Seeking escapism: All That I Want to Forget
It pulls me together,
Saves me just in time,
And leaves me to perish."
All That I Want to Forget is Bothayna Al-Essa's latest novel which has been translated to English by Michele Henjum. It is a coming of age story about a woman who loves and writes poetry but lives under oppression in Kuwait.
The novel follows Fatima followig the death of her parents, when she is made to live with her older brother, Saqr, who is married with children. She looks back on her time spent under his roof and tells you with clarity how strict he was, the effect this had on her mental state and how she had no choice but to flee her forced marriage.
Saqr promises to look after her following the death of her parents. The reader knows he makes her crumble inside.
Al-Essa recounts Fatima's wedding night, the "disaster" she has entered into and her husband who appears a kind gentleman. The next chapter details the time she moved in to live with Saqr, how she was shown her new home - a basement, undecorated, with cracks and mould. She counts the fourteen steps she has to go down to enter and how she will spend seven years of her life there.
Fatima is pulled under with emptiness, through Saqr's removal of her personal items, the photos of her parents, no listening to music or chewing gum in public, no reading and no poetry.
Everything is decided for her; mostly everything is prohibited. The language is clear, raw and direct. Al-Essa wants to lay bare how Saqr treats Fatima with no room for arguments.
Fatima gets no praise or emotional warmth. While his own children are adulated for their work, Saqr ignores Fatima. She begs him - "say something nice to me to keep me going, before the ugliness takes over completely". Fatima convinces herself she is a failure, worth nothing. It would be a surprise if anyone would marry her because she is foolish and an "old maid". She is physically and mentally abused, tortured until she feels invisible.
Fatima's saviours are her poetry and love for the written word. She wants to write meaningful poetry and study French, but is told Arabic is the best of all the languages and, therefore, the only one worth studying. She writes in secret with her first poem written on the bottom of a box of tissues.
She is given forty lashes because Saqr finds the word "wine" in the book she is reading. She wants to study at the College of Arts but spends months with insomnia and anxiety. The novel almost reads like a memoir; the writing is so personal and deep.
Fatima has one close school friend, Hayat, who one day offers to take her to a poetry reading. This is where she meets Isam and her life changes completely. They share a minimal few words yet feel a connection and exchange email addresses. The next couple of chapters take the form of their email communication; at times obsessive, occasionally tender and beautiful.
|She looks at what it means to be a woman and that being female in this particular part of the world, may mean for some that someone else must take care of you because you are incapable of doing so yourself|
Their relationship continues for more than a year, with secret meetings and contact, until Fatima is encouraged to recite poetry at a reading. Accidentally, this is published in the local newspaper and Saqr finds out. In punishment, she is physically abused, starved of her computer and left in solitary confinement for three years. Fatima is forced to marry Faris as a means of escape.
The rest of the book details the collapse of her marriage, how she feels unworthy of her husband's love and does not know how to accept it, to welcome it, to allow herself to be loved.
Al-Essa examines how Fatima passes from the control of one to another, the acute level of insight she possesses to know that Faris wants to control her narrative and have her living inside the house with no life outside.
She looks at what it means to be a woman and what being female in this particular part of the world may mean for some - that someone else must take care of you because you are incapable of doing so yourself. The role of guardians are also studied in the book - who they are, what guardianship involves and the fact that they are always correct, no matter what.
Fatima is "raped of her childhood". Identifying her oppression, she strives to rise above it. Our protagonist is strong, and despite going through levels of isolation of which so many of us have so little knowledge, she stands and demands change.
In a Middle Eastern society, there will be many who can take courage from this. She craves warmth and love from Saqr but is given the opposite and, of course, much worse. He is an extremist, an oppressor, someone who feels women are below him, that raising children is "women's work".
The novel presents a broken narrative, intertwining the past and the present until they combine. Women can fight and achieve great success anywhere in the world. There is a wonderful chapter in the book where Al-Essa examines the written word, whether it holds any meaning and if words are the cause of all misunderstanding in the world. Whether she is talking about her own writing one cannot be sure.
It is a loaded novel and one which communicates strongly to the outside world. While it does portray the perpetual narrative that it is always the female who is oppressed in the Middle East, it also shows the authenticity of these stories and the courage to overcome the deprivation of education, of not allowing someone to reach out and learn, to expand their own mind.
Amena Ravat is a social worker, a mother and a wife. Reading is her form of escape.
Follow her on Instagram: @theclubofbooks