Further complicating the situation was that part of British endeavours in Egypt had been to modernise the agricultural sector, and they had effectively done so, generating great wealth for investors both local and foreign. Once the British occupation ended, Egyptians of landed wealth were commonly accused of having been complicit with the British administration. The landed wealth of Ahmed’s family then brings in issues of class which would reach their heyday in the fifties and sixties. Such ‘class’ discussions converging around agricultural laws, remaining largely chaotic and unresolved in Egypt’s unstable economic problems makes ‘nationalisation’ still a recurrent populist call as an easy ‘solution for the underprivileged’ in the cockeyed political debates of the present day. (With the differences entailed by the situation of the white settler colony, there is a comparable history of ‘nationalisation’ of land in Zimbabwe, and even today fear of sudden nationalisation in Mugabe’s state has often kept away alternative sources for foreign investment in a land rich in minerals).
In Dangarembga’s novel the description of the family’s subsistence too is directly tied to the context of land (a theme the author takes up in her film “Hard Earth: Land Rights in Zimbabwe” (2002)). Farming land in Zimbabwe “has been a contested site with far-reaching implications in the socioeconomic and political scenario, first between Africans of different ethnicities, and, subsequently, between these Africans and European immigrants” (Mabura 89). It is no coincidence that land labour in Nervous Conditions is performed by women. In many sub-Saharan communities, and Shona women were no exception, agriculture was traditionally a task that pertained to food production and therefore belonged in the women’s domain, so much so that in Zimbabwe “[t]he thriving peasant agriculture [initially met by colonial settlers]…was, for the most part, the work of African women” (Schmidt 3). (Today land remains a contested site for women’s citizenship rights under President Mugabe).
On the small farming land near her father’s house Tambu’s early lessons with her grandmother encapsulate the complex links between gender, land, race and nation. In these early private sessions Tambu learns how to work the land for the family. She does not shy away here from ‘women’s work’ or women’s communities as she does with her mother at the river. One reason is plain: this grandmother tells her stories, history that “could not be found in the textbooks” (17), and is able to cultivate Tambu’s mind (along with her green thumb) and therefore empower her with the oral histories of women. The seclusion afforded by women’s communities, devoted to nature and nurture, mark rootedness and resilience, sustainability and continuance, the wisdom of generations, and the self-reliance that denotes great strength of spirit as well as a realisation of one’s weakness against larger forces of history. The storytelling that goes hand in hand with daily toil creates one of those moments of plurality Ahmed refers to, new points of ‘convergence’ between subnational and transnational.
The figure of the grandmother and her storytelling is highly symbolic. Traditionally in Shona societies the elderly connoted wisdom and affinity with the ancestral spirit world. Grandmothers and older women played an important part in grandchildren’s education, taking charge of them while the mothers performed their chores:
It was the grandmother who taught the children accepted manners and social roles and instilled in them the values of their culture and the importance of their history. Grandmothers instructed young girls on sexual matters and marital duties….Before the advent of missionary education, evening folktales (ngano), told by old women to gatherings of children, were one of the most important didactic tools in Shona society. Through ngano, songs, riddles, and other games, the grandmother conveyed the appropriate roles of and relationships between members of families, lineages, and other members of the social order. …the educational value of the ngano was recognized by the children’s parents, who accepted the premise that they could ‘not withdraw the children from a story-telling session merely to send them on a trifling errand’. (Schmidt 23)
Storytelling then highlights an alternate source of knowledge, the oral knowledge of women to be used as a source for alternate histories.
The grandmother’s history describes the gradual gender role shifts and societal restructuring in Rhodesia created by colonial settlement on agricultural land and economic reorganisation. Having lived on the land before and after the ‘white wizards’ came, the grandmother tells of how the community was pushed from the places where the soil is ripe to the “grey, sandy soil of the homestead, so stony and barren that the wizards [themselves] would not use it” (Nervous Conditions 18). Indeed, “the Native Reserves Commission, established in 1914, recommended not only a massive reduction in the acreage set aside for Africans but the removal from the reserves of most of the fertile, well-watered land in close proximity to markets and communication routes, and the substitution of impoverished, arid land in remote, tsetse fly-infested areas” (Schmidt 69). Tambu’s grandmother’s story describes how, enticed by the ‘white wizards’’ promises of lucrative reward, her husband tried working at one of their farms only to find he had been “enticed into slavery” (Nervous Conditions 18). Helped by political intervention rather than market forces,89 the ascendancy of European agriculture over African peasant agriculture had pushed more African men to seek wage labour that was at best insufficiently paid. Since such a system favoured single men without encumbrances, strategic resources such as land, labour and cash income slowly ceded into male hands, with the result that women’s status and opportunities for socio-economic power eventually declined (Schmidt). So when her husband runs off to work in yet another colonial economic model, that of the mining town, Tambu’s grandmother and her children are thrown off the farm by the white settlers/owners.
Left to shift for herself in a socio-economic structure that could often prove hostile for a single woman, no less for a mother of six, the grandmother hears about a third colonial structure built by “beings similar in appearance to the wizards but not of them, for these were holy” (19). She takes one son to them (Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru) to work on their farm in the day and study in the evening. The missionaries are surprised to find him “a good boy, cultivable, in the way the land is, to yield harvests that sustain the cultivator” (19) and so push him to further his education. The rest of course is history. Tambu’s lessons of ‘the road to success’ learnt from her grandmother offer yet another overlapping narrative: the code of discipline, respect for authority and hard work. The missionaries had come to Africa to ‘save African souls’, and “[t]oward this end, Africans had to learn the virtues of hard work, discipline, and obedience to authority” (Schmidt 10). These lessons are instilled in her uncle Babamukuru (and later, Tambu herself) through missionary education but the overlap is of course that such mores were already inherently ‘African’. That is why Tambu realises that Babamakuru’s story is one of success even before she starts mission school: Babamukuru has succeeded, the Shona way, the native way, through hard work, discipline and respect for authority. The grandmother’s story deftly weaves issues of colonialism, race and gender in a history of Rhodesia.
As Tambu tends to her crop, rather than (or in addition to) being an overworked, unpaid and unappreciated labourer for the family, she also exercises her native right to till the land and dispense with her own time. Because her grandmother’s agricultural lessons enable Tambu later to raise money for her own school fees despite her family’s obstructions, she is also learning to create opportunities for herself through her own hard work, and to resist self-imposed inhibitions, societal or colonial.
The storytelling of Tambu’s grandmother will also instil in Tambu, in the ‘communal’ way that generations pass on morals and values to future generations, a steam-valve defence system against the shock or rupture of colonisation (and colonial education), a family history or rootedness of her own. The extent to which her England-bred cousin Nyasha often longs for and lacks this inheritance is something Tambu has yet to understand, apparent in the way Tambu is utterly perplexed at Nyasha’s delight in learning basic local skills such as how to make clay pots. If society can neither be ruled by what Victor Turner called the “liminal” (marginal, prophetic, and alienated figures) nor rigidly ruled by “structures” (ossified norms and mainstream institutions) some alternation between both is essential.90 The link that Tambu manages to retain between life at the mission and life at the homestead and the ability to root herself in the positive aspects of native land embodied in her grandmother’s story-telling enables her to see missionary education as a miraculous opportunity for social mobility and emancipation. Tambu’s grandmother herself has given Tambu the organicist metaphor for progress: rooted and nourished by Nyamarira and fertile soil, Tambu’s growth in the social system is modelled on the ‘success’ story of her uncle Babamukuru, who, ‘cultivable like the land’, had once grown into his own. Tambu’s rootedness at least at this early stage saves her from the nervous condition of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ like Babamukuru and the nervous condition of the liminal like Nyasha.91
To zoom in closer with Brandes’s ‘telescope’: over the course of the girls’ development in A Border Passage and Nervous Conditions the view of the land shifts again from farmed plots of land to those cultivated for ornamental or aesthetic pleasure around houses or estates. This view of the landscape is often intricately linked to acquiring a European acculturation that is both beneficial and detrimental, foreign and native. Ornamental gardens or owned gardens always indicate their owner’s social status.
The prosperity of Ahmed’s family in their secluded Ain Shams neighbourhood shows from the large garden they own. Massive in size and variety it was filled with “pine, eucalyptus, apricot, mango, tamarind, oleander”, its winding paths filled with “roses, bougainvillea, wisteria” (15). Depicting a rather lonely childhood, the garden marks Leila’s seclusion as the youngest of her much older siblings, the financial and social exclusiveness of her family, and the geographical remoteness of their residence from the chaos of Cairo. Ahmed speaks of the garden as a place of refuge, but it was also a status symbol from which her family took great delight and profit. For Ahmed it was a playground, where her earliest childhood companions were the trees, to each of which she would bid farewell before leaving to Alexandria for the summer. Her mother and father, the first an ‘avid gardener’, the second an intellectual attuned to natural beauty, would also entertain friends there. Nanny, Ahmed’s first teacher (like Tambu’s grandmother), would also make jams out of the fruit in the garden, which the children would eat as they came back from school while waiting for lunch to be prepared.
In retrospect Ahmed realises that the garden had been a childhood dream of her father’s who had bought the land and planned it himself; it had been intended “like English [schooling], and all the English books with which [he] had surrounded us” to “nourish and free imagination” (27). Trimmed and clipped into order, this landscape is a place of bounty, “somehow”, as Ahmed puts it “located exactly on the edge and borderland between imagination and the ordinary world” (182). Years later the ‘untended’ garden Leila finds on her return from England marks the disintegration of her father’s health and fortune propelled by the intrusion of Nasser’s politics. “The garden was derelict, overgrown in places and desiccated in others, [with] fruit lying rotting in the grass”, she writes, and even the gardener was “ageing” (197). With the destruction of the geographic space the garden’s function as a social space for creativity, productivity and social activity ends as well, and this is marked by the loss of her father’s mental agility, of her mother’s homemaking and sublimation, and of Nanny’s lessons in the productivity of simple work.
The first thing Tambu notices after she has left the homestead and as she approaches her uncle’s house are the conifers, canna lilia and lilies planted in the front garden. It is her first experience of landscaping rather than landscape: the need for (and luxury of) “planting things for merrier reasons than the chore of keeping breath in the body” (64) and she is prepared to embrace it. Cultivated to European tastes, the landscape signals that Tambu is to acquire the polish, the tastes and the sophistication of the metropole-in-Africa. As far as Tambu is concerned, the status and influence her education might eventually grant her far exceed any position she might otherwise occupy ‘traditionally’. The respect her uncle and aunt have for education and their understanding of the privacy and peace needed for study, the library she can now access and the orderliness of routine, coupled with the example Maiguru affords as she tends to her aesthetically-organised garden, all mark Tambu’s first real introduction to the secluded pleasures of cultivating the gardens of the mind: the need for, and luxury of, reading things for pleasure rather than for instruction or necessity. These markers also signal the transition from the women’s communities of oral knowledge to women’s communities framed by textuality.
The landscapes reflect the ways women may mould or perceive spaces as their own through narrative (oral, written or a mixture of both), and so produce and share knowledge –called by any other name, from ‘wisdom’ to academic research. In recent scholarship, interest in oral culture has often appeared in a second-wave search for local sources for knowledge. In Zimbabwe, for example:
The second stage in the search for African perspectives [after written colonial or liberational histories] involved a change in both subject and methodology. …Rather than relying exclusively on testimony filtered through and distorted by colonial and missionary intermediaries, African perspectives were sought directly, through oral testimony [although such perspectives were usually exclusively male]. (Schmidt 2)
If considered a ‘pre-literacy’ system of knowledge, oral culture becomes fleeting and doomed to disappear if not written down quickly enough (see, for example, Ong in a specifically European context), and so both Ahmed and Dangarembga stress the importance of documenting their own stories, and the women’s stories that formed the life of the community. Oral culture, however, is also and more importantly an alternative and accompanying kind of knowledge and knowledge practice within societies, not simply a binary ‘earlier’ phase to literacy. In addition to providing valuable research material for ethnography or history, oral culture, consciously adopted by the usual ‘subjects’ of ethnographic research, is offered in these two works as resistance against the infallibility of institutionalised ways of knowledge.92 Hence, both in mode and material, for the two narrators oral culture is also a woman’s culture and locates women as agents telling and writing the stories of their communities.
Ahmed’s memoir stresses the importance of writing down the oral and transitory, from the hidden narratives of the harem to personal/national/gender history determined by political imperatives, both as a way for self-knowledge (therapy) and agency (resistance). Ahmed goes as far as to distinguish completely (and somewhat formulaically) between women’s (oral) communities and men’s (written) communities and the kinds of knowledge both of them produce, sustaining parallels between the function of the ‘harems’ she experiences in Zatoun, Alexandria, Abu Dhabi and Girton College. She also suggests that the representation of such (oral) communities of knowledge are constructed by men’s (textual) communities, creating structured bodies or fields of knowledge that the women themselves would later take for granted, such as in the fields of History and Islam.
At this point in the narratives, as the communities of learning are juxtaposed, the vision from the ‘telescope’ zooms closer, and space narrows further to the interiors of the home or school, with the natural and cultivated landscape lying somewhere beyond them. The landscape beyond the closed spaces often carries its own significance, but structured or organised knowledge, whether oral or written, takes place within walls. Ahmed likens, for example, what went on in the two ‘harems’ she experienced as she was growing up in Alexandria and Zatoun –from the shared space and lives that encouraged women to support each other, share advice, solve problems and engage in community projects– to the “harem perfected” at Girton College, not the harem imagined by Western male sexual fantasy or the nattering dens of leisure imagined by Eastern men, but a community where older women presided over the young, served by other women, and where “the absence of male authority was permanent” (183). (Meanwhile, outside the Egyptian harem, beyond the walls, lies the exclusive prosperity of her grandfather’s estate, while outside Girton College lies the imaginative release of the ‘sheer green loveliness of England’).
In her maternal family’s estate ‘Zatoun’, no men could venture into Ahmed’s grandmother’s visiting room where the members of her maternal family and their children would go frequently. In the summer house in Alexandria where the entire family would remove for the holidays, the men, working during the week, could only visit sporadically or over the weekends. While the harem in Western literature and art has often been painted as intrinsically ‘oriental’, exotic and primitive (as would have been the Shona women’s-only bathing spaces in the river), a women’s-only college like Girton was more acceptable, despite having been constructed along similar lines, in effect, to suit male-conceived ideas, in this instance, ideas of elite enclosed professional spaces for academics:
In Alexandria, as at Girton, the women devoted a good part of their time to analyzing, discussing, and taking apart words, meanings, motives, characters, consequences, responsibilities (though in Alexandria their seriousness was leavened with much laugher) and to reflecting on where the moral heart of an issue lay…[I]t was real people’s actual words and real people’s characters, motives, and intentions that were taken apart and put together again…it was real people whose lives might well be profoundly affected as a result of the burden of their talk, the conclusions they came to, the advice they gave, the actions they then took….At Girton, on the other hand, it was fictional people, people in books and novels and plays, whose words and actions and motives and moral characters we analyzed endlessly. Obviously this was not an activity that, in any direct sense anyway, sustained anybody’s life or actual circumstances....That same activity essentially, practiced at Alexandria and Zatoun orally and on living texts to sustain the life of the community, was called by outsiders to the process –by men of the official Arabic culture and by Westerners, men and women– idle gossip, the empty and even sometimes evil, malicious talk of women, harem women. That same activity, however, practiced by the women of Girton on written, not oral, texts and on fictional, not living, people was regarded as honorable, serious, important work. For the women of Girton no longer practiced it in the manner that women in their culture, too, once did –orally and to sustain life. They practiced it in the manner and tradition of men, as their own colleagues (and men down the centuries) had –in relation to written texts rather than living people, as a profession. (191-92)
Ahmed here criticises various perceptions of women’s communities: one, the idea implicit in Orientalist perspectives that the kind of (often indigenous) knowledge produced by the third world, or women of the third world, is ‘not knowledge’ compared to the knowledge the first world produces. Two, from local perspectives these women communities are also seen negatively, held solely to be idle meetings for gossip and trivial work, and undeserving of real notice.
In the case of Tambu, the same significance is given to women’s communities and the same criticism is levelled at those who dismiss them, although the idea is rendered differently. Instead of the resolute and essentialist dichotomy between men and women’s communities given in A Border Passage, the narrator of Nervous Conditions debunks the idea that important meetings can remain completely isolated or segregated. The supposed men-only meetings, for example, are neither solely attended by men nor in any case even very important. In the men-only family council which meets at Tambu’s homestead to discuss the ‘problem’ of aunt Lucia’s pregnancy, for example, other women of the family including Lucia herself have been excluded, at least hypothetically, because they are not important enough for ‘serious talk’. In actuality, however, the women who want to sit in on the meeting end up doing so and having their say. Not only does Lucia barge in and offer the solution (to her own dilemma) but she also manages to heave up one of the men by the ear and make him a laughingstock. Tete, one of the family matriarchs, is allowed in from the beginning. The first thing Tete does when she leaves the council is to report to the rest of the women, only to cause much laughter as they all mock the men. Meanwhile, Maiguru, invited by her husband to sit down at the same meeting, actually refuses, making clear that a place of privilege is only valuable by common consent, which is why, perhaps, she is rarely absent from the women’s gatherings. The women’s-only communities portrayed in both texts, however, are always regarded by outsiders as unimportant, and in both texts some of the women interiorise this inferior opinion.
Ahmed critiques how women interiorise this inferiority. She compares convergent modes of writing and reading history/ies, most particularly the oral history of Islam as she at least had experienced it and the written texts of Islam propagated by the ‘learned’. Because religion and religious culture are embedded in power relations, gender and sexuality are in turn central issues for control and resistance in the arena of religious culture (Yuval-Davis Gender & Nation 43). Ahmed extends her analogies oral/written, practised/theoretical, women’s spaces/men’s spaces, and knowledge production/knowledge authority to what she refers to as ‘women’s Islam’ and ‘men’s Islam’. As men’s ‘written texts’ of Islam (and the Muslim women scholars who followed this tradition such as Zaynab al-Ghazali) were used to delineate women’s social positions, the silenced ‘oral’ women’s Islam highlighted spirituality and privacy of belief, and was often (although not always) a tool for spiritual peace and self-realisation. By assimilating unquestioningly the patriarchal textual knowledge largely written and institutionalised by men, women working with written texts may dangerously cater to and further instate a knowledge of the world that is biased and gendered.
Even in its title A Border Passage draws attention to the multiple literary traditions it dialogues with: the memoir, the journey, the ‘voyage-in’ and Sufi writings. In thinking of A Border Passage as a memoir, for example, it may be productive to think of it alongside women coming-of-age memoirs and autobiographies in the Arabic-speaking world,93 Anglo-Arabic autobiography,94 or, generally, women’s autobiography. It may also, however, be useful to think of it in the context of some of the work done on alternative sources of knowledge, not least those projects that have documented oral histories of women such as the communal history that Tambu’s grandmother tells, and precisely the kind of un-narrated living testimonies going on in the harems of A Border Passage. Such projects appeared as early as the 1970s to respond on a grassroots level to a fear that certain forms of knowledge or ways of life would disappear if not documented, but also as a revisionist impulse aiming to address one-sidedness in academic or mainstream knowledge sources.95
In both Dangarembga’s and Ahmed’s works the impulse to move from aural knowledge to written knowledge appears in the act of transcribing as a self-conscious way of writing down one’s history which seems to be under threat, and with the protagonists claiming to listen to women’s unwritten stories and finding it imperative to tell or narrate them.96 Storytelling brings to the fore in numerous ways the complex process of inheritance from one generation to another. It is significant that Tambu’s mother neglects to cultivate her plot of land except in times of dire necessity, for over the course of European settlement the pre-colonial, female-dominated African peasant economy, no competition for the government-privileged settler agriculture, severely weakened. Agricultural profit eventually became too meagre for the women workers to bother about. Whether for the better or for the worse, this mode of living does die out or change fundamentally. Tambu’s grandmother’s oral knowledge, her stories, living patterns, lessons, histories of the past die with her unless Tambu can perceive them as relevant to her own formation, part of her identity as a woman of that time and place.
Similarly, Leila receives her first meaningful initiation in the community’s spirituality from her grandmother who teaches her two or three short verses of prayer, takes her on the roof to ‘watch for angels’, and imprints an image in Leila’s adult mind of a quietly pious, constantly praying woman. The adolescent Leila refuses to listen to her mother’s story, however: “I remember [my mother] …saying…that she too would have liked to have been a writer. It was too late for her now, she said, but sometimes she thought about her life and how interesting it had been and wished she could write it all. Maybe I could write it for her, she said, maybe I could write the story of her life. ‘I’d tell it to you and you could write it’, she said (74)”. Leila rejects the idea with some repulsion. It is only later on in life that she realises what she has lost: a natural connection and continuance from a previous generation, which she could then build on or reject rather than need to construct from a ruptured past. This is precisely the rootedness to community (through oral culture) that Nyasha’s education too has effaced. Ahmed asks:
How would I have known then that those who bring into their lives and into the shaping of the consciousness of others their own deepest thoughts and feelings and moral imagination, create out of their own lives texts, oral, evanescent texts that are every bit as rich and sustaining as the most celebrated written texts? How would I have known this then? I did not know, I did not know, I did not know. (75)
The inheritance then is partly lost, partly one of loss, as Ahmed herself admits, even as she self-consciously makes her own narrative a communal history to be passed on: “Walking through this…I suddenly [felt] this sense of loss –measureless, measureless loss–sweep through me”. The action of narrating and transcribing, however, is a protection from that loss, and so Ahmed adds quickly: “And so that, O my daughter, is what happened. That, in those years, is what happened to us” (270). (The word ‘daughter’ is figurative: Ahmed does not have children). Loss then, properly narrated, also becomes a natural part of how a generation continues. The ‘impulse’ to write and to narrate, to construct a history out of absence or loss, locates the individual autobiographical work in a wider community, with self-knowledge referring to community-knowledge as well. In a postcolonial context, autobiography (for men and women) and its journeys of empowerment and disempowerment seems to have tended to directly define the individual in relation to a community, often with a view to record, revise or rewrite its history (Lionnet Postcolonial Representations 22-24; Mohanty Feminism Without Borders 77-84). The imperative to write becomes not just a personal compulsion but a communal responsibility. As Tambu puts it at the end of the book, as she is leaving Umtali: “Don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget. Nyasha, my mother, my friends. Always the same message. But why? If I forgot them, my cousin, my mother, my friends, I might as well forget myself” (191). Both Ahmed and Tambu write to tell their own stories but also consciously to transcribe the stories of their women ‘communities’ caught in intersections of class, race, religion and nation.
Although Dangarembga makes no clear-cut dichotomy between women’s oral-religious communities and men’s written-religious communities like Ahmed does, Nervous Conditions examines how the religious textual world complicated the roles and status of Shona women caught between patriarchal Christian textual culture and a patriarchal Shona oral culture. In Tambu’s case, for example, life at the homestead with the open learning spaces at the river or on the land is compared to life in her uncle’s house with its enclosed designated spaces for study and reading. Babamukuru’s treatment of his wife, daughter and niece suggests how Christian missions, in this part of Africa the ‘newer’ (although by no means the unwanted) religion, changed or complicated the ‘traditional’ community’s patriarchal structures, sometimes for the better, at other times for the worse,97 but in any case, changed them structurally. Although this is more carefully examined in the sequel through the time spent at the Sacred Heart College, even in Nervous Conditions Headmaster-Uncle Babamukuru’s civilisational mission brings the problems of a patriarchal colonialism into his own house. Babamukuru’s socio-political and educational responsibility makes it imperative that the girls under his care exhibit orthodox or ‘decent’ behaviour, and so enforces a much stricter discipline on Nyasha and Tambu compared to what the countless other cousins experience at the homestead, undoubtedly exacerbating the pressure on volatile Nyasha that will eventually lead to her breakdown. Yet it is at the mission too, that Tambu becomes versed in a cleaner, more comfortable lifestyle, and so she is also able to see the benefits of authority and of ‘non-indigenous’ education. For Babamukuru to come fully realised into the picture, however, the view from Brandes’s proverbial telescope needs to zoom in yet again, and the scene of the home narrows to the bedroom.
From the land, landscape, territory and garden, moving inward in smaller concentric circles, lies the home, another locale for the prime national symbol of the family unit (see Boehmer 2005; McCintock 1991; Skurski; Nagel), and a spatial entity in which gender issues link the location of girls/women in local patriarchal family systems hierarchically under the nation-state, or on a horizontal comparative perspective to other family structures or systems around the world. Of all the places delineated as a ‘woman’s place’, the bedroom seems the most traditional, even a “performative” space,98 and is often for these women a place where they perceive themselves through the eyes of their immediate other. For the women protagonists the bedroom brings into the narrative the haloed societal structures of sex and the taboos surrounding the female body; the privacy of the bedroom also allows the women, however, to develop their intellects, and thus explore their developing identities into women of the world.
Tambu’s life at the mission is often directed by events happening in the bedroom, which, as opposed to the awe-inspiring living and dining rooms, offers her a private woman’s space she can learn in and from. It is actually the first time Tambu gets her own ‘bedroom’. On the reserve she used to sleep on the kitchen floor, which she shared with her siblings and often her mother who was too tired to move to the bed at the end of a long day’s work. The cooking-sleeping area is an extension of the women’s meeting places at the river and on the farmland, a functional space where the normative societal role of women is circumscribed. Later at the mission, however, Tambu has a bed and bath to call her own, fitted with the ‘modern conveniences’ of light switches and adjoining bathrooms. It is in this bedroom that she begins to mature, a process marked, perhaps appropriately, by what she calls her “first love-affair” with her cousin: “the first time I grew to be fond of someone of whom I did not wholeheartedly approve” (79).99 Her alter ego, Nyasha, besides being a pivotal character in Tambu’s formation is also her unrealised potential, the ‘nervous condition’ to which the native is susceptible, and many of Tambu’s decisions are taken intentionally with the aim of avoiding Nyasha’s downfall. The bedroom is where she hits puberty (comforted by Nyasha), and where she witnesses the taboo-breaking moment (paralleling the declaration of the novel’s opening line) when the sanctity of the woman’s space is violated and so the family unity breaks down.
Babamukuru flies into a rage because his daughter has been dancing with one of the Baker boys. Tambu watches the “dreadfully familiar” scene where Babamukuru calls his daughter Nyasha a whore and slaps her, and the shocking moment when Nyasha hits her father back. The final violation of her private growing-up space by yet another man makes Tambu reflect bitterly:
I followed her to the servants’ quarters….I feeling bad for her, thinking how dreadfully familiar that scene had been, with Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem....You couldn’t ignore the fact that she [Nyasha] had no respect for Babamukuru when she ought to have had lots of it. But what I didn’t like was the way all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness. (117-18)
The inevitable sin of ‘whoredom’ comes from women being required in the nation and often in politicised religious discourses to carry a ‘burden of representation’, “as they are constructed as the symbolic bearers of the collectivity’s identity and honour, both personally and collectively….Women, in their ‘proper’ behaviour, their ‘proper’ clothing, embody the line which signifies the collectivity’s boundaries” (Yuval-Davis Gender & Nation 45; also Anthias et al Racialised Boundaries 113). When Babamukuru hits his daughter, he brings down the weight or sin of womanhood on her shoulders, and accuses her of being dressed ‘improperly’, of acting ‘improperly’ with men, and of making him look bad in the eyes of his peers. By striking back, Nyasha rather too literally puts up a fight against the haloed structure of what Tambu calls ‘respect’: respect to one’s elders, parents and, particularly, fathers.100 ‘Respect’ of course in itself is a good thing, but in this case it means a concurrence to what seems like, in Tambu’s words: a ‘universal victimisation of femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness’.
Yet Babamukuru is also enacting less universal roles which Tambu has not yet realised. Babamukuru punishes Nyasha for transgressing society’s patriarchal values in a colonised state. First, as a missionary member he is carrying on the Victorian-era prudery that was often implemented far longer and much more strictly in the colonies than it was in Britain. Second, as a missionary-educated African, he sees himself as part of the white man’s mission to save and civilise his brother and sister Africans, to train the former to become good labourers and the latter to become good wives and mothers.101 Nyasha’s adolescent flirtations signal a threat that she might, despite her training and ‘education’, regress to her ‘natural’ state, the supposedly inherent depravity and lewdness of the black woman and the genetic indolence of the ‘Native’ that was discussed so fervently in Rhodesian politics since the occupation in 1890. Third, Babamukuru’s reaction carries with it as well the very real fear of Nyasha becoming illegally involved with one of the Baker boys, who is, of course, white. Hovering over Rhodesian political discourse for decades was the ‘yellow peril – the “miscegenation as a result of sexual relations between European men and African women” (Schmidt 157).
As an educated Rhodesian Babamukura is a member of the local elite (a class created by the infrastructural changes in society post-occupation) but it is a class that is still subordinate to the white population.102 Alan Baker, with whom Nyasha has been flirting, is a reminder of Babamukuru’s uneasy societal position. Alan’s missionary father and Babamukuru’s colleague, Mr Baker, has used his influence to guarantee a scholarship for Nyasha’s brother at an exclusive mostly-white school. A daughter who resists her father’s authority in a way that is not socially acceptable would embarrass him in the eyes of the Shona community. By getting into sexual trouble, a daughter, even of a black missionary headmaster, would be seen under colonial social and legal laws as simply degenerating to the inherent promiscuity of the African. This would be doubly problematic if she got involved with a white man when, for various reasons, the state did not legalise to any satisfactory measure the sexual relations between African women and European men, although the relations between African men and European women were legally forbidden (Schmidt). In Shona society Nyasha’s relationship with Alan Baker, had it actually come about, and since it would never have been legalised by the dictums of the colonial state, would have simply been seen as prostitution.
In the verbal skirmishes between Nyasha and her father until this point, Babamukuru had often asked ‘do you want to embarrass me?’ or ‘what will people say?’ The real difficulty is that he strives for the respect of two, not always concurrent, communities (a problem which becomes more evident in the sequel as he is simultaneously labelled a sell-out and a patriot). Babamukuru’s situation, symbolising the black-skin-white-mask problem,103 is played out in his (gender) conflict with Nyasha. No one sees these intersections, what Grewal and Kaplan call “scattered hegemonies”,104 more clearly than Nyasha, and thus she becomes the embodiment of Fanon’s/Sartre’s statement from which the novel’s title and epigraph are taken: “the condition of the native is a nervous condition” –by Babamukuru’s consent.
When Babamukuru hits Nyasha, it is the beginning of Nyasha’s breakdown. In a moment of double violation, Babamukuru tears down the security of ‘women’s space’ by physically overpowering the girls in their private bedroom (like President Nasser had done by sequestering the women’s harem in A Border Passage) and Nyasha violates society’s complacent boundary of ‘respect’, thereby propelling her into that very lonely sphere of individualism and adulthood. The incident with Babamukuru starts Nyasha’s regression into ‘liminality’. She gradually realises that she is not simply resisting local patriarchal structures, which would have been hard enough, but that she, as a multiple victim of sexism, racism, colonialism, and ‘illimitable’ etcs, is also resisting another victim in a sort of double-mirror of atrocity. Thus she is pushed to mumble in her final breakdown that she does not want to hate her father, insisting: “It’s not his fault”. Putting on a Rhodesian accent, she mimics hysterically what she imagines her father had heard as he grew up: “He’s a good boy, a good munt. A bloody kaffir” (204). The dilemma which her reading and intelligence have unearthed makes her utterly lonely and strips her of the comfort of any collective belonging –social structures, family, women’s communities or missionary-schools– from which she may draw strength. “Look what they’ve done to us”, Nyasha whispers to her parents, “I’m not one of them but I’m not one of you” (205).
The bedroom and sometimes bed that Ahmed shares with her nanny give Leila her first and longest grown up-childhood companion, a close if authoritative friend. The bedroom is where Leila is induced to wait for angels, where she sees religious faith in practice as Nanny reads the Latin Bible, and where Nanny tells Leila her first stories. It is also the place where Leila is punished by her frenzied mother after the Freddy incident that belatedly precipitates Leila into womanhood. Leila’s ‘original sin’, the accusation of whoredom, is committed at the mature age of eight. The incident is described in detail: Leila’s mother hears that Leila has been harassed by twelve-year old Freddy. The mother panics, hits Leila, forbids her from playing outside, and takes her to a “special” doctor for a virginity test. From then on Leila perceives her mother to have distanced herself from her daughter almost completely, as if Leila were “innately bad” (80), not worth loving. It is a feeling that seems to have gone on for years until at a later age Leila manages to come to terms with it, understanding that her mother was, like anyone, both subject and object of history, a woman at the plurality of convergences of her place and time.
It is in the bedroom too, that ostensibly most private of (women’s) places, that these girls acquire a new kind of resistance, the intellectual expansion of horizons, a worldly literary landscape that demands an ethical questioning of the boundaries constructed around them: their first ‘love affair’ with worldliness. There too, the women share stories, creating an intimate women’s community of solidarity and support. Leila’s first example in how to empathise with other people through (good, it seems) storytelling composes her first major lessons in ethical values.
It was Nanny, too, who told me stories….The usual fairy tales, or versions of them. One of our favourites…was a version of…King Lear…. I liked the story in part, I am sure, because it was about the triumph of the youngest, my own position among my siblings. But it also encapsulated something essential about Nanny and her values. It was a story about honesty and integrity, about valuing these qualities above everything else, and it implied a distrust of people who cared too much about money. It also implied that simplicity and hard work, salt, simple things were, in the end, the real prizes. (52)
Leila’s nanny tells her stories, hardly an unusual thing for a nanny –but what were the ‘usual’ fairytales? By mentioning the story that was an oral version of King Lear, Ahmed points to the fluid movement between ‘textual’ and ‘oral’ and signifies the ethical dimensions that (particularly childhood) narratives elicit, for although the ‘usual fairy tales’ which Leila listens to were not the ones Tambu hears from her grandmother, it would seem they invoked the same or similar values of resilience, perseverance, responsibility and justice. As Leila receives the ethical wisdom from Nanny that she will later absorb from literary texts, the ethical wisdom Tambu receives on the land is supplemented and stressed in the bedroom by (bookworm) Nyasha, Tambu’s first vocal female supporter, and her first source for story books.
By framing the formative experiences of childhood within reading and listening to stories, the bedroom also frames the very personal relation between the solitary reader and the book and the reaction to and formation by literature. One of the uses of World Literature as a kind of reading practice (or experience) then becomes the release from ‘provinciality’ –but also ‘an opportunity for action’ (or resistance):
World literature is in essence an ethical project because, like the larger project of cosmopolitanism to which it belongs, it asks us to imagine or act out an ethical relation to the world as a whole. That entails, as Damrosch suggests, a critical estrangement from one’s own nationality, with its ‘present concerns and modes of reading’, but an estrangement that must always remain incomplete. ‘We never truly cease to be ourselves as we read’….Set against ‘other times and eras’, as it is here, being oneself also signifies occupying the present tense. And being a self-in-the-present-tense signifies two quite different things…the [release from] provinciality….[and] the opportunity for an action”. (Robbins “Uses of World Literature” 391)
Oral knowledge guided and supplemented by school and family pushes the two women to become readers, evoking, in their pursuit of reading in the peaceful and private islands of their bedrooms, broader intellectual horizons. As learning one’s ABCs marks the beginning of literacy, reading books sows the first seeds of the cultivation of the solitary intellectual, and love of reading signals precociousness and a kind of receptivity to ideas that differentiates the protagonists from other characters. Literature seems to ‘do something’ to these girls, to show them not what ‘Life’ was, but what ‘Life’ might be, and what they would not allow ‘Life’ to become. It is also the love of reading that brings in the colonial critique at the heart of the two texts and to which the exploration of the women’s own identities and belonging is crucial, since the first stories the girls mention reading are the ‘usual’ (in Ahmed’s words) children’s books –‘usual’ that is, to those who have had what is now called a ‘colonial’ education, but also universally ‘familiar’ to those who did not, such as the pre-missionary Tambu.
A schoolgirl at the British school of Cairo in the 1950s, whose school emblem proudly claimed ‘Ducit amor patriae’ or ‘Love of our country guide us’, (‘which country’ is a moot point),105 Ahmed would experience the nearest thing to a transplanted English public school in Egypt. As a child she remembers reading Enid Blyton (141), Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows (138) and The Way of All Flesh (143), describing her childhood awareness of things as being “at home in English books, English ideas, Jane Austen, Dickens, Winnie the Pooh, George Eliot, Adam Bede” (171). Meanwhile in Nervous Conditions, Tambu immerses herself in “Nyasha’s various and extensive library”, where she samples “everything from Enid Blyton to the Brontë sisters” (94), The Wind in the Willows (96), and Little Women (180). The essential reading list for all three girls seems to include Kenneth Grahame and Enid Blyton, followed at a later stage by at least one ‘major’ woman writer, and of course Shakespeare (appearing in The Book of Not); but one does not ‘read’ Shakespeare, rather Shakespeare looms in their literary background rather like God. Leila, for example, is “taught” Shakespeare along with Composition, (reading the master of English literature while mastering the English language) from a Mr Beard who was known for being very tough and whose duty it was to cane the boys (147). Meanwhile Tambu’s major educational trauma occurs at the Sacred Heart College when her right to the much-coveted trophy for English literature is passed over unfairly in favour of a white schoolmate –the same schoolmate who has stolen Tambu’s copy of, significantly, Julius Caesar.
For Tambu, who is finally able to study in peace in a household that respects her books and study times, and with the help of Nyasha’s example, reading gives her the first approximate image of “of a young woman of the world” (94). She is motivated to keep herself ‘clean and tidy’, this time, not in the spirit of organisation and productivity of the Shona matriarchs but the clean and tidy domesticity of missionary education and colonial discourse. 106 She is encouraged to organise her mind, and comes to read of things that she “had always known existed in other worlds although the knowledge was vague” (94). Reading allows Tambu to construct a ladder of social mobility for herself, out of the homestead to the world of self-determination, or using Tambu’s synecdoches: away from “her brother and the mealies”, her “mother and the latrine and the wedding” (182), to a wider world of opportunity granted by the loved-hated representatives of European powers in Africa, and the institutionalised tentacles of the much-loved ‘Western’ canon. For of course the British or ‘Western’ in general was never simply a ‘hated’ presence in the colonies. Tambu’s and Leila’s reading is as much a passion and a salvation as it is a systematic educational requirement. As Tambu writes of her desperation to “escape” her mother’s “entrapment” (1), Leila writes about the “deeper, more obscure dread” that she would end up trapped in her mother’s life (20-21). Literature offers them their first systematic, solitary intellectual ‘escape’, the conscious realisation of the possibilities and potentials created by the imagination.
If “the shaping of autobiographical narrative, and particularly of oral remembering is a basic part of cultural learning in childhood” (Chamberlain and Thompson 8); and if most of the books that shape our imagination most forcefully are those read in childhood, then these child narrators touch upon vital intersections of aural and read, reception and narration, life writing and memory. The child narrators then describe a vital period of character-formation. As Guérard put it: “World Literature begins, not in the graduate school, but in the nursery” (Guérard 4). Elsewhere: “Cosmopolitanism begins in the nursery, with Aesop, Brer Rabbit, the Grimm Brothers, Andersen, Pinocchio; it continues through adolescence, with Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas; it reaches the masses, with the Bible and Les Misérables” (qtd. in Vaugeois 63). The reading material noted here portrays the formative landscape of the mind. The ‘children’s’ books, like those by Enid Blyton, Kenneth Grahame or A. A. Milne, signal the early inculcation of an acquired new ethos. Literature or reading that makes the child-protagonists transcend their local landscapes opens up their minds to the world and makes their future resistance individual and global –even as the readers remain in their bedrooms. To extend a not very original analogy: if the connection to the land through orality, textual or lived experience makes the protagonists’ ‘earthly’, literature opens them up to new horizons and makes them worldly.107 As Damrosch puts it:
The borders of world literature are formed at once on a global scale and at the most individual level, made and remade in the shifting relations between world-wide capital flows, national publishing industries and university systems, and the personal preferences of individual readers, who may be drawn to very different works for all sorts of reasons. The ultimate boundary of world literature is found in the interplay of works in a reader’s mind, reshaped anew whenever a reader picks up one book in place of another, begins to read, and is drawn irresistibly into a new world. (“Frames for World Literature” 513-14)
Yet by reading the texts, the texts themselves are also validated as world literature. By reading and commenting on what these texts have meant to them with the full force of their own local cultures –written and oral– these girls make their cultures part of the critical perspective necessary to deal with these once ‘Western’ classics. If Tambu reads Julius Caesar, a text written by an Englishman partly about the struggle of (originally) Roman generals over their southern African empire, then by reading into it her own betrayal under empire, as a black Rhodesian student whose academic merit (in English) has been discredited in favour of a white student, the text’s status is further validated as an example of world literature.
In the works dealt with, the ‘reading lists’ of ‘masterpieces’ are emblematic of the spread and transplanting of centralised education systems from first-world countries to others, making the ‘Western’ classics at once familiar and new. Read and taught in the colonies in the same way as they were in their host cultures, and regardless of the political relations between metropolis and colony, the children’s ‘classics’ offered a plethora of iconic images that would become and in some cases still are familiar to English-reading children around the world.108 The references to The Wind in the Willows in particular seem apt, since Grahame’s work eulogises the natural (English) landscape as a site for striving for and contemplating the luxurious “country of the mind” –the phrase is Grahame’s (Thum).109
This was not a one-way circulation route. The education (and reading lists) received by Tambu in 1960s-80s Rhodesia near the Nyamarira, or Ahmed in 1940s-50s Egypt near the Nile may have fired their imaginations for an English landscape and English ‘lifestyle’, as they at least conceived it, but their counterparts near the Thames had long gone to the West Indies with Treasure Island (1881-1883), to the dark ‘jungle’ with The Jungle Books (1894), and to Africa and the North Pole with Doctor Doolittle (1920-50). Such readers were flying fighter planes in Germany and France in World War I but were also visiting Brazil and Peru in peacetime with Captain Biggles (1932-68). Even in 1988 after most colonies had gained their independence, and about the same time as Nervous Conditions and A Border Passage were published, a young English girl called Matilda first discovers the joy of reading (in the privacy of her bedroom) by travelling to Other places.110 In parallel to the girls ‘overseas’ short decades before, Matilda’s vision of the world is widened by travelling “on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad”, “to Africa with Ernest Hemingway” (not France, Spain or the US) and “to India with Rudyard Kipling” (Dahl 15). The relation of the girl-protagonist to landscape in Roald Dahl’s Matilda incidentally compares well with Ahmed and Dangarembga’s (very different) texts. In Matilda too, the landscape offers a parallel telescopic movement from the wide untamed ‘English’ countryside to socially-emblematic private gardens, to the seclusion of the bedroom, the storytelling circle of her teacher, and so on. Although written as a children’s book, issues of colonialism, race and class are suppressed within it, such as the references to property, especially suburban property and ivy-covered Victorian houses, and disposable income, but also to Britain’s world relations and its settler and non-settler colonies, specifically to the US, Australia, India and Africa. Matilda’s creator himself had had first-hand exposure to the colonies not least as an RAF pilot during World War II but also as an employee of Shell posted in Africa, and possibly, as a spy.
In a primary reading, local literature that is based on its writers’ own ‘provincialisation’ of the world (in Chakrabarty’s words,) whether covert or overt in the text, encourages its (infant) readers to open up to new horizons, and at least potentially makes them more knowledgeable of other contexts. By travelling outside of local contexts the texts themselves become world texts, read by new non-local readers around the world, who ‘provincialise’ these new cultures and respond to them with the knowledge of their own local cultures.
As the girl protagonists proceed into stages of advanced education, the landscapes reflect the different experiences of colonisation in Egypt and Zimbabwe, and the relationship of the ‘British-empowered’ members of each society to the colonial state. Much less violent than in Zimbabwe, the British occupation in Egypt was not accompanied by a change in the larger community’s religion and language, and despite the manifest racism in judicial and bureaucratic matters, issues of race did not include such nefarious legalisations as pass laws, segregated land or forbidden marital relations. Coming from an admittedly privileged milieu Ahmed can thus speak of being ‘at home’ in all things English (141). When she reaches Girton College to pursue her undergraduate degree Leila feels she has arrived somewhere very familiar, where all her framed spaces are comparable to those she inhabited before, from the green landscape to the closed women’s community or “the harem perfected” as she calls it. She writes: “Life at Girton was in fundamental ways deeply continuous with the assumptions, beliefs, and ways of living that had hitherto framed the world as I knew it” (180). Of course, she adds, “this was ‘England’, a place with its red roofs111 and woods and fogs and rain that I’d already lived in, in my mind, through all those years of losing myself in English books” (180). The pursuits too were the same: “the meditative, inward mood of Girton, for instance –this place of books, gardens, quiet, trees– was very like that of Ain Shams” (180). Even the natural landscape complete with bird song and small animals seems familiar (italics mine):
“I felt at home…[T]o this day, probably because of Girton, I love the English landscape around Cambridge as much as I love any landscape –even Egypt’s. Different as they are, for me they share an underlying similarity. Flat, dark earth, rich, fertile, furrowed fields cracked and parched –even in Cambridge– in a dry summer…[T]he look of the earth and trees and the shapes of leaves and the shadows they cast on the ground were deeply familiar –and [I heard]… again familiar birds, some of which I recognized from childhood in Cairo, birds going back and forth in their migrations between Europe and Africa.” (183)
Setting aside for a moment the dubious physical similarity found between the Cambridge and Cairene landscapes, it is significant that British presence in Egypt as experienced by Leila in her childhood schooling and reading makes the English landscape outside of Egyptian territory when she finally arrives there a familiar ‘homely’ place; her alienation on Egyptian territory happens primarily because of the 1952 revolution which officially signals the end of British presence. Finding herself out of place particularly as a ‘black’ migrant in the Enoch Powell period, Leila’s memoir attempts to reconstruct what it may mean to be both ‘at home’ and out of place at the same time.
This is a far cry from Tambu’s own feelings which reflect a very different experience of British colonisation. As mentioned before, when she first arrives at her uncle’s house on the mission, the property of England in Zimbabwe, Tambu’s framed spaces change dramatically. The natural landscape becomes cultivated; her chores change from family labour to studying and reading; her sleeping space changes too from a kitchen floor to a bedroom of her own. As she moves away again, this time to the Sacred Heart College where she has received a scholarship, the landscape changes more drastically (this is developed in the sequel). Her aunt’s front garden almost explodes in size to become a wide boulevard of trees and neatly organised avenues. The “majestically spacious” grounds, what seemed like “hundreds of acres of land”, manage to intimidate even the usually overconfident Babamukuru (196). The carefully laid-out grounds (including netball and tennis courts) enclose the “bright and shimmering white” buildings, balancing a strict control of the elements with the odd exotic indulgence:
We drove….to a thicket of conifers that seemed to signify that within this rich kingdom we had left the province of the physical and entered the realm of mental activity, because beyond the trees was a roundabout at the top of which stood the school buildings….The roundabout itself was serenely green with a lavish, permanently moist lawn, the latter relieved in places carefully selected so that the green would not be too monotonous, by flowering shrubs. Delicate mimosa fluffed puffs of yellow and silvery white, robust poinsettia splashed patches of crimson and peach against the green. Two swans cruised elegantly across a pond in the middle of the lawn and later I found there shoals of goldfish, goldfish which were not a pale imitation but definitely gold. Their rich, ruddy glow flitted in and out of water weeds in the company of more exotic species that shot flashes of red and blue and silver through the gold. I was enchanted, so obviously so that Nyasha thought she ought to remind me that I had come to school and not on holiday. (196-7)
At this point Tambu feels she has been admitted into heaven. Then: “Anticipation. Disappointment. I looked and looked and searched carefully through the crowd, but I could not find a single black face…except of course for the porters…carrying trunks, but none of them offered to carry mine” (198). This lush wealth is not intended of course for Tambu, although the wishful thought always hovers at the back of imagination that it might have been hers in a different linear History. She is then shown her new sleeping space and once again the framed space marks a new social grouping. The bedroom she had shared with Nyasha changes into a dormitory, at once a less private and more vulnerable layout than the bedroom in her uncle’s house, but also one located in the ‘African dormitory’ which is segregated from the white students (along with, the sequel makes clear, the ‘African bathrooms’). Tambu is on African territory but not ‘at home’; there is a home in this paradise for everything from ‘Roman’ arches to “exotic” species of fish, but not “a single black face”, except, poignantly, in the labour. Her learning spaces change too. Nyasha’s bookshelves which had previously seemed so well-stocked now become overwhelmed by a large library, clean, bright, quiet and stocked with hundreds of books, the most Tambu had ever seen in one place, and it is here for the first time, in the potential ‘world’ that is bigger than (but certainly not unrelated to) the nation and the individual, that Tambu feels ‘at home’. These new framed spaces are completely different from what Tambu has been used to, and show a hierarchal gulf between the colonised and the coloniser that is simply not portrayed in Leila Ahmed’s memoir.
Nervous Conditions stops before Tambu has reached her full intellectual or critical ‘maturity’ although she shoulders the responsibility of adulthood much earlier than Leila. Leila’s adult reading takes her one step further, makes her ‘aware’ of the connectedness of things and the importance of ethical responsibility towards a common humanity. Leila’s maturity is fostered by the critical and comparative stance she acquires from intense further reading: European literature, French critical theory and American feminism; readings on the ‘Arab’ world and Egypt, on Islam and oral cultures, as well as on history and politics, imperialism and race. It takes the narrator of A Border Passage the reading of a lifetime to come to terms with being at home in cultures that seem at times antagonistic by understanding that ‘national’ culture, individual culture, is plural, not this or that but this and that.
As ‘classics’ of many canons, books (whether for children or adults), and consumed avidly within the privacy of the readers’ bedrooms, sometimes even in precise defiance of their parents’ wishes (as Nyasha reads D H Lawrence), depicted a canonical ‘world’ landscape that was remote and yet, in its human values and themes, often very familiar. As the narrators’ mature into their bicultural political selves, their reception of texts changes, from seeing in their reading material aspects of ‘native’ and ‘adopted’ culture, to seeing in it a set of antagonistic cultures, and to eventually reading into it an understanding of the contrapuntal rather than the hierarchal relation of cultures.
One of the factors that unites Dangarembga and Ahmed as authors in their particular and respective gender struggles is the view from the ‘overseas colonies’, and the gender struggle resonates with other political issues of national liberation and post-colonialism. Bicultural by education, these intellectual protagonists portrayed in the works both belong and do not belong to their communities, but stand at a (manipulative) distance to produce analysis and critique.112 The women’s intellectual landscapes range wider and wider, from the sole individual suffering unequal educational opportunities as a girl in a village in Zimbabwe to the ‘nervous condition’ suffered by girls like Nyasha who have ‘read too much’ about imperialism, to a wider Africa in which racism, colonialism and sexism are integral identity issues, to a wider world in which they are global issues. In the same manner, a solitary and privileged girl playing in a garden in Egypt grows to suffer under a corrupt Egyptian government that nationalises her family’s fortunes, proceeds to engage with the theme of loneliness of immigration, and then issues of religion in men and women’s communities, and so on. The critique may be perceived as moving subnationally and then transnationally in concentric circles with the individual at the centre through larger and larger affiliative clusters of individual, nation and globe –or in a reverse movement inwards. The centre-point of the ‘individual’ then is also, and not without irony, the centre-point of the globe.
From Individual Woman to Global Women
The global community of women shows itself in many ways, and creates informal private spheres for bonding and relationships which are often constructed under normative public frameworks. The opportunities for close or particular female relationships can appear in diverse institutions of female-dominated spheres, with the polemics of and causes for such companionship changing over time and from one community to another.
The transnational community for women embodied in the (not always agreed-upon) core ‘values’ of feminism including the call for women’s rights as human rights has offered a potential form of ‘bonding’ which has manifested in various trans-local institutions and groups around the world, often with the words ‘global’ or ‘regional’ in their names or in their agendas. Groups have also networked in the international community under, for example, the UN Decade on Women, seeking wider forums and platforms for dialogue and representation.
The main problem faced by a global vision of women’s issues is that the acknowledgement of a hugely spread, established, and diversely-formed movement that has had to work in its various time-spaces to address fundamental issues uniting all women threatens the viability of targeting and engaging with sub-global, subnational particulars (a concern Ahmed herself discusses in A Border Passage). This tension remains in feminist studies despite the critical theory which has emerged in contexts of black feminism and third-world feminism, and which has ranged from concepts of ‘sisterhood’ for social change (hooks) to socialist ‘solidarity’ against class and racial particulars (Mohanty 1991; 1997) and to ‘empathy’ in comparative studies (Lionnet 1995).113 Subnational particulars work to complicate and blur a ‘universal’ code of ‘women’s rights as human rights’, causing the certainly undesirable and very real risk of eliminating dialogue all together, or on the grassroots level, eliminating the possibilities of reform or relief (See Jayawardena; Yuval-Davis 1997).
Complications of bridging local and global contexts include, for example, when women’s organisations in developing countries or minority groups decide to ‘put off’ the call for woman’s rights until the situation of their countries or communities has stabilised, or choose to ‘link’ their demands to issues of ‘wider’ relevance.114 In other situations some women’s groups reason that certain liberational discourses are either simply not relevant to their agendas for reform, or that identification with such discourses might actually impair the groups’ cause within society for reasons of social taboos. In postcolonial contexts global linkage has also historically been problematic because feminism has often been tied up in complex and different ways with the movement for national independence, and therefore it uncomfortably and uneasily straddles the divide in nationalist discourse. In the heyday of the national liberation movements the feminist activists might be represented in the private sphere as the ‘inner’ strength of the ‘nation’ that is traditional and essential and has been untouched by the coloniser, but who pragmatically need to act within the public sphere (the infrastructure of modern government that must be Europeanised to keep up with the coloniser) as protestors, soldiers, workers, teachers, etc. The nationalist argument concerning the position of women in ‘modern’ society in such states is often posited not on identity but on a difference with the perceived forms of cultural modernity in the West (Chatterjee The Nation and its Fragments 117). Once direct foreign rule ends, the issue fades in the background of public debate in the now-independent states, and simply fails to arouse the same degree of public passion that it had a few decades before (Chatterjee The Nation and its Fragments 116).
Within many postcolonial states, the feminist movement in the public sphere, which after independence now calls for more direct ‘public’ rights of citizenship, comes across a nationalist discourse within the state that, at least in Egypt and Zimbabwe, all-too-easily posits (or dismisses) ‘feminism’ as a ‘Western construct’. Calls for women’s rights are then rejected as ‘Western’, in the sense, if ‘sense’ is the word, of the same ‘Western’ powers that had robbed the state of its autonomy before; and therefore such calls are claimed to be an imposition if not outright dangerous, and are refuted with a ‘precolonial traditionalist’ discourse even more limiting than before. Ironically, problematically, and precisely because the clean-cut division of any aspect of a culture into ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ is reductive and simplistic, these governments’ responses to feminist activists have often been themselves moulded on colonial preconceptions (which in turn were globally spread because of the wide networks of empire) of what exactly being ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’, ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ means.
Nevertheless, it is precisely feminist reactions to these hurdles, the consistent attempts by feminist activists, academics, literary figures, etc., around the world to sustain networks of resistance along trans-local lines that offer cause for optimism. Such attempts, because of the global linkage they assume via discourses of modernity, human rights, and the various ideological premises of different religious sects, are still attacked in their various respective communities for ‘imitating Europeans slavishly’, and for trying to impose ‘foreign’ ideas on local national communities in an act of either self-imposed neo-colonialism or colonial conspiracy. (This accusation is then often further supported with the statement that many of such groups are funded by institutions based in the West). The answer has been to interpret the local, globally, that is, for example, not to justify feminism by supposedly global or universal religious precepts, but to justify local religious precepts by using global feminism.
In Zimbabwe, for example, as Anna and Ezra Chitando’s “Weaving Sisterhood: Women African Theologians and Creative Writers” shows:
The call for African women to adopt critical approaches to the Bible is a result of the fact that many men appeal to it in order to justify oppressive patriarchal practices…Many African men cite the Bible to defend the oppression of women claiming that this is consistent with the divine will. Furthermore, they accuse African women who champion the rights of women as being uncritical imitators of ‘decadent European/American culture’. (29)
Such women theologians have been inspired by their African creative writer “sisters” such as Dangarembga to revisit and condemn the texts and rituals –both Christian and traditional African– used to oppress women. Christian African feminists and the feminist revisions of religious narratives then allow women a space in the (now public) sphere of political religion which they might be able to subvert for their purposes (Yuval-Davis Gender & Nation 65).
The efforts of women to construct and engage with gender-sensitive religious discourse in Islamic feminism can be placed in a comparable situation. As an intellectual voice, Ahmed, like the field of gender studies from within which she writes, is muted compared to traditional mainstream Arabic and Islamic approaches. Like the Chitandos quoted above, Ahmed in an early article had angrily complained of the attacks on feminism from conservative Islamists working within or outside the West:
“[T]he Islamic movement…designates feminism among all the aspects of the West and of Westernization that it generally abhors, as most specifically worthy of its hatred….The …Middle East is…justified in its anger at the Western world's aggression, bigotry, and exploitation. But to target feminism as ‘Western’ and as particularly repugnant and evil is to skilfully exploit that anger in the service of confusion, as if justice and the idea that it must be extended to all humankind, wherever such ideas arise, can be called ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’”. (“Western Ethnocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem” 532-33)
Today, however, Ahmed is an established academic (she is at the time of writing Professor of Divinity in Harvard University) and is considered a founding figure of the relatively new and quickly expanding field of ‘Islamic feminism’. Ahmed’s key text Women and Gender in Islam (1992) was translated into Arabic (sponsored by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Culture) in 1999.115
In much the same way as there is fertile common ground used through various power structures for oppression –empire, religious institutions, states, etc.– then there is also fertile ground for common ideals of women’s resistance. Creative writers from around the globe have invariably resorted to such common ground to discuss biological, social, political and regional concerns –and the common imperative to narrate. As Tambu and Ahmed make clear: it was neither one ‘man’ nor one ‘sex’ who did the oppressing, nor is the world divided clearly into ‘oppressors’ and ‘oppressed’. Texts that have been read or taught across the wide spectrum of women’s studies can enable cross-cultural meeting points, conditioned by specificities, which enable the kind of women’s philanthropy initiated by the ‘harem-community’ to be compared to that offered by the béguinage/begijnhof. This is not an attempt at either universalisation or globalisation or, more damningly, generalisation, but a way to appreciate the overlap between women’s issues and (shifting) political and cultural identities on a global scale, and to counter political and cultural identities that are often still gendered. “Rather than a simplistic melding of identitarian political categories”, a trans-local view of gender and resistance makes “a statement about the complexity of identity…and of transnational identities…where multiple forces come to bear on the formation of an individual and her perceived place in the world” (Parker and Young 10). Rather than the idea of women’s solidarity in gender becoming a preconceived constructed category under which individual cases can be subsumed, gender is one category among many to which individual women resort to achieve solidarity, not as a formulaic and unchanging category but, like the concept of the ‘nation’ itself and intrinsically connected to it, “a viable space for political self-expression” (Boehmer “Tropes of Yearning and Dissent” 175). In the same manner, a global ‘gender’ also complicates individual ideals of equality, fairness and justice with a gender-sensitive vision of a global political consciousness and agency.
The marvellously arresting first line in Nervous Conditions: “I was not sorry when my brother died” sums up the hatred and frustration felt by anyone whose entire ambitions had been constantly and consistently thwarted by one person, but by the first paragraph the narrator voice implies that it was neither one person who did the hating, nor was it one person who did the oppressing, nor indeed, are the groups of people in either camp divided simply into those who hate and those who oppress. ‘We are always plural’, Leila Ahmed says, ‘this and that’ (25), and this plurality comes from an awareness of the convergence of traditions, cultures and histories within us. Tambu is an African woman, a young Shona peasant girl, a Rhodesian, a Zimbabwean, a student, a missionary student and a black student receiving a colonial education. At her most global, her most irate, her most passionate moments (and the taboo-breaking assertion that she did not regret her brother’s death is one of those) the narrator’s voice defines itself from within its ‘femaleness’, which is the strongest point of contact of all these convergences. By the first paragraph Tambu is quick to single out the female element. For even though the novel is about the death of Tambu’s brother and many other events: a huge range of histories, whether private, national, regional and global, Tambu says that the novel is really about the women’s histories: about her “escape and Lucia’s”, about her “mother’s and Maiguru’s entrapment”, and about Nyasha’s attempt at rebellion (1). Only afterwards does Tambu begin to locate some of the ‘convergences’ or, as she calls them, ‘the facts as [she] remember[s] them’ (1), exploring the layers of her identity as a woman in and of that time and place. So in an endless elliptical movement Tambu tells her individual story as a woman in the same time as she tells a global story, and an endlessly growing global story, of women.
Resisting patriarchy at one moment or the other many of the women in these texts find themselves uniting even if unintentionally and at least in sympathy against the solid barrier of chauvinism. As Tambu and the women sleep in a smoky kitchen, plough the land manually because the men are too lazy to bring out the machines, pay for school fees themselves because the father has spent the money elsewhere, mend the leaky roof of the homestead because the men cannot be bothered, Ahmed’s women have to live within stultifying religious regulations defined or ratified by men, from marital laws to social taboos. Bonded in these collectives, boundaried by social constructs, many a female member must have thought as Tete does, one of the family matriarchs in Nervous Conditions, shaking her head and laughing conspiratorially with Tambu’s aunts at the goings-on in the men’s family meetings: “Those men, aiwa! Those men!” (150).
If while narrating gender the women protagonists in Nervous Conditions and A Border Passage tell of how they became rather than were born women, individual formation is also a way of narrating how these figures became a certain community, and as such, their narration is a way of clarifying the fluid and linked boundaries of diverse identity categories. As Tambu learns how to be all her other constructed identities: black, African, Zimbabwean, Rhodesian, colonised, self-colonised, missionary-educated or traditionally brought up on the stories of the land, Ahmed too has to acquire what it means to be Muslim, Arab, Egyptian and black or non-white. Rather than ‘represent’ this or that nation, their narratives of formation locate them as individual heroines trying to grasp, come to terms with and then transcend the limitations placed upon them by their time and space, and illustrate the meeting points or cross-currents in their individual identity formation, their communities’ identity formation, and both their individual and national formation within a larger world. Ahmed’s succinct and lyrical: “we are always plural. Not either this or that, but this and that” (25) ably sums up this journey of coming to terms with the plurality of identities that makes up the self, (even if, by the nature of the protagonists’ multiculturalism, creative talent and migrations, their narrated ‘selves’ seem more plural than others). By transcending homogenous, univocal representations, the protagonists can define individual awareness and global agency as a way of being in the world. A gender-sensitive world text in a postcolonial context presents precisely that “emergent, prefigurative category that is concerned with a form of cultural dissensus and alterity, where non-consensual terms of affiliation and articulation may be established on the grounds of historical trauma” (Bhabha Location of Culture 17), but also the acknowledgment, as Said put it in a wider context, that “narratives of emancipation and enlightenment in their strongest form [are] also narratives of integration not separation, the stories of people who had been excluded from the main group but who [are] now fighting for a place in it” [italics in original] (Culture and Imperialism XXX). Feminism in its many approaches and practices, from grassroots activism to the academic and creative practice offers a politically-charged perspective that reacts to exclusion. From a gender-in-world-literature perspective, being ‘plural’ may be a starting point for conceptualising ‘global’ gender concerns that take strength, in a comparative context, from both similarity and difference, specificity and universality. It is at this point that Brandes’s telescope can expand to its largest vision again.