Scheherazade's Legacy

A timely book by Gotham Memoir teacher Susan Muaddi Darraj's will be released in August — Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab-American Women on Writing (Greenwood/Praeger).  Darraj edited this anthology of essays by Arabic women who live or publish in the West.  The publisher says this about the book’s importance: "In a time when it seems that the gap of understanding between the West and the Middle East continues to widen, Scheherazade's Legacy builds a bridge between the two cultures."

In the following exerpt from the introduction to  Scheherazade’s Legacy, Darraj writes, on a more personal level, of the book’s purpose:

In an essay in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, African-American feminist and author Barbara Smith writes, "How much easier both my waking and my sleeping hours would be if there were one book in existence that would tell me something specific about my life ... Just one work to reflect the reality that I and the Black women whom I love are trying to create."

As an Arab-American woman, born and raised in the United States with a hybrid cultural consciousness, my two identities handcuffed by a hyphen, I know how Smith must have felt as she put those words on paper.  I, too, often wished for a book that could speak to my experiences as both an insider and an outsider my entire life; while Americans thought I was a "foreigner," Arabs regarded me as "Americanized".  I wished I could invite friends to my parents' house without getting slightly alarmed looks from them when the stuffed grape leaves, magloubeh (spinach and rice), or foul (crushed fava beans) appeared on the dinner table.  How could I tell anyone that I owned cassette tapes of both Fairouz and Madonna and sang to the lyrics of both with equal zest?  Most of all, who would be able to understand that I was pretty sure I was a feminist, though not completely certain because Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem seemed to be speaking to my white classmates, not to me?

Yes, like Smith, I also needed to find that book, and the sooner the better.

I doubted its existence, however, simply because I knew that the voice of the Arab woman had been warped since it first made its way westward.  Scheherazade, the heroine of The 1,001 Nights, had suffered terribly at the hands of translators.  Revered in the east as a heroine for distracting the sultan Shahrayar from his murderous rampage with intriguing stories (giving us "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" and "Sinbad the Sailor"), Scheherazade became nothing more than a harem sex kitten when Antoine Galland, and later Richard Burton, introduced the Nights to the European canon in the 18th and 19th centuries.  An intelligent woman, schooled in literature, philosophy, and history, reduced to an erotic, shallow, sex-crazed body behind a veil — it happened many times, with many Arab and/or eastern women, including Cleopatra, Khadijah, Aisha, and others.

What I needed was the voice of an Arab woman to speak the truth without the filter of translation, without the influence of others sliding in to corrupt her story, because her story was possibly mine as well. Her story might describe my own confusion about feminism, marriage, education, ambition, identity, and obstacles.

I needed that story as badly as Smith needed hers, but I doubted that anyone had yet written it.

Then, one day, during the summer of 1998, I found it on the shelf at the local bookstore. I was actually reaching for a novel by another writer, when my eye fell upon the Arab-sounding name on the spine, so I pulled it out. The cover, featuring a lovely, dark-haired woman wearing thick gold bangles, caught my attention, as did the quote from the late Edward Said (every young Arab-American’s hero) on the cover, praising the novel and the author. It was In the Eye of the Sun, by Ahdaf Soueif, and I sat down at the café in the bookshop to read the first chapter. Minutes later, I purchased the book, hopped into my aging Toyota, and sped home to curl up on my sofa with this 800-page treasure. A few nights later, I closed it, smiling in relief because I had finally stumbled across the book that spoke my story, perhaps not in its details, but in its spirit.
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Reprinted with permission from Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab-American Women on Writing(ISBN: 0275981762); Available online from Barnes & Noble.com