“Distant View of A Minaret” by Alifa Rifaat (1930 – 1996) is a collection of fifteen short stories depicting lives of women within a traditional Muslim society.
Rifaat shows Muslim women who wish to adhere to strict religious teachings and they see men as the ones who do not follow their religious obligations towards women. She challenges this behaviour but her criticism is far from the feminism as perceived in the Western world.
The main subjects in these stories are marriage, death, sexual fulfilment, physical and emotional abuse, loneliness of loveless life, the inability to communicate one’s feelings to others, ageing and relationship between husband and wife from woman’s perspective portrayed within the religious norms and moral values of Islam. Those themes were dealt with such frankness that I have not seen in many contemporary books. Rifaat’s stories shows women who have views, opinions but still within a religious conservative framework.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that the women portrayed in Rifaat’s stories are at different stages of their lives, with a particular focus on the women of an older age. We follow the stories of a young female child, young women, middle-aged mothers, widows, single older women who are all constrained by the norms imposed by the society they live in.
Throughout all the stories the muezzin’s call to prayer is shown as an integral part of everyone’s lives regardless of their position within society. Religious rituals give the meaning to the daily routine.
It is important to mention a few words about the author. Alifa Rifaat was an Egyptian writer who spent all her life in Egypt, mainly in the provincial towns, a devout Muslim, with a strong knowledge of religious Islamic texts, never received university education. She spoke only Arabic and was rather detached from the Western influences of the times she lived in. Most of her contemporaries who also wrote were mainly members of so called upper class of the Egyptian society who often were educated abroad and spoke foreign languages.
Therefore, having the access to the uniqueness of Alifa Rifaat‘s writting is a marvellous literary gift.
This collection of vignettes first published in 1983 shows that regardless of our culture, religion people feel the same or very similar emotions about love, death, family and relationships. These stories allow the reader to enter the world that might be different culturally to what they know but it is similar to emotions each of us has experienced.