Tradition's Victims: Love and Marriage in Emily Nasrallah's 'Dormant Embers'

John Naoum Tannous

Al-Jamr al-Ghafi (Dormant Embers)
By Emily Nasrallah
Dar Nawfal, 2013

Emily Nasrallah's 1995 novel, "Al-Jamr al-Ghafi " (Dormant Embers) speaks about marital love in crisis under strict social traditions. In the novel, which takes place in the Lebanese village of Al-Jawra, marriage is arranged by a mediating go-between. It has nothing to do with love and mutual understanding, and we see problems arise with sexual impotence as well as a fundamental aversion to sexual instinct itself.

These specific problems are connected to the larger, more comprehensive issue of a general backwardness in the practice of living. The main characters, although they differ in details, are fundamentally similar; they are all witnesses to the supremacy of suppression and coercion. These characters seem bred to suffer the village taboos which dictate misery and forbid joy, making life itself a heavy burden of crushing tradition.

Refusing a Liberated Woman

In "Dormant Embers," the character of Jubran al-Salamoni appears completely negative. This villager left Al-Jawra for Toledo, Ohio, where he worked for his cousin Abdallah. When he returns to Al-Jawra, he has a terrible feeling of inferiority, believing that Nuzha, Abdallah's wife with whom he, Jubran, is in love, is an extraordinary woman beyond his reach. On several occasions, he speaks of Nuzha's power and her extraordinary effect on him: "I am a leaf in her blowing wind..." Love paralyzes Jubran's personal powers and reduces him to obedience and subservience. "She has an immense ability to explode in his being and to make him submit to her power, making him an obedient slave to her." He feels weak before Nuzha's magnetism.

What is the root of this reversal of power? Is it related to an old fear of women in general, and of the liberated woman in particular? Is this what makes him shy away from love, then surrender to a masochistic fatalism?

There are doubtless several factors that fortify Jubran's fear of a daring, positive woman. First is guilt: Jubran's love for Nuzha is neither legally nor morally permissible, for she is the wife of his aged cousin Abdallah. Though his guilt and fear of scandal are not the only factors that complicate Jubran's relationship with Nuzha. Although Jubran is obeying the principles of duty and conscience, he still fears Nuzha, imagining that she is an extraordinary and powerful woman who could control him.

This fear stems from the great differences between the two lovers' personalities. Nuzha rebelled against village backwardness and married Abdallah, a wealthy émigré. She then learned English, studied business, and in the end ran her husband's company. She was the one who made the final decisions. She is a positive, liberated, and ambitious woman, while Jubran appears to lack Nuzha's vitality. After Jubran's business collapses, Abdallah takes over and gives him a monthly salary; however, Abdallah lacks the ambition to establish a new business. Jubran accepts the peace of mind and contentment associated with lack of ambition, while Nuzha seems to be a woman of such ambition that she does not refrain from using others as tools to achieve her aims: "Beauty was not the most important quality of Nuzha, for she had a strong personality and presence, and did not try to hide the ambition that bubbled in her conversation and shone in her eyes. She observed everything and everyone around her, as though her eyes were piercing other people in search of concealed worlds, still unknown, which she was eager to explore."

Jubran and Nuzha, then, are opposites: she took initiative that showed courage, abandoning burdensome village customs and taboos; and he was subservient yet complacent. Thus it is no surprise that when Nuzha offered to seek a divorce from Abdallah, Jubran refused for reasons related less to morality than to his weakness: "She terrifies him and removes the veil from his eyes." The duality of initiative/passivity is reinforced when Nuzha tries again to save their love, offering to buy Jubran another émigré's shop. Instead, Jubran resorts to escape.

Jubran's cowardice reaches its climax when Nuzha makes a third initiative effort and returns to the Lebanese village to which Jubran has fled. She is still trying to reclaim him, now as a wealthy widow. But Jubran retreats, for he is concerned with defending himself against the danger of Nuzha, rather than removing the obstacles to their marriage.

Jubran's fear is caused indirectly by the village traditions that compel people to act in secret. Though the writer has not spoken directly about Jubran's relationship to his village's traditions and taboos, the reader feels that his fear did not come from nowhere. Jubran al-Salamoni is indeed the son of the village of Al-Jawra and the product of its illusions and superstitions. Emigration did not change his internal structure. Hence, he, like the other major characters, refuses love and considers sex sinful.

Distortion of Sex

Jubran's refusal to marry Nuzha is, to a certain extent, rooted in the fear that sex is a sin. This idea is reinforced by the sad history of Abdallah's two marriages.

After the mukhtar (the village selectman) mediated on behalf of Abdallah and he married Lea, a naive village girl, we find her surrendering to her husband out of duty, not love: "With all her will and readiness, she gave him her body. If she was not motivated by love, she was motivated by that feeling ingrained in girls as soon as their awareness arises and then deepens, day by day, under the influence of imitation, behavior, and language." And yet, Lea's body shivered with desire when Abdallah approached her: "She felt all the feelings come to her all at once and shake her being, electrify her, and she fell as a delicious ripe fruit in his lap." Although Lea was enslaved by the village traditions, natural desire shook her; it soon subsided because Abdallah behaves crudely, as though love and sex were unrelated, or as though marriage has nothing to do with the harmonious union of man and woman.

Hence, Lea returned to her "cocoon" to come out as a "being whose feeling and awareness are numbed." The main cause for this numbness is the village traditions, which not only encourage an oppressive marriage but also fail to prepare a young woman sexually. The writer speaks about the terror of the first menstruation, which leads to a girl's fear and rejection of her femininity: "Even that big transformation that comes upon a young girl when she comes of age, she considered to be a sickness. She will never ever forget the terror that took hold of her on seeing blood stain her underwear..." Despite her mother's soothing words, Lea could "never ever" forget this shock, the root of an anxiety "which took hold of her, carved a place for itself in her, and nestled in her heart."

This shock undoubtedly strengthened Lea's aversion to sex, yet Abdallah's behavior remains the decisive factor. Abdallah finds himself impotent, unable to complete the act of sex. So he beats Lea harshly and forces her to return to her parents under the pretext that she was not a virgin. Abdallah, like Lea, submits to the village's taboos. Abdallah and Lea are spiritual and emotional siblings in their submission to and repression by the strict village regulations.

After Abdallah divorced Lea, he married Nuzha, only to treat his new wife in the same beastly manner: "He pounced on her and began to implant his vulgar kisses on her eyes, on her mouth, on her neck, trying to silence her...When he felt she was withdrawing into a space within herself that he did not know, he surrounded her with his arms and overwhelmed her with his body." Abdallah is repeating here what he attempted with Lea. He does not know a woman's feelings and imagines, as village traditions have taught him, that it is his duty to devour Nuzha's body like an animal. But he fails with Nuzha as he failed with Lea, giving her the choice of divorce or staying with him as a virgin, untouched and unloved.

Although the writer has not shed sufficient light on Abdallah's personality to let the reader know the hidden causes leading to his impotence, she has portrayed Nuzha, on the other hand, as a young woman unaware of the reality of marriage, a woman who is suddenly shocked by Abdallah's sexual impulses that are totally devoid of love and tenderness: "Here he is, attacking her at one fell swoop, as though he were the ghoul nestled in her imagination as a child."

What is clear here is the influence of popular tales and village illusions on the imagination of girls, who as a result liken men to ferocious animals. This understandably causes an aversion to sex, which Nuzha could have overcome if Abdallah had behaved more humanely. Furthermore, on her wedding night, Nuzha remembered the sinful sexual temptations to which she was exposed as a child by Makhoul, the shopkeeper, who "hisses like a snake and spits his poison in her face," and she remembered Ramez al-Hajal, who used to tempt her with candies to let his hand slip "secretly into an intimate region of her body." The strangest part of this latter incident is that her mother rebuked her when she screamed for help: "Lower your voice. A good girl does not scream." A feeling of embarrassment overcomes Nuzha so strongly that she does not feel the least sexual excitement: "In spite of her awareness of all these things, the awareness of her body remains dormant." It is natural that this marriage should fail, that Abdallah should experience sexual impotence, and that Nuzha should seek to compensate for this absence of love with Jubran.

Lea, Child of Tradition

The concept of sinful sex, shackling the characters with its unconscious taboos, is related to sinful marriage based on deals by intermediaries, devoid of love and understanding. Under patriarchal domination, it is natural that the woman pays the most exorbitant price, because she is the party most suppressed. Lea, for example, is a young girl who submits to tradition and falls into an abyss of misfortune because she fails to defy the village standards. Hence, those staid traditions make Lea a figure of distorted femininity. True, her parents ask her for her opinion concerning the marriage proposal but this question is, in reality, irrelevant because Lea has been indoctrinated with the wrong concepts and has become part of the community's viewpoint, without a unique individual personality: "She gave up her destiny to her parents as is expected of a good young girl of her generation and she tied her own opinion with that of the community." The expression "as is expected of a good young girl of her generation" shows that Lea has become part of the game of traditions since childhood. The writer clarifies Lea's attitude: "The community designs the pattern and she conforms to it without objection."

Furthermore, Lea has accepted repression and deprivation and knows nothing of the relationship of a woman to a man but shyness and modesty: "If the young woman discards the outer veil, an inner veil soon covers her face and her being, clothing her with shyness and causing her to stumble over her own steps."

If Lea is a victim of Abdallah's impotent lust, she is - on the other hand - a captive of her inablity to defend herself. Lea might have saved herself if she had accused her husband of sexual impotence and boasted of her virginity in front of everyone. However, her passivity exposed her to unfair accusations and pressures from her husband, parents, and village - society as a whole. She does not defend her innocence but instead bears her pain in silence. When the priest asks her for her opinion about the cause of the divorce, she answers naively, "But it is my right, Father, to know the cause of my divorce." When the priest decides, with her parents, the destiny of her whole life, we find her standing motionless: "Her father and the priest decide her destiny. Abdallah, his sister, and Naffouj decide her destiny. The people of Al-Jawra decide her destiny. Her fate is being decided for her, and she does not know what surprises it still holds for her." Lea has assimilated with village traditions to such an extent that she is terrified when she looks at the priest, who embodies for her the despotic authority of conscience: "The priest and the bishop...She stands to kiss their hands and the tip of their sleeves...She dares not raise her eyes to look at his though she were in the presence of God!"

The writer has done well portraying Lea's persecution, especially from her mother. Yet, while her parents represent the main conduit of tradition, the village remains a strange entity, appearing in all the characters and inhabiting them, determining their qualities and behavior. This is clear in the outworn traditions that preserve the village's right to be shown the bride's nightgown stained with the blood of her virginity. The novel describes the role of Naffrouj, and old woman: "Traditions require, if matters go their natural way, that [Naffouj] should carry the nightgown stained with blood on the day following the wedding to show it to any doubting person, proudly announcing the success of the task." What clever sarcasm there is in the expression "the success of the task," so well used by the writer! Love and marriage belong to the community, honor is limited to external palpable matters, and the female is guilty until proven innocent. It is a marriage of deals, based on everything but love and understanding. This novel shows the need for the humanization of marriage in societies that still do not recognize the rights of the individual and that, dominated by traditions, have become the new gods on earth, rivaling the gods of heaven in their authority.

Nuzha's Rebellion

If Lea is characterized by rigidity and passivity, Nuzha exemplifies positivism and initiative. We see her rebel against village traditions by marrying the wealthy émigré Abdallah, establishing one kind of freedom for herself. Nuzha is primarily influenced by her mother, the dominating figure in the family. Since she was a baby, her mother fed her ideas, even as she nursed her; when Nuzha grew up she was able to refuse and rebel, for those ideas were rooted in her being, part of her personality. When it comes to the village standards, "she is refusing and accepting, obeying and disobeying...This is what kept her like soft dough, her mother shaping her as she liked." Although this passage indicates submission as well as rebellion, the writer emphasizes the rebelliousness in Nuzha's personality: "She felt in her depths the rebelliousness of her mother's words, for she refuses them and does not like her attitude and realizes that her father is unfairly treated."

With regards to Nuzha's rebelliousness against the backwardness of village traditions, there seems to be no sign of hope: "She will be a woman like all the other women, a wife to one of those backward males in the alleys of Daria. As for the eagles, they have soared and disappeared." Nuzha hates the young village men, fettered by unseen chains of oppressive traditions. The novel goes on to explain: "For this is her opportunity to escape from the suffocating oppression of her village and her family. Her life is of one color, of one taste that she hates." That is why she yearns for a new society, and even for the modern city: "This new world attracted her and dominated her feelings." She begins to admire men who wear Western clothes and women who are elegant.

Her marriage to Abdallah, based on escape, is sinful by its very nature, even if it had the blessing of religious and village traditions. Nuzha soon wakes up and is shocked by her new reality. She rebelled against tradition and was liberated from village society, she enjoyed the fruits of the modern city; but she still did not know love and happiness. That is why her rebellion may be considered negative - and similar, to some extent, to Lea's submission and rigidity. Nuzha had achieved a degree of self-realization but lives a miserable life. Why would she not be miserable when she has remained a virgin living under her oppressive husband Abdallah? Hence, we understand why Nuzha falls in love with Jubran al-Salamoni, and we likewise understand the factors that eventually lead her to marry Deeb Abu-Absi, a young man over 15 years her junior.

The village, in Emily Nasrallah's view, is an enemy of life, and it is sinful in its views of love, sex, marriage, and divorce as it crushes, transforms, and distorts its children. "Dormant Embers" offers a living portrayal of some of our social traditions in Lebanon and the Arab world. Perhaps by facing this painful reality with all its bitterness, we may find the encouragement to look forward to a future of new hope.

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 8, no. 40, Summer 2002).

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