Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 4 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Books We’re Never Assigned

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 4 seconds

Reading Time: 4 minutes

You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us. – Rebecca Solnit

Sometimes you read something and you’re so WOWed you can’t respond. I literally finished this piece by Rebecca Solnit and wanted to comment: “oh wow. So so good”. But that sounds stupid, like I am referring to ice cream or something. This was sooo much better.

So the piece is called Men Explain Lolita to Me (disclaimer: haven’t read Lolita; have read Reading Lolita in Tehran; go figure. Also kind of like having read The Namesake by Jumpha Lahiri without having read Gogol. Or whatever.

Anyway. The entire piece by Rebecca Solnit is sooo worth reading if you care about feminism or justice or anything that matters really. But it’s that last paragraph in the article (which I quote above) that hasn’t left me. I can’t stop thinking about it.

So applied to my own context I reflected, trying not to be biased.

I was mostly educated in a British school in Kuwait with a few years in Egypt in the middle then University at the American University in Cairo (where I am now faculty).

I remember little of what we were assigned as children but I remember this. The main characters in our reading books in the early days were Roger Red Hat and Billy Blue Hat. The first girl appears as Jennifer Yellow Hat who of course, has to have a brother Johnny yellow hat to give gender balance (harrr). Well, thank God for Peter and Jane, which my parents read to me at home.

Yes almost all the fairytales feature women but they’re of the kind you don’t really look up to in every way. They’re all kind but quite naive and all need rescuing by men and it’s terribly annoying.

Then school in Egypt when I was 11 (for 3 years). Every book we read in Arabic class focused on a man (we read one a year and didn’t always finish which is why you can tell Egyptians aren’t naturally big readers). Two Islamic conquerors (imagine being an Egyptian Christian and having to go through this – it’s like I guess  US curriculum might have been 100 years ago not taking account of how it represented minorities). I have no idea if now is any better. The other book we took (my 3rd year in Egypt) was a semi-fictional story of Ahmus (famous Egyptian king who defeated enemies – note the persistent war themes) and the role of women in it, if I remember correctly, were his 2 love interests. Kind of like Archie. Which, for some reason, I read religiously from maybe age 7 to 12 without sensing something wrong with the two-timing asshole and the women who just let him do it!

Thinking of some of the English books we read Prisoners of Zenda one year and Tale of Two Cities the next. REALLY? Like all we could be bothered to know about English literature were tales of men who look alike (and love the same woman I guess because…why?). We did at some point study the bio of Marie Curie and Gandhi for which I will be eternally grateful. I will also be grateful for having an entire book of Shakespeare abridged plays to read on my own. Even if they ended up choosing The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest. Because, really, Shakespeare does sometimes have strong female heroines, ones who don’t need taming, but why do we wanna learn about those, eh?

Poetry. I have no memory of reading poetry by women in school. English or Arabic. Which is ridiculous. I remember Wordsworth. Kipling. Tennyson.

I realize that much of my leisure reading I chose female characters and writers. I read biographies of great women. I read Enid Blyton (though having one as a tomboy just fed into my own tomboyishness which I think is an early feminist response to feeling underprivileged by mimicking the privileged before we realize that’s totally the wrong way to go…or not?). I read Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley Twins/High and Agatha Christie (no comparison of course, but I was reading all that in parallel) . When asking my mom to recommend Egyptian writers, I always got men. Men who often wrote of women in a derogatory manner. Or loving but patronizing manner. I read romance novels in English because romances were written by women for women and made me feel good. Most famous Egyptian romance writers? Men. And not like Nicholas Sparks either.

But school. School never showed me representations of myself that made me feel particularly empowered and that’s dangerous. And much of the “literature” I read outside it didn’t count as literature. I read Austen and Bronte and Alcott out of school (maybe they were gonna come up at some point but I missed them moving between schools?). The plays we did in school when i was really young? Jungle book (boy and bear; girl does nothing but sing); Sir Spence and a Dragon Called Horace (obviously male); James and the Giant Peach (boy); and this other play with a male lead,  Whackadoo zoo.

Don’t get me started on the Othello obsession. Took it in high school. Saw live play. Took it in college AND had to watch film. Ugh. Why? And why did we mainly discuss themes of jealousy, love and betrayal rather than race for example?

So yeah.

In high school we did read a book by a South African writer where the central character was a strong black woman so that was amazing. It was a great book. Whose name I don’t remember. Because of course I never came across it again. Unlike Shakespeare 🙂

I don’t teach fiction. But I try to read and encourage my students to read female as well as male voices.

Thanks Rebecca Solnit. I did not realize all of the above, not in its entirety, until now

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