Teta, Mother and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women

I’ve had the Feministe audience at the back of my mind (even when working on material that hasn’t seemed an easy fit for a blog devoted to discussions of feminism) since starting my guest gig there last week — which is to say, even when I wrote my Israel/Palestine-I-was-on-Russian-TV! post, as well as yesterday’s “Norway and terrorism as a daily event.” My professional life has only rarely overlapped with my advocacy for women, and sometimes it’s hard to hit both sweet spots.

But last night, I suddenly remembered a lovely book I reviewed a few years back, one which fits really nicely into the overlap in the Venn Diagram of my life: Teta, Mother and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women, by Jean Said Makdisi.

This is a beautiful memoir, written with great love and deep respect for the matriarchs who came before, as well as examining the author’s own life and choices. Born in 1940, Makdisi’s life has been shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the very beginning (“my birth occurred at a particularly unromantic time: the anxiety of the war and the events in Palestine and Egypt weighed heavily on my parents”), but in going back two generations (“Teta” means “grandma”), she is able to sketch the lived reality of the Middle East’s contemporary tumult — not just the facts of dying empire (the Ottoman, as well as the British), competing nationalisms, and social unrest, but the impact of each on individual lives: What are the limits of ideology, how does it intersect with social development, and what is the role of memory?

Combining oral history with strict textual research, Makdisi does work here that we rarely see, providing cold hard facts alongside their emotional valence, often touching on events that have been largely forgotten though they continue to echo down through history — the massive famine which struck the formerly Ottoman lands, for instance, immediately following the destruction of World War I. The struggle in Israel/Palestine plays a big role, as does the Lebanese civil war, but so does the daily experience of a life in exile — the outcome of the violence no less importance than the violence itself.

Perhaps most unusual, however, is Makdisi’s willingness to take on tropes that have assumed the mantel of conventional wisdom when discussing women’s lives: “traditional” vs. “modern,” and what the discussion of the two might mean for the future — a conversation made particularly pressing by the advent of the “Arab Spring,” the revolutions currently roiling much of the Arab world*.

Over the largest fork in the road ahead… like a gigantic neon sign on a highway… flashes the dichotomy: “traditional” and “modern.” So pervasive is the discussion of this set of alternatives, so ubiquitous is it in all debates over women’s issues, and particularly Arab women’s issues, that its truth seems inevitable and absolute.

It is my growing conviction, however, that this dichotomy is not only misleading and confusing, if not downright false, but that is is also, and above all, divisive. It is, I am convinced, a red herring, flashing at us, making us chase down a road leading nowhere, missing, as we frantically sprint in the wrong direction, more subtle and truer directions….

What does it mean to be “traditional”? I am not at all sure. The word “tradition” is used much more than it is explained. There has simply not been enough scholarship, enough clearly thought-out discussion over this mysterious quantity as it relates to the Arab world for us to be able to answer this question clearly.

Over-used words and habitual labels, it turns out, are not always genuinely reflective of the lives they’re meant to describe.

Teta, Mother and Me is a lovingly written account, one which Western readers will find at turns to be warmly familiar, and entirely new, and it deserves to be widely read, by women and men, MidEast geeks and non-.

And finally, in the spirit of Feministe, my own opinions, and indeed, Makdisi’s own writing, I will only now mention the fact with which I had to lead my original review of this book:  Jean Said Makdisi is the sister of better-known scholar Edward Said. For my money, she’s the better writer.


*Here are a few starting points for background on women in the Arab Spring:

  1. An Arab Spring for Women, Juan Cole and Shahin Cole, The Nation, April 26: “The ‘Arab Spring’ has received copious attention in the American media, but one of its crucial elements has been largely overlooked: the striking role of women in the protests sweeping the Arab world. Despite inadequate media coverage of their role, women have been and often remain at the forefront of those protests.”
  2. Women and the Arab Spring, Mary Hope Schwoebel, United States Institute for Peace, May 5: “Women’s participation in the Arab Spring has been significant, but it remains to be seen, however, if their participation will result in increased opportunities for women in the public sphere when the dust settles. USIP’s Mary Hope Schwoebel discusses the opportunities and challenges for women in the Arab Spring.”
  3. The women of the Arab spring: from protesters to parliamentarians?, Natana J. Delong-Bas, Common Ground News Service, June 14: “In stark contrast to the image of Arab women in charge of nothing but their homes, these women are picketing outside supermarkets, staging sit-ins with their children, organising demonstrations, networking with each other, teaching workshops on the tactics of nonviolence, tearing down security fences and marching through checkpoints to connect with people on the other side.”
  4. Women in the Arab Spring: The other side of the story, Elizabeth Flock, Washington Post BlogPost, June 21: “Much has been written about the women who have protested, organized, blogged and conducted hunger strikes throughout the Arab Spring…. But the other piece of the story is the anguish countless women have had to endure, in the form of rape, detention, or simply a lack of appreciation of their role in the protests.”
  5. Arab Spring takes a chill turn for women, Sheera Frenkel, The Australian, August 1: ” ‘Before we were asking for normal rights – now we are trying to preserve the rights we already have,’ says Lina Ben Mhenni, a popular blogger in Tunisia. Sitting at a cafe on one of Tunis’s leafy boulevards, she draws stares at her pierced nose and black nail polish.”


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