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French Version

Palestinian author reclaims the past for generations of Arab women

Memoir of family history contradicts popular beliefs about premodern Middle Eastern society

It is that quintessential question which led the Palestinian-born author to reevaluate her own life and the lives of her grandmother and mother in her new book "Teta, Mother and Me: An Arab Woman's Memoir," published this week by Dar al-Saqi books.

"Teta, Mother and Me" is Makdisi's second offering after her much acclaimed "Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir," selected as one of the Best Books of 1990 by the New York Times Book Review, which recounts life in war-torn Beirut.

Now this witness to the atrocities of Lebanon's 16-year civil war becomes the narrator of an untold story, that of the lives of women in the Middle East. Rich in historical content and analysis, "Teta, Mother and Me" is written as a memoir of three generations of women from a distinguished and well-to-do Arab family - Makdisi is the sister of the late scholar, intellectual and Palestinian activist Edward Said.

At the same time, the book is much more than just a memoir - it is a discovery for both the author and the reader of a richer and more complex past for Arab women than both ever would have imagined.

Using unpublished family documents, the memories of friends and acquaintances, and histories of the region and period, Makdisi traces her family's personal story against the backdrop of political events as they take place in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and the United States. The story details her grandmother's early childhood in Ottoman Syria in the 1880's; her mother's experiences of two world wars and their repercussions for the Middle East; and the author's own experience of raising a family in Beirut, amidst the endless, futile, disillusioning fratricide of the Lebanese civil war.

Having asked her mother and two surviving uncles to write a memoir of their lives and that of their own mother Munira Badr Musa, Makdisi who was in her early 30s when her grandmother died, thought she knew everything there was to know about the woman.

"But what came out of these memoirs was an image of my grandmother that stunned me," says Makdisi. Realizing that in truth she knew very little about her grandmother's life, Makdisi came to the greater realization that "we don't know our own past" and that this lack of knowledge is often bridged by negative assumptions and stereotypes.

"We have this image that in the past all the women were sitting at home minding their own business, or worse, that they were all forced into submission, all of which is complete rubbish," says Makdisi.

Citing the example of Fatam Masmahani, the woman who raised the Arab Flag over the Grand Serailles in Beirut after the departure of the Ottomans, Makdisi points out that women in Arab society were active and present and that it is our modern reading of them that reduces their impact.

"We, unlike the British for example, have not done our homework" explains Makdisi, "Whereas a great deal of scholarly work on the lives and work of Englishwomen of the Victorian era has been done, we have done none of that, hence we are ignorant of our past and let our false assumptions prevail."

Written in four parts, "Teta, Mother and Me," begins by telling the story of its author, then that of her grandmother, with the last two parts dedicated to the early and then later years of the life of Hilda Musa Said, her mother. For those who have read Edward Said's autobiography "Out of Place," the towering effect that Hilda Said had on the lives of her children is familiar.

In her daughter's book, a female perspective is added, with all its insights, tenderness and inevitable clashes. For indeed Makdisi's book is not just about reminiscences, but a social study carefully charting the quality of life of the women who came before her.

Makdisi's grandmother Munira Badr Musa was the daughter of a Protestant pastor. Educated in the recently opened missionary schools of the time, Makdisi offers through her grandmother's experience a fascinating account of the history of these schools and their social impact on the Eastern Mediterranean. Going through a time of unavoidable upheaval brought on by the slow demise of the Ottoman Empire, the Levant comes alive through Makdisi's pen as a place aware of the changing times and very eager to be part of them.

In her book she says that "I have often read that the missionaries with their secular schools, their modern medical knowledge and their new social rules introduced modernity to this part of the world ... Not enough credit for modernity has ever been given to those who pressed them to open the schools, sent their children, gave them the land, built the buildings, taught in the schools, and in general participated in the enterprise."

Makdisi's most startling revelation comes from understanding the social effect of these schools. For it is these advocators of modernity, whose ideas were very much formed by the industrial revolution taking place in the west, who placed women in the home, cut off from the historical goings on all around them.

"One of the things that has become well established in social history is the fact that until the industrial revolution in Europe, there was no separation between home and work," Makdisi says.

And so the "traditional life" of housewife and mother so identified with Arab women, reveals itself as an imported ideal by those who claim modernity as their quest. This point is made even more poignantly as Makdisi finds out that her grandmother's life was a very active one, in which work and home were very much intertwined and she a true partner to her husband, therefore in every way very much the image of a modern couple.

Having described the huge impact that the women's movement had on her during a decade-long stay in the United States, Makdisi imbues "Teta, Mother and Me" with a feminist approach. Yet the book is a merger of many things, at once a memoir of a beloved parent and grandparent; a historical novel charting the unrelenting upheavals that characterized 20th century Arab history and a social study of the lives of women in the Middle East, a subject too long ignored.

Makdisi dedicates the book to her parents and siblings "In loving memory of my mother, father and grandmother and for Rosemarie, Joyce, Grace and of course, Edward, though too late," but in truth it is a gift to us all of a proud past as yet unclaimed.

Jean Said Makdisi will be signing copies of her book and appear in conversation with Mishka Moujabber Mourani and Nada Sahnaoui tonight at the 48th Arabic Book Fair in the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center at 7 p.m.

"Teta, Mother and Me: An Arab Woman's Memoir," is published in English by Dar al-Saqi and is available at all good book stores.

Beirut,12 13 2004
Samia Nassar Melki
The Daily Star
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