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The honesty and complexity of ‘Beyond Veiled Clichés’

By Aicha Marhfour
Amal Awad’s book presents Arab women in their own words and in their own right

A well-known phenomenon in Arab music and traditional dance is tarab. One of those near-untranslatable words, it refers to a state of ecstasy and emotional transformation brought on by music that overtakes the audience, dancers and musicians – the latter’s process called saltanah by ethnomusicologist Ali Jihad Racy.

This profound, multifarious connection is often invoked to refer to greats of Arab music such as Um Kulthum or the dancer Tahia Carioca, both of whom were profiled and eulogised by Edward Said.

Art that inspires tarab also often presents a nostalgic link to home – to classical Arab culture, to Arabness co-existing with and in spite of modesty, closed doors and the concept of ’ayb (shame).

Reading Amal Awad’s excellent Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Real Lives of Arab Women (Vintage Australia; $32.99), even with a critical eye, brought home the concept of tarab.

Unusual for a book released by an Australian publishing house, it offers glimpses and moments of a similar transcendence. Here is a book that is not, for once, written as a primer for a white readership, to demystify Arabs.

While accessible and sure to become a staple of university courses and white feminist book clubs, Beyond Veiled Clichés is written by an Arab woman, for Arab women.

Driven by Awad’s knowing and wry voice, Beyond Veiled Clichés takes the author through Sydney and into the Middle East. She meets young Arab women along the way. They are activists, therapists, lawyers, journalists and, in the case of the remarkable Sabine, a professional clown with a travelling show who fearlessly stares down sexists. Some are married, some have divorced, others keep their relationships away from prying familial eyes. Some are Muslim, some are Christian, others have abandoned faith, or see themselves more as spiritual.

There are proud feminists, and others who feel uncomfortable adopting the label, knowing how mainstream white feminism does not represent them. It is the work of such women as profiled in this book that led Jordan to recently repeal its law allowing rapists to avoid punishment by marrying their victims.

What is also striking is how each interviewee, regardless of her personal life or circumstances, knows herself and her connection to Arabness.

None of the women Awad spoke to (as with the author herself) resemble how Arab women are so often presented – either as a timid, unsure wife, covered head to toe and not allowed to drive, or a viper-tongued, strident Hajja, the mother-in-law caricature from hell.

I’ve always thought that Arab women appear, to the outside world, to grow up mired in backwardness and restrictions, too busy taking care of siblings and on warak enab–rolling duty to go out and play or party. And while there is undoubted psychic damage done by double standards and the need for permission and approval to live, sometimes, in the words of interviewee Jamila, a childhood could just be “really fucking boring”.

There is much to love about an upbringing heavy on community, good food and cultural traditions and, for those raised with religion, the comfort and peace that comes with that too, but the flip side – where fear and rigidity rule – can be hard to shake off in adult life: “It was only recently, while idly listening to a segment on ABC about obsessive compulsive disorder and intrusive thoughts that I realised how religion, being fear-based, can raise your sensitivities to wrongdoing and fertilise obsessive thinking,” Awad writes. “I carried a huge amount of fear about jinxing.”

A sentence like this, to anyone growing up in a conservative, old-world-styled home, is an affirmation as much as it is a punch in the gut. It is also meaningless to anyone who wasn’t brought up with a khamsa in the house – or, in my case, regularly prayed over to banish evil.

It sounds funny and quaint, paranoid even, to anyone not raised to automatically say “mashallah” in response to a compliment. But it is just one of many moments in Beyond Veiled Clichés that are relatable, like a secret handshake or shared, hidden language.

Truly refreshing is the exclusion of men as interviewees. It redresses the balance somewhat to see men relegated to the background, as shadowy figures and the patriarchy’s representatives, echoed in quotes but not given the star billing to which Arab society has accustomed them.

Sometimes they are ridiculed, such as the man rebuffed by Awad who proceeded to lecture her about the concepts of makruh (disapproved) and haram (forbidden) like a Sunday school teacher. Or the teacher who raised the ire of Jennine by claiming he would keep his eyes lowered to avoid the temptation of women he encounters while shopping.

“Just chill out,” she thinks. “You’re just walking through a shop.”

Many reviewers will probably call Beyond Veiled Clichés a “brave” book, stamping it with the same pitying approval as misery memoirs, but the word that best applies to what Awad has created is honest.

And honest not merely in how she presents her interviewees, but in its missteps, too.

Awad writes on identity politics: “I no longer see it as helpful or useful to be too firmly entrenched in identity politics, which can make you sound as racist as the people who are trying to oppress you … For every proud Australian-born ‘person of colour’, there is a racist Australian ‘reclaimer’ who doesn’t think you belong in the sun-drenched land of Oz.”

While I sympathise with a wariness of identity politics, Awad’s position falls just short of believing in reverse racism, which is by definition a fundamental misunderstanding of how structural power operates.

We need to interrogate this. Awad otherwise writes perceptively about how Arab cultures abroad have made some social progress while diasporic communities remain wedded to the versions of biladi (my country) and Islam they brought over. But it is not the targets of Islamophobia, seeking comfort in their traditions and culture, who should bear the brunt of criticism for this kind of racism.

While Awad largely invokes Islamophobic racism, she misses a chance to address the virulent, unchecked anti-blackness in Arab communities. Arabs are notorious for not only their early slave trade but also for the ingrained racism persisting today. The fact that Arabs continue to use the n-word with a hard ‘r' goes almost unnoticed by Awad.

It is exciting to read frankly written chapters about the hijab and queerness, but disappointing that on the topic of racism Beyond Veiled Clichés falls short. Even with these shortcomings, however, it is a book that transcends and has its moments of tarab.

“I can see now how I made my world unnecessarily smaller when I put the headscarf on the second time around,” Awad writes, a scythe cutting through parental disappointment, community expectations and personal guilt.

“I had found my tribe, and wanted every part of that belonging,” she continues.

Beyond Veiled Clichés is a book about my tribe, and every Arab woman will see herself within it.

Aicha Marhfour

Aicha Marhfour is a freelance writer in Melbourne.

@aichamarhfour

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