- Writing the Silenced BodyNotes on the Flesh
There is a daunting scarcity of illness narratives and even fewer fictional texts that include a disabled female heroine in Arab literary works. Disability features in various texts as a subtheme, part of the narrative but never the narrative itself. As a scholar of literature with some research experience in the field of disability studies, I have always struggled to find such works, including memoirs, that feature disabled protagonists. I was diagnosed with MS as an undergraduate student. During the period of my dissertation research, I was often disappointed and felt isolated and lonely when I could not find companion texts that spoke to me about disability from the perspective of Arab women. Born to a Palestinian mother and a Kuwaiti father, I grew up a hybrid, always occupying a space between two identities. When MS entered the picture, I realized that I would be fluctuating between periods of disability and “able-bodiedness.” My body would not adhere to one identity. I was not always able-bodied, and I was not always visibly disabled. As I pursued my graduate studies, my MS progressed and so did my desire to find a thread of hope— a place where I could find fragments of myself.
In her phenomenally accessible Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed borrows from Donna Haraway’s notion of “companion species” to coin the term companion texts. She points out that we need to find our companion texts to survive: “A companion text is a text whose company enabled you to proceed on a path less trodden. Such texts might spark a moment of revelation. . . . they might share a feeling or give you resources to make sense of something beyond your grasp” (Ahmed 2017: 16). My companion texts were Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals and Nancy Mairs’s Carnal Acts. These feminist women writers and scholars gave my life a sense of hope, a sense [End Page 79] of meaning, and a sense of belonging— a revelation that I was not alone, that my existence within my body was not altogether different from other women’s experiences of their bodies.
While I was grateful to have found these writers, what was— and still is— missing was a more Arab experience of disability in literary works, fiction and nonfiction alike. This point has also been highlighted by Abir Hamdar in The Female Suffering Body, her monograph on the disabled female body in Arabic literature. Hamdar (2014: 3) asks: “Why does Arabic literature cast a veil of silence . . . over female physical illness and disability? . . . Even when the Arabic novel and short story does [sic] represent female illness and disability, they remain spectral, barely visible presences at the margin of the text.” Hamdar provides many explanations for this, but the one that stands out to me is that “Arab culture continues even today to valorize the health of women as a signifier of the health of the family, the society, and the nation as a whole” (130). Women’s bodies are regarded as part of the collective, not individualized, and any lack may be interpreted as a moral failure.
In the course of my training in literary studies, I explored many texts, including representations of madwomen in literature, and realized that writing the disabled female Arab body was necessary. Many fictional texts explore mental illness and madness, but hardly any revolve around the Arab woman’s disabled body. This was a body that had been silenced and marginalized, and I felt that it was part of my academic duty to bring it to the center. My personal life was now calling for a revolution. I began writing Notes on the Flesh, a collection of stories that fall between fiction and nonfiction.
The stories reflect, in part, my own experiences with disability and trauma, while the rest reflect various experiences of disability, some of which are explicitly gendered. Set in Kuwait, these stories center on characters who have failed to perform normalcy. Their voices are weaved into the narrative to bring disability to the forefront. The experiences of disability and illness are diverse, yet they have the same stigmatizing effect on...