- The Washington Times - Friday, January 8, 2010



By Leila Abouzeid

University of Texas Press, $12, 127 pages


We have learned quite a bit about women, politics and Islam since the Moroccan Leila Abouzeid‘s”Year of the Elephant”appeared in the West in 1989, the first translation of a woman writer from Arabic to English.A second edition of this novella with stories published in September joins a growing body of literature that gives voice to Islamic women, particularly in contexts of political upheaval and change.

From Iran we have the accessible Shirin Ebadi and Azar Nafisi, narrating women’s responses to the Islamic Revolution of the 1980s and subsequent events.Accounts of women and independence movements in Algeria (Marnia Lazreg) and Egypt (Saba Mahmood) are attracting general readers as well. A generous output of scholarly writing, personal narratives and feature journalism is filling in the contours of women’s lives and feminist perspectives on the topic.

These glances beneath the hijab respond to Western curiosity and apprehensiveness toward women who seem to fuse their faith, their politics and their gender identity in unfamiliar ways.The discourse on this topic is complicated by the political history of each Islamic country and by contradictory views of women’s status under Islam.In contrast, Ms. Abouzeid’s title story of a peasant woman caught up in Morocco’s independence movement simplifies as it affirms the logic of a woman’s commitment to her faith.

Zahra, who narrates her story, finds herself summarily divorced by a husband who once called upon her to smuggle arms and fugitives and to burn the shop of a vendor of colonialist goods. Her dual “Journey toward Independence” (actually the subtitle of the book) leaves her at odds with her country’s postcolonial politics and ambivalent about her cultural status as a woman, yet so firmly anchored in Islam that she willfully forgets her marriage and political activism and asserts that “The only hearts that change are those without faith.”

During the 100 days of financial support granted her by Islamic law, Zahra finds her faith nurtured by the local sheikh, the only person in her home village who knows and remembers her. His suggestion that she take up spinning leads to failure, but their spiritual bond endures for many years.In fact, it is the only relationship Zahra embraces during the present action of the story, and her flashbacks steam with vitriol about the greed and selfishness of neighbors, family and former revolutionary friends. Hers is a carefully cultivated solitude that cleaves Islamic faith from its laws, particularly those governing divorce, and its customs - such as the assumption that she must now live with her married sister.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Ms. Abouzeid has also published a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, written in English for Western audiences, which continues the project of clarifying the logic of Islam that begins with Zahra’s character.

What Zahra does not provide, unlike numerous writers on women and Islam, is a sense of women’s connection and community. Unveiling together serves as Ms. Nafisi’s conceit in”Reading Lolita in Tehran,”and intergenerational relations among women inform such works as Marjane Satrapi’s”Persepolis”and Azadeh Moaveni’sLipstick Jihad.For a similar glimpse at women’s relationships we must look to Ms. Abouzeid’s autobiography, which recasts a good portion of “Year of the Elephant” in nonfiction form and”The Last Chapter,” a semiautobiographical sequel to Zahra’s story. On its own the novella can leave the reader feeling as isolated as its protagonist.

Yet in her simplicity Zahra is paradoxically insightful about the state of the newly independent Morocco.She resents that her husband, given an administrative post, adopts the ways of the European colonizers; he has replaced her with a modern wife who speaks French, passes out cigars to male guests and eats with utensils.

During an interview and walk about Rabat in August, Ms. Abouzeid pointed out a French cultural center like the one Zahra is hired to clean and railed against the continued “colonization of the mind” that the French impose upon her country.Likewise, Zahra senses a broader corruption in the new regime when she witnesses the killing of a collaborator shortly after the return of the sultan from exile.Now that the rule of Hassan II and his corrupt, absolutist “years of lead” have received new scrutiny by historians and the government-sponsored Equity and Reconciliation Commission, Zahra’s modest hints of post-revolutionary factionalism and violence remain a relevant contribution to her country’s emerging narrative.

c Rebecca Duncan is Norma Rose Professor of English at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

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