Huda al-Attas: A Writer Who Speaks for the Women of Yemen

In her stories, Al-Attas documents Arab women’s lives in general and Yemeni women’s lives in particular.

This essay is the first of a series of three which will highlight three women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who never before have been translated into English. The series was catalyzed by Asymptote’s call this past winter for a Special Feature for the Spring Issue dedicated to literature from the countries covered by Trump’s travel ban on certain predominantly Muslim countries. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they tend to face greater hardships in getting published, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Yemeni writer and journalist Huda al-Attas, born in 1971, is a pioneer of women’s short-story writing in Yemen and other Arab countries. Al-Attas has been writing for more than two decades. She was born in Hudarmut, in southern Yemen, and was raised in Aden with her brothers by her mother. Her family members are her biggest fans and greatest supporters. As a journalist, she is a regular Yemeni newspaper columnist. Her short stories have been published in Yemen and all over the Arab world.

Al-Attas has a broad fan base, consisting of not only conservative middle-aged literary readers but also a new generation of young, liberal readers. Contrary to stereotypes about the Arab world, Yemeni culture has been hospitable to writers, male and female alike. Interestingly, Al-Attas’s Yemeni audience can be divided into two parts: a liberal, secular audience that desires progressive change and a conservative audience that does not believe in women’s rights and even goes so far as to believe that a woman could not be the author of such daring work.

Well regarded by writers around the Arab world, Al-Attas is known as a liberal advocate of human rights and equality between people. She was well known before the Arab Spring as a bold writer who shed light on religious, social, sexual, and political taboos in a conservative society that shackles both men’s and women’s rights and prevent progress. Her personal bearing is as daring as her literary work: for example, pictures of her not wearing a scarf (a breaking of taboo in her culture) appear frequently in newspapers. She has received awards from many different Arab countries, such as Yemen and UAE. Her collections of short stories include Obsessed Spirit…Obsessed Body (hājisrūḥwahājisjasad, 1995), Because She (li’annaha, 2001), and Lightning Training to Be Light (bariqyatadarrabalada’, 2003). Her work has been translated into many languages. Topics that she addresses include incest, patriarchal ownership of women’s bodies, child brides, child begging, child labor, and khat addiction, to name a few. She explores these topics through innovative literary techniques that are as liberating as her subject matter.

A good example of this is the short story “Old Cut,” from Because She. It is about the suffering of young women under the patriarchal culture that demonizes the female body through the practice of female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM). Al-Attas bravely uses the name of a famous historical woman in Islamic culture, Aisha, for her heroine:

The night is quiet and Aisha steals away from the bed…
While her husband demands her return to the bed, she is remaining in her special corner.
His request pours down over her, she tries to sneak away. . . When she can no longer elude him. . . She opens space in the body. . . He plunks down her rug, he thought she would take him far, far away, when he returns from his pleasurable trip, he asks about her trip:
She remains silent. She hears him mutter, curse, and damn something . . .
He brings her sticks of coriander and says: to avail for the upcoming trips.
Every day, in front of the mirror, she chews these sticks, watching her withered eyes and reflecting the memory within…
She was told that when she was an infant, just a ball of pink flesh, Umm Saber, Saber’s mother, was approaching her and opening the space between her tiny thighs which were crossed to hide the mystery of mysteries—as she was told—this panacea of Heaven and Hell.Her scream precedes the swift blade, and the bubbling of blood and throwing away of the very small segment of the body’s flesh.

This scene might suggest the confusion in the contemporary Arab world over whether FMG is a religious or a cultural practice. The scene shuttles back and forth between the present and the past, a marriage bed and an infant’s cradle, between a sexually unfulfilled couple and female circumcision. There are three faces: the two victims (Aisha and her husband) and Umm Saber (mother of Saber), a woman who is a legitimatized guardian of oppressive patriarchal culture. Aisha’s husband is seeking an equal relationship with his wife, but finds her body and soul demonized. In fact, he gives her kazbra (green coriander, a traditional aphrodisiac) to enhance her sexual appetite. Umm Saber enacts the bloody ceremony upon a pure female body, which the culture sees as a defiled body because it is sexually intact. Indeed, Aisha’s is the body around which the story is centered.

In her story “Dewfall,” also from Because She, Al-Attas employs poetic intensification to tell the story of a woman’s life, confined to the kitchen and the daily pain within its walls, in only two lines. She employs a prose-poem or flash-fiction technique that might remind readers of a haiku:

Dewfall spoon was dancing in the center of the alfanjan (coffee cup) . . . As the sugar melted, the spoon lying in state, neglected.

Al-Attas uses the spoon as a metaphor for the woman, whose life moves from the splendor and freshness of her assigned role as a female (“dancing”) to ostracism, exclusion, and ingratitude (“lying in state, neglected”) after the expiry of her feminine charms (‘the sugar melted”). The ellipses highlight the nature of a society that transfers the heroine across these two realms. Using the teaspoon as a metaphor reflects bitter irony to condemn a masculine culture that uses the female body like a utensil and then discards it. Part of this bitterness is perhaps directed at women, many of whom are happy to perform their role perfectly while fully realizing that the patriarchal world will discard them. One of Al-Attas’s most distinctive literary techniques is to reverse the societal pattern of men being in the center and women being relegated to the margins. In “Dewfall,” the irony is doubled because Al-Attas allows the reader the possibility that the unseen hand stirring the spoon and then setting it aside is the hand of either male patriarchy or female acquiescence.

In the story “Cook,” from Lightning Training to Be Light, Al-Attas employs an innovative technique in her writing that fuses fiction with the rich imagery and graphic form of the poem. The story is set in a kitchen, a closed anti-patriarchal space relegated to women, and the heroine is ostensibly preparing what appears on the page to be just a recipe. However, this recipe elevates the heroine from her slavish domestic role to that of a goddess:

She decided to cook (her inner self), she prepared her hoard, she began to mix the dough of (the inner):

a little bit of madness oil
a spicy ounce of rebellion
drops of vaporizing oils from the fruits of creativity
garlic cloves of wisdom, she added the good-hearted sauce
two horns of hot pepper of demonization
a no color liquid called Angels’ vinegar
she shed a teaspoon of the salt of common sense
and mixed all of these in a pot of (humanization) pouring the water of life above the dough, and she entered it into the cosmic oven
…and then she sat on her apprehensive boredom and anxiety to wait.

Here, the heroine has transformed the kitchen, a space of female ostracism, into a place of emancipation and liberation from the slavery of the patriarchy. Al-Attas gathers the ingredients of the recipe from the daily lives of women to comment with bitter irony on the status quo. Also notable is Al-Attas’s innovative use of punctuation: she does not finish her sentences with periods; instead, she uses commas to indicate the poetic, dynamic nature of the heroine’s own self-creation. In addition, the blank space after each item in the recipe and the ellipses before the last sentence invite the readers to fill in their own experiences and impressions.

Huda al-Attas writes to and for women in stories that feature solitary female protagonists who speak for the unheard women in her society. She marginalizes men and mutes their voices to create a world in narrative that contradicts the reality of her culture. In her stories, Al-Attas documents Arab women’s lives in general and Yemeni women’s lives in particular. However, in a broader sense, her work speaks to and for oppressed women everywhere. She does not cover women’s bodies or their psychological and sexual feelings. She seeks to shake the dust from a culture that uses religion to constrain the role of women and their social interactions. Al-Attas boldly discusses topics that are very sensitive in conservative Arab society. In addition, she has created a new genre by interweaving the techniques of fiction, free verse, and the prose poem. It is not only her subject matter but also her literary techniques that embody liberation.

Dr.Wijdan Al-Sayegh, a well-known Arab writer, has nearly two decades of experience in teaching and writing on Arabic literature and language. She has published 24 books, three of which won renowned Arab prizes, including the Al-afeef Cultural Award for Literature and Arts in Yemen in 2003. Her publications deal with social, political, and religious taboos in modern Arabic texts. She has also been an active contributor to many Arabic journals, periodicals, and literary magazines across the Arab world. 

Tom Zimmerman teaches English, directs the Writing Center, edits The Huron River Review and The Big Windows Review, and serves as faculty advisor of the WCC Poetry Club, at Washtenaw Community College, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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