Traces of a Tattoo: Arabic Edition

A Novel of Emotional Programming and Meeting of East and West 

Reviewed by Ahmed Zainuddin


A modern novel would lose its glitter if it were to be stripped down to its narrative trunk and have its branches and leaves cut and trimmed. Based on a reading strategy and a memory mechanism prune to the act of subtraction and deduction as well as the assumption that a narrative’s significance and demonstrative lie, in the final analysis, in its narrative and nucleus, this habit of cutting and trimming amounts to a passive treatment of a novel which would otherwise build its aesthetical structure and effectiveness on what is beyond the basics, adopts several forms of narration and expression, steers in different, symbolism-rich directions, cruises through the barriers separating the real from the imaginary and breaks the monotony of places and time.

If we were to read Adel Bishtawi`s latest novel, Traces of a Tattoo for what its narrative has to offer, we would find it a simple story of a man and a woman reunited by a sheer act of destiny after a quarter of a century of separation only to have their old love revisited on his son and her daughter. But treating Traces of a Tattoo from such a narrow perspective –without looking into the author’s narrative techniques, the way he builds and moulds its structure and forms of fictional visualisation and his ability to create its unmistakable internal rhythm and shape its events, its realistic dialogues and reminiscences – is as good as denying it its raisons d’être, intensity and distinctiveness.

Mr. Bishtawi`s Traces of a Tattoo does not exhaust its energies on a narrative that is all too familiar. Instead, it embraces, in its elaborate narrative structure, numerous issues of civilisation foremost of which the Female Question. Arab novelists have previously dealt with this issue by a zoom in on the intricate relationship that is likely to surface when an Arab boy and a Western girl come together. But in Traces of a Tattoo, the issue is tackled in reverse as their relationships dealt with here are those between second or third-generation Arab immigrants soaked in Western traditions, behaviour and technologies on the one hand, and, on the other, Arab women who are cultured and educated but still shackled by the norms and traditions of their society.

In what might point to a personal experience, the author chooses London as a point of transit for two women: Aroub and her mother, who are on their way to the United States to celebrate the wedding of Aroub’s uncle on her mother’s side. But London, by coincidence or by the will of the author, turns into a case of test of civilisation that is both testing and exhaustive. The time span for the test is a period of three or four days that the two travellers had to spend at the house of their Arab hosts after having their passports stolen while shopping in a public place. In the process, the psychological make-up of the two women is changed while the men, Hisham, the old lover of Aroub’s mom, and his son, Wissam, the soon-to-be lover of Aroub, had their lives turned upside down.

During this short span of temporary cohabitation, the author weaves a knot of interlocked relationships among his main characters and, by resorting to a time-compression technique, turned the few days of real time into a fictional eternity that spread over the length of 300 pages or more and transformed dispositions, thoughts and destinies. But unless note is taken of this time-condensing and symbolist technique, the author’s lengthy narrative would only seem digressive and superfluous. In fact, Mr. Bishtawi has a passion to manoeuvring around the human soul, digging deeper and deeper into the corridors of emotions and uncovering the hidden and the buried of the psyche.


The London experience

The London experience had the main characters cover an enormous civilisational distance, fictionally condensed into a few days, and see their emotions, thoughts and relationships swept by changes. Fresh from home, Aroub and her mother brought eastern warmth and passion into a house frozen by the western robotic way of life. In return, they were awaken by the two men who pulled them out of their concave and forced them to listen to their heart beats and the cries within themselves.

By the same token, the short transit between two countries and two airports turned into an adventure through time, an experience that is as much an issue of civilisation as it is personal. To begin with, it uncovered how deep is the gap between the Arab woman and her western counterpart, how different are their respective attitudes towards the relationship between man and woman. Especially revealing is the dialogue that takes place between Arlene, Wissam’s British girl friend, and Aroub, who claimed to be carrying Wissam’s baby. The exchange between the competing girls uncovered two contrasting ways of thinking and practice: one, as represented by Aroub (rather, the Arab woman whom Aroub boasts of representing), is an attitude based on the idea of commandeering the male by child-bearing and dedication to the house and children; while the other, championed by Arlene, believes only in a free and equal relationship between man and woman.

Mr. Bishtawi juxtaposed the two contrasting attitudes by bringing the two women face to face while contesting the man each wanted. But even when Aroub appears to have won the contest, she is in reality deprived of freedom, tied by invisible shackles. As such, she is like her mother: Though highly educated, both are suffering and helpless like two miserable ringlets in a chain pulled away by a subconscious load of oppression. In a daughter constantly tortured by a suspicious father who suspects her, the mother sees a former image of herself- tearful and helpless. “She looks at her daughter looking northwards (where she left her lover Wissam) and she sees herself. She hears her stifled cry so her father wouldn’t hear her and she hears herself in her. Is that possible?” “Wissam,” she heard her crying out at the darkness, “Listen to me wherever you are! If my love would bring you back, my tears will.”

Again, while sitting on the stairs of Wissam’s house in London, Aroub is gripped by a gust of pleasure and starts folding suppressed desires, but she dares not show her desire nor finds herself able to express them. Not even the simplest of gestures is revealed for fear of scandal and shame. By contrast, Arlene is free, completely free, and treats herself and her male partner as equals: She does not shy away from revealing her desires in public. In his lengthy focus on Aroub’s attempt to subdue her fantasies and crawl back into her shell in the presence of Wissam, the author reveals the deepest layers of suppression and fear of the forbidden within the Arab woman.


Usurped femininity

But having exposed her shortcomings, the author prepares Aroub for a major transformation The London trip with all its experiences pushes Aroub into a psychological labour during which she realises the extent of her frustration as a woman. Consequently, she returns home determined to set in motion a process of self fulfilment and the restoration of her long usurped femininity, even if the cost was to bear the torturous treatment of a suspicious father who, suspecting her of having lost her virginity and suspecting her mother of having been unfaithful, rampaged through their personal effects and clothes. “He searched thoroughly and was joined by his fears mind, heart and jealousy.” He even insisted on keeping his suspicions despite ample refutations. Jealousy, as described by Wissam, is like a virus that needs a suitable environment to thrive and multiply, and there is no environment better than our eastern paternal environment for this virus to survive and multiply.

Like Aroub, Wissam too is transformed. He has lived in a western society, pursued his education at the best of universities and took the most up-to-date training of digital film production. In Aroub he finds the girl he was looking for. Following a misunderstanding arising from their divergent perspectives, he decides to put himself at risk in order to save her from the chronic clutches of parental oppression.

With Aroub back in her house and country and Wissam waiting in London, it is amusing to see the novel using such modern gadgets as the computer and the Internet to help the young lovers keep in contact. In the process, help save the girl. The Internet provides the two lovers with a modern tool to work out a strategy and program their emotions. The computer replaces detectives by locating the lost passports through a mathematical formula worked out by Wissam.

We may assume that the author drew on his own experience to explain that the computer technology is capable of liberating and serving mankind, creating, on top of the known civilisations, a new global generation capable of building bridges as never before. “Wissam looked at his watch. Time has not crept so slowly for a so long – not since the days of St. Stephen’s Hospital (where his mother died). Aroub is still asleep so he will wait further and think another time. But why should he think again? What is important in the nature of things that attract this person to that and that to the other? It is not at all important any more. A global gate is opened and it is no longer important who marries whom. What is important in the place they originally came from or their colour, age and civilisation? Theirs is a global generation forming on the known civilisations and extending bridges that were never extended before.”

The first to benefit would be the Arab girl who would use the new technology to plot out a new personality unfettered by oppression and subjugation. If what we have assumed is legitimate, we, nevertheless, do not know how could mathematical formulae replace mythological symbols, how could science supersede ideology in our minds so smoothly that it would not upset our beliefs and all that we take for granted, and how could the computer programs control our norms and traditions?


Traces of a Tatto Arabic

Fluid movement

To Sum up, Traces of a Tattoo unravels in quasi-chronological progression but with varying levels of narration and a fluid movement that is tense at times but mostly marked by a fascination with words that keep coming in the form of dialogues, descriptions and monologues. In this narrative context, the certain is interwoven with the probable, the factual with the fanciful, the narrator’s voice with those of his characters. The novel reaches a high point when the author invokes the story of Shehrazade, the heroine of the One Thousand and One Nights. In doing so, the he directs the reader’s attention to the greater demonstration of the injustice inflicted upon Arab and eastern woman, the historic and mythological demonstration that is buried in the common subconscious of the Arab male as represented in this work of heritage which still receives the renewed and repeated queries of the novelists.

What gives Traces of a Tattoo its uniqueness and distinctiveness is that, while tackling a familiar topic, it opens up to a wide host of sensory details, reminiscences, mythological visualisations, poetry and innate actions that, combined, bring the novel back to its indirect signals and the questions about existence, life and death that resonate in the subconscious of the main character, the bereaved Hisham (whose British wife had died.)

Traces of a Tattoo earns one of its distinguished qualities from its scrupulous monitoring of its characters in their silence, speech and movements: in its scrutiny of their reactions, their deep and ambiguous fears, their sense of guilt and anxiety; and captures the tribulations of emotions and records the sound of pleasure as it crawls over, spreading numbness in both body and soul. In total, the novel becomes a spectrum that reflects the colours of life and existence as well as that pivotal conflict – the female conflict and all that it entails: east versus west, technology versus backwardness, all the dualities, the gamut of antitheses that is ever present in the Arab author’s mind.

Translated by Muhammad Khaled from the original review published by Al Hayat Newspaper on 7 May 1998.

Have time for more reading?

Read why Morocco’s greatest literary critic thinks Traces of a Tattoo is an ‘odyssey in time and memory”

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