The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

Women hold up half the sky, as they say. And take their share of suffering, and grief. This account of the life one Palestinian woman takes us through her hardships. Ruquyya is 70, and she has been asked, by her son, to write her story. At times we wish she hadn’t agreed, for her suffering, the suffering of so many Palestinian women, is intense. Published in Cairo in 2014 The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour was translated by Kay Heikkinen.

The Woman from Tantoura is the 38thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

Ruquyya is not a woman with experience of or enthusiasm for writing, but her adult son, Hasan, has encouraged her and bought her a notebook for the purpose, on the cover of which he had written “al-Tantouriya”, the Woman from Tantoura.

He said, “Mother, what I am asking for isn’t a composition but testimony. What I want from you is testimony […], even if it’s long and detailed, concerning large events and the small ones too. Write whatever comes to mind, and tell it however you like.” (162-3)

And this is what we get, her testimony from the attack on the village of Tantoura in 1948 to the present day. About half way through her account, she finds herself unable to continue. She has reached the point when Beirut was under attack and she would have to describe what happened in the Gaza Hospital. She wrote go Hasan and told him that that she could not go further. Hasan called her.

“I got your letter. You say, what sense is there and what’s the use? I say that I wanted others to hear your voice, the voice of Ruqayya the woman from Tantoura. Your four children, we know that voice because we were raised with it. We know you and we know you have a lot to tell people. It’s not only the story I’m interested in, I’m after the voice, because I know its value and I want others to have the chance to hear it.” (185)

Ruqayya protests, saying it will kill her to continue. Hasan replies,

“It won’t kill you, you’re stronger than you think. Memory does not kill. It inflicts unbearable pain, perhaps; but we bear it, and memory changes from a whirlpool that pulls us to the bottom, to sea we can swim in. We cover distances, we control it, and we dictate to it.” (186)

So this is the frame for this novel. A woman, telling her story. In one sense it’s every Palestinian woman’s story, of displacement, murder of her family members, seeking safety with family or friends, in neighbouring countries, holding the idea of the homeland. 

Born in the village of Tantoura on the sea in 1936, Ruqayya is 12 when the village was claimed for the new state of Israel. Like so many people, she flees with her mother and aunt and cousins. This is the Nakba, a word which means disaster or catastrophe and refers to the exodus of Palestinians from their homes. About 700,000 people fled, about half the Palestinian Arab population. Like many women, Ruqayya’s mother locks the house when they left and wore the big iron key on a string around her neck until she died. 

The family find shelter in Lebanon, in Sidon, also on the sea. Ruqayya’s father and brothers had been killed by the forces that evicted them. Her mother does not give up the dream of returning symbolised by the key, or of finding her husband and sons alive. But Ruqayya saw their bodies.

The family try to maintain their connections, and to ensure that everyone is fed, sheltered and provided with an education. The girls need husbands, and although she was promised to a young man before the Nakba, Ruqayya’s life has changed and she marries her cousin Amin, a doctor. They have three sons and move to Beirut, again a city overlooking the sea. But Beirut becomes troubled and then dangerous, and for a while bombing is more or less continuous. Amin brings a baby home to Ruqayya, and they take her on as their own. 

The part of her story that Ruqayya cannot tell is what happened to Amin, who was last seen in the hospital in Beirut. 

Ruqayya and Maryam, the adopted daughter, stay for a while in Abu Dhabi with her son Sadiq who makes a good living as an architect. Later they move to Alexandria for Maryam’s medical studies, and finally Ruqayya returns to Sidon.

What I found in The Woman from Tantoura

This is a novel that offered me a new perspective on events concurrent with my life. I had hardly considered the events in human terms, despite spending a few days in Israel in June 1967 before being airlifted to Cyprus.

The story of Ruqayya is the story of cherishing a dream to return to a homeland, but surviving and enduring the diaspora. The attachment to the homeland is strong, as symbolised by that key, passed on to Ruqayya by her mother and then to a granddaughter. The final chapter relates a visit that Ruqayya makes to the border with Israel, looking out over the land she was born in and cannot visit, and meeting people from the other side of the barbed wire.

It’s a story of endurance, of such suffering, loss and hardship; of the violence that took her father, brothers and husband and many friends, and turned them into martyrs; of the joy of reunions, weddings and other feasts; of displacement and injustice. And it’s the story of the women who ensure their families are provided for.

I learned a great deal, including about Naji el-Ali, the Palestinian cartoonist who was assassinated in London in 1987. Many of the women in his cartoons wear the embroidered dresses referred to in the novel, and the keys around their necks. The events in the Middle East are observed by Naji el-Ali’s creation, Handala, usually with his back to the viewer.

Handala, from the cartoons of Palestinian cartoonist Naji el-Ali

It is a novel that asserts the importance of giving voice to those who have been neglected, downtrodden, ignored. The testimony of the women of Palestine is a significant part of Middle Eastern history, and crucial to understanding the tortuous realities of the Middle East today. 

A book that I read in my reading group a couple of years ago that gave me a journalist’s view of the same time and place is The Lemon Tree  by Sandy Tolan (2006). 

Radwa Ashour

Radwa Ashour lived 1946-2014. She was Egyptian and suffered family dislocation when her poet husband was exiled to Hungary. She was a student of literature in Egypt and the United States. She taught at the Aims Shan University in Cairo. She was honoured with a Google Doodle on 26thMay 2018.

Google Doodle 26th May 2018, Radwa Ashour

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour, published in 2014 by the American University in Cairo Press. 368 pp

Translated by Kay Heikkinen

Recent posts in this series:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 

Three Things about Elsie  by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster  by Caroline Blackwood

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