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Notes on the Flesh: Kuwaiti illness narrative touches upon love, identity, and disability Open in fullscreen

Ilham Essalih

Notes on the Flesh: Kuwaiti illness narrative touches upon love, identity, and disability

Notes on the Flesh is a collection of short stories [Ilham Essalih]

Date of publication: 23 January, 2019

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Book Club: Notes on the Flesh is groundbreaking in its raw representation of disability and pain. It crushes taboos and speaks up about gender injustice in the Middle East.
Notes on the Flesh by Dr Shahd Alshammari is a collection of short stories on the themes of identity, loss, pain and disease, woven into the lives of women and men from the Gulf. According to the blurb of this short book, they are "stories of women and men who have lost the war against patriarchy."

Dr Shahd Alshammari is an Assistant Professor of English literature at the Gulf University of Science and Technology in Kuwait. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Kent and teaches Literature, Women's studies and Disability studies. Both her academic and literary works shed light on the struggles facing those conflicted over cultural traditions and societal norms. 

In the prologue to the book, she writes that it's "part-memoir, part-illness narrative, part confused, part confusing, partially fabricated, partially the truth". 

"The book is a mix of non-fiction and fiction," she tells The New Arab. "It is an illness narrative, which is a very specific genre that deals with how an illness can affect a life and what happens after. Often there is no sense of closure."

It delves into the Arab experiences of disability, illness, and love. Dr Shahd Alshammari's choice to take up the task of writing the illness narrative stems from her own struggle with Multiple Sclerosis for more than a decade.

"The book for me is an attempt at what Helene Cixous terms l'écriture féminine (feminine writing). Writing the body, the traumatised body, the female body, the abjected body. So in that sense, you could say it was a cure of sorts."

Illness and disability remain taboo subjects in the Middle East, or are often seen in terms of either a blessing or a punishment – black or white

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, Mythography, is a series of short stories which read like the chronological chapters of a novella.

It follows the life of a young girl in Kuwait who learns to navigate her disability and the pain of growing up as a woman in a deeply traditional Arab society.

Part II, Voices of Lovers, is more of a story collection in the traditional sense of the term and contains different stories of different people and their failure at coping with an illness. 

"Illness and disability remain taboo subjects in the Middle East, or are often seen in terms of either a blessing or a punishment – black or white. Women are doubly marginalised when they are living with an illness or a disability because society stigmatises them. It is as though they have failed to play the role of the ideal femininity." 

In Mythography, the stories are riddled with inconsistencies and questionable statements. The chapters have an unreliable narrator, which constantly raises the question of truth making it hard to trust them. This creates a sense of paranoia in the reader who is in constant need of certainty, but in the end, to what extent does this truth really matter?

Alshammari plays with the reader. I asked her why she chose to use this narrative technique, and what 'mythography' means to her: "It is the chartering of the body and our memories, writing that truth of the body and our memories which may turn into myths," she explains.

"How reliable is your memory? What truths do we tell ourselves and what stories do we narrate to ourselves and others? I believe that we are unreliable narrators even when we think we have the full story. Trauma also changes our perceptions. The book attempts to narrate personal and collective traumas and I am more concerned with the emotion at the heart of this narrative rather than the truth."

Women are doubly marginalised when they are living with an illness or a disability because society stigmatises them. It is as though they have failed to play the role of the ideal femininity

In the very first story in the book, Mama, the narrator questions the notion of motherhood. The story is about the protagonist and her mother, delving into the pain and darkness she went through while having her daughter, especially in a deeply patriarchal world that only praises the birth of sons. 

In a later story, System Shock, the girl questions whether she would ever want to have children. She associates motherhood with suffering: "I'm told my mother was affected with postpartum. I don't think she ever wanted me or wanted to become a mother".

Alshammari explains that motherhood in this book is "a place of healing and love, but also, a place of heartbreak, loss and pain."

Encounter in Part II of the book is a story about a man's infertility and his 'failing masculinity'. His wife leaves him because he cannot have children, and when he meets a woman he likes, he is made to feel masculine again: "She made me feel like I was a man, whole, and complete".

There is strong hatred for the failing body throughout the whole book, and it is well formulated in this story: "I despised the human body in all its viciousness and its unexplainable wrath against us".

This might be the most powerful piece in the story as it has a lot of depth and an original point of view, rather than the omnipresent point of view from an "oppressed Arab woman."

I asked Alshammari about this story and why she chose to write a man's story: "Often people think I'm writing only about women. I'm not. I'm writing about toxic masculinity and hegemonic masculinity being a part of everyday life for those who are marginalised because of disability. Disability affects everyone and social stigma hurts both men and women."

Alshammari explains that motherhood in this book is 'a place of healing and love, but also, a place of heartbreak, loss and pain'
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Alshammari's book is mostly about how Arab women manage to barely survive in communities made by and for men to thrive. This is an important theme and one that deserves all the spotlight.

However, I believe the way this is done is sometimes problematic in this book. Alshammari repeatedly and systematically uses hijab or the headscarf as a symbol of oppression and male control.

Hijab is in this book always equated to oppression while liberation is equated to the literal uncovering of women and thereby the removal of the hijab. Western culture also seems to be an important component of this 'liberation', and there are countless examples of this: Western education, blonde hair, short skirts and free hair.

The following excerpt illustrates this aptly: "Freedom was what she had been missing all along. Her hair was finally breathing, she was no longer covered from head to toe, and she no longer had to pretend she was her father's daughter. She had become her own person".

Hijab is systematically referred to as a symbol of patriarchy and oppression, without ever considering that hijab can also be a choice. For me, this portrayal further perpetuates the stereotyping of hijab-wearing Arab and Muslim women as being oppressed, which, I believe, also contributes to a problematic white and Western feminist narrative.

Nevertheless, Notes on the Flesh is groundbreaking in its raw representation of disability and the vivid portrayal of pain. It crushes taboos surrounding illnesses and speaks up about gender injustice in the Middle East. Some of the stories are extremely painful to read and are bound to make you cry, but it is a vital piece of literature that addresses important subjects often neglected in the Arab society. 

Ilham Essalih is a Belgian-Arab book reviewer and PhD student in Postcolonial Literature. Her research focuses on gendered dimensions of postcolonial trauma in literature of Africa and the Arab world. 

Follow her on Twitter: @ilhamreads


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