Olivia Snaije reviews Ici Même (Here and There) by Taleb Alrefai

cover ice meme Taleb Alrefai 6Translated from the Arabic
by Mathilde Chèvre
Sindbad, Actes Sud, Paris, 2016.
ISBN 978-2-330-05789-3,
156pp, pbk, €18.80.

A woman determined to be independent

Taleb Alrefai, the Kuwaiti author and journalist who also works for Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters, has just had his first book translated into French. In fact, it is the first contemporary novel from Kuwait to be translated into French. Published in Arabic in 2014, Alrefai’s original title is Fi al-huna and could refer to the various realities in which Alrefai’s protagonist, Kawthar, navigates. She is from a wealthy, privileged Shiite family and works as an accountant in a bank. Although Kawthar’s father, who studied at the American University of Beirut, is an Arab nationalist and sees himself as a modern, intellectual man, he nevertheless retreats into his traditional customs, ones in which women have no space of their own, when his daughter comes to him with several issues and questions.
Kawthar tells her father she has fallen in love with Meshari, and would like to marry him. Meshari, however, is a Sunni Muslim. Moreover he is married with three children, although this is less of an obstacle (he can divorce) than his religion. Her father is horrified, even though years before he had helped his own sister when she wanted to marry a Sunni, as Kawthar reminds him.
“The situation is different today,” he tells her.
Kawthar is shocked by his answer, and wonders if it means that he feels guilty about his past ideas about independence, as if they had perhaps been errors.
From this day on, Kawthar, who has always had a mind of her own and has enjoyed an especially close relationship with her father, feels it is the beginning of the end of their relationship.
Time has its own rhythm in Kuwait city, and two years later, Kawthar, in her late twenties approaches her father once again and tells him she would like to buy an apartment of her own.
“This had the effect of an electric shock on him . . . I would have liked to tell him that the world had changed, that I had the right to live my life in peace, as I saw fit to.”
Kawthar’s father, who is depressed by the failed Arab Spring, tells her that she is free to do what she likes only after his death.

Taleb Alrefai 4 Kuwait copy
Taleb Alrefai

Alrefai has structured his novel so that he and his real wife, Shorouq, are characters in the book. “Uncle Taleb”, as he is known to Kawthar, is a friend of her father’s and represents a benevolent “elder”, to whom she can turn when in need. At the same time Alrefai’s character Taleb is working on a novel about Kawthar in his office at the National Council.
The chapters alternate between Kawthar telling her story, and Taleb telling it, bearing witness to her love affair. Several of Kawthar’s accounts begin with her stating that it is early on the morning of her wedding day and she has insomnia. She goes back in time, recalling her relationship with Meshari, and the difficulties she has had in getting a commitment from him. We cannot but admire Kawthar’s determination to be independent, but her situation with Meshari, besides the fact that she cannot see him freely in Kuwait, doesn’t seem dissimilar to a situation a woman might encounter in the West in a relationship with a married man.
The most interesting angle is Kawthar’s desire for self-determination and the almost physical need to inhabit a space she can call her own. Alrefai has written and spoken about his aim to expose the oppression of women in his country; he has also tackled controversial subjects in Kuwait such as sexual abuse and extramarital affairs in The Scent of the Sea in 2002, and immigrant workers in The Shadow of the Sun in 1988.
It would have been perhaps even more interesting to have Kawthar simply be driven by her own need for autonomy, rather than introducing the character of Meshari as the catalyst for it.

First published in Banipal magazine 56 Summer 2016
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