A Literary Exorcism

Frances Khirallah Noble
Specters by Radwa Ashour

By Radwa Ashour
Interlink Books, 2011

Tone poem, memoir, mosaic, fiction, history – “Specters” by Radwa Ashour is all of these. Two women, Radwa and Shagar – alter egos born on the same day, one a professor of literature, the other a professor of history – interweave episodes of their fragmented worlds to convey an Egypt of protests, rebellions, strikes, war, and oppression. Egyptians fight the English, the Israelis, and each other. There are assassinations and betrayals. Shagar is censored and imprisoned. Radwa’s husband, a poet, is deported. As if in grudging respect to the ghosts that haunt them, Radwa writes a novel called “Specters,” and Shagar writes a history called “Specters” about the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin in Palestine.

Written by a process of association, it hardly matters who is speaking: as individuals live out their lives in the shadow of external events over which they have little control, Shagar the historian’s concern with the universal is inseparable from Radwa the poet’s exposition of the particular. Through their lives and their writing, both women show that their world sees no difference between the personal and the political.

The chapter describing the massacre at Deir Yassin is the central illustration of this principle: the personal agonies of the massacre inevitably raise the question of the morality of conflict between nations, leading to the more specific inquiry of whether the Jews have lost their ethical legacy in the face of the “original sin” of Palestine.

The boundaries between the personal and the political blur again as Radwa’s husband is said to be Algerian, Palestinian, or Jordanian, depending on the circumstances, illustrating, perhaps, that the differences between Arabs, like those between Radwa and Shagar, are unimportant.

“Specters” is an attempted exorcism of Egypt’s ghosts, past and present. In writing this book, Ashour’s goal was to “write about people like her, who were living through a deadly moment in history, from which there was no escape. She would write the endings... [It] gave her a sense of mastery over her life even if it was in a fictitious world.” The finished product is a beautiful story that comes full circle, fusing history with fiction and political exigencies with the footfalls of everyday life.

The recent events in Egypt add a layer of meaning to this story, as one cannot help but wonder what Radwa or Shagar would think of this winter’s Egyptian revolution. Would they consider it a new paradigm? A version of the old one? If the toppling of the Mubarak regime is a cause for joy, theirs would be a very cautious joy indeed.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63, 2010.

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