Alifa Rifaat

Alifa Rifaat’s collection of 15 short stories in Distant View of a Minaret is a quiet, subtle, and delicately nuanced collection of mostly first-person narratives that take place in Egypt. The stories are short, but what they lose in length they more than make up for in depth and penetrating insight. Rifaat has an uncanny ability to elevate ordinary acts of daily life into the level of ritual.

With few exceptions, the first-person narratives are in the voices of women at different stages in life. For example, in "Distant View of a Minaret," we meet a married woman whose husband makes her feel ashamed for seeking sexual fulfillment. "Bahiyaa’s Eyes" is in the voice of an aging woman with failing eyesight who wants to feast her eyes on her daughter one last time before completely losing her vision. In "An Incident at the Ghobashi Household," a mother protects her daughter by pretending her daughter’s illegitimate child is her own. In "Just Another Day," peace descends upon a woman as she is invited to enter the Gardens of Paradise while her body is being prepared for burial.

The strength of these stories lies in the poignant and perceptive manner in which Rifaat handles life’s disappointments, situations, oppressions, and challenges. Several of the stories depict wives struggling to come to terms with their husbands’ prolific infidelities. Although many of the women recognize the injustice perpetrated against them, they do not rage against a patriarchal system that oppresses, discriminates, and marginalizes them. They do not seek divorce or retaliate against their husbands’ infidelities by committing adultery. Instead, they exercise an agency that manifests itself in a different form. They are practicing Muslims who derive sustenance from their Islamic faith.

What is impressive about these stories is the feminist consciousness that emerges. It is not a Western style feminism. Instead, the women operate within the precepts of their Islamic faith. Their stories are punctuated by the muezzin’s call to prayer. As each woman makes her prostrations in prayer, a peace and calmness descends upon her, enabling her to better handle life’s challenges and accept her fate with poise and equanimity. Her thoughts are peppered with references to God and His mercy. In “The Kite," for example, a poor, uneducated widow who followed her husband's lead in prayer because she never learned to memorize verses from the Qur’an finds herself unable to perform prayers after his death. But she does what she can. She remembers to thank God for His generosity by performing the simple and tender gesture of raising her hand to her lips repeatedly to give thanks.

Through her depiction of women as conscious agents who find refuge in their faith, Rifaat quietly exposes the double standard and systemic injustices characteristic of a patriarchal society. Eastern and/or Islamic feminists demand justice but seek it on their own terms. Their methods may be more effective than strident rebellion, which can be alienating. Many non-Western women resent the paternalistic attitude of some Western feminists who seek to impose their world-view and methodology for addressing injustice while simultaneously discrediting the world view of feminists from Eastern and/or Islamic countries.

Alifa Rifaat exposes injustice with subtlety, sensitivity, and poignancy. She shows us how some women of the Islamic faith confront injustice. We don’t have to agree with their methods of coping with challenges, but we should at a minimum respect the right of all women to exercise agency by choosing their own paths for dealing with oppression.

Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review