BOOK REVIEW / Flowers of the sun, and pearl divers: Shusha Guppy reflects on some stories about ordinary and extraordinary Middle Eastern lives - 'Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East' - Ed. Edmund Burke III: I B Tauris, 14.95 pounds
Saturday 20 February 1993
Born in 1873, Mohand was 94 when this photograph was taken in 1967, a while before he died. His centenarian life spans most of the period covered by this book, as well as the history of Morocco, the colonisation of North Africa by France, and the way he and others like him came to terms with it. His is one of the 24 'ordinary people's lives' collected from all over the Islamic world, from North Africa to Afghanistan, by Professor Edmund Burke. Together they shed a fresh light on the societies of the Middle East, and the way its peoples have managed to survive through the cataclysmic changes of the past century: from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, through Western colonialism and nationalist movements to today.
Every day we are confronted by dramatic images of the turbulences in the Middle East - internecine or civil war, revolution, coup d'etat - that periodically convulse the region. Yet we know little about the daily lives of ordinary people in the midst of all this, and the stratagems they use to survive. Instead: 'we see the Middle East over the shoulders of diplomats, military officers, bureaucrats . . .' contends Professor Burke. As a result we tend to generalise from such vague notions as 'the Arab mind', 'Islamic fanaticism' and 'Oriental fatalism' put about by 'Orientalists' and other 'experts'.
Islamic historiographers have always used biography as a vehicle, starting with the Prophet Mohammed and his Companions: 'Perfect Men', whose exemplary lives were supposed to provide a model for Muslims everywhere. Professor Burke has gone back to this method, which emphasises the centrality of human personality in history.
The mini-biographies aim to provide a new perspective on the region by showing the possibilities of individual action despite restrictive social frameworks. The stories are told chronologically, and are divided in three sections: 'Pre-colonial Lives', 'The Colonial Experience' and 'Contemporary Lives'. It is hard to single out one story among many in each section - they are all fascinating. Yet some lives will be more exemplary than others in shaking the preconceived ideas of the Western reader.
Take Shemsigul (Flower of the Sun), a Circassian slave woman. She was bought in 1852 in Constantinople by Mehmet, a Cairo merchant, who immediately began to exercise his droit du seigneur, deflowering her, repeatedly raping her, and making her pregnant. When his wife found out that the 'maid' was with child, she tried to make her abort by beating her. Finally taken in by another slave dealer whose wife pitied her and adopted her baby, eventually she brought a suit against her owner to the Sharia (Islamic court), defended herself by simply telling her story, and amazingly won the case.
Shemsigul's testimony, found by Professor Ehud Toledano in the Egyptian Police Archives, makes all the more painful reading as it is matter-of-fact, and devoid of self-pity or pleading. Her account of rape, beating and torture is harrowing - we are a long way from the sensual fantasies of 19th-century European paintings, such as Ingres' Odalisque.
The story of Ahmad is of a Kuwaiti pearl diver who started work at 14. His equipment was a nose-clip, a basket tied around the neck for oysters, and a tool for prising the oysters loose; and his life was another form of slavery. Pearl divers were not paid a salary, only a share of the profits, which seldom went beyond mere subsistence. They lived in appalling conditions, were permanently indebted to their ship's captain and to the pearl merchants, and their 'debts' were inherited by their male progeny. When the oil revenues began to flow in the Persian Gulf, the pearl industry died out, and social benefits were introduced. Ahmad, by then old and retired, had no truck with the new way of life: 'people should work for a living,' he said. When his sons came to visit him in their Mercedes, driven by Palestinian chauffeurs, he mocked them: they were not 'real' people doing 'real' work.
Through the story of Al-Suwayhil we learn the history of Libya: its conquest by the Italians, the fascist period, the ruthless crushing of any resistance - no wonder Colonel Gaddafi has a chip on the shoulder and paranoia. The story of Bibi Maryam, a matriarch of the nomadic Bakhtiaris of southern Persia, shows how women exercised power despite their 'inferiority' in law. At the height of the First World War, in 1916, she conducted Wilhelm Wassmus, 'the German Lawrence' into the Bakhtiari lands to rally opposition to the British and capture the oil fields they controlled. This was in defiance of the tribal chiefs, as well as her husband and father, all of whom were pro-British and whose land would have been confiscated if they had been suspected of double-dealing.
Other stories include those of Haddou, a Moroccan migrant worker in Europe; of Abu Jamal, a Palestinian villager who has lived through the partition of Palestine, the wars of 1948, 1967, 1978 and the intifada; of Sumaya, the Lebanese house-maid living in her destroyed home in war-ravaged Beirut, and many more who arouse both profound admiration and pity as they demonstrate the resilience of human beings in adversity - of how life goes on and renews itself, and somehow triumphs.
The list of contributors is almost entirely of academics, which explains a certain dryness of tone. A few more direct interviews among the 'Contemporary Lives' would have made for variety of expression. Still, there is enough plot, character, intrigue and drama to inspire any novelist.
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