Makdisi Memoir: Witness to Arab Women in Transition

By Pauline Homsi-Vinson

Teta, Mother and Me
By Jean Said Makdisi
Saqi, 2005

Jean Said Makdisi’s “Teta, Mother and Me” is a welcome addition to the growing body of autobiographical works by Arab women now available in English. One thinks, for example, of “A Border Passage: From Cairo to America – a Woman’s Journey,” written by Makdisi’s childhood friend Leila Ahmed and published in 1999. Other memoirs written by Arab women and available in English include Leila Abouzeid’s “Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman,” and Fatima Mernissi’s “Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Childhood.” The well-known Nawal El Saadawi has written at least three autobiographical works: “A Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi,” “Walking through Fire: A Life of Nawal El Saadawi,” and “Memoirs from the Women’s Prison.”

Like El Saadawi, Ahmed, Abouzeid, Mernissi, and others, Makdisi delineates the intersections between her individual life and the social changes and political upheavals that have been taking place in the Middle East during the past century. Like other Arab autobiographers, she also traces a matrilineal heritage, linking together her own life with the lives of her mother and maternal grandmother, and directs her work toward a Western, or at least a Western-educated, audience. Makdisi composes her work in English and addresses the ways in which the combination of a Western education and Arab upbringing have shaped her life.

Makdisi’s work not only shares similarities with autobiographical writings by other Arab women, it also intersects with the memoir of her renowned brother, the late Edward Said, who published “Out of Place” in 1999. Like her brother, Makdisi describes her feelings of permanent displacement as a result of her family’s forced exile from Palestine after 1948. Unlike her brother, however, and more like her childhood friend, Leila Ahmed, Makdisi explores the ways in which intersections of gendered and political notions of identity have influenced her concept of herself.

As the title to Makdisi’s memoir indicates, Makdisi is concerned not simply with her own life, but also with the relationships between her life, her mother’s life, and that of her maternal grandmother (Teta is the Arabic equivalent of “Grandma”).

Makdisi’s maternal grandmother was born in 1880 in Ottoman Syria. Her father, Makdisi’s great-grandfather, was the first Protestant minister in what was then known as Greater Syria. In her youth, she lived in Beirut and attended a mission Protestant school, where she trained to be a teacher. After her marriage, she moved to her husband’s town of Safad in northern Palestine. Subsequently, she accompanied her husband to the U.S. where he trained to be a Baptist minister; they returned to settle in Nazareth. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Makdisi’s grandmother first moved to Egypt to live with Makdisi’s family, and finally to Lebanon, where she lived the remainder of her days.

Makdisi’s mother was born in Nazareth in 1914. She was educated in both Palestine and Lebanon. After her marriage, she moved to Egypt, although her husband (Makdisi’s father) was originally from Jerusalem. After the loss of Palestine in 1948, the family made Cairo their permanent home until the political situation forced them to move to Lebanon in the early 1960’s.

Makdisi herself was born in 1940 in Jerusalem and has experienced the effects of political changes first-hand. The significant political milestones range from the end of the British role in Palestine and Egypt in the late 1940s, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the revolution in Egypt in 1952 and its aftermath, the civil rights and women’s movements in the United States in the 1960s, and the war in Lebanon that began in the late 1970s.

As this brief summary indicates, Makdisi’s life, along with her mother’s and grandmother’s, has coincided with major historical changes and political upheavals in the areas of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt. Between them, they have witnessed the transition from Ottoman control to French and British mandate rule in the Middle East, to the formation of new Arab states, the loss of Palestine, the political revolutions in Egypt and Syria, and the war in Lebanon.

At the same time, however, Makdisi seems to have perceived both herself and the women in her family to be somehow superfluous to the life-changing events around them. Considering herself “an unconnected and redundant object,” she also viewed the women in her family as somehow outside of history: “It had always seemed to me, somehow, that beyond receiving blows from it, Teta, Mother, and I had nothing much to do with history, or it with us.”

As she delves more deeply into her family history, however, she finds the need to insert the largely neglected area of women’s history in the Middle East. Because of her family history’s connection to the spread of Protestantism in the Middle East, Makdisi delves into an exploration of the influence of the Protestant missionary educational institutions on the local populations who were receptive to them. Contrary to her expectations, however, she finds that her family’s and other Arabs’ reception of Western, “modern,” ideas that were promoted in the missionary schools in fact limited rather than expanded the social scope of Arab women. In contrast to the more communal and socially integrated views of womanhood that Makdisi finds available to Arab women in so-called traditional settings, the model of female domesticity advocated in Protestant missionary schools, according to Makdisi, has actually caused women to be more circumscribed within their domestic realms. In other words, while the mission schools availed women of greater access to literacy, they paradoxically contributed to the limitation of their spheres of influence in Middle Eastern society.

Makdisi’s discovery of the role that the Protestant missions have played in shaping the social life of Middle Eastern families like her own in turn causes her to re-evaluate her perception of her grandmother’s life in relation to both her mother’s and her own. At the beginning, Makdisi says, “I had thought Teta’s life had always been imperturbably domestic, as I thought my mother’s was, and unrelated to the outside world.” Makdisi’s historical research, however, causes her to conclude that “the kind of housekeeping and mothering I was involved in has nothing to do with ‘tradition,’ and much more to do with being ‘modern.’ The kind of life I and others of my class have led is linked with the ‘modern’ nation-state and ‘modern’ capitalist society, with modern schooling and education, and with the modern bourgeois household.”

Similarly, Makdisi looks at the “modern” political situation in the Middle East and finds it more alienating than the world that her grandmother knew in her youth, “when historical Syria was one open space, and the whole region was connected with itself and with its past.” This was a time, Makdisi tells her readers, “before the constrictions brought about by modern imperialism, which divided and locked people into new, small countries that became rivals and even fought each other.”

Whether in terms of nation states or domestic households, Makdisi’s celebration of the openness of the past in contrast to the constricting boundaries of modern life may seem rather naively idealistic. Her presentation, for instance, fails to consider the difficulties that both women and men faced when the areas of historical Syria as well as Egypt were under Ottoman rule. Nonetheless, as her examination of her own life in comparison to her mother’s and grandmother’s compellingly demonstrates, the women in her family do seem to have experienced a diminution rather than an expansion of avenues for participating in shaping their political futures in spite of their full embrace of modernity. Similarly, her memoir points to the need for further study of the influence of Protestant missionary schools in the Middle East, a task that is being undertaken by Ellen Fleischmann and others.

Impelled by her desire “to validate [her] woman’s role in society,” Makdisi produces a lengthy memoir that is at once highly personal, decidedly polemical and historically relevant. By focusing on the lives of women in her family across three generations, Makdisi points to the need for inserting the experiences of women into the historical record of the Middle East, an area from which they have been largely excluded. This effort, in turn, points to the need for a gendered, political reassessment of the ways in which modernity has been negotiated in the Middle East.

Makdisi’s memoir is well worth reading. It not only offers a counterpoint to the lives and autobiographical works of her childhood friend, Leila Ahmed, and her brother, Edward Said, but also contributes to our understanding of how individual lives intersect with the historical events around them. 


This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, Nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid


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