Patriarchy is one of the main themes that comes to mind for those thinking about the Arab world. Arab women are usually seen through the stereotypical lens of oppression and subject to the demands of their male relatives. However, when it comes to texts written about Arab women, be they fiction, journalism or academic, many are written from an orientalist perspective that may capture the problems Arab women face in their societies, but their identities are shaped by those problems.
Anxiety of Erasure… is a book written by an Arab woman, to describe the grief of Arab women seen through the eyes of Arab women. It is a refreshing, unique and gripping read; as a woman from an Arab background, it is one of the first such books with which I feel that I can identify fully.
The author uses a series of tales written with the aim of tapping in to what it means to be an Arab woman writing and breaking taboos. Hanadi Al-Samman not only uses ancient tales that have been revisited and re-written from the perspective of the female character, but she also looks at the writers themselves. She has personalised the struggles of the authors and the characters and related them to the modern Arab woman. Not only does this provide us with a deep analysis of the systematic masculinisation of Arab literature, but it also goes into the subconscious of the average Arab girl and woman, creating a systematic trauma that most Arab women do not even know exists in their minds.
One of the more striking instances of her relating ancient practices to the subconscious of the Arab woman is when Al-Samman mentions “wa’d al banat”, the practice of burying young girls alive. She explains the historical context of this as a pre-Islamic Arab practice early on in the book. It is revisited in a later chapter about the culture within which Arab women are still shamed and endure a life which revolves around honour politics. This, she says, is a “play on the Arab women’s collective unconscious threat” of female infanticide, should they ever bring “shame” on their families. Her point is that although the barbaric practice is no longer carried out, the sentiments that perpetuated it in the first place are still very much alive within Arab communities.
Examining the role of the Arab woman in the diaspora, the author suggests that for some Arab women writers, leaving the Arab world means that they can be freer to express themselves in their work. She speaks about the importance of the Arabic language to them and how, despite being inspired by a change of culture and more confident and open in their literature, the preservation of their roots in the diaspora and writing in Arabic is a way to connect and give back to their community.
Overall, Anxiety of Erasure is an eye-opening read that addresses the depths of the angst of the Arab woman. Al-Samman has used a wide range of literature from a number of authors and pieced them together to bring to light the misjudged chronicle of the Arab woman’s existence. The book is crafted in such a way that it is accessible to anyone who wants to understand the plight of Arab women in literature. More importantly, perhaps, when read by an Arab woman, it is likely to awaken her soul.