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In Medicines of the Soul, the autobiographical writings of three leading women in today's Islamic revival movement reveal dramatic stories of religious transformation. As interpreted by Fedwa Malti-Douglas, the autobiographies provide a powerful, groundbreaking portrayal of gender, religion, and discourses of the body in Arabo-Islamic culture. At the center of each story is a lively female Islamic spirituality that questions secular hierarchies while reaffirming patriarchal ones.
If Karîmân Hamza's spiritual journey saved her from a potential physical death, how much more dramatic a story is that of the Moroccan Leïla Lahlou, afflicted with a very serious disease, breast cancer. Lahlou's saga is quite memorable, detailing the case of a body ravaged by cancer and submitted to medical treatment. Ultimately, however, it is religion that will bring the cure. The intersection of this afflicted body with religion and the divine will be explored in chapter 5. The nexus of the female body and medicine is equally crucial, as the corporal intertwines in fascinating ways with the medical and the geographical. Various geographies manifest themselves as the mutating cancerous body traverses the globe.
Like her sisters in the Islamic revival movement who undergo dramatic spiritual experiences, Leïla Lahlou relates her journey in the first person. Do Not Forget God (Falâ Tansa Allâh) is the title of her book. More correctly, the title should be translated as So Do Not Forget God, but it will be rendered here as Do Not Forget God. Originally written in Arabic, the work has appeared in multiple editions and was translated into French as N'oublie pas Dieu. This French translation is unfortunately littered with errors (mistranslations, omissions of important materials like the religious intertext, etc.). Nevertheless, it will be used below at a specific stage in the analysis.
The injunction not to forget the Deity is in the masculine singular. True, strictly speaking, grammatically the use of the male gender could include the female. But why stretch the linguistic limits when one is speaking, of all things, about breast cancer, an essentially female affliction? The significance of this grammatical choice will become evident as the analytical journey continues.
This title also stands out not so much because of what it includes (i.e., the male gender) as because of what it excludes. In the context of other works written by women and emanating from the Islamic revival movement, Do Not Forget God also singles itself out because of its absence of the personal. There is no reference here to "my journey," as in the work of Karîmân Hamza or in the work briefly discussed, Rihlatî min al-Zalamât ilâ al-Nûr (My Journey from Darkness to Light) by Shams al-Bârûdî. Do Not Forget God is also far from L'Islam, la femme, et l'intégrisme: Journal d'une jeune femme européenne (Islam, Woman, and Integrism: Journal of a Young European Woman), the spiritual saga of Sultana Kouhmane, the Moroccan-Belgian Islamic activist who will figure prominently below. It is precisely its nature as an injunction that permits Lahlou's title to transcend the personal and address itself to both the male and female genders.
But the story Leïla tells about her breast cancer is quite gender specific. Leïla's narrative eschews absolute chronology: the sequence of events is there but not their dates.
Leïla discovers her breast cancer herself as she is taking a bath. A visit to her Moroccan physician is followed by more medical tests in Belgium: she is diagnosed with cancer. The chemotherapy treatment is administered in Morocco, but due to illness Leïla is obliged to return to Belgium for more medical attention. Belgium is then followed by a diagnostic trip to France. All the physical examinations confirm the identical result: a serious cancer which has already metastasized. In Paris, before undertaking further treatment, Leïla and her husband decide to perform the umra, the little pilgrimage to Mecca.
On the umra, Leïla maintains an ascetic regimen consisting of an egg, bread, and water from the sacred well of Zamzam, a regimen that leads to the disappearance of the lumps in her body. Medical tests in France after the umra confirm this finding. Nevertheless, the French physician recommends treatment to eliminate any vestige of the cancer in her lungs. Leïla returns home, where she becomes ill. Then follows a series of treatments in both Europe and Morocco. Her return to Morocco only means time spent between the hospital and her home. The month of Ramadân finds her in a worsened state in which she is losing consciousness, and the physician decides to send her home to her family. Her family members are worried that Leïla's end is near and have very little hope of her coming out of her coma. She, however, felt that she was not in a coma, but rather in an extended sleep. It is during this state that the Prophet Muhammad appears to Leïla in a dream and wipes his hand on her head, effecting a cure. Leïla awakens, walks energetically, and recounts the incident to her family, whose members are very pleased. She spends much of the night in prayer, and this happy event signals at once the end of Leïla's first-person narrative as well as her cure "from this dangerous illness."
In her introduction, Leïla Lahlou alerts her reader to the fact that hers is a factual story. But this is not only a true story - it is a highly dramatic one as well. It is not just the corporal cure from a dreaded breast cancer that the reader witnesses. Throughout the drama, the female body plays a most important role. This should not perhaps come as a surprise, since, after all, breast cancer is first and foremost a condition of the female body.
This cancerous female body which is Leïla's plays, however, on more than just the narrative stage that is the spiritual journey detailed in Do Not Forget God. What can be called breast-cancer narratives - that is, texts recounting a woman's experience with breast cancer - are proliferating, much as the illness seems to be. Be it in English or other western languages, women rush to narrate their experience with the disease. The task here is not bibliographical. As Barbara Seaman puts it: "Breast-cancer books written by patients are not entirely new." Simply, by calling attention to the generic types of works that discuss breast cancer, it becomes easier to see the contribution of the Moroccan Leïla Lahlou.
Discussions by women of breast cancer can be on the level of cultural discourse analysis or on the level of personal testimony. Susan Sontag's groundbreaking work, Illness as Metaphor, is one of the best-known studies of the cultural languages of cancer. Emanating from a personal experience (the author was diagnosed with breast cancer), Sontag's work goes beyond the personal to comment on societal attitudes to disease. The personal narratives of women suffering from this killer condition abound, and they can range from autobiography, such as Joyce Wadler's My Breast, to play, such as Elisabeth Gille's Le crabe sur la banquette arrière. These examples, which can be multiplied, demonstrate clearly that a woman's detailing her experience with breast cancer is not a peculiar phenomenon. On this world literary stage, Leïla Lahlou becomes one of many female players.
If one moves, however, from the world stage to the Islamic stage, be it in North Africa or the Middle East, then the story is different, Leïla's role becomes more unusual. Other women have written of cancer. Abla al-Ruwaynî's eloquent work on her late husband, the poet Amal Dunqul, who was afflicted with this disease, would be one such example. Then there is a short story by the Egyptian feminist physician-writer, Nawal El Saadawi, in which the central character is diagnosed with breast cancer. Other narrative differences aside, this fictional creation, by its nature as a short story, cannot be seen in the same way as Lahlou's extended narrative.
One Arab woman has written of her breast-cancer experience: Evelyne Accad. A Lebanese-American, Accad was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994. She published excerpts from her cancer diary in Al-Raida, the Lebanese journal of the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World. Professor Accad's cancer entries, detailing as they do her diagnosis and her treatment, are quite revealing. Following a surgical procedure, she writes: "From now on, I belonged to all my sisters who have been mutilated, subjected to a mastectomy, hysterectomy, clitoridectomy, i.e., all the ectomies." Despite the explicit link to clitoridectomy, Accad writes from an extra-Middle Eastern locus: her diagnosis is in the West, as is her treatment.
This western perspective means that Lahlou's text is still part of a minority opinion. Something else sets Leïla Lahlou apart in the Middle Eastern and North African context, however: her frank discussions of the female body. To bare this body before the reader is, to say the least, striking. The female body is an obsession in certain contemporary revivalist discourses, but it is the female body as an object that must be occulted rather than the female body as an object to be examined and analyzed, as it is in Lahlou's autobiographical narrative. When one adds to this the fact that Islam is part and parcel of Leïla's text, the fact that she exposes her female body when this body should literally be covered is significant.
Even more extraordinary is the trajectory that this body takes on its journey from a medical diagnosis of breast cancer to a spiritual "cure" from this dreaded disease. The female body crosses geographical borders as it crosses medical frontiers, becoming along the way a participant in a transnational discourse of the female body. From Casablanca to Brussels, from Paris to Mecca, the reader follows the female hero on her various trajectories.
The centrality of the geographical component appears in the opening sentences of this spiritual journey. The first words Leïla utters as a narrator are: "From the plane ..." She is on the plane, returning from her journey to Mecca. This beginning underlines the significance of geography and displacement. In addition, this is an event that takes place later than its actual narrative location, given that the reader does not yet know from the journey itself (though that is clear from the introduction) that the narrator: (a) has breast cancer; (b) will pursue medical treatment; and (c) will have a corporal intervention in Mecca. To use Gérard Genette's terminology, this constitutes a prolepsis, a chronological intrusion in the narrative in which an event occurs chronologically after its actual placement in the narrative. While the present task is not the examination of these intrusions in the narrative, one needs nevertheless to keep in mind the nature of this event and its importance as a marker. It sets the entire breast-cancer journey under the sign of religion and the holy. And since the narrator makes a point of bragging about her health on this return journey from Mecca, it means that the reader is alerted from the beginning of the work that the narrator will win her corporal battle with cancer.
If, however, the journey from Mecca is viewed not so much as a prolepsis in the cancer narrative but as the true beginning of the narrative of spiritual salvation, then the entire following story becomes an analepsis, an event that takes place before its actual location in the narrative. In fact, any autobiographical project constitutes an anachrony of sorts, since the events narrated have all taken place before the process of narration has even occurred. In Leïla's case, this process is heightened by the opening setting of the narrative, in which the chronology of salvation is the opening marker.
Leïla's body is, hence, from the beginning, a body in movement. Perhaps one of the most important loci for an analysis of this body in movement is the medical environment, an environment that shifts continuously between two continents, Europe and Africa. It has been decades since Michel Foucault made it clear that the clinic and medicine are their own purveyors of discourse. Of course, Foucault is far from alone now. Western cultural critics have delved into the fruitful areas of medicine and literature and, recently, Kathryn Montgomery Hunter has eloquently demonstrated the textual strategies inherent in medical texts, from the fictional to the case history. And this is not to speak of Elaine Scarry's groundbreaking work.
The nexus of medicine and the body, as cultural constructs, has, unfortunately, only barely begun to attract the attention of critics in the area of Middle Eastern studies. And this despite the fact that the physician-writer looms quite large on the literary scene. Names likes those of the male Yûsuf Idrîs and the female Nawal El Saadawi should already be familiar. Both are exceptionally conscious of the body and capitalize on their medical knowledge in much of their fiction.
Of course, fictional creations exploiting medicine and corporality are one thing, autobiographical journeys involving a diseased body, another. Medicine in Leïla's journey is a powerful tool that vies with religion in its efficacy. In her narrative, however, it is not simply medicine that plays an important role. The appended medical documents themselves create their own alternate narrative, providing a parallel reading of the spiritual saga. Perhaps, for a western audience, it needs to be said that these Moroccan physicians in Lahlou's text are working in the identical western-origin scientific medical tradition as their western counterparts. There is no discordance or break between the two groups.
To start at the beginning may seem like an obvious step. In this case, however, it is more than that. Leïla's initial visit to her physician in Casablanca immediately after her own discovery of the abnormality in her breast proves to be a crucial event. With one voice, the members of Leïla's family urge her to go to Dr. Yacoubi's clinic.
"The doctor ... Your doctor ... The specialist in women ... Are you going to go to him?" I did not answer ... And it was as though the questions had been posed to an individual other than me ... I threw myself on them and hugged them warmly as though I were asking for help even from the doctor ... Yes ... The doctor ... The examination! The questions! Pressing on my breast ...
Leïla imagines a conversation with the physician in which she beseeches him not to inform her family of her condition and asks him if her breasts will be cut off, "like the breasts of so-and-so were cut off?" She continues: "No. By God I will not go and will never go. Leave me alone. I want to sleep." Despite her hesitation, Leïla goes to the physician. Dr. Yacoubi, the gynecologist, appears in the text as jovial and friendly. Nevertheless, Leïla is speechless once she enters his office and wishes that her husband would broach another topic with the medical specialist. This inability to speak stands in opposition to the imaginary conversation between Leïla and her physician. There, the female patient could give voice to her fear about her potential physical mutilation.
Excerpted from Medicines of the Soul by FEDWA MALTI-DOUGLAS Copyright © 2001 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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