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In ‘Embargo,’ a Modern-Day Scheherazade Dares to Speak About Harassment

/ 21 Sep 2021

In ‘Embargo,’ a Modern-Day Scheherazade Dares to Speak About Harassment

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Haitham Dabbour, the Egyptian novelist, aptly names his new novel “Embargo,” a publishing term for a temporary ban on making information public, as the book focuses on a character who breaks the social silence surrounding the harassment of women in the workplace in the Arab world.

The novel creates multiple temporal levels that address the theme of confession as a path to salvation, a means of obtaining usurped rights and resisting societal complicity.

Dabbour begins his narration inside an Arabian Nights palace, where he opens the first scenes with Scheherazade, the narrator who has just fallen prey to Shahryar, the king. Shahryar is presented as a man compensating for his sexual impotence and misery by torturing a new slave girl every night, in a cycle of hatred and madness.

The novel takes off from Scheherazade’s gambit of saving herself from the king’s sword by telling him tales until dawn, seducing him with anticipation night after night.

Scheherazade’s presence in the novel paves the way for another contemporary tale. The narration moves between the classical world and a contemporary world whose main heroine is Mona, who has worked her way up to become the media officer of one of the ministries in Egypt.

The novel takes off from Scheherazade’s gambit of saving herself from the king’s sword by telling him tales until dawn, seducing him with anticipation night after night.

Mona experiences a harassment incident, which she accuses the minister she works for of committing, and resorts to the media to expose it. She sends media statements to newspapers about the minister’s behavior.

Today and the Imaginary Past

From the beginning, Mona is eager to not underplay the harassment incident despite any societal pressures. Her speaking out about the harassment incident becomes a lifeline, similar to the way that Scheherazade used words to escape a rapist king

As the narration progresses, the thread between the scattered lives of its characters, whether contemporary or classical, becomes apparent. The strength of the story brings them together as a reaction to weakness. The novel uses “One Thousand and One Nights” as a less joyful theater than the stereotype established by the drama about the charming love that develops between Scheherazade and the king. Dabbour builds his narration on the ruins of that imaginary kingdom.

Mona’s blog about her harassment by the minister becomes a matter of wide interest among digital media and traditional media outlets, which Dabbour uses as a way of moving the plot forward on the public and personal level.

Harassment
“Embargo” (“Hazr Nashr”) was recently published by Dar Al-Shorouk, an Egyptian publishing house, in Arabic.

We find awareness of trend-making in the novel, where Mona distances her story from becoming a temporary social media trend, and seeks a serious formula to deal with it away from a popular fascination that quickly fades away: “Mona looks at the street. She does not want to be the focus of attention for passersby for hours before their interest fades after another story emerges to the media surface.”

Mona locks her social media accounts, getting away from electronic postings and the opinions of those who sit back and contemplate the world through their screens.

Tribute to an Arabic First

In parallel to the rape incident, there is a third narrative thread in the novel, inspired by a true historical biography of Sheikh ’Abd al-Rahman al-Safti al-Sharqawi, the Azhari scholar who edited the first complete printed copy of the “Nights” in Arabic, published by Bulaq Press, in Egypt, in 1835.

This thread of “Embargo” narrates the accusations leveled against al-Sharqawi by Al-Azhar students at that time, because he accepted the task of editing the book of scandalous tales.

To avoid becoming a temporary social media trend, Mona locks her accounts, getting away from electronic postings and the opinions of those who sit back and contemplate the world through their screens.

It is to Dabbour’s credit that he follows the long-forgotten story of al-Sharqawi, which he tells through the lips of one of the scholar’s loyal students, Sheikh Muhammad Ayyad al-Tantawi. Al-Tantawi recounts his relationship with al-Sharqawi and his appreciation for his role in editing one of the most prominent books of Arabic narrative heritage. Dabbour writes: “al-Tantawi eyes the beautifully ornamented pages of the huge manuscript. This is the work that Bulaq Press is waiting for, to be the first complete Egyptian edition of the Arabian Nights.”

Attempts to Silence

“Embargo” highlights the fact that “One Thousand and One Nights” has remained a target of forces aiming to ban it. The novel juxtaposes historical efforts to suppress the book with Mona’s fictional case, in which a court imposes a media “embargo” on publishing details of her case until a verdict is reached.

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The writer narrates obstacles in the way of Mona publishing her story, such as social and family pressures, and others related to the sensitivity of accusing a minister of sexual harassment. Dabbour intensifies this confrontation by compressing the timeline into a period of only five days, during which events and characters intersect; either the supporters of her case or the group that seeks to question her story.

The novel was recently published in Arabic by Dar Al-Shorouk, an Egyptian publishing house. There are no immediate plans for translating it into English or other languages.

Related Articles

To read more about the tendency to remain silent about the harassment of women in the Arab world, see the following articles from Al-Fanar Media:




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام