'm not interested in this sort of feminism, we need to be addressing the crucial questions, here and in the Arab world, where many women are afraid of what will happen if they call out abuses. We must be stronger than our mothers, otherwise we don't stand a chance.

Ignored by Arab media

Your book first appeared in Arabic through the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) in Beirut. How was it received in the Arab world?

Al-Atawna: I entered a competition and won a grant from the AFAC, which entailed the editing and publication of the book. After my novel was released, a book that outlines what's going wrong in our societies, it was largely ignored by Arab media.

The only newspaper to publish a review was the Lebanese L'Orient-Le Jour. I was very saddened by that, but then I thought the book would find its own way. And that's exactly what happened.

I've had a lot of positive feedback on Facebook from Arab women – and that is so important to me. I'd like to encourage other women, especially in the Arab cultural sector. There, women are expected to keep their mouths shut, particularly if they are expressing criticism of our societies. When they publish something that shocks society, they are rejected and everyone points their fingers at them. But this is something we must go through, otherwise nothing will ever change and we will continue to be afraid to be ourselves.

You describe the brutal violence in your family. But your novel is still a light read. Do you make conscious use of irony to soften difficult things for the reader?  

Al-Atawna: Just look at Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, they also made use of ironic laughter. I wanted to show how tragedy can be recast as comedy, thereby expressing the absurdity of it. And that's very Palestinian. We laugh a lot in Gaza, that's partly how we resist the situation. We poke fun at everything, the Israelis, Hamas and ourselves. Sometimes it's all just too much, but afterwards we're back to telling jokes. We can connect better through laughter than tears. We just want to live our lives, for heaven's sake.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Nina Coon