Home > Uncategorized > Reading The Story of Zahra

Reading The Story of Zahra

At first, this novel seemed like another depressing expose of the exploitation of women in a society that gives them no power in public or private realms.  It seemed to dovetail with the recent story on All Things Considered about peace negotiations in Afghanistan and the likelihood that women’s rights will be the first thing bargained away so that western troops can get out of the country.  What excruciating choices!  Why does so much of the world seek to squelch the potential of half its population?

That unanswerable question aside, The Story of Zahra has taken a fascinating turn.  It portrays the experience of mental illness in peace and war.  In peacetime, it is excruciating, and Hanan al-Shaykh addresses its impact on the family as well as the individual.  In war, it’s as if the world becomes mentally ill, and Zahra bizarre thoughts and behavior are somehow normalized; she can function. 

I was deep into reading about the wartime part when a fellow seminar participant called to me at the cafe where I was sitting.  She had to walk right up to me to get my attention; I was so engrossed in the novel as to become oblivious to my surroundings.  I felt guilty about seeming unfriendly, but we had a nice chat afterwards.  Can’t wait to see where this story goes!  Nowhere good, I’m pretty sure.

Could I teach this novel?  I don’t know.  In a way it fulfills many negative stereotypes of the Middle East–conflict, oppression of women, etc.  And there’s a lot of sex/rape to deal with.  I’m not sure it’s worth it, but we’ll see how things unfold.

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