Of all the novels I have read about older women this has aroused the strongest emotions in me. The woman, Ruqayya, 70, has held the grief of her family as well as her own suffering since she was 12. Ruqayya was born in a village that was claimed for the new state of Israel, and she and her family became victims of the Nakba, joined the Palestinian diaspora.
Women hold up half the sky, as they say. And take their share of suffering and grief. This is the account of the life of one Palestinian woman. She has been asked by her son to write her story. At times we wish she hadn’t agreed, for her suffering, the suffering of so many Palestinian women, is intense.
But here, in the West, we do not hear such voices often. The voices of older Palestinian women are almost silent.
The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour
Hasan encouraged his mother Ruquyya to write and bought her a notebook for the purpose, on the cover of which he wrote “al-Tantouriya”, the Woman from Tantoura.
He said, “Mother, what I am asking for isn’t a composition but testimony. What I want from you is testimony […], even if it’s long and detailed, concerning large events and the small ones too. Write whatever comes to mind, and tell it however you like.” (162-3)
And this is what we get, her testimony from the attack on the village of Tantoura in 1948 to the present day. About half way through her account, she finds herself unable to continue. She has reached the point when Beirut was under attack. She wrote to Hasan and told him that that she could not go further. Hasan called her.
“I got your letter. You say, what sense is there and what’s the use? I say that I wanted others to hear your voice, the voice of Ruqayya the woman from Tantoura. Your four children, we know that voice because we were raised with it. We know you and we know you have a lot to tell people. It’s not only the story I’m interested in, I’m after the voice, because I know its value and I want others to have the chance to hear it.” (185)
Ruqayya protests, saying it will kill her to continue. Hasan replies,
“It won’t kill you, you’re stronger than you think. Memory does not kill. It inflicts unbearable pain, perhaps; but we bear it, and memory changes from a whirlpool that pulls us to the bottom, to sea we can swim in. We cover distances, we control it, and we dictate to it.” (186)
So this is the frame for this novel: a woman, telling her story. In one sense it’s every Palestinian woman’s story, of displacement, murder of her family members, seeking safety with family or friends, in neighbouring countries, holding fast to the idea of the homeland.
Born in the village of Tantoura on the sea in 1936, Ruqayya is 12 when like so many people, she flees with her mother and aunt and cousins. This is the Nakba, a word which means disaster or catastrophe and refers to the exodus of Palestinians from their homes. About 700,000 people fled, about half the Palestinian Arab population. Like many women, Ruqayya’s mother locks the house when they leave and wears the big iron key on a string around her neck until she dies.
The family find shelter in Lebanon, in Sidon and try to maintain their connections, to ensure that everyone is fed, sheltered and provided with an education. The girls need husbands and Ruqayya marries her cousin Amin, a doctor. They have three sons and move to Beirut. But Beirut becomes troubled and then dangerous, and for a while bombing is more or less continuous. Amin brings a baby home to Ruqayya, and they take her on as their own.
The part of her story that Ruqayya cannot tell is what happened to Amin, who was last seen in the hospital in Beirut.
Ruqayya and Maryam, the adopted daughter, stay for a while in Abu Dhabi with her son Sadiq who makes a good living as an architect. Later they move to Alexandria for Maryam’s medical studies, and finally Ruqayya returns to Sidon.
What I found in The Woman from Tantoura
This is a novel that offered me a new perspective on events concurrent with my life. I had hardly considered the events in human terms, despite spending a few days in Israel in June 1967 before being airlifted to Cyprus.
The story of Ruqayya is the story of cherishing a dream to return to a homeland, but surviving and enduring the diaspora. The attachment to the homeland is strong, as symbolised by that key, passed on to Ruqayya by her mother and then to a granddaughter. The final chapter relates a visit that Ruqayya makes to the border with Israel, looking out over the land she was born in and cannot visit, and meeting people from the other side of the barbed wire.
It’s a story of endurance, of suffering, loss and hardship; of the violence that took her father, brothers and husband and many friends, and turned them into martyrs; of the joy of reunions, weddings and other feasts; of displacement and injustice. And it’s the story of the women who ensure their families are provided for.
The novel asserts the importance of giving voice to those who have been neglected, downtrodden, ignored. The testimony of the women of Palestine is a significant part of Middle Eastern history and is crucial to understanding the tortuous realities of the Middle East today.
Radwa Ashour, the author, lived 1946-2014. She was Egyptian and suffered family dislocation when her poet husband was exiled to Hungary. She was a student of literature in Egypt and the United States. She taught at the Aims Shan University in Cairo.
Published in 2014 by the American University in Cairo Press, The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour was translated by Kay Heikkinen. 368 pp
Posted by Caroline Lodge of Bookword