Overview of the unit
1. Awakening to a changed world
In this final unit, we turn our attention to the literature of Muslim societies in the modern age. We begin by reading a short story by the Egyptian Noble Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz. His story leads us to reflect on the rapid changes that have taken place in our world in recent times.
2. Language and conflict
The difference in wealth and power between rich and poor nations has raised many issues for our modern world. The question of how to create a world of greater fairness forms an important theme in modern literature. In this section, we study one example of this type of writing. The author Aboubacar Ben Said Salim, draws our attention to language as a factor that creates differences between the powerful and the weak.
3. New voices in the modern age
In pre-modern societies, it was extremely difficult for women to become poets and writers because of the times in which they lived. In modern literature, we find a new generation of women who wish to be heard and read. ‘That beautiful undiscovered voice’ by Salwa Bakr makes us aware of the difficulties that women still face in many communities in having their talents recognised.
4. To build a nest of dreams with words
We conclude the book with a poem that leads us back to the central theme of language. ‘Love song for words’ by the Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika invites us to look to the future, and to reflect on the role that language can play in giving shape to new dreams.
Awakening to a changed world
We live in an age which we call ‘modern’. Many centuries have passed since the time when the great Muslim civilisations of the past first arose. Much has happened in recent times that has transformed our whole world.
As in other communities and societies, writers and poets in Muslim societies have found new ways of using language so that they can better explore and describe the situation of people in the modern world. Here is a short story that makes us aware how rapidly and deeply the world around us has changed.
Half a day
I proceeded alongside my father, clutching his right hand, running to keep up with the long strides he was taking. All my clothes were new: the black shoes, the green school uniform, and the red tarboosh. My delight in my new clothes, however, was not altogether unmarred, for this was no feast day but the day on which I was to be cast into school for the first time.
My mother stood at the window watching our progress, and I would turn towards her from time to time, as though appealing for help. We walked along a street lined with gardens; on both sides were extensive fields planted with crops, prickly pears, henna trees, and a few date palms.
‘Why school?’ I challenged my father openly. ‘I shall never do anything to annoy you.’
‘I am not punishing you,’ he said, laughing. ‘School is not a punishment. It’s the factory that makes useful men out of boys. Don’t you want to be like your father and brothers?’
I was not convinced. I did not believe there was really any good to be had in tearing me away from the intimacy of my home and throwing me into this building that stood at the end of the road like some huge, high-walled fortress, exceedingly stern and grim.
When we arrived at the gate we could see the courtyard, vast and crammed full of boys and girls.
‘Go in by yourself’ said my father, ‘and join them. Put a smile on your face and be a good example to others.’
I hesitated and clung to his hand, but he gently pushed mc from him. ‘Be a man,’ he said, ‘Today you truly begin life. You will find me waiting for you when it’s time to leave.’
I took a few steps, then stopped and looked but saw nothing. Then the faces of boys and girls came into view. I did not know a single one of them, and none of them knew me. I felt I was a stranger who had lost his way. But glances of curiosity were directed towards me, and one boy approached and asked, ‘Who brought you?’
‘My father,’ I whispered.
‘My father is dead,’ he said quite simply.
I did not know what to say.
The gate closed, letting out a pitiful screech. Some of the children burst into tears. The bell rang. A lady came along, followed by a group of men. The men began sorting us into ranks. We were formed into an intricate pattern in the great courtyard surrounded on three sides by high buildings of several floors; from each floor we were overlooked by a long balcony roofed in wood.
‘This is your new home,’ said the woman. ‘Here too there are mothers and fathers. Here there is everything that is enjoyable and beneficial to knowledge and religion. Dry your tears and face life joyfully.’
… I had never imagined school would have such rich variety. We played all sorts of different games: swings, the vaulting horse, ball games. In the music room we chanted our first songs. We also had our first introduction to language. We saw a globe of the Earth, which revolved and showed the various continents and countries. We started learning the numbers. The story of the Creator of the universe was read to us, we were told of His present world and of His Hereafter, and we heard examples of what He said. We ate delicious food, took a little nap and woke up to go on with friendship and love, play and learning.
… it was not all a matter of playing and fooling around. Rivalries could bring about pain and hatred or give rise to fighting. And while the lady would sometimes smile, she would often scowl and scold. Even more frequently she would resort to physical punishment …
The bell rang announcing the passing of the day and the end of work. The throngs of children rushed toward the gate, which was opened again. I bade farewell to friends and sweethearts and passed through the gate. I peered around but found no trace of my father, who had promised to be there. I stepped aside to wait. When I had waited for a long time without avail, I decided to return home on my own. After I had taken a few steps, a middle-aged man passed by, and I realised at once that I knew him. He came towards me, smiling, and shook me by the hand, saying, ‘It’s a long time since we last met – how are you?’
With a nod of my head, I agreed with him and in turn asked, ‘And you, how are you?’
‘As you can see, not all that good, the Almighty be praised!’
Again he shook me by the hand and went off. I preceded a few steps, then came to a startled halt, Good Lord! Where was the street lined with gardens? Where had it disappeared to? When did all these vehicles invade it? And when did all these hordes of humanity come to rest upon its surface? How did these hills of refuse come to cover its sides? And where were the fields that bordered it? High buildings had taken over, the street surged with children, and disturbing noises shook the air.
At various points stood conjurers showing off their tricks and making snakes appear from baskets. Then there was a band announcing the opening of a circus, with clowns and weight lifters walking in front. A line of trucks carrying central security troops crawled majestically by. The siren of a fire engine shrieked, and it was not clear how the vehicle would cleave its way to reach the blazing fire. A battle raged between a taxi driver and his passenger, while the passenger’s wife called out for help and no one answered. Good God! I was in a daze. My head spun. I almost went crazy.
How could all this have happened in half a day, between early morning and sunset? I would find the answer at home with my father. But where was my home? I could see only tall buildings and hordes of people.
I hastened on to the crossroads between the gardens and Abu Khoda. I had to cross Abu Khoda to reach my house, but the stream of cars would not let up. The fire engine’s siren was shrieking at fill pitch as it moved at a snail’s pace, and I said to myself, ‘Let the fire take its pleasure in what it consumes.’
Extremely irritated, I wondered when I would be able to cross. I stood there a long time, until the young lad employed at the ironing shop on the corner came up to me. He stretched out his arm and said gallantly, ‘Grandpa, let me take you across.’
- WORD CHECK
- Appealing – pleading
- cleave – make one’s way through
- conjurers – performers of tricks
- consumes – burns
- crammed – filed tightly, overcrowded
- Exceedingly – Greatly
- extensive – large
- gallantly – bravely
- grim — unpleasant, unattractive
- henna – areddish dye
- hordes – large groups
- intimacy – familiarity
- intricate – complicated
- nap – a short sleep
- peered – looked keenly
- proceeded – went, walked
- refuse – rubbish, garbage
- resort – turn to
- rivalries – competitions
- Scowl – frown severely
- startled- shocked
- stern – severe, strict
- tarboosh – a type of hat or cap
- unmarred – unspoilt
- vaulting horse – a wooden block
used in gymnastics for leaping over
About the author
‘Half a day’ is a modern short story written by Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian writer. Mahfouz was horn in Cairo in 1911, in one of the oldest quarters of the city. He began writing when he was seventeen and published his first novel in 1939. Since then, he has written more than thirty novels and thirteen collections of short stories. Many of his works have been adapted for the cinema, theatre and television.
The Cairo Trilogy
In 1957, Mahfouz published a set of three novels, the Cairo Trilogy, in which he depicts the life of people in an Egyptian family over a period of some twenty years between the two world wars. This work made him famous as a writer in the Arab world, as well as internationally.
The Nobel Prize winner
In 1988, Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Nobel Prize is an international award given annually since 1901. The prize for literature is given to a writer who has produced the most outstanding work in the field of literature. Mahfouz was recognised as a writer who has greatly influenced modern writing in the Arabic language. His works have also had an impact on the thinking of people in Arab- speaking countries.
The urge to write
Writing is a passion for Naguib Mahfouz. He has said, ‘If the urge to write should ever leave me, I want that day to be my last.’
About the story
The modern short story is a form of literature that arose in the nineteenth century. It consists of a shortened work of fiction, usually written in prose. It has a small number of characters and usually a single focus or theme. In contrast, the novel presents many characters and contains several connected storylines.
‘Half a day’ as a short story
Naguib Mahfouz has used the short story form for many of his narratives. A good example from his writings is ‘Half a day’. It has a single, main, character – the person who is narrating the story. The other characters, such as the parents and the teacher, play a minor role. The story also has a single focus. It is about a child’s experience of the first day at school.
Any child in any city
The story is not lengthy, and cat be read quickly. Yet it achieves many things. As readers, we get deep insights into the personalities, places, times, and events in the story.
Mahfouz does not tell us who main character is, where the story takes place, or in which period. We have to guess all these things from the details in the story. The main character could be Mahfouz himself when he was a child, and the city is probably Cairo. But it could also be any child in any city.
First day at school
The story reminds us what it was like to be a child going to school for the first time. We sympathise with the little boy and understand his fears and concerns. We remember our own school days and the trials we faced. We therefore take comfort when the boy settles down and begins to enjoy his new environment.
A question of time
However ‘Half a day’ is not simply about the first day at school. As we read the rest of the story, something strange happens which disturbs us. We expect the father to pick the child up from school, as he promised. Instead, we are lost and confused, like the boy, because everything seems to have changed.
A different city
The story sets us thinking about what has happened. In the morning, the child walks to school through a street lined with gardens, with fields on both sides planted with crops and trees. At the end of the day the street is filled with vehicles, crowds of people, high buildings and piles of trash.
From a child into a grandfather
It is not only the surroundings that have changed. The main character too is changed from a young boy into a ‘grandpa’. We ask with the main character ‘How could all this have happened in half a day, between early morning and sunset?’
A changed world
As we think about the events in the story, we realise that it is a story about time and change. Within a short story, Naguib Mahfouz has managed to portray the lifetime of an individual, from the time he is a child to when he becomes an old man. Through the eyes this individual, we see how much the world has changed in a short period of time.
The modern age
‘Half a day’ awakens us to the changes that have taken place in our world in a matter of a few centuries. The age of empires in Muslim history lasted for over ten centuries. In the previous two units, we explored how language in Muslim societies changed that reflected new ways of life in these empires.
Making sense of a new world
In the modem age, Muslim societies, like other communities around the world, have seen great changes in their ways of life. The literature of Muslims in the modern age reflects the changes that have taken place. Muslim writers, poets and thinkers have adopted new forms of writing to help them make sense of this new world.
Naguib Mahfouz was one of the first writers in a Muslim society to make use of the novel and the short story. Mahfouz used these forms of writing because he wanted to capture the deep changes he was witnessing in Egypt as he grew up. Through his stories, he wanted to explore the problems and issues brought about by these changes. ‘Half a day’ is one of the many stories he has written in which he explores questions of time and change.
In this unit, we will study additional examples of short stories, as well as free verse poetry, from Muslim countries in the modern period.
How does modern literature In Muslim societies reflect the changes that have taken place in recent
WORDS TO LOOK UP
- Fiction • Novel
Free verse • Short story
20th century: Naguib Mahfouz
Write a short story that describes the changes you have seen in your own lifetime Think of an interesting way to present the story so that it captures the attention of the readers.
THINKING ABOUT THE STORY
- In what ways does the story remind you of your own first day at school?
- The father thought of the school as a factory. Why do you think he used this image?
- Who do you think was the middle- aged man that the boy came across after school? Why?
- How did you expect the story to end? Why does it end in the way it does?
Read other novels and short stories which are about changes that have taken place in our modern world. How do the authors describe the impact of these changes on individuals, families and communities?
The changes that have taken place in modern times are too complex to be captured in short stories. To what extent do you agree with this view?
The novel and the short story are modem forms of literature. Why do you think these types of writing arose in recent times and not in the past?
Modern literature in Muslim societies attempts to understand the changes that have taken place in recent-times. New ways of writing have been adopted by poets and writers to describe these changes.
Language and conflict
In the modern period, many societies and communities have suffered from war, exploitation and poverty. Modern works of literature have tried to capture the suffering experienced by individuals, families and communities as a result of these conflicts. In the following story, the very language that we use is seen as one of the causes of conflict, but also a means for attaining peace in the world.
The revolt of the vowels
Everything in the bedroom, which was flooded with an almost unreal red light, suddenly seemed to possess a life of its own. On the corner of the bedside table lay a thick school notebook which rustled softly, as though someone were flipping through the pages. In the early dawn the muezzin’s cry and the cock’s crowing echoed almost in chorus, disturbing the silence interwoven with a multitude of muffled sounds, filling the night that was drawing to a close.
On the other side of town, in a small reed hut, a man turned over in his bed and threw off the sheet, revealing a thin, sun burnt body. His face would have been really handsome were it not for the vacant expression caused by the fact that he had been mute since birth. He sat on the edge of the bed and reached for the carafe which always stood on the three-legged table close at hand. He poured out a whole glass of water, which he drank with obvious pleasure. Then he lit a cigarette and, while inhaling the first puff of the day, he thought of Kamambo, his best friend. He hadn’t seen him for three days. The man’s name was Kiziou. He and Kamambo had been friends since childhood.
When he had taken the last drag of his cigarette and blown out the smoke with satisfaction, a burning desire took hold of our dumb man. As he was to say later, it was like the need to yawn, tickling at his larynx.
At first he thought that it was the cigarette giving him a bad turn. One day, he said to himself, he would have to give up smoking. This thought expressed itself aloud in his head; the words ‘I must stop smoking’, clearly and audibly, caressed his ears. It was like the first gush of a spring in the desert.
Stupefied with joy and surprise, Kiziou savoured the miracle. And he started to say aloud the names of the objects which surrounded him: ‘table’, ‘bed’, ‘chair’. He couldn’t restrain himself and shouted out: ‘sun … trees … sky … flowers’. Yes, it was really true: Kiziou had discovered the word.
In his house along the coast, Kamambo had also woken up. He turned off the bedside lamp and switched on the main light. Then his first action was to pick up the manuscript to finish correcting the passages which he had underlined the previous evening.
At the sight of the first page, his eyes widened and his expression froze in utter surprise and horror. He adjusted his spectacles and drew the pages nearer.
T.R.V.L.T. – laboriously he deciphered what remained where he had written the title of his short story.
Bewildered, he tried to pronounce aloud some of the sentences. But in each of those, too, there was only a series of meaningless consonants …
Kamambo thought that he must have gone mad, that he was suffering from some new, unnamed disease. He rushed into the shower, shaved quickly, slipped on his grey boubou and began to run to town in search of a doctor.
When he reached the small town of Moroni, nothing seemed to have changed … Except in the streets. Now the passers-by no longer greeted one another with ‘Peace be with you’ and other lengthy, polite phrases, but rather in the Hindu manner, slightly nodding their heads.
In the district of Koranic schools, where from the break of day children’s voices normally recited the Arabic alphabets, silence also reigned supreme. Kamambo begin to be disturbed by this silence which had suddenly enveloped the town.
He lengthened his stride and hurried towards the Masiwa Bookshop in search of the only daily newspaper, so that he could find out what was going on. But there was once again, … all the vowels had disappeared – they had disappeared from everything written, making the books and newspapers equally useless.
The same morning some kilometers further to the north of the town, the telephone rang insistently in the office of the President of the Republic. His Ministers were all gathered there. The President himself had been obliged to search them out, one by one, as he had been unable to send any message, either in writing or by telephone: the vowels had also disappeared from the Presidential end … The President lifted the receiver. He said: ‘Hi … hi … hi.’
At the other end of the line he heard, ‘Y.N.C.M.P.T.N.T.F.L.’ …
Whatever the country, whatever the language, as from this Friday in September 199- no more vowels existed.
So everything ground to a halt. No more debates at the United Nations, nor at the OAU, the latter having completely disappeared because of its acronym. The armies of the world became totally immobilised as no orders could be given …
The stock exchanges in Paris, New York, Tokyo, etc., ceased to function. The radio stations were silenced … It was as though there were a gigantic breakdown of the world’s systems of communication, a return to prehistoric times when mankind just grunted instead of using words.
A few days later the situation remained unchanged. Faced with the incomprehensibility of international grunting and the vast expense of attempting to remedy the situation, world leaders and their grand countries launched an appeal for total silence. An appeal, which, naturally, was not understood, But none the less that universal silence came into effect by force of circumstance …
During this worldwide general silence everyone started to look more to himself. In certain countries even buildings and skyscrapers were demolished and barbed-wire fences surrounding military camps were torn down, so that there was enough room for everyone to have his own garden …
However, in the small town of Moroni, a momentous event was about to take place.
- Acronym – a word made up of the first letters of a series of words
- Audibly – capable of being heard
- Carafe – a glass container for water
- Caressed – stroked gently
- Chorus – uttered vat the same time
- Consonants – letters which are not vowels
- Deciphered – made meaning of
- Demolished – pulled down, destroyed
- Force of circumstances – due to the situation
- Gigantic – huge
- Immobilised – brought to a stop
- incomprehensibility – not understandable
- insistently – demanding attention
- laboriously – with great difficulty
- larynx – the voice box in the throat
- manuscript– an author’s document or text being prepared for publishing
- momentous – of great importance
- multitude – a great number
- mute – unable to speak
- OAU – Organisation of African Unity
- obliged- forced
- prehistoric – very ancient
- remedy – correct, cure
- restrain – stop
- savoured – enjoyed
- stock exchanges – places where stocks and shares are bought and sold
- stupefied – astonished, amazed
- vacant – blank
- vowels – Sac letters ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’
one afternoon Kamambo decided to find his friend Kiziou, to get lessons from him in techniques of practical silence and of meaningful gestures … Kiziou threw his arms around his friend’s neck and blurted: ‘I can talk, Kamambo! I can talk!’
Kamambo couldn’t believe his ears. ‘What,’ he thought, ‘Kiziou is now talking!’
He tried to say something himself, but in vain. As always, there was nothing but a meaningless series of consonants.
‘Come on Kamambo,’ said Kiziou, ‘speak to me. Stop making fun of me! You can hear that I can talk. It’s a real miracle.’
Once again Kamambo fried to say something, but he was no more successful than he had been the first time. The expression on his face told Kiziou that his friend was not joking: in truth, he couldn’t utter a single sentence.
Meanwhile, in the Western capitals of the world, the people who couldn’t resign themselves to the silence were trying to find some way of communicating. They thought of pictures, and so television screens were invaded by deaf and dumb people who attempted, for better or worse, to communicate messages. Special films were also produced and distributed throughout the world. Thus it was that even the Comoros became aware of the appeal launched by the United Nations through the medium of television and film. This appeal stated that, among other things, the person who could inform them of what had happened to the vowels would have his every wish granted.
Back in Kiziou’s small hut, once their surprise had passed, Kamambo invited his friend to come with him. Together they went straight to the Presidential palace. There they were taken directly to the Council chamber. At the President’s invitation, Kiziou took the stand and told his story.
The upshot was that that afternoon a plane look off for New York with a large delegation aboard, including the only man in the whole world who could still speak.
Using drums and morse code, an extraordinary meeting of all world leaders was called. Kiziou was welcomed like a true hero. No one could do too much for him.
From eight o’clock that morning the main hall of the United Nations was bursting at its seams. The streets adjoining the remaining skyscrapers were black with crowds. At ten o’clock Kiziou took his place behind the speaker’s rostrum and began to tell his story in front of a barrage of television cameras and photographer’s flashes. He recounted how, deaf and dumb since birth, he had, one fine morning, nevertheless been filled with such a burning desire to talk and how he had pronounced his first sentence.
But just before the end of his speech, to the stupefaction of the entire assembly, he suddenly became inarticulate once again a voice which seemed to come from nowhere continued to deliver it. Heads turned in all directions. Finally, on the corner of a table near the rostrum, one of the delegates noticed that it was five superb vowels on a white page holding forth.
The ‘A’, appearing as a capital letter, spoke first. ‘Human beings.’ he said, ‘for centuries vowels have been subjected to all your moods expressed in your words and in your writings. We have never been able to have our say other than through you- Today, we have had enough. That is why unanimously … we decided to disappear for a few days and to take refuge in Kiziou’s mouth. Why did we do that? Well, we believe that you now recognise our importance, even though we are so few. We have many complaints, but let us start with most important.
We are tired of being subjected to the tyrannical laws imposed by the consonants which separate us, one from another … Only children seem to care that we be permitted the pleasure of meeting one another, and then you call that spelling mistakes. To be honest, only children really communicate with us and each time we wish to meet up with a fellow or sister vowel we have had to depend on them making an error …
When ‘A’ had finished his speech, ‘O’ took her turn: ‘We we also had enough of being included, against our will, in declarations of war, in iniquitous treaties, in unfair agreements and in all the wrongdoings perpetrated on earth by all the human race.’
Nothing that the assembly was showing a strong desire to express itself, the vowels deliberated for a moment. They decided to observe a truce just long enough for the humans to have their say …
The Secretary General of the United Nations, who at that time was a Black African, spoke first: ‘Ladies and gentleman, at last we can talk once more. How wonderful it is to be able to speak! Thanks to you vowels, we have rediscovered the joy of speech. We have listened to your demands, which are quite legitimate, but it must be admitted are difficult to meet …
‘… the industrialised nations cannot live without unjust treaties – that is to say, treaties which preserve their basic interests … This is equally true of all unfair agreements as well as other unjust undertakings …
‘Nevertheless, in order to safeguard the ability which separates mankind from other species that is to say’, the ability to speak – we are prepared to make certain concessions.’
The vowels returned to the platform. This time it was ‘I’ who was their spokesperson. ‘At last we will be able to dot our “i’s” or should I say make things clear to humanity? We demand the right to place ourselves next to the consonant of our choice, and too bad if the word or sentence doesn’t make sense. Secondly, we appreciate that you have a vital need to speak and to write. But we simply refuse to participate in the apocalyptic chaos which you keep causing. Starting today, we will be boycotting certain words, such as “exploitation”, “hate”, “violence”, “power” and especially “war”. That is our final word: take it or leave it’ Much relieved, mankind accepted the vowels’ terms.
Since that day there have never been spelling mistakes in schools and mankind has not been able either to pronounce or to write the words boycotted by the vowels. These words were completely forgotten, as were the concepts to which they used to refer. War, for example, became ‘wr’, a sound of anger, but one which could no longer tumble armies into hostilities. This was the most important result of the historic revolt of the vowels in the year of grace 199-.
- Adjoining – next to, joined with
- apocalyptic – bringing about the end of the world
- barrage – a large number
- boycotting – stop taking part in
- chaos – disorder
- concessions -the giving up of certain demands
- delegation – a group of people sent to a conference
- exploitation – taking advantage of someone for one’s own profit or interest
- extraordinary – special
- inarticulate – unable to speak
- industrialised nations – wealthy countries
- iniquitous – wicked
- legitimate – awful, right, proper
- morse code – a system of signals
- perpetrated – committed, performed
- recounted – narrated
- refuge – shelter –
- relieved- freed from worry
- revolt – rebellion
- rostrum – platform for a speaker
- seams – sides
- spokesperson – person speaking on behalf of others
- stupefaction – astonishment, surprise
- subjected – forced upon
- truce – temporary agreement to stop fighting
- unanimously – with all in agreement
About the author
‘The revolt of the vowels is a short story written by Ahoubacar Ben Said Salim. He is an economist who lives in Comoros. He was born in 1949 in Moroni, the capital of Comoros, and completed his education in France. He has published poems in Mauritius, and is the author of several unpublished short stories.
The islands of Comoros
The Federal Islamic Republic of Comoros consists of three small islands in the Indian Ocean. They are placed midway between the African mainland and Madagascar. The three islands gained their independence from France in 1975. A fourth nearby island chose to remain under French rule.
The population on the islands are descended from Arab, African and Malagasy ethnic groups. French and Arabic are the official languages, and Islam is the main religion on all the islands.
The effects of poverty
The Comoros is one of the world’s poorest nations, and has a high population growth rate. In 2001, of every thousand babies that were born, 84 died. Men expect to live for only 58 years and women for 63 years. In 1999, there was only one doctor for every 11,000 people. In 1996, only a quarter of secondary- school age children were enrolled in schools.
In recent years, there has been conflict between the different islands over the unity of Comoros as a single country.
About the story
The events in the story unfold in the small town of Moroni, the capital of the Comoros islands. There are two main characters in the story: Kiziou, who suffers from speech disability, and Kamambo a writer who is Kiziou’s friend.
A changing of roles
In the first part of the story, Kiziou and Kamambo’s roles become reversed. On waking up one morning, Kiziou finds that through some strange miracle he can talk. Kamambo, on the other hand, cannot make sense of anything he has written.
A case of vanished vowels
It is not only Kamambo who has lost his ability to speak, it is also all the other human beings. For some unexplainable reason, the vowels have disappeared from everyone’s speech and writing. The only exception is Kiziou.
In the second part of the story we learn the reason for the loss of language. Our attention switches from Kiziou to the vowels who become the centre of attention.
The vowels give two reasons why they have rebelled by refusing to be part of any words. One is a linguistic reason – they have been divided by consonants and wish to live together. The other reason is ethical – they do not want to be part of words that form a vocabulary of violence. The humans have no choice but to agree to their terms.
A satire on conflict
The revolt of the vowels’ is a satire about conflict and division in the modern world. A satire is a form of writing in literature which ridicules or mocks some aspect of human life in order to reveal its foolishness or wickedness.
Controlling people through words
In ‘The revolt of the vowels’, the author is concerned about the difference in wealth and power between the rich nations and the poorer countries of the world. One way in which the rich exercise power over the poor is through the use of language. Unjust treaties and unfair agreements ensure that the wealth remains with the richer nations. These treaties rely on words, phrases and sentences to state their conditions and demands.
Language as a target of satire
Aboubacar Salim therefore aims his satire at the use of language. In the story, the whole of humanity is made speechless simply through the absence of a few letters in the alphabet. One result of the vowels’ revolt is that the richer nations lose their power over the poor ones. Since it is through the use of language that the rich control the poor, it is now language itself which makes the rich helpless.
Finding a voice for the poor
In this crisis that affects the whole world, it is a mute person from one of the poorest countries of the world who becomes a means for saving all human beings. Kiziou stands for the vast numbers of people in the poor countries who do not have a voice. In Salims satire Kiziou alone gains a voice while everyone else loses their power of speech. It is through Kiziou that a new language is born, a language without division and violence.
The violence of language
We witness and experience the violence of language in our every-day lives. At school, it may take the form of name-calling. In communities, racist abuse points to ignorance and hatred among groups of people. Between opposing nations, we find words of division and enmity.
Words may not physically harm us, but they can cause deep wounds in our hearts and minds: Words can bring people together, but they can also serve as instruments of exploitation, hate, violence, unjust power and war.
A world without violence?
Aboubacar Salim’s satire leaves us thinking about some interesting questions. If there were no words of violence in our language, would we be peaceful beings? Does the kind of language we use create the kind of world in which we live?
How does modern literature help us to think more deeply about problems facing our world?
WORDS TO LOOK UP
• 20th century: Aboubacar Ben Said Salim
Think of a major issue that affects communities around the world today. Write a satire that makes readers aware of this issue, and the reasons why it is not being properly addressed.
THINKING ABOUT THE STORY
- Why is the story set in Comoros? Would it make a difference to the message of the story if the characters were from a rich country?
- Why do you think the author chose a person who could not speak to become a voice for
- Does the author feel that it is only the rich nations who are to blame for misusing language?
- The word ‘war’ is not always used to mean violence. For example, we can fight a war against poverty. How would the vowels reply to this use of language?
Identity other stories in modem works which are about poverty, war and exploitation. Which ones of these have been presented as satire by the authors?
Literature can only make us aware of social ills and conflicts; it cannot do much to remove them. Examine arguments for and against this view.
What are some of the ways in which the use of language divides societies? How can language be a means of creating greater understanding between people with different histories and cultures?
In the modem period, many societies and communities have suffered from war, exploitation and poverty. Modern works of literature, Including those from Muslim societies, make people aware of the suffering caused by[these conflicts.
New voices in the modern age
In modern times, a new voice is emerging that was not often heard in the past. It is the voice of women writers and poets. In all parts of the world, women face a major struggle to express their views and ideas. They have to overcome many prejudices before their writings are accepted. Women writers in Muslim societies face this struggle too. Here is a short story from an Egyptian female author which deepens our understanding of this struggle.
That beautiful undiscovered voice
Everything had started quite naturally in accordance with the usual daily rites: the rooms were tidied and cleaned, the plates were laid awaiting the food, the radio, turned down low, was chattering out the afternoon news, which in general was the same as usual. Abdul Hamid, however, felt that there was a certain unease affecting his wife she was not entering into the conversation with him as she should.
‘What is it, Sayyida?’ he asked her.
‘Nothing,’ she replied glumly and went off to the kitchen, pleading that the tea was boiling over. But when she returned she seemed even more distressed and allowed the teapot to fall on the floor as she was pouring the tea into the glasses. Abdul
Hamid again asked her what was wrong in a disapproving tone. She shyly whispered back that she wanted to talk to him about something, but that she was too embarrassed…
‘Hope it’s all right,’ he said guessing at what the news would be. She would no doubt be asking for money … or would try to persuade him that the monthly expenses had gone up. There was no other subject Sayyida would be embarrassed to talk about … He took a sip of the almost black tea, and said to her between clenched teeth. ‘Out with it!’
From deep down inside her Savyida tried to thrust her courage up to her tongue and to utter what she wanted to say, but her courage quickly slipped back again into its abyss. Her voice emerged weak and timid.
‘The fact of the matter is I’ve discovered … that my voice has become extremely beautiful.’
Abdul Hamid fastened his gaze on her for several seconds, during which he remained at a loss. Then he burst into hysterical laughter, as though he had just heard a joke without an end. Blood gushed to his brain making his puffed-up head look like a red balloon on the point of bursting …
‘Just listen, first.’
He seated himself and she began to recount to him exactly what had happened to her. After he had left for work in the morning, and after the children had gone off to their schools, she had as usual remained alone in the house and set about her housework … After the call to the noon prayer she had said to herself, ‘Go off, my girl, to the bathroom and pour a pail of. water over yourself and you will feel refreshed and get rid of the dirt.’
It was after Sayvida had washed her head a couple of times … that it occurred to her to sing … No sooner had she begun with the song ‘I love the life of freedom’ than she felt as though some other person had come into the bathroom with her and had begun to sing in her place. The voice was not her own voice, the one she was accustomed to; instead it was a beautiful melodious voice wholly unrelated to her own.
She immediately splashed some water on her eyes to get rid of he soap and gazed round the bathroom. She wheeled about in search of a human being or some other creature, while invoking God’s name and seeking to be protected from the Devil. But her eyes fell on nothing but the single window, which was firmly closed … When she was sure that there was no sound except that of the water flowing over her body, she continued with her singing of ‘I love the life of freedom’. The voice that issued from her was even more beautiful, clear and strong. …
‘ … Imagine, my dear Abdul Hamid, I found that my voice was … a voice that might have issued from Paradise, a magical voice that was unrivalled in this world. To tell you the truth, I was delighted and at peace with myself. The sensation of fear had left my heart, for I felt it was impossible that the voice was that of a djinn; it was a human voice, a completely
natural voice and yet very different from my old one.’
Then looking into his eyes with a deep contentment, she said, ‘Please, Abdul Hamid, please just listen to me.’ And she began to sing.
But Abdul Hamid silenced her with a resolute look. It was as though he hadn’t heard anything of what she had said. He then asked her if she had told anyone but himself of the matter. When she confirmed to him that the thing had happened only a few hours ago and that she had not met a soul since he had left in the morning, he heaved a sigh of relief and asked her to forget the whole thing. ‘And don’t bring the subject up with anyone whatsoever, and especially not with the children.’ She was annoyed that he didn’t believe her and swore by all that was holy that what she had said had really and truly happened.
The tears gathered £n her eyes as she denied that she’d gone soft in the head …
For the rest of the day things went on as usual, and Sayyida almost forgot what had happened to her that morning …
But in the evening, when she was on her own, Abdul Hamid having gone to sleep, she thought confusedly as to what she really was going to do about her voice, that beautiful voice that she had suddenly discovered was buried inside her, like someone who has come across a wonderful treasure and doesn’t know what to do with it. She began actively to think, but always came back to the same logical answer: a beautiful voice is made for singing. So why didn’t she sing and let people hear her voice? … What was wrong with people listening to someone’s voice regardless of age or whether he was a man or a woman? She was more or less convinced by this line of thought, when she became possessed of an overwhelming desire to sit in the bed and sing ‘0 sweetness of The world, 0 sweetness’.
So she started to sit down but, just as she was about to open her mouth and begin, Abdul Hamid turned over in bed and became aware of her. He looked at her anxiously and asked, ‘What’s wrong, Sayyida?’
She said she was on her way to the kitchen for a drink of water because her mouth was a bit dry.
- abyss – a deep opening or crack
- accustomed to – used to
- clenched – closed tightly
- contentment – satisfaction
- disapproving – displeased
- distressed – worried, disturbed
- djinn – being made of fire
- glumly – gloomily
- heaved – let out, uttered
- hysterical – uncontrollable
- invoking – calling upon
- issued – came cut
- melodious- musical
- Overwhelming – overpowering
- possessed – overcome
- resolute – determined
- unrivalled – having no equal
On the following morning after Abdul Hamid and the children had gone, she again heard that beautiful voice that sounded so fascinating, unearthly and overflowing with power and purity. She was seized with a feeling that she was some other being, with no connection with the Sayyida she knew, the Sayyida that dusted and swept and did her head up in a kerchief each day because she couldn’t find the time to put a comb through her hair. She quickly rinsed her hands of soap … and ran to the minor. Standing in front of it, she sang. ‘I love the of freedom’ and her voice rang out anew; strong, pure and clear, like some priceless jewel …
She felt she was beautiful, perhaps for the first time for quite a while. This feeling came to her and it rejuvenated her. She stood looking at her face, reproaching herself for the way she had left her eyebrows untrimmed, embarrassed to find a slight moustache under her nose, sorry to have so neglected her hair. Then she felt anger at herself. Why had she let herself go in this way, while possessing within her this beautiful voice? She stood there and came to a decision: ‘In order to sing I am obliged to feel beautiful. Yes, by God – obliged.’
Sayyida quickly put on her clothes, for she must go down to the street to buy vegetables and bread before Abdul Harnid and the children returned home …
Her state of excitement remained with her even as she entered Isa the grocer’s shop to buy some cheese and macaroni and ten eggs. Old Isa had no need to scrutinise her closely to notice that she was distraught. ‘Why are you upset, Mrs Sayvida, so early of a morning?’ he asked her .., He was astonished when, suddenly, he found her bursting into tears and sobbing like someone who has lost someone dear to them.
Isa took her by the hand and sat her down in her chair, then opened a bottle of fizzy lemonade for her …
When she had recovered, she said, ‘Listen, Uncle Isa, I need to talk to you about something, something slightly personal, on condition you try to understand me and don’t talk to Abdul Hamid about it …
Uncle Isa sensed that the matter was indeed grave, and he was seized by an irresistible desire to hear a family secret … so ho drew up a chair and sat down close to her so that he might not miss so much as a word.
‘It’s happened that I’ve discovered my voice,’ she said, as though divulging a solemn secret, and she began to relate to him what had happened to her and the words that had passed between her and Abdul Hamid. The man did not laugh, or utter so much as a word – as they say in books. When she had finished her story and said to him, smiling with embarrassment, that she was ready to let him hear her beautiful voice … he serutinised her pityingly and replied, ‘Drink up the lemonade Sayyida.’
Without drinking the lemonade, she took up the things she had bought from him and left. When, in the afternoon, Abdul Hamid returned, and while they were having their lunch, he told her that, on his way home, he had bought some matches from the shop of Isa the grocer, and that he was going to the doctors that evening and that she must accompany him.
When they arrived at the clinic of the psychologist. Savyida was partly convinced about her husband’s idea. He had said that he loved her and that he wanted only her good and that of the children and that psychological illness was like any other illness ad that there was nothing to be shamed about. In fact it was quite curable, but tile important thing was to treat it quickly, right at the beginning. Thanks be to God, there was nothing wrong with her, but the story of the voice had perhaps come about through being exhausted with housework, or some hidden problem inside her she wasn’t ware of; because the inner part of every human being is a vast bottomless sea, and the spirit’s secret is deeply hidden, with the Almighty alone knowing what is in the inmost depths of every human …
‘ … The fact is, this morning you told Isa the grocer, but tomorrow or the day after, against your will, you could tell someone else, or something could happen that would make us a laughing-stock in front of people, and all sorts of things could be said about you …
They entered the doctor’s office and sat down. … Abdul Hamid started off telling him the story in brief. But the doctor, rapping the glass top of his desk with his pen, asked him to let her tell it; so Sayyida recounted everything that had happened to her from the very moment she had entered the bath, right up to her conversation with Isa the grocer.
When she had completed all she had to say, noticing that the man had listened attentively without any interruption, she asked him, smiling with pleasure because of her feeling that he understood her situation, ‘Could I sing you a little song, doctor?’
No sign of interest showed itself on the doctor’s features. He looked as though he were accustomed to such things. He didn’t smile, he didn’t frown, and he made no reply. He merely wrote some words in a foreign language on a piece of paper and gave it to the husband with the words, ‘Three pills of the first kind daily, after each meal, and one of the others every evening before she goes to bed.’
The others went out as usual next morning and she remained alone in the house. She got up sluggishly, without enthusiasm dragging her body along, to tidy up the rooms and sweep.
While in the bedroom she came face to face with herself in the mirror. She contemplated herself in her nightgown: a pallid yellowish face, despite its fullness, listless eyes, and expressionless features, like those of someone from whom life had absented itself. She pulled herself together and tried to sing, ‘0 sweetness of the world, 0 sweetness’. She made an effort but no sound came from her. She cleared her throat and tried ‘I love the life of freedom’, but in no way would the voice imprisoned in her throat come forth. It was as if it were stoppered by an enormous cork. She cleared her throat again and finally decided to practise scales. She was surprised to hear the old voice, the voice she had known since she had first become aware of life, her own voice, weak and hoarse and devoid of any beauty, clarity or strength. She contemplated herself again. Her face was her face of old, the face she had known in times past. She gave a bitter smile, shaking her head with sorrow then took up the two boxes of pills to flush them down the lavatory.
- accompany – go with
- contemplated – looked thoughtfully
- distraught – upset with worry
- divulging – revealing
- hoarse – rough and deep, croaking
- kerchief – a cloth to cover the head
- laughing-stock – a person open to ridicule
- listless – lacking energy or enthusiasm
- macaroni – a tubular form of pasta
- obliged – forced
- pallid – pale
- personal – private, related to one’s sell
- psychological – to do with how the mind affects a persons behaviour
- psychologist – a doctor who treats mental illnesses –
- rapping – sharp tapping
- rejuvenated – made young
- reproaching – expressing disapproval
- scales – musical notes arranged in a sequence
- scrutinised – locked closely, Examined
- solemn – serious
- stoppered – plugged
About the author
‘That beautiful undiscovered voice’ is a short story written by Salwa Bakr; an Egyptian writer of fiction. Salwa Bakr was born in Cairo in 1949. Her father was a railway worker who died before she was born. While at university, she studied management and drama criticism. She worked as a rationing inspector for the government, and then as a journalist in Beirut and Cyprus. She now lives in Cairo and devotes her time to writing.
Writing about women
Salwa Bakr is the author of several novels and collections of short stories. Her first novel is about a group of women prisoners. It is about the stories of poor women, who have been forced to run away, steal or kill, or have become mad. The background in the novel is drawn from Salwa Bakr’s own experiences in prison. She was arrested for taking part in protests as a university student and jailed for a short period.
One of her favourite authors is Chekhov a Russian who was a master of short story telling. Another favourite author is Cervantes, a medieval Spanish writer.
About the story
‘That beautiful undiscovered voice’ is a story about an ordinary middle-aged woman called Sayyida. Sayyida is both a wife and a mother. For many years, she has performed her duties as a good housewife without any complaints.
A hidden talent
One morning, Sayyida discovers that she has a marvelous talent for singing which she had not noticed before. At first, she cannot believe that this beautiful voice is her own. But soon, she is convinced of her hidden talent and wishes to share it with others.
Not taken seriously
When Sayyida tells her husband about her amazing discovery, he ridicules her and warns her not to make a clown of herself before others. She shares her secret with Uncle Isa, the grocer, who too does not take her seriously. Before long she finds herself taken to the psychiatrist by her husband. The doctor prescribes her some medicine and sees her off.
A beautiful voice lost
‘The next day’, Salwa finds that she has lost her beautiful voice. None of the three men she shares her secret with – her husband, the grocer and the doctor – gives her a chance to sing so that she can prove to them what she is claiming.
With her voice remaining undiscovered, Salwa returns to her old way of life as a housewife.
‘That beautiful undiscovered voice’ reflects a form of writing called tragicomedy. The story weaves together both tragedy and comedy.
At some points is in the story, the author portrays the characters in a humorous way; the middle-aged housewife with a slight moustache, the embarrassed husband, the curious grocer, and the doctor with a quick prescription.
But there is also a deep tragedy in the story. We feel sorry for Sayyida as she tries unsuccessfully to make the people around her listen to her voice. She is dismissed for claiming to be talented.
Fighting against attitudes
Sayyida battles hard against these attitudes. ‘What was wrong with people listening to someone’s voice regardless of age or whether he was a man or a woman?’ she asks. She wants people to judge her on what she has to contribute, rather than on who she is.
Freedom to be creative
‘Love the life of freedom’, sings Sayyida. Sayyida has found a new freedom that she has not known before in her life. It is the freedom to be creative and imaginative, and express herself. It is the freedom to be a wife and a mother but also her own talented self.
Climbing a steep mountain
However, the customs and biases of her society are too strong. To have this kind of freedom is looked down upon by her society. To hope for her voice to be recognised is to climb a steep mountain. Sayyida does not have the strength to do so, and so she falls back into her closed world where her talent remains undiscovered.
Most of the characters in Salwa Bakr’s stories are women from a poor background who are struggling for basic necessities of life. They try bard to change their situation, but they are often met with stiff resistance.
The role of women
Salwa Bakr wishes to make people aware of the unjust and biased attitudes that exist in modern societies. She wants to make people think more deeply about human relationships, and especially the role of women.
The need for literature
In one of the interviews she has given, Salwa Bakr discusses the link between a society and its literature; … ‘in our days, we need literature. We live in a time when the boundaries between good and bad are obscured. Literature is a means to clarify, to distinguish between the two.’
Women writers in Muslim societies
Salwa Bakr is one of the growing numbers of women writers in Muslim societies. Their works give us a deeper understanding of the relations between men and women. They point to the need for reform to protect women who suffer from ill-treatment, injustice, abuse and violence.
In some countries, women writers have to struggle hard for their works to be published. Like Sayyida, their voices remain undiscovered and have yet to be heard.
What new voices are being reflected in modern Muslim literature?
20th century: Salwa Bakr
One of the voices which we do not find in the literature of the past is that of youths. Write a short story that highlights the need for the voice of youths to be heard.
THINKING ABOUT THE STORY
- Why was Sayyida afraid to talk about her discovery to her husband? What does it show us about their relationship?
- Why did Hamid ask his wife if she had told anyone about her voice? How did he view her behaviour?
- Why were the three men not willing to listen to Sayyida sing? Would they have changed their minds if they had heard her sing?
- The story is about a middle-aged woman trying to sing. What other meanings can we find in the story?
Read additional stories by wormen writers from different cultures that raise awareness about issues related to the role of women in society. What are some of the common concerns reflected in these stories?
It does not matter who you are. It is what you say that matters. Examine arguments for and against this view.
What are some of the factors that have hindered women from becoming writers? To what extent do these factors still exist in modem societies?
Modern literature includes the voices of women writers and poets that were not often heard in the past. However, in many parts of the World, women face difficulties in expressing their views and Ideas.
To build a nest of dreams with words
In this book, we have explored many voices, many writings. Some have been poems and others prose. Some have been from the distant past, and others from our own time. Through them, we have tried to gain an understanding of language and literature in Muslim cultures.
In reading the stories and poems in this book, we have seen the dance of language across the centuries. We have caught a few notes of a song that does not have an end. Much still remains to be discovered, much to he created.
We end this book with a poem written in free verse by an Iraqi poetess named Nazik al-Malaika. The poem is about words.
Love Song for Words
Why do we fear words?
They can be rose-petal hands,
Cool, fragrant hands stroking our faces,
And sometimes cups of refreshing drink
Sipped in summer by thirsty lips.
Why do we fear words?
Some words are secret bells, the echoes
of their tone announce the start of a magic
And abundant time
Steeped in feeling and life,
So why should we fear words?
We took to silence
We did not want our secrets to pass our lips
We thought that words amassed an unseen monster
Pent up inside the letters, biding from the ear of time
So we battened down words
And did not let them spread the night for us
With a pillow of music, fragrance, hopes,
And warn cups.
Why do we fear words
They are a back door of love through which
Tomorrows come, uncertain
Let us raise from words the drape of silence
They are a window of light in which appears
All that we have hidden and kept covered in our depths.
When will this tedious silence ever find
That now we love the words again?
And why do we fear words?
They are the friends that come to us
From distant spaces in the soul
They surprise us, catch us unaware,
And sing far us, and a thousand ideas are born
Ideas that were dominant in us, never before expressed
But the friendly words, the words
Offer them as gifts:
Why should we not love words?
Why do we fear words?
Yesterday their thorns may have wounded us
But often they have taken us up in their arms
Perfuming with their sweetness our desire
If they stung us
If they left us cold
How many times did they touch us with a promise
Tomorrow they will lavish on us life and roses
Ah! Let them brim, our cups, with words!
One day we will build a nest of dreams with words
High up. a trellis for the ivies
Fed with poetry
Watered with words
We will build a balcony for modest roses
Its pillars made of words
And a pathway floating in the deep shade
Shielded by words …
1. Awakening to a changed world
- What is the main subject of the story, ‘Half a day’?
- Why is the boy reluctant to go to school?
- What does he notice about the street leading to the school?
- What does the boy experience once he is inside the school gates?
- What does the boy find when he leaves school?
- Why is he called ‘grandpa at the end of the story?
- What is this story trying to convey to its readers?
2. Language and conflict
- What is the main storyline in ‘The revolt of the vowels’?
- What does Kiziou discover one morning when he wakes up?
- What happens to Kamambo and other people that same morning?
- Why have the vowels revolted against human beings?
- What are their conditions for restoring speech to humans?
- What are some of the messages that this story is trying to convey?
3. New voice in the modern age
- What is the story by Salwa Bakr about?
- What kind of discovery does Sayyida make one morning? What are her first reactions?
- What happens later- that day?
- What kind of character is Sayyida? What kind of man is her husband?
- What are the reactions of the husband, the grocer and the doctor when Sayyida tells them about her discovery?
- What does the story teach us about the attitudes of people towards women in Sayyida’s society?
4. To build a nest of dreams with words
- What is the main subject of the poem?
- Why does the poet feel that we should not fear words?
- What are some of the things that the poet compares words with?
- How does the poet see the future?
NOTE: These six posts dealing with ‘intellectual aspect of Life’ were part of the IIS compilation titled ‘ON THE WINGS OF THE WORD’; I hope to post other contents in future which will cover the ‘Din’ and ‘Dunya’. I hope that serious readers of the blog would have noticed the thrust of this compilation to advocate the ‘Intellectual‘ approach as opposed to a ritualistic approach towards matters of faith.