Narrativising Betrayal in Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Story of Zahra, by Semia Harbawi

In The Story of Zahra, Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh presents betrayal as the very essence of narrative and narrativity. It becomes a postmodernist syndrome with various symptoms and multiple manifestations, predicated, as it is, on all manner of deception in the negotiation of female identification and self-defining modes. It starts from the enunciation of the title itself: the third person referent implies a certain detachment; a voice promising to unveil Zahra’s secrets and hence breach her interiority. This detached voice is the one behind the scenes, Zahra’s double and the marker of her schizoid self.

Accordingly, storytelling itself becomes an act of betrayal, of penetration and infringement. It is a thrust into those tender zones of the psyche laid open to a probing, inquisitive gaze. In this paper, I will examine how betrayal, in The Story of Zahra, brings together feminist thematics and postmodernist formal strategies, thus underscoring their shared concern with establishing fresh narrative patterns at the hub of identitarian quests and issues of angst-ridden self-positing.

The inception of betrayal in The Story of Zahra coincides with a foundational moment of trauma whose protagonist is the mother Fatmé. The latter is the crucible that allows the interpenetration of trauma and betrayal through her dual act of treachery vis-à-vis her husband and most particularly her daughter Zahra.1 The narrative begins with that episode where mother and daughter are hiding from view behind a door in a mysterious house where Fatmé arranged for a tryst with her lover (3). The mother’s hand is tightly clamped onto her little daughter’s mouth to smother her cries and impede her speech lest the former’s adulterous affair be discovered by her husband who might have trailed them. A semiotic undercurrent pulsates behind the lines in rhythm with Zahra’s heartbeat. Their hiding in darkness behind a door that is slightly ajar, is to be construed as a lapse in a pre-separational state of non-differentiation with darkness as the indicator of a primal, gynocentric context. The door that remains partly open betrays this osmosis by ushering in the Name of the Father under the guise of “a huge fat head …. Seeing yet not seeing us” (3). The last phrase stands as a metaphor of the masculine gaze and an allusion to the position of Arab women as present/absent; invisible entities for patriarchal eyes.

At first, the mother is not mentioned as such. She is perpetually referred to as “she” or through a body part, especially her hand: the mother’s being becomes reduced to this limb, allowing us to speak in terms of a reductory metonymy that denies her wholeness and relegates her to a shattering fragmentariness. The mother’s hand acquires a symbolic significance as it becomes the instrument of trauma, stifling the daughter and garbling her vocality. This hand that smells of soap and onion, index of the feminine and the domestic, does not ward off evil; it paradoxically brings it about by betraying the daughter’s trust and the traditional maternal duty of protection.2 Young Zahra wallows into a state of confusion and loss. She sustains irremediable blows to her ego related to problems of projection and introjection at whose interface is the mother as the ultimate object of desire. Fatmé betrays the cathectic link with her daughter who is embroiled in the meshes of a love/hate relationship streaked by pronounced libidinal drives and homoerotic impulses, which underlie her identity formation. Zahra condenses her feelings towards Fatmé in the metaphor of the orange and its navel3:

I thought all the while, as I looked up at her how much I wanted to draw her towards me, to draw myself close to her, to touch her face and have her eyes peering into mine. I wanted to disappear into the hem of her dress and become even closer to her than the navel is to the orange! But whenever I began to think in this way, I felt a bitterness towards her and shuddered. I carried this pain and hatred inside me whenever I disobeyed her and felt rejected, neglected by her. The man became the center of her life, and around him was nothing but flying embers. (8-9)

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Fernando Fuster-Fabra