Pillar of tolerance

January 31, 1997

Muslim writer Fadia Faqir tells Kate Worsley how watching Lawrence of Arabia inspired her to write about the plight of Islamic women

Fadia Faqir is suffering from "what we at Durham call fresher's flu". But the Jordanian novelist and lecturer appears dead on time, relaxed and elegant in a cream angora jumper and perfect makeup. Wistfully recalling the bedouin lifestyle she lived every summer as a child and attempts to document in her latest novel, Pillars of Salt, she talks freely. Until, that is, we come to discuss Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie is the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of British Muslim novelists. The issuing of a fatwa, in 1989, over his novel The Satanic Verses was undoubtedly traumatic for Muslims in Britain.

Faqir stiffens and insists that I quote what she says "in its entirety because it is such a sensitive issue". After a pause she begins. "I believe in Salman Rushdie's right to freedom of expression: if any one wants to present a counter argument to him, please, write a book, with a pen." Her right hand shoots out, and breaks the dignified stillness in which she has been sitting.

"I put myself in the camp of defending freedom of expression, but then I found myself under fire. No one stopped and thought, well, yes, she's Arab and Muslim but maybe she thinks differently. Muslims are all the same I they are all extremists, anti-books, anti-culture, anti-knowledge. That was such a hysterical reaction it broke my heart.

"I tell my students that I came to Britain 11 years ago able to answer any question. I had a certainty. What I went through in this country made me lose all that. I have no rigidities, no certainties, I can only give them the virus of questioning.''

The Gulf war, threatening the liberal, freedom-of-expression tradition which first attracted her to Britain, came on the heels of the Rushdie affair. "There was censorship, a lot of corruption of language. The English language was turned upside down. And I was writing in English. I felt even my tongue was being a traitor. It was a double collapse."

The depth of feeling she displays, her obvious woundedness, makes it easy to connect this assured, good-humoured woman with Pillars of Salt, and the novels by Arab women she has edited for the publisher, Garnet. Their common theme is the suffering caused by the silencing of women's voices, and the destructiveness of intolerance.

Pillars of Salt was inspired, she says, by David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia. "I was looking for the women in the film and there were no women. Then I saw two women with their backs to the camera wearing black robesI I wanted those women to turn and face the camera and tell their stories. Even (traveller and writer) Freya Stark wore men's clothes and went into the men's quarters. I wish she had done the opposite. Because there is a gap in the knowledge (of) the turn of the century that will never be filled."

As a 23-year-old Faqir told an incredulous teacher of her ambition to write in English and be published in Britain. Two years later, a star graduate of Jordan University, she was offered a scholarship at an English university. She chose Lancaster's creative writing MA because it sounded "really exotic". But she did not get to explore much Lancastrian exotica because she was holed up with her first novel, Nisanit, published by Penguin in 1989.

Working as a journalist in Jordan she had met Arabs who had been imprisoned by the Israelis. Unable to believe their stories of mind-breaking torture suffered in Israeli jails, she checked the facts. Nisanit came out of her anger and sadness at what she found to be true, and Lancaster gave her what she calls the first room of her own in which to write it. It wrote itself, she says now, the challenge being to master her second language well enough that the novel would hold its own along with other English novels.

She went on to a doctorate in critical and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, then taught at Exeter and Oxford before moving to Durham where she teaches literature in translation at the university's Centre for Middle Eastern Studies. Now permanently based in Britain, she also shares a house in Tangier with her Moroccan partner.

Is Britain a place of exile or sanctuary, then? "To be honest with you, my mind is not in exile but my heart is. In this country feminists write so much about sisterhood but in my country it is not a matter of choice to be supportive of each other, it is something you are brought up with, like drinking water."

She is acutely aware of her outsider status here - "Because I have an accent, because I come from the third world, because I am a woman, some academics make assumptions about how much I know." Yet since Rushdie she sees it as an advantage. "Probably I am more careful now about what I write and what I say because I don't want it taken out of context and used to bash my own culture... But by definition I cannot self-censor, myself or other writers. So it's a difficult position."

Her words flow more freely when she talks of her role as a bridge-builder, someone with a foot in both camps. She is uncomfortable with being pigeonholed as an academic. "I came into academia by accident." A teacher? "Yes. It's part of what I am to inspire other people, to make other people believe in themselves, what they feel and what they think. Even in this state of utter despair in the Middle East."

Fiction is the thing, wherein she will catch the conscience of the people. There are many ways of influencing your reader, she says: "Nisanit brought so many Arabs and Jews to me in tears because I actually made them rethink their positions and realise that we are all victims. Compassion is not just for the victim, compassion is for the tyrant." But how many people will read the Garnet novels? "If I start 20 people rethinking their preconceptions I have done my job."

Is there not a danger that people will read these sometimes humorous but decidedly bleak tales and simply feel sorry for what Muslim women have to put up with? "Any selection is an act of elimination," she replies. Her aim was to present an alternative history. "But the fact that Arab women are writing novels in itself should reflect positively on the Arab world. Also the Arab world has witnessed so many conflicts, you cannot write in isolation from the things around you."

She is irritated by critics who have dismissed the novels as autobiographical romance. "Most of the novels I read now from the Arab world by women are serious re-examinations of recent history and politics, and women writers are very much aware of what is happening around them."

"Anything can be problematic," she retorts when I ask how problematic she thinks Islam is for women. She emphasises the plurality of Islams, the preponderance of moderates. "My father was a member of an opposition Islamic group. He's the most reasonable man I know." What will change things for women is education, she believes. To understand the Qur'an, the Had'ith. "And to do our reinterpreting of the traditions we need to do them with other authorities. I am sure that things will change slowly to our advantage. I am very,'' - she corrects herself - "quite, hopeful of that."

Fadia Faqir's anthology of Arab women writers, In the House of Silence, is published in the spring.

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