Refusing to cast a stone

Book review of A Certain Woman by Hala El Badry (AUC Press, 216pp, $22.50)

The Beirut Review, Daily Star, 10th April 2004

The Egyptian Hala el Badry’s A Certain Woman is an important novel. Written in the the confessional first person narrative, it examines one of the great taboos of contemporary Arab culture – adultery.

A Certain Woman tells the story of Nahid, an archaeologist in her 40s and married mother of two who is trapped by an unfulfilling marriage and by her own reluctance to defy social expectations. She falls in love with Omar, a novelist and journalist who feels stifled by his own stormy marriage. Most of the short chapters are narrated by Nahid and Omar alternately, a technique that gives their story both immediacy and intimacy. Though the narrative jumps around in time, it is chronological enough for the reader to be able to follow a detailed journey that traces the affair between Nahid and Omar from its earliest stages, through its development, vicissitudes and crises, and into its blossoming maturity.

The novel is a close study of an extra-marital affair and does not shy away from representing all its complexities and consequences.

Eschewing moral judgement, it nevertheless confronts betrayal and rejection with perspicuity, and constantly questions the dilemma between self-fulfillment and duty towards others. It also tackles the thorny subject of sex through Nahid’s growing love for Omar and the corresponding physical and emotional self-awareness that accompanies it and gradually liberates her from a dead marriage. While Nahid sometimes falls into metaphoric, evasive descriptions of sex, Omar reminds her of its physical reality and helps her to confront her body with honesty. The novel is above all a love story, and it explores how the lovers’ relationship is tested by their own doubts, the demands of work, responsibilities toward their respective families and children, interactions with friends and colleagues, and even Omar’s infidelity.

While most of the chapters are narrated by one of the two protagonists, there are times when we hear the voices of Nahid’s husband Mustafa and, less often, Omar’s wife Maggie. This constant shifting perspective reflects the different facets of love and the alternate separation or merging of identities that take place within a relationship.

Badry’s prolixity on the subject of love sometimes threatens to overwhelm the novel. She manages to avoid this, however, through the shifts in narrative perspective, which keep the reader engaged with the story, and also by the occasional foray into subjects that are not directly related to the central love relationship. So we read about topical issues that give an insight into contemporary Egypt through the characters’ journalistic and archaeological work: the theft of Egyptian antiquities, the censorship of art and literature in the media and corruption in housing development cooperatives.

A Certain Woman is a sensitive and intelligent exploration of the inner worlds of love, sex and infidelity. It provides an insight into Egyptian society, and will do much – in its English translation – to challenge Western preconceptions about Arab society and the roles and status of women in the Arab world.