Return to Childhood is a memoir by the Moroccan writer Leila Abouzeid, who is better known for her story collection Year of the Elephant.
Translated from the Arabic by the author and Heather Logan Taylor, Return to Childhood is interesting not only for its account of Abouzeid’s own feelings and impressions, but also for the complicated stories of family and political intrigue that she absorbed at the time and reproduced years later, seemingly verbatim. Some of these concern Abouzeid’s father, an uncompromising political activist who was jailed for speaking out not just before but after Morocco’s independence.
Just as interesting, though, are Abouzeid’s thoughts about why memoirs by Moroccan and other Arab women have been relatively rare. (In a recent post, I discussed what may be the first of these: Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, first published in 1886.)
Autobiography, until the last few years, was not respected as a form in Morocco. For Arabs, literature meant the lyric, the poetic, and the fantastic, whereas autobiography deals with the practice of daily life and tends to be written in common speech….
Autobiography was not classified as literature because it was also thought to be accessible to all; after all, the thinking goes that everyone can write about his or her life. Statesmen have done it, as well as artists, especially those in earlier times, who are seen as mere entertainers who ended up as artists because they could not succeed ina real career.
In addition, autobiography has the pejorative connotation in Arabic of madihu nafsihi wa muzakkiha (he or she who praises and recommends him- or herself). This phrase denotes all sorts of defects in a person or a writer: selfishness versus altruism, individualism versus the spirit of the group, arrogance versus modesty. That is why Arabs usually refer to themselves in formal speech in the third person plural, to avoid the use of the embarrassing íI.ë In autobiography, of course, one uses íIë frequently.
Perhaps even more important, a Muslim’s private life is considered an ‘awra (an intimate part of the body), and sitr (concealing it) is imperative. As the Qu’ran says, Allah amara bissitr (God ordered the concealing of that which is shameful and embarrassing). Hence the importance of hijab and hajaba or yahjubu, from the root íto hide,ë words used for the veil that hides a woman’s body and the screen that hides private quarters as in the Qur’anic verse that says Kallimuhunna min warai hijab (Talk to them behind a screen), referring to the wives of the Prophet. The word for the ancient Arabo-Islamic walled city, muhassana, is the same as the term for chaste unmarried women; it means literally íinaccessible.ë The concern about concealing is clear in Arabo-Islamic architecture, where inner courtyards and gardens are central, windows look inward rather than outward, and outside walls are blind.
This traditional lack of respect for real-life stories is part of what a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival was getting at when it asked íIs Nonfiction Literature?ë In Abouzeid’s case, it prevented her from writing this book for a long time.
íI had to wait twenty-eight years before I dared write my autobiography,ë she tells us, íand I did it in response to a request from my friend Elizabeth Fernea. The work was meant for a non-Moroccan audience, and I felt it would give me the opportunity to correct some American stereotypes about Muslim women.ë
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.