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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Gift and curse of Duty: The Sand Child and Yacoubian Building book review.

By Briana Booker

Here is a book review and comparison of two excellent novels I had to do for an Arab World class I take in college! The two novels are The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. Read below to see why I highly recommend these two novels!

The Gift and Curse of Duty
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany and The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun, are novels that expose how the role of duty creates vast social disparities between the sexes. Duty has two distinctive traits- one of authority (male trait) and one submitting to authority (female trait). In Arab society, this theme greatly affects how power is distributed and exploited to reveal Arab World society’s challenges in minimizing the social conflicts between the sexes. Both genders desire harmony and an authentic identity, but environment and duty create barriers at achieving these goals. For example, Aswany uses the Yacoubian building as a symbol of the Arab world’s inner-struggle to be a socially fair society when it comes to giving the disadvantaged, especially women, a good quality of life (liberty and fair opportunity). The building is a symbol of the Brain drain that happened in the Arab world when Open Door policy allowed the well to do to flee the failures of government to provide reliable and efficient public services in favor of social equalities (Aswany 13). The Sand Child uses similar Open Door policy tactics by using symbols of gate entrances and exits to depict decision making as a means to liberalize those that suffer from sexist and class constrains. The authors allow characters to refute or accept social duties. For example, Hajji, the father of Ahmed, lies about Ahmed’s gender to bring honor to his wife by allowing her to be a “true mother” by having a baby boy (Jelloun 13). Those words signify that a woman is not respectable until a son is born. This is a social requirement heavily exploited and displays that pressures to belong and be accepted are crucial in both novels. Characters are role players who are not meant to feel emotions; they are simply there to play their roles, and play them well.  No one knows what to believe, but everyone wants their role to be believed. This is seen in the Yacoubian Building with characters, such as Taha el Shazli (a religious fundamentalist) and Hagg Azzam (a power hungry elitist) who are tormented by the duties society expects of them. Shazli wanted justice and fair opportunity, but society rejects these elements to him. The result, Shazli becomes an extremist that is not in touch with society and displays no affection to women. He is obsessed with the goal of saving the state and vengeance that he neglects finding his own identity. This is similar to Ahmed in the Sand Child because Ahmed wanted to save his father and family from shame by living out the role his father set out for him-an artificial existence.  But later, Ahmed too sought vengeance for being taught to hate what he truly was- a woman. Ahmed was once innocent just as Shazli, but then Ahmed became more like Azzam when he became infatuated with power and respect that he could only obtain by being a male. Just as Azzam, Ahmed uses vulnerable women to feel powerful by objectifying them. For example Ahmed used Fatima, his epileptic cousin to payback his parents for his shame of not truly being a male. Azzam uses his second wife Souad Gaber for sex and emotionally abuses her by refusing to live out his duty as a guardian, a duty expected of a husband. But the greatest commonality between the two books is that characters pursuit social suicide in hope to escape duties and injustices. They both use “an inexorable wave of religiosity” to justify escaping their social duties (Aswany). This is seen when both Zahra and Shazli committed suicide to escape shame and gain justice. They both did this to get their identities back- Shazli to be a man once again after being raped and abused. Zahra goal was to become a woman-to submit to rape and abuse. Although, the authors expose duty and sex inequalities in similar ways, the way they show how women can overcome social barriers are vastly different. In the Yacoubin Building women are the conductors of their own life orchestra and destiny, but in the Sand Child women are the muppets in a play inevitably ending in tragedy. Aswany allows women the ability to empower themselves through their sexuality, no matter if it is corrupt or not. Women are a symbol of harmony and nurturing, as Zaki Bey stated: “She represents the beauty of the common people in all its vulgarity and provocativeness,” (Aswany) by women lacking equalities the people as a whole lack harmony. Aswany strength in story telling is his ability to let women use their sexuality to empower themselves financially and have a feeling of self-dependency.  In the book “Sex and their husbands greed for it, makes them feel despite all the misery they suffer, they are still women, beautiful and desired,” (Aswany 15).  This is a tactic Jelloun never uses, he makes being a woman always appear to be a curse and never a gift, this is a weakness in his story telling because there is a beauty in the struggle for equality. Yet, Jelloun makes women submit to disadvantages, as if to say “Is it not their duty?” No matter if Ahmed/Zahra tries to blend power and duty to fulfill his father’s destiny or her own destiny, the result is still inferiority and shame. There is no empowerment. However, based on this comparison of strengths and weaknesses, I recommend reading the Sand Child, not for its easy comprehension but for its mystery and illusion. It is a wonderful representation of the struggle for self-discovery we all take on during our life journey. We hope to suppress opportunities of moral demise that often result in social inequalities and corruption. Until we give ourselves hope and turn that hope into reality of a better existence, our states and identities will always be wandering Sand Children in turmoil of our own creations. For “The wind of rebellion” will always blow, but whether we blow to the negative or positive directive is of our own calling. We can submit to our poisonous cookie cutter lives, like Yacoubin Building characters, or we can be Sand Children, kindling the interest of others, defining our own story; not allowing our story to define us, to initiate the adventure of self-discovery and empowerment.

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