Two women long for freedom : Pillars of Salt

Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx xxxxxxxx at
Fri Dec 22 20:19:23 MST 2000

Two women long for freedom : Pillars of Salt

In her second and newest novel, Pillars of Salt, Fadia Faqir takes us on
a multi-layered journey which encapsulates elements of history,
geography, anthropology and mythology. She takes us back in time to
Jordan under the British Mandate. She transports us from the city to the
Jordan Valley, to the plains, shores, caves and hills of the hauntingly
beautiful terrain beside the Dead Sea. She carries us to the midst of
bedouin life with all its paradoxes, where rigid tribal customs are
softened by the unparalleled freedom of living in harmony with nature;
where folklore and myths lend comfort and inspiration to those who are
attune to the spiritual side of life.

Most importantly, Faqir takes us into the hearts of two women: Maha, a
bedouin, and Um Saad, a city dweller. The two meet by chance in Fuhais
Mental Hospital, and yet not really by chance. Both have “gone crazy” as
the result of abuse — Um Saad at the hands of her father and later her
husband; Maha at the hands of her brother, who fraternises with the
British colonialists, and other men of her tribe. In contrast, Maha is
supported by her father and her husband, who is involved in a rebellion
against the colonial taxation system. The two women tell their stories
in snatches, in the intervals when they are not being restrained, abused
or sedated by the hospital staff. Between them, they have been
threatened by the whole range of social control reserved for those who
are considered “troublesome,” from “honour” killings to beatings to
electroshock therapy.

Not content with a linear dialogue, the author has added a third voice,
that of the storyteller, Hakawati, who tells Maha's story from an
outsider's perspective. With this literary device, Faqir not only
injected a traditional Arabic element into an otherwise modern novel,
but also gave the story a more universalist interpretation.

Every time Maha resists, the storyteller depicts her as supernatural, a
witch, harking back to Europe in the Middle Ages and America under the
Puritans, where rebels or misfits were branded as witches and burned in
the name of religion.

Finally, here is a “bedouin story” which neither denigrates, patronises
nor romanticises this important component of Jordanian society. There is
no attempt to disguise the physical and emotional suffering which many
tribal norms inflict on women and the weak. Still, this novel is a
tribute to the traditional values of Arab/bedouin culture — freedom,
dignity and honour — when correctly understood and applied equally to
all. Though both women are ultimately defeated, it is only Maha who
manages to mount any resistance at all. Significantly, she confronts
both the colonialists and oppressors among her own people. Her defeat is
a dignified one, whereas Um Saad's life is a chain of
humiliations since her secluded urban life gave her no chance to develop
her creativity, strength or independence. Faqir's novel is perhaps
unique in simultaneously championing both the rights of women and those
values in bedouin culture which should be preserved.

A Jordanian from the Ajarmeh tribe to whom she has dedicated this novel,
Faqir teaches Arabic literature at Durham University in England. Pillars
of Salt was part of the first Ph.D. in Creative Writing in Britain, a
programme financed by the Royal Jordanian and the Overseas Research
Scheme. It may prove to be a more powerful “advertisement” for Jordan
than a thousand tourist brochures, since despite very explicit critique
of oppressive customs, it is a skilfully written celebration of Jordan's
natural beauty and people. It brings to life the history of all those
men and women who have resisted domination, whether foreign or


Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222

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