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A writer who has seen the world, but prefers her village


Her books deal with the way women from traditional backgrounds live their lives  

By Christina Foerch Special to The Daily Star

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

"I'm not a feminist writer," claims Emily Nasrallah. And yet, the main characters of her novels and short stories are women, mainly the ones from Lebanese villages. And one of her main themes is the condition of women.

It all started with her first novel,"Birds of September," published in 1962, which deals with the theme of emigration - and with the women who are left behind by their fathers, brothers, sons and lovers, searching for a better future outside Lebanon . The novel won her three literature awards and now goes into its 10th edition - the subject is still appealing to many Lebanese as well as to readers abroad. "Birds of September" has been translated into many other languages as well.

Feminist or not, Nasrallah has been a pioneer in many fields. Born in a traditional village in Southern Lebanon , she was one of the first girls to go to university. In 1958, she received her B. A. in education. After having completed her degree, she started to work as a journalist and was one of the first female journalists in Lebanon . When asked if the condition of women in Lebanon has changed, she replies with a very convinced "yes, of course!" Looking at her own career and comparing it to nowadays, Lebanon is proof of change, of which the Lebanese author has been part. Nasrallah mentions that especially in professions of communication art, women are now in the majority. That's a fact.  

But this doesn't mean that life as a female writer, lecturer, journalist and women activist has always been easy for her, nor does it mean that women now possess all their rights. "The title 'woman' makes some people afraid," she admits. During her career as a journalist, Nasrallah published six volumes about women pioneers - and some were banned in Arab countries.

In her literature, women are often victims of village traditions and social or political circumstances. For example, in the novel "The Bondaged," a woman is promised in marriage to the village godfather by her poor parents when still a child. The future husband helps her to go to Beirut to get a higher education, yet the girl has to promise to marry him after she completes her studies. Although the girl falls in love with a student, she can't break her promise, goes back to her home village and marries the godfather.

In many of Nasrallah's novels and short stories, women struggle with their living conditions. They partially manage to set themselves free - but never reach complete freedom and self-determination. Yet, in all of Nasrallah's works, the women's decisions are respected. Through her literature, Nasrallah fights for the dignity of women, for their freedom of choice to live according to their abilities.  

Although the Lebanese writer was the only woman of her generation from her home village to acquire a higher education, she still draws inspiration from her former schoolmates - all simple village women who have rarely traveled as far as Beirut . "These women have maintained an original language and worldview," Nasrallah explains, "which is not spoiled by outside influences."  

According to the episodes in which her writings take place, she likes to play with this original language, using proverbs and metaphors still used by elderly villagers. In this way, Nasrallah has somehow also become a guardian of Lebanese rural culture, because television and the internet threatens this original language and culture, which is about to disappear forever.

Being an exception to her generation's girls, Nasrallah asks herself: "Why should a village girl have to look over her horizon?"

The one who opened the doors to the big, magic outside world for her was her uncle, a former immigrant to the United States and a friend of Khalil Gibran. He came back from New York to live with his relatives in the mountain village. "My uncle took care of me and encouraged me to write," she recalls. "He also used to tell me about the life of girls in New York ." Her uncle was Nasrallah's "source of revolution," as she puts it. Thanks to him and his brothers, who paid for her high school fees, Nasrallah could leave to learn and become what she is now - an acclaimed writer.

The former village girl doesn't draw her inspiration just from Lebanese village life. Her three main themes, the condition of women, emigration and war, were subjects which she had to deal with in her own life.  

On the condition of women, Nasrallah personally knows what it means to struggle to get education and recognition as a professional in Lebanon of the 1950s and early 1960s. She also experienced a certain alienation from her village roots - a topic she dealt with in literature, too.

Emigration, then, is another big theme which personally affected her and made her suffer - her brothers and sisters all left Lebanon and emigrated to Canada . "My pain drove me to write," she admits. In the novel "Sleeping Amber" (1995), for example, Nasrallah describes the sufferings of the grandparents left behind by younger family members who emigrate to Western countries.  

During the last years, the writer visited her relatives in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and during her stays, she noticed another form of alienation of immigrants from their roots. The names used for second and third generation Canadians are not Lebanese or Arab anymore, but English. In her novel "Flight against Time", Nasrallah draws on her experiences on her parents' visit to Canada - and the difficulties the elderly faced when they couldn't pronounce their grandchildren's names. "This, for me, means definite emigration and alienation - there is no way back."

Nasrallah has never considered emigrating herself, even not during the difficult years of war. "I don't like emigration," she states simply. Alienation from her mother tongue could possibly have meant giving up her career as a writer, and this is something she has always managed to avoid. Now a grandmother, she is still an active writer who sticks to her principles. "As a writer, you never retire," she says simply.  

Her role as mother and grandmother has driven her to focus on the relatively new domain of children's books. It came with the desire to tell stories to her own children and grandchildren. Some works have even become something of a family enterprise, since they were illustrated by her daughter, who is an architect.  

For the latest children's book, "On a Snow Carpet," the author traveled far - to Baffin Island in Northern Canada . The Canadian Pen Club invited a group of international writers to visit the Inuit, the native peoples of the Arctic , and to learn about their traditions of oral history. The foreigners were given a short briefing about Inuit culture, then they were dropped. A young hunter was her host, and an elderly lady told her traditional stories in Inuktituk. "The people were very warm and nice, and I was amazed by the simplicity of their lifestyle and the scarcity of things - there were no fruits or vegetables," she recalls. "I wrote the children's book with all my love and respect for the Inuit."

During this trip, Nasrallah met a young Inuit lady who had left her home village in the North and gone to live in Toronto . She had joined the group to search for her own identity and told Nasrallah how difficult she found her situation, knowing that the Inuit background wasn't hers anymore. The Lebanese author said that she could understand the young woman very well, saying that her own experience of leaving her home and getting established somewhere else was similar to the young Inuit woman's experience.  

"It's also similar to what (main character) Mona experienced in 'Birds of September.' When she goes back to her village, she is not welcome anymore," Nasrallah explains.

Feelings are universal - and Nasrallah writes about these universal experiences and sentiments. Maybe this is the secret to her success as an author. "Human experiences are similar everywhere in the world," she says. And literature can express and communicate them across all boundaries.



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