x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A letter to Frantz about the new post-colonialism

They say a book should not be judged by its cover, but that's not the case with the Arab novel.

May I call you Frantz? Or do you prefer Monsieur Fanon? Whatever. I'm not going to get into that. Let me break the news to you: your struggle in Martinique and Algeria has proven to be a failure. I can't rephrase this or say it in a subtle manner, because there is no other way to say it. You might be content with the fact that your writing has influenced postcolonial studies and certainly inspired anti-colonial liberation movements. But the psychopathological effect of colonisation still exists, and it is certainly contagious. The illness has infected cities that have never been officially colonised. Never mind, I don't want to shock you with the abnormality of the behaviour that I see everyday. The severity of the symptoms is evident yet we refuse to acknowledge our illness.

I am not going to bore you with the mild symptoms that are evident nowadays: bleached hair and skin is but one of them. You need to know about the severe symptoms: books written by Arabs for Arabs that reveal the notion of self hate. We are living in a world where works by writers like Hanan el Sheikh are read. Her novels are supposed to be breaking taboos, yet still recreate the stereotypes of the suppressed Arab woman, whose only way to liberation is embracing the West, literally, and fleeing the struggle with "John" or "Edward" or "-".

Unfortunately, I started reading one of her novels. The story was about Arab women of different nationalities all living in some "desert" Gulf state and complaining about their lives. I never finished it; I should have never attempted to read it in the first place. They say a book should not be judged by its cover, but that's not the case with the Arab novel. The cover and title of the book have a lot to say. How else are we to comprehend a book in its fourth edition called Saudiaat, or Saudi Women. The cover shows a woman waiting in an airport lounge wearing a short skirt, high heels, red lipstick with perfectly done hair. Or another book titled Banat el Monkar, or Corrupted Women. The cover pictures a woman in a niqab. Or another, Elhob fee Saudia, Love in Saudi, with the cover illustration of a woman sleeping with a mobile phone in her pocket. Those book covers are screaming: "Pick me, pick me, I am a book that will discuss taboos." Why do we need to discuss taboos as if it is the only way that writing matters?

Those are just a few of the novels I came across while roaming the recent book fair in my hometown of Abu Dhabi. Do you know where that is, Frantz? It's a tiny island off the Arabian Peninsula. We were probably better known as "Arabia" back when you were alive. But since oil was discovered, things have been changing, for worse or for better depending on your perspective. Maybe you should read the novel Cities of Salt by Abdel Rahman Munif to give you a perspective that is rarely celebrated.

Frantz, I live in a world where we have to nod our heads and smile to people that stop us and ask, "Is life good for young women here?" I am not sure how to answer that question, or if it is actually a question, or am I supposed to break down in tears and confess my struggle in a patriarchal system and ask the person to liberate me? Maybe I should confess, but I don't have anything to confess. One time the person asking happened to be a photographer who had been commissioned to capture the "essence" of my hometown with a series of photographs. I flipped through his portfolio of photographs; it was undeniable that he had an eye for capturing beautiful landscapes and nature. He then proceeded to show me his book on Australia, his own country.

However, the photographs of Abu Dhabi included pictures of a belly dancer in the desert (I was not surprised). It was an obvious photographer's set, as I doubt there are any belly dancers walking around in the desert. When I commented on that, he said: "I am trying to capture the essence." So I asked, "How come there are no women in your Australian book? It seems possible to capture the 'essence' of Australia with nature but when it comes to 'Arabia' you need more." As cultural beings, I guess, we are part of the landscape. I should have explained to him why I was offended, because I doubt he was doing it intentionally. Little does he know that he will also be disappointing travellers lured to my town, as they will not find the cultural exoticism or "differentness" that is portrayed. But then, few travellers are able to tolerate a great deal of novelty. Many want "culture" but fail to step out of their comfort zone.

My dear friend, many fail to understand my struggle, but I know you will understand. Is our need to have a struggle similar to our need to breathe air? Is it the only way to define our purpose in life? Are we alienating others in the process? Your doctoral thesis, Frantz, was rejected at first, maybe because you alienated too many with a struggle that they didn't comprehend. You wrote to resist colonial and racial tensions, and resistance in itself shaped your persona. But it doesn't matter now.

But then, I should give you hope. Your writing influenced the literary critic Edward Said. Your ideas were taken a step further: the politics of representation were analysed. Isn't it ironic that both of you left this world after struggling with leukaemia? Maybe leukaemia is caused by a lifelong struggle that no one relates to. Or maybe it is a form of disappointment after an unrealised revolution that got you nowhere.

Frantz, it's been 49 years since you passed away, and I can still relate to your struggle. I relate, because your struggle is my struggle in a different setting. Or are we simply Don Quixotes in a world where our chivalrous resistance is simply not needed? Hissa al Dhaheri is a sociologist and cultural researcher