Book review: A Southern Woman in Athens – taking the side of the upper class

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Friday 17 Jan 2020

Saeidya Fi Athena (“A Southerner in Athens”), by Aicha El Saady. Al-Dar Al-Masriah Al-Lubnaniah, 2019.

In her first published collection of short stories, Aicha El Saady takes us into a woman’s world from different angles, social statuses, wealth, feelings, actions and plots.

In the story that the collection is named after, the words just flow, describing life in Upper Egypt, the poverty, and the middle class that has disappeared in Sohag governorate, then the de facto love story between young Sahar and her cousin Raafat, who becomes her husband, as they achieve their dream of love with no difficulty.

The next step is moving to Greece to look for a better future. In a few pages, eighteen years pass, they have three kids, the husband loses his job and eventually the whole family returns to Egypt after a hard life in Greece. The couple worked hard in a foreign land and all they got were Greek passports and stories that the husband tells his friends on their outings, while the wife plots good marriages for her “Greek” daughters who now have a higher social status.

The story is common but not discussed in depth; people migrate and do not really succeed, the purposes in travelling are not really clear, and the plans are lacking. The writer was able to put all these ideas in perspective; migration is no longer the dream that it once was. A change in social status will not occur without education, and in the end, the migrant’s return, even though it is certainly not a failure, it is not a success story.    

In short stories in general, critics try to find unity in a collection. In Saeidya Fi Athena, the writer made that unity easy to find. The author decided to adopt the “clean” literature concept in her stories. In her 20 short stories, all of the narrators are women except one. They are all examples of decent women with strong moral references, and none of them fall into sin or crime. They are simply good women according to the normal standard of what women “should be.”

In her story “Revenge,” she was able to write the story from the husband’s point of view. He is a man happy with his wife and the role she chose as a housekeeper and mother of children; basically a traditional woman who does not require much in life. She let herself go, is overweight, does not like to go out socially and with his increased wealth he justifies to himself his choice to have an extramarital affair.

In the end, the wife begins to shine, losing weight, looking like a model after a strict diet, and taking the initiative of leaving her cheating husband, who did not notice the change in her personality and looks. Her revenge was simply leaving him and asking for a divorce. She took the high road and the noble way to punish an ungrateful husband’ she simply decided to deprive him from the good woman that she is.

Without preaching, El Saady gives example throughout her collection about women who do all the right things to reach their modest goals in life. In her story Om El-Saad, we see a widow who notices her recently widowed neighbour in a new light. She skilfully works her way into his life, outings, meals, becoming indispensable to him. Then, all of a sudden, she stops being available as a friend and requests marriage.

He accepts a secret marriage to her and life goes steady until his daughter finds out and forces her father to divorce her. The writer capably describes the small ambitions of the poor woman, refusing to go into a relationship outside marriage, then seeing all that taken away from her by a simple word that her husband was forced to say -- divorce.

The writer describes the poor woman, who works as a maid in several houses, an uneducated worker who hopes for happiness. The sad story that evokes sympathy for the Om El-Saad character and makes the reader feel for her and notice the marginalised that exist in our lives.

Regarding the marginalised, El Saady has created a wonderful character in her story “The Nurse”. A young girl, hard-working and clever, belonging to these places that do not exist on the map, becomes a remarkable nurse. Her dedication and efforts in her work make an old lady from the upper class choose her to be her private nurse. Eventually she becomes a part of the family as a companion to the lady.

She is noticed by the grandson, a physician who starts to visit his grandmother regularly after noticing the beautiful nurse. But once the relation is discovered, the loving, appreciative old lady becomes a cruel woman kicking the lower-class girl who dared to dream about catching the grandson.

In this story, social class dominates. The writer, in spite of being able to describe the working class girl, does not cover her bias towards the upper class. She knows the psyche of the ladies belonging to the part of society, in other words the reader feels that she takes the upper class lady’s side against the poor, marginalised nurse who by her description was a daughter to her more than her own daughter.

The nurse, Mona, gave the lady her life back through her love and dedication, yet being poor is not forgiven. The man in this story is an example of indifference and villainy; he doesn’t make even a minor attempt to talk to his grandmother or defend the girl that he was passionate about. He is just another member of that class who believe that allowing the poor to be their concubines or a secret affair is a favour that they give to the less fortunate.

The same concept is repeated in at least two other stories in the collection. In one, a travel agent who spends a few days in Paris with a handsome man that she met on the plane, discovers in the end that he is married with children and loves his wife; his reasoning was that they had a good time in innocent company, no lines were crossed and it was better for her to have spent it with him than with someone else.

What can be noticed easily in the short stories is the repetition. The reader can tell that how the story will end from the previous stories, even though they relate different circumstances and scenarios. Saeidya Fi Athena is an easy read that falls under the heading of feminine literature, giving an insight into how modern women think and behave in our contemporary life.

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