Book Review: Voices

As I have already written about a Ukrainian author I thought why not an Egyptian one. Sulaiman Fayyadh‘s Voices (أصوات) which I read in Arabic is one of those short novels which you read in one go and which opens up several topics.

An Egyptian man, Hamed, who left his village at the age of 10 and became rich in Paris, decided to go back home 30 years later for a short visit. And he took his French wife Simone with him. Fayyadh uses the voices of many of the story characters (Hamed, his mother, his brother, his brother’s wife, a young high school student, the mayor and the police officer) to relate the events that happened before and during the visit. Each giving a different perspective and completing the story.

Voices ends in an unexpected way with Simone‘s death by the hands of the village’s women. إن كيدهن عظيم 🙂 And as I don’t want to entirely spoil the story, I won’t tell you how the woman died despite the fact this was one of the major points Fayyadh wanted to address. Click here [ar] if you want to know more.

Besides its end, the story deals with topics, which have been and are still being treated in novels, articles and movies, related to the East/West relationship and what some would call the clash (or dialogue) of civilisations.

As soon as the villagers heard of Simone‘s visit (her husband’s comeback looked anecdotal), they rushed to fix things in their own lives and behaviour to make sure the foreign woman feels great and they feel no shame before her. They cleaned the streets, washed their usually dirty clothes, prevented their children from urinating everywhere, etc. It shows how these people were actually aware of what they were doing wrong and kept doing it regardless, because they were, like we say in Algeria, binat’houm. They didn’t care so long as no external observer was watching…

Hamed spoke once in the novel. He shared his feelings on his countrymen and how they looked now like the French. They wore pants and suits, drove cars, took off the tarboush and the Jellabiya, but they lacked spirit and civilisation, cleanliness and good manners. Hamed even felt ashamed of them and displayed a sort of inferiority complex towards his wife.

The other males’ voices talked more about Simone. They all kind of got infatuated with  and wanted to please her. They belittled their own wives in comparison, but at the same time were too afraid she’d influence their “chaste and veiled women” and corrupt their minds. They were too happy to have Simone in their meetings, noting she was the only female present besides the belly dancer, but would never consider taking their wives with them. Their admiration decreased a little when they saw she didn’t remove her armpit hair, which, to them, was a sign of dirtiness.
And I liked this part because it symbolised what most Easterners feel: they admire the West for its development and knowledge, for its art and science, for its democracy; but they want to keep their traditional values which would be wiped out were they to adopt the Western way of life.

While reading the novel, I thought the women were smart as they didn’t behave in a too stupid way, relatively, until the end with them killing the poor Simone lol. But interestingly enough, the reason behind their action was their attempt to “egyptianize” her, to make her worthy of being Hamed‘s wife who would therefore not be married to “a man”.

We read in the novel that Simone wrote notes about her visit but we never get to know them, just like her voice is not audible. It’s like Fayyadh didn’t want us to know the foreigner’s perspective. But Hamed‘s brother tells us that she behaved like she was in Paris, and forced them to adopt her behaviour (eating with forks, etc.). He remarked that normally, the guest should adapt to his host’s way of life and not the other way around.
The West’s ignorance of the East’s condition is depicted by Fayyadh through Simone‘s questions reported to us by the high school student. She wondered why the people didn’t look healthy, why the farmers didn’t use machines, etc.

The novel ends with the police officer asking the doctor about the real cause of Simone’s death (because they had agreed to say it was a heart attack). The doctor replied, “her death or our death?” Making it sound like killing her was killing the only chance for the village to enter into civilisation.

In a separate article, Fayyadh said he had been accused of being a supporter of western imperialism after he wrote the novel. He also mentioned how the French press took the opportunity of the publication of his novel’s French translation to blame everything on Islam. It’s like we’re way too far from being reasonable and keeping our emotions aside when dealing with West/East topics. And perhaps it’s party due to History as illustrated in the novel when the village males gathered to discuss about Simone‘s visit and they brought back the 17,000 of their ancestors killed by French invaders many decades earlier. Even Simone didn’t forget that past for she wanted to know more about Louis IX‘s capture by the Egyptians.


19 thoughts on “Book Review: Voices

  1. Fascinating read. It’s an accurate assessment of the situation in my opinion and I don’t think Fayyad or any of the many writers who tried to say the same thing in their own ways are defenders of Western imperialism or Islam-haters. It is a sad reflection of our societies that they’re doomed to be regarded as one or the other or both. I did click on the link and discovered how they killed her. Oh no, I will never enjoy this book if I get to read it one day!

    • What I dislike most is the way Arabs compare themselves to the West and how much the West’s opinion matters to them. I understand the reasons behind it, and some would say it is natural, but still I cannot bring myself to accepting it. In the novel, the characters always considered what Simone would think of them before doing anything, the mayor even refrained from eating because he didn’t want her to think he’s an ignorant…
      This, in my opinion, is an evidence of our weakness and must be suppressed.

      As to the main issue, so long as we consider things as an opposition between modernity and archaism, between science and religion, between West and East, I am not sure we’d go out of this circle.

      • In the novel, the characters always considered what Simone would think of them before doing anything, the mayor even refrained from eating because he didn’t want her to think he’s an ignorant…This, in my opinion, is an evidence of our weakness and must be suppressed.

        Wanting to suppress is the wrong approach because it would give a system where everything is done in order to de-Westernize which is the ultimate West-obsession. I think we need to ask why are we fascinated by the West? Why does its opinion of us matter? Why is an Arab immigrant looked up to? We need to change our approach from a retrospective one to an introspective one. This phenomenon is not specific to the Arab world by the way. I think you will find that the Asian, African and Latin American worlds also have the same phenomenon.

        As to the main issue, so long as we consider things as an opposition between modernity and archaism, between science and religion, between West and East, I am not sure we’d go out of this circle.

        I don’t like dichotomous discourse either, but we cannot ignore the fact that the dismal absence of viable and authentic Arabo-Muslim mechanisms which would facilitate the transition to modernity is the root cause of the situation. Do you have ideas on alternative lines along which the debate should be framed?

        • I didn’t mean to suppress it as a way to de-Westernize our thinking. I actually meant suppressing the reasons behind this stance, which are the answers to the questions you ask above.
          I believe it is mostly due to the fact we’re not happy with our situation and we don’t know what we want to be. If we had an objective set for our future in which we believe, we would work to achieve it regardless of what X or Y think of it. We either dream of a future similar to the West’s present, or a future similar to our “glorious” past. In terms of human development, I think both are wrong. Our helplessness and lack of vision is the real problem.

          PS: I am talking here about the elites whose job is to help shape the future, because the masses are already under the globalisation spell and think they are as modern/developed as anyone else on earth when all they do is use what the West has created…

        • Ah I see! Yes I agree, because when the women attempted to de-Westernize Simone to make her worthy of their Muslim brother they ended up committing a crime lol The elites is a very complex topic indeed! Did Fayyad address it in this book? Because I had the impression he was talking about simple people (the masses represented by the villagers). I agree with your assessment, the lack of vision is very depressing, this is what angers me too.

  2. I have not read the book but only the exerpt from amazon and the review by Mnarvi. Algerianna is right… yet! LOL. From my side I find it appalling and absurd and Mnarvi’s review is enough. I agree with his statement that the novel brings up many topics. I am interested in the one that in my opinion is at the very root of our misery: behavior and manners. And unless it is fixed we are stuck in the mud. I quote from the review:
    ”They [Easterners] admire the West for its development and knowledge, for its art and science, for its democracy; but they want to keep their traditional values which would be wiped out were they to adopt the Western way of life.”
    I do not believe that the majority wants to keep [All] their traditional values. In fact they know this means troubles ahead with losers and winners and they prefer to cling to their kinda used-to-well-known-confortable misery putting forward the excuse of the bad morals of the west. Well that is really really sad. What in the world has any (even the most) archaique tradition to do with spitting, urinating, crossing streets any where anytime, parking everywhere, throwing garbage on the other side of my building, not respecting queuing, always argue because ”ma3za oua laou taret”! and the list goes on and on. Behavior and manners are what makes a group of individuals distinctive-cohesive-cooperative-moving purposely-competing for higher values and goals. Now we all know that every culture has its own manners and the West’s are not THE standard. It seems to me like ours have been lost somewhere in this huge brouhaha of ”arabe nationalism-politics-democratie-religion-women rights-…” and forgot about the fundamentals of any decent society. So blame it on each and every one of us now.

    • Eljin

      I think that tradition is associated with morality because people associate the moral decadence we see today with abandoning traditional systems and institutions. I am not sure if it is true that previous societies were necessarily ‘more’ moral than our society – it depends how you define morality I guess. I think the problem of the elites is paramount as it is their moral duty to help the masses and guide them. They are failing because we only have a dichotomous discourse in the Arab world – the religious traditional discourse and the seemingly Westernized one.

    • One of Malek Bennabi’s recurrent topics is the way the East thinks it catches up with the West (and civilisation) by adopting their dressing style and buying their products. It’s what he called an accumulation of civilisation products without the sources of that civilisation. It’s like having bins everywhere in the street but not educating the people to throw their stuff there…
      We need to be realistic while assessing our situation and, equally important, to put our emotions aside. We would find out the dichotomous discourse we’re talking about is baseless in many cases.

      • Thank you MnarviDZ. Even ripping off my emotion I could not have put it the way you do. Short and sharp, elegant and sweet.

  3. @algerianna,

    Did Fayyad address it in this book?

    I assume the police officer, the doctor and the high school pupil were the elite; as they were the most educated and their voices didn’t use Egyptian Arabic 🙂
    The officer didn’t trust the villagers and knew they’d do something wrong. At the end he even referred to them as barbarians. The pupil was critical of his people but not too harsh on them; on the other hand only mattered to him the way to leave Egypt and go study/live in Paris…
    Does it not sound familiar?

  4. As it’s been said, Fayyad’s novel brings up many topics. Here is another one directly related to the social stance of men versus women and vice versa. Ironically the novel indicates that the problem is also with the women of the village. Arab society is seemingly ruled by rude selfish males and women have no other choice than conspiring over his head and harming their peers.

    • Eljin,

      It is indeed usual that the weak avoid frontal opposition and resort to behind the scenes activities, and often with a relative success. But in the novel, the women seemed as attached to the status-quo as the men, if not more. So they kind of wanted to perpetuate that “rude selfish men” rule. It is them who questioned whether it was halal for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman (and they asked the imam’s wife), and it’s them who thought it wasn’t normal that the woman controlled her husband, etc. The novel shows us the major role women play in maintaining stability in the society, which, I think, explains why all those who want us to change do target women condition, etc.

      • I think, explains why all those who want us to change do target women condition, etc.

        This is only Fayyad’s take on it. He is a man. Am not saying he is totally wrong, but women Arab writers’ present another take on the same issue. I don’t think the question can be resolved by framing it along ‘who’s responsible for the mess we’re in’ because we all are in our own ways and we’re entrapped in our own cultural and traditional dogmas with very little hope for internal change in the foreseeable future. BTW, I had no idea this book was published in the 60s!! I thought it was more recent.

        • Got Fayyadh’s take mixed with mine, the sentence you quoted was my opinion. But I wasn’t trying to find “the culprit” as I also think we’re all responsible, some more than others, for our current situation.
          As for change, I realise I ignore almost everything on the intellectual trends that are going in the Arab world. I hope things are livelier than what we see in Algeria but I must admit I have little hope.

          The novel was published first in 1972.

  5. Cette lecture semble très intéressante. Cette Simone à la fois admirée et rejetée débarquant comme en territoire conquis est bien une métaphore sur l’occident qui débarque en orient.

    La couverture de livre est marrante. Le contenu est plutôt profond mais elle fait penser à un roman à l’eau de rose comme il s’en vend des tonnes…

  6. The topic of taking a adjnabia ( Ghariba or Gharbia) as a wife is one of the most painfull abuse to all women in the ”Village”. And There are many emotional and rational reasons for this. [I like the Village as métaphore for famille, tribue, clan, Qaryia, Dechra, Douar etc.]. Now, while the village doesn’t seem worrying much of those who advocate the entrenchment of polygamy and, as a bonus the prospect of acquiring Djarias! they do not seem to bother much either when seemingly modern men want to marry a kind of do-it-all maiden whom they can flip like a coin. The head to pleasing the village and the tail (no pun intended here) for social life ouside the village and abroad. I heard this word: exportable! no kidding! A novel? oh no no a comedy? someone?

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