By Nouran Maamoun
“I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
With these words, the painter Edvard Munch described the feelings that inspired his celebrated painting “The Scream of Nature”, or “The Scream”. These were also the words with which the late Radwa Ashour started the first page of her final book “The Scream”.
Ashour’s long-awaited and much-celebrated book is the second part of her autobiography. Having been published posthumously, the book has a special place in the hearts of those who knew her, loved her and admired her.
Ashour’s words in every book of hers, but mostly in “The Scream”, are indeed worth every bit of admiration and love she receives from her fans.
The book starts with a very detailed description of the writer’s illness, her long struggle with disease is the scene across the whole book as it was the major issue in her life. Yet, when she speaks of her illness, she gives a very thorough description of every detail. Her details are very practical, and there is not even a hint of self-pity, either in the content, or in the language.
In the beginning, the book is not in the usual artistic, poetic language and style in which Ashour usually writes. There are few metaphors and a lot of facts, which is probably the result of the overwhelming reality of her health condition.
When she speaks of her journey with her illness, readers could feel the exhaustion, the running, the fighting. One cannot help but wonder at the amount of strength this amazing woman had to face all this and with all the bravery that she did, especially when she explains her illness and admits its consequences. She knew it was stealing her life away, but still she talked about it like it was the most common of things.
The style of the book is quite unique; it is not pure narrative, as she speaks to two people, her imaginary readers, a male and a female. She directs her words to them sometimes and then wanders off to narrating bits of her life, and then goes back to her two friends in a comment or a question or a bit of explanation.
It is evident from the various topics of the book that she had nothing in particular to tell her readers – she simply goes back and forth in events, and jumps from one story to the another. If this was anyone else but Ashour, this might have been a disadvantage for the book, but with her it is exciting to be in the mind of such a great woman and travel down her own personal memory lane. They way she writes about everything makes one forget that she is gone; it is as if she never left us.
The book takes the reader deep into Ashour’s life. It is admirable how open she is about everything – her fears, her pain, her dreams, her failures, and sometimes, though not very often, her successes.
In this book, Ashour is not trying to deliver a certain image of herself. It is as if she is chatting with some old friends or some of her beloved students. She speaks of her worries and fears, but admits that she is trying to hide them from her family, so as not to add to their burdens. Her family is the star of the book. The strength and support of her son and her husband are evidently very much felt and appreciated by Ashour.
Tamim, her son, is everywhere in the book and in her thoughts. She speaks of him in every situation – in politics, art, music, travel, and in tough situations, doctor’s visits, and all the stages of her illness. She never forgets him, and he never leaves. She makes her readers fall more in love with her little family.
If readers open this book expecting stories of events and huge moments, they are in for a surprise. Ashour cherished the small moments, the domestic approach, the tiny stories of which life is made. For her, as she frequently says, these small moments are the ones that form the bigger picture of history and society.
Such a domestic approach has been evident in most of Ashour’s books. When she speaks of Granada or Palestine, politics and major events are there, but they are not the stars of the show. It is the people, always the people, who are the focus of the story, and history is told through them.
At the mention of Palestine, it is remarkable how Ashour never forgets about this cause, that home that she never visited. And yet it was this home that shaped her character, her stories, and even her life, as Mourid Al-Barghouthi, Radwa’s husband, a celebrated Palestinian poet and writer, suffered persecution and even exile from Egypt for so many years for being a Palestinian, as did her son.
In one of her chapters, she speaks of a complicated surgery she had, and in these little hallucinations from sedation, she said she dreamt of Palestine, like it was always present in the back of her mind, a constant reminder of a cause she was dedicated to all her life.
In every page, readers are reminded of the amount of strength this woman showed during the stages of her illness. At the time of the said surgery, when she was interviewed by a medical magazine, and when asked to describe her state, her answer was: “I am lucky”. Of all the things she could have felt or said, she chose to feel lucky. She explains that by saying she had the opportunity to get proper medical care abroad, that she was surrounded by her family and friends and that she was still alive. After the surgery, the first words she uttered were “I am perfect”.
Politics may not be as strongly present in this book as it was in the first part of her autobiography “Athqel min Radwa” (“Heavier than Radwa”), but it is by no means forgotten. If Palestine was the cause and the case that remained at the back of Ashour’s mind at all times, then Egypt was the cause that occupied every other inch of herself, her mind and soul.
In one of her chapters, she speaks of a CT scan she had to undertake to determine if the tumour she had removed had returned, and in all the frenzy of such a terrifying moments, she said she wandered off, while her head was still inside the CT scan, and she kept wondering if Egypt was stuck in a box like her head was stuck in that metal box of the scan. She then retreats from this, saying that Egypt is by no means an old sick woman, but a strong dynamic state full of life and youth that never withers.
One might think that a book that revolved mainly about two topics, illness and troubling political events, would be a dark, depressing book, but this is the furthest thing from the truth. Despite everything she was going through, as she wrote this book, Ashour was never a dark soul, never heavy hearted and she never lost her sarcastic self and humorous character.
She sometimes shows the linguist and culture enthusiast in her as she strays away from the topic to explain and discuss an Arabic word or proverb, the beauty of the language, and the cultural references in it. Many of the anecdotes and the stories she tells are not her own, but her friends’. She often speaks of their achievements and their good qualities, and celebrates their successes as if they were her own.
One of the qualities that can always be traced in the female heroines of Ashour’s books is their love of nature and their passion for plants and trees. In “The Scream”, we see that the heroines actually get this quality from their author. She dedicates a large part of the chapters to describing nature, and the details of certain trees or plants that caught her eye at some place or the other. She speaks with a passion that shows how important nature has always been in her life.
For Ashour, nature is not just scenery, flowers, or fruit; she regards plants and trees as the strongest form of resistance. In the chapter where she speaks of her late mother-in-law, among the many heart-warming stories of her, she describes the woman’s passion for plants and her care for them as her way of defeating the Israeli occupation, as a means of victory; victory of life against death, of creation against damage, of the will to survive against the intent to destroy.
One of the longest chapters in the book is the chapter in which Ashour speaks of the amazing women in her life. She speaks of her mother, grandmother, aunt, cousins, and nanny.
In the stories of each of these women, Ashour highlights the struggles they all had to face, their suffering, and above all their strength.
Near the end of the book, readers are reminded of the sad reality of her death, as they stumble upon a couple of blank, or almost blank papers. These are ideas she had and never had the time to write. These are stories she never got to tell. These were the last thoughts of this amazing woman, which we will sadly never know.
But this is not how the book ends. It is as if the ever-optimistic Ashour refuses her last message to be a blank page. In the final chapter of “The Scream”, she speaks of a celebration of three young brides; she speaks of family; of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. She speaks of the children and the youth and the hope that comes with them.
With Ashour, life never ends. It is never too dark, tomorrow always comes, the children are always there, and the mothers are forever present.
Again and again she repeats: “Sending messages of despair to others is an immoral act”. Ashour’s last scream is not a scream of agony, not a scream of despair, but as always a scream of hope and motivation. A loud and clear message that goes on forever. With her, the story never ends, and every ending is a new beginning.