A Novel of Emotional Programming and Meeting of East and West




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?

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 an original review published by Al Hayat Newspaper. T-T-98-19.

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Image: Cover of the Arabic edition of Traces of a Tattoo

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Tending to the seeds of love
A Review of Traces of a Tattoo by Salah Huzayyen*

Traces of a Tattoo starts with the principal character strolling London’s main streets and alleys, browsing through shops and stores he knew by heart. In his downtown excursion, Hisham is flooded with fresh memories, days recently gone by when he used to walk down those same streets, passing the time until his now deceased wife emerged from the underground station and accompanied her back home.

Suddenly, an incident evolves to carry Hisham to another time and place. As he follows the movement of the crowd, he spots a pickpocket in the act of snatching the handbag off the arm of a lady and disappearing. Hisham approaches the scene and, to his surprise, finds out that the victim, who happens to be with her daughter, is no other than his old beloved, Alia. The lady is the very same girl he had loved back in Damascus a quarter of a century earlier. Their love was supposed to end in marriage but it did not. Instead, the girl was snatched by their common friend, Khalil, who won her hand in marriage in shady circumstances which we, as reader, are made to uncover through a series of scenes, flash-backs and dialogues that at times glow in dramatic intensity and, at others, flow placidly and deliciously but remain sombre all the time.

Soon enough, the old love story begets a new one with a change in players. The roles played formally by Hisham and Alia are now played by their children- Wissam and Aroub. But both stories share a common denominator in the spirit of prime youth with all its recklessness, rashness and foolishness. They are tied together by the presence of the youthful spirit of the old lovers who watch over and tend to the seed of love that has grown in their offsprings, all the while determined not to see the new love story end in failure in a lamentable recurrence of history. The two love stories are also tied together by the presence of Alia’s husband, Khalil, whose suspicion of his wife’s old relationship with Hisham has not been healed by the passage time. He is also a father to Aroub and is, as such, capable of destroying the new love story of Wissam and Aroub, just as he had done in the past in the case of Hisham and Alia.

Khalil does in fact discover that his wife had stayed at Hisham’s house in London. Blind suspicion and jealousy turn the man into a vicious animal gripped by rage and a desire for vengeance. He starts a campaign of humiliation and subjugation against his wife. He even accuses his daughter of indecency when his mind fails to recognize her right to fall in love with a stranger. He insists on having a doctor examine his daughter’s virginity thus violating her privacy and character after having shredded her dignity. But things do not stop there, he follows the psychological torture with a senseless beating which goes on until the poor daughter collapses and almost loses her eyesight.
As the novel nears the end, it takes a conciliatory path unwarranted by a strong technical justification taking into consideration the physical and psychological cruelty that gripped Khalil and pushed him on the verge of divorce from his wife Alia. This conciliatory path leads to a previously undetected change in Khalil’s character. He gets his wife back, and he blesses the marriage of his daughter Aroub to Wissam, the son of his old enemy. Hisham, who had lost Alia a quarter of a century earlier, is left with the chronic sadness of losing Alia yet again and only a few months after the death of his wife. The new love story between Wissam and Aroob is crowned with success leaving the old love story between Hisham and Alia like traces of a tattoo.

*Translated by Muhammad Khaled from he original text published by the Jordanian Newspaper Al Rai Al Aam. T-T-98-19.

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It happens…in a single book
A review of Traces if a Tattoo by Fatima Al Muhsin*

It happens that old lovers do meet by coincidence on a lost pavement. And it happens that the meeting of old lovers may come as a daydream, something hard to materialize in reality. And it happens that old lovers may be forced by circumstances to stay in one place so as to face the past of their love story. But when all such these coincidences take place in a single book, the result may sound like a romantic novel and very much like a love song.

But Palestinian writer, Adel Bishtawi, had it all in mind when he wrote his first novel following the publication of six anthologies of novelettes and short stories. He engages his readers in conceiving a literary introduction with a touch of fantasy dressed in reality- an Arab widower approaching his fifties with no flowers in his vase and no logs in his fireplace, living in a lonely city like London; on the day before the new year, the widower walks down the streets of London, deeply engaged in memories of his deceased English wife; suddenly, a girl he had loved and lost in Damascus 20 years earlier, re-emerges in his life. He finds her lost, powerless and in need of a hero to pull her out of her troubles. He invites her to stay at his house where her daughter, who is like her, is to fall in love with his son, who is like him.

But what is important in “Traces of a Tattoo” is not the plot, nor the signals it gives in the form of an opinion or advice. Rather, it is the novel’s horizontal level, or what the literary critics specifically call the verbal level where the dialogue plays an active role in creating atmospheres that are rich in transparent pictures offering something beyond the entertainment normally expected from the scenes of love. The novel presents itself to the reader gently and softly, offering an ambiance of cosiness and a captivating following of the characters’ fates and emotions. It further explores the verbal medium and the capability of its dramatization power in detecting the self’s tendencies and societal dimensions. The emotions, in their ebbing and flowing movements, softness and stiffness, are dominated by conflicts of the soul, and appear confined by four walls, several days and a romantic love story. But they are enriched by a variety of verbal techniques as they unfold; through dialogue in particular, the light but nonetheless effective differences between the moods of the generations and a modern world that has interlined its borders.

In conclusion, the novel appears a literary work which reveals the plight of the Arab woman- her limited choices in life, her will that gets broken in the circle of humiliation of every day life no matter how much education and intelligence she possessed, and no matter how frequently she proved herself more than a match to her male counterparts. Even her heart’s right of choice seems governed by conditions and responsibilities that have been purposely created to suppress her joys. The writer did not need to remember the status of the woman in the Third World and in the Arab region to give credibility to the sufferings of his heroines. The proof is not what the father is looking for in his daughter’s room (for proof what she had met a man in London), it is not in diagnosing the concept of guilt and sin, but in what he presented in terms of a proof for the sterility of the idea of love in the Arab region, as happiness cannot be replaced by theatrical acts where the sons take the role of the fathers in matters that are extremely private in nature.

*Translated by Mohammad Khaled from the original text published by Al Khaleej Newspaper, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

About the author

Adel Bishtawi

Adel S (Said) Bishtawi was born in Nazareth, Palestine, 1945. He read English Literature at Damascus University, attended short courses of familiarisation of languages including Latin, German and Russian, and attended a course in Linguistics at the Central London Polytechnic.

Adel published more than 20 books in both English and Arabic. the last of which is Only When Desire Screams co-authored by Selvi Sado. A journalist since the late 1960s, he became Front Page Editor of Al Arab Newspaper (London), the first pan Arab Newspaper launched in Europe. In 1978, he joined Jihad Al Khazin in launching Asharq Al Awsat Newspaper (London) as Business and Supplements Editor. In 1980, he was appointed Central Managing Editor of the Emirates News Agency in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In 1988, he joined Jamil Mrowa (who later re-launched the Daily Star in Beirut in 1996) in London for the re-launch of Al Hayat Newspaper and continued under the editorship of Jihad Al Khazin until he left in April 2001 to dedicate what is left of his time to literary and historical writing. as well as investigating origins by means of historical and etymological linguistics.

Adel produced and co-produced a number of TV documentaries. He produced, directed and wrote “Muslims along the Silk Road”, a five part-60-minutes-each documentary tracing Muslim culture and heritage and the legacy of Muslim pioneers and merchants along the Silk Road starting from China.

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