Women of sand and myrrh


By Debra Wirth

Women of Sand and Myrrh
By Hanan al-Shaykh
Translated by Catherine Cobham
Allen & Unwin. 280pp. $14.95
Reviewed by Debra Wirth

Four women, whose lives cross at different stages and places, are the narrators of this book. They live in a society (other reviewers have identified the country as Saudi Arabia) that all of them find oppressive even though they come from different backgrounds and means. Their stories revolve around how each of the women deals with that oppression.

At times the women relate incidents more than one of them has experienced but from a different perspective, so that the reader gets to know each of their characters. Their feelings and relationships with each other and their families and friends occupy much of their lives, seemingly because women in this society do not have access to much else. Rarely does anything happen outside the arenas of their own houses or those of relatives and friends.

Not for a moment does this book presume that it is only in this society that women are oppressed, although three of the four narrators certainly feel that women are more oppressed in this country than they are elsewhere. However, one of the narrators, Suzanne, comes to the country from the United States. When her husband's job finishes, she dreads going back to her monotonous, anonymous, suburban existence in the States. Although Suzanne recognises that she is restricted by the norms of the desert society, she sees them as different rather than as more oppressive than the norms of her own culture. In the end, she chooses to stay in the desert because she feels she has more of an identity there.

The narration which comes most to life is that of Suha, whose history and experiences are closest to those of the author. Hanan al-Shaykh grew up in Beirut and went on to university and a career in journalism in Cairo.

Suha is also from Lebanon. She finds the life she leads in the new country surreal and almost unbearable. Although she is qualified to teach at universities, Suha can only tutor other women and then only those rich enough to pay for private lessons. She feels herself again only when she can finally leave the desert society.

In parting she sums up how she has experienced it and the lives of the women who remain: "sand and palm trees, a way of life that revolved around human beings without possessions or skills, who had to rely on their imaginations to contrive a way of making their hearts beat faster or even to keep them at a normal pace; to search unaided for a hidden gleam of light, and to live with two seasons

a year instead of four."