Respect, Not Labels

The Syrian author, film critic and screenwriter Abeer Esber rejects the label "female writer" and instead aims to take up progressive issues in her novels that transcend gender. Abeer Esber on censorship, taboos and the place of women in contemporary Arabic literature

Abeer Esber (photo: private copyright)
Abeer Esber: "The gender discussion has nothing to do with good literature:"

​​ In the western world, female Arab writers are often perceived to be more courageous than their male colleagues. But writers of both sexes are either creative, courageous, original, or not. In my view, this gender discussion has nothing to do with good literature. Good literature is much more a question of talent, of a new viewpoint on life; and furthermore, writing is hard work. Either you're obsessed with writing or you're not.

And that goes for men and women. Unfortunately, women in Arab countries are currently finding it easier, for all the wrong reasons, to find a publisher for their books. We live in a society dominated by men, where it is normal for men to write and be the ones to shine.

Expecting less of women writers

As we Arab women began to stream into the worlds of art and literature, we were either ignored or we were measured by a different yardstick than that of our male colleagues. We can cope with those who continue to ignore us. But I fundamentally reject the fact that we – as women – are being appraised according to a different set of standards.

It shows the contradictory attitude of most Arab publishers, which on the one hand expect less of women, they do not expect quality. For many of them, our work can simply not be compared with literature produced by men.

On the other hand, they liked the idea of women writing. They became curious. For publishers, this was also uncharted territory. In this way, they celebrated the female writers independently of the literary value of what they had written.

The publishers wanted to sell a product. With an allusion to freedom, the breaking of taboos, sex issues and the description of acts of love – and all that in a blend of fiction and biographical details about the female author.

Paradoxically, these days even the West and the Europeans give us more support than our male Arab colleagues, because they think we don't have such opportunities in our countries. Like my German publisher for example, Abdul Rahman Alawi, who is only interested in working with female Arab writers.

Delving back deep into history

But does "female" literature differ so greatly from "male" literature? This is a hotly disputed issue, not just in the Arab world, but in the world as a whole – this "male-female debate" is still everywhere, in politics, in religion and now in literature as well. But in order to be able to answer this question, I first have to provide some historic background.

Following the occupation of Palestine, the beginning and the boiling up of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this complicated situation brought us to a state of total frustration – due to political circumstances.

Concepts of life and nationhood were thrown into disarray, and no one was able to predict what might happen next. Societies oscillated indecisively to and fro – between the unconsidered acceptance of modern civil society, the adoption of those democratic and secular values dictated by rationality, and the simple approach: finding solutions and answers to all problematic situations in the "great heritage of the Arab nation". Which means delving back deep into history, not questioning it, but embracing it – and in the process blindly following the role models of the past, its views on faith and the world, and its conventions.

"Female writers", as part of these newly created societies on one side of the pendulum, were caught in this conflict. The discourse was and is chaotic, just as our life also progresses in a haphazard way. Two categories arose, into which we were ordered and into which we ordered ourselves: with "female writers" on the one hand, and on the other simply "writers".

"Female writers" are those who see life as a battle of the sexes, who try to understand and change the overbearing, contradictory, hypocritical and violent world of men by giving all issues a public airing. They devote themselves to the point of exhaustion to subjects like virginity, disappointment in matters of love, forced marriage, rape or the erroneous interpretation of religious teachings aimed at consolidating male power.

Victims of higher authorities

The second group, which regards itself as "writers", groups itself together with male colleagues in a broader context. They see themselves as victims of higher authorities, as prisoners of poverty, unemployment or political persecution, they suffer due to a lack of democracy, a lack of individuality, and the loss of dreams. Together with their male colleagues they fight for a better life by taking up new, progressive subjects in their novels.

I see myself as a member of this second group. At the moment I am working on a novel in which I interpret the relations between Syria and Lebanon, taking into account current considerations, right now, in the era following the murder of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. To do this I am using song texts, colloquial language and cinematically arranged insights, to tell a story from the perspectives of three different people. There is a man, a girl and myself, in my own life, and I even call myself by my own name, Abeer.

Abeer Esber

© Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch / 2010

Abeer Esber, born in Damascus in 1974, studied English language and literature at the University of Damascus and attended the École Supérieure de Réalisation Audiovisuelle (ESRA) in Paris.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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