A Woman Is No Man
By Etaf Rum, Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 337 pages, $26.99
In a hushed bedroom, a woman smears foundation over the bruises on her daughter-in-law’s face, layer after silencing layer. “There are things in this life no one should see,” she tells the young woman her son has beaten. “When I was your age, I never let anyone see my shame.”
Etaf Rum’s debut novel is a dauntless exploration of the pathology of silence, an attempt to unsnarl the dark knot of history, culture, fear and trauma that can render conservative Arab-American women so visibly invisible. “Where I come from,” her narrator begins, “we keep these stories to ourselves. To tell them to the outside world is unheard-of, dangerous, the ultimate shame. But you have seen us.”
From a refugee camp near Ramallah to a Brooklyn rowhouse, A Woman Is No Man follows three generations of Palestinian women as they confront the claustrophobic expectations that continue to shape their lives. In the spring of 1990, Isra Hadid accepts a marriage proposal that will take her to America, her heart full of fairy-tale hopes. Eighteen years later, her eldest daughter, Deya Ra’ad, longs for college but reluctantly considers potential husbands at the urging of her grandmother Fareeda. When an anonymous note lures Deya to a Manhattan bookshop, the story she knows about her family is violently rewritten.
The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, born and raised in Brooklyn, Rum is keenly aware of the risks of exposing her community to the scrutiny of narrative. It’s a devil’s bargain: Speak and add inadvertent fuel to the ever-smouldering fire of anti-Arabism — or don’t speak and add another layer of silence. “I knew that as long as I stayed away from controversial topics like arranged marriages and domestic abuse, no one would criticise me or call me a traitor. No one would shun me. No one would try to hurt me,” Rum has explained. “Perhaps these fears are why there aren’t many Arab-American women on bookshelves; why, whenever I search for our stories in bookstores and libraries, I cannot find them.”
There’s a burden that comes with being among the first of your kind; the potential for misinterpretation is too great to leave much to chance. What emerges is a story as didactic as it is brave. A Woman Is No Man is both a love letter to storytelling and a careful object lesson in its power. Timorous Isra’s heroine is Scheherazade, the bewitching taleteller of The Thousand and One Nights. “No one asks Scheherazade to marry the king,” she marvels. “She volunteers on behalf of all women to save the daughters of Muslims everywhere. For 1,001 nights, Scheherazade’s stories were resistance. Her voice was a weapon.”
Of Rum’s three women, it is implacable Fareeda — enforcer of norms, keeper of secrets — whose voice proves the most revelatory. Her marriage at 14 to a stranger in the dust of the Al Am’ari refugee camp has “made a warrior out of her,” yet she fights to uphold a system where “the shame of her gender was engraved on her bones.” It’s a startling portrait of the mechanics of complicity, of the intergenerational pathology of silence.
“It took more than one woman to do things differently,” Fareeda reflects, wearily. “It took a world of them.” Across the globe, a bold new generation of Arab women are putting that defeatism to the test by sharing their stories. The triumph of Rum’s novel is that she refuses to measure her women against anything but their own hearts and histories. “It’s hard to belong anywhere, truly belong, if we don’t belong to ourselves first,” Deya is told. Distinctly, defiantly and earnestly, A Woman Is No Man belongs to itself.