Facing Midlife Womanhood in the Middle East

How did the women in Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy” and Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” cope with aging?

Facing Midlife Womanhood in the Middle East
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

The year I turned 40, I spent a few months in the Middle East. I attended a conference in Alexandria and later traveled to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, where I stayed on Naguib Mahfouz Street, named after the Egyptian author and Nobel Prize winner.

I was thrilled to return to Egypt and its symbiotic contrasts — religious and secular, old and new. I had walked beside the Nile in my youth, the infectious, drum-heavy rhythm of raqs baladi spilling out over the midnight water, as businessmen in the riverside hotels watched the belly dancers perform in the hours before the muezzin’s dawn call to prayer.

Growing up in Jerusalem in the 1980s, I knew Ramallah well. One of my earliest memories of that city is visiting the family of one of my father’s colleagues. After lunch, his daughter and I, tweens of about the same age, ventured with nervous excitement into the town, arm in arm, a female bulwark against the boys.

As a teenager and young woman in the Middle East, the force field of male attention used to scare me a little. Lowering my eyes, I would pretend not to notice as a chorus of hissing rose up around me like a field full of cicadas on a hot afternoon.

Sometimes a lithe youth would brush past me deliberately in the souk, hissing between his teeth and watching for my blushing reaction. Or another would say: “Oh, my God! What beautiful eyes,” as his friends egged him on. I wasn’t vain enough to believe I was something special, but I did expect this attention, even brace for it.

Beautiful or not, men’s eyes were on me.

Returning to Ramallah in 2010, I crossed paths with a younger version of myself. The town had changed beyond recognition since my first visit nearly three decades earlier — but then, so had I. On the cusp of middle age, I was only just beginning to grasp by how much.

At 40, the glances I drew from men were mild, devoid of lust. They were noting me as a foreigner, not an object of desire. But the women met my eyes, and patted my son’s head. “Mashallah” they said, admiring him, as we shopped together. Sister to sister.

Seeing me alone with him, the curious asked, “Where is your husband?” — a question I tried to evade. Because we are divorced, you see, and revealing this would widen the chasm between us, in a society where foreign women are often considered “loose” or scandalous, regardless of how we behave.

Hopeful of finding love again, I could not have said this. In any case, I was feeling overlooked, undesired; the summer was gone, the song of the cicadas fading away. Inspired by my recent travel to Egypt and the Ramallah street name, I tackled Mahfouz’s magnificent “Cairo Trilogy” (“Palace Walk,” “Palace of Desire,” and “Sugar Street”), first published in the 1950s.

A decade later, in 2020, with a 50th birthday trip to Egypt derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to read British author Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” (“Justine,” “Balthazar,” “Mountolive,” and “Clea”), also published in the 1950s.

Reading Mahfouz at 40 and Durrell at 50, I found myself looking past the protagonists to these books’ secondary or even tertiary characters — women of a certain age. How were these women regarded by the men in these stories, I wondered. How were they rendered by their male authors?

And how did they face down middle age?

When the domineering patriarch of Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy,” merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad, has his first erotically charged encounter with his future mistress, the performer Zubayda, the two meet as near equals.

The “sultana” is magnificent in physique and demeanor, queen of her own domain. She arrives unexpectedly at his shop, where the two engage in flirtatious banter, and he is quick to follow up on her signal with a bold visit to her house — the retreat where she rehearses the songs she performs at weddings and entertains her lovers.

At the age of 45, al-Sayyid Ahmad is proud, vain, virile, and a connoisseur of women. He has recently ended an affair with another entertainer, Jalila, of whom he has tired. Zubayda is very beautiful, we are told, amid sensuous descriptions of her fleshy, voluptuous body “even though her status as a singer was only second rate.”

Al-Sayyid Ahmad is overcome with lust for Zubayda, then in her majestic prime, and pursues her with single-minded purpose. In a description of their first meeting at her home, Mahfouz writes, “his eyes ran over her body as quickly and greedily as a mouse on a sack of rice looking for a place to get in.”

Leaving her that night, “he spread open her palm tinted with henna and looked at it with desire and fascination.” Later, at a private party that ends with the mock wedding that launches their affair, he is filled with delight when he catches sight of her naked leg, smooth and massive, as she performs with the other musicians.

Yet seated on her right as she performs, even as this relationship unfurls, is Zubayda’s eventual replacement — her stepdaughter Zanuba, “the lute player.”

A decade later, after a five-year pause in his pursuit of women, music, and wine, al-Sayyid Ahmad encounters his two former lovers on a Nile houseboat. His friends tease and encourage him to return to his former lifestyle, but “yesterday was gone. Today was different. Zubayda was no longer the same, nor Jalila.”

“There was nothing to justify the risk. He would be satisfied with the brotherly relationship Jalila had acclaimed, and expand it to Zubayda.” Meanwhile, he sees Zanuba’s face over the base of his glass and is “touched by its freshness.”

He pursues her aggressively, even as he acknowledges to himself that she is no more beautiful than the older women. She rejects him, eventually concedes to be his mistress, and insists on being installed on her own houseboat, where she carries on the affair she was having with his son, Yasin — who eventually marries her.

The whole episode is sharply humiliating for al-Sayyid Ahmad. But after it ends, cordial relations are eventually restored between himself and Zubayda — and the two are now connected as family — by her stepdaughter’s marriage to his son.

In her final meeting with al-Sayyid Ahmad, Zubayda again returns to his shop, short of money, her strength sapped by cocaine. “Her body seemed bloated, and her face was veiled by cosmetics. There was no trace of the gold jewelry that had once decorated her neck, wrists, and ears, and nothing remained of her former beauty.”

Annoyed at being interrupted, her former lover smiles to be polite and treats her “like any other visitor.”

Zubayda occupies her own sphere in the Egyptian social strata of the era — outside respectable society — by engaging in a profession that is considered scandalous and having sexual relationships outside the sacred institution of marriage.

In today’s Egypt, the belly dancers who perform at the expensive hotels along the Nile have taken up her mantle, along with some of the racier pop singers, existing, like Zubayda, beyond respectable society.

These entertainers are also active online, and their actions — gyrating in social media clips, seductively licking lollipops, or suggestively eating bananas — viewed millions of times, have been deemed a clear threat to the morality of men. The authorities have pursued them aggressively for these “crimes.” In a number of recent high-profile cases, they have been jailed or slapped with fines for “inciting debauchery.” Even those who were acquitted have been judged.

Out on the streets, however, where the majority of women wear the hijab, the well-documented sexual harassment they face from men is just considered a fact of life.

I was in Alexandria to attend a conference of Arab and Western journalists. In the months before the Arab Spring, we discussed such weighty issues as the role of bloggers, who were skirting the censorship applied to traditional media to challenge political and social realities, and the voice of women in the new media landscape.

Walking bareheaded along the Alexandria corniche with an Egyptian colleague in a hijab, I thought about the place of women in this society and the high premium that is still placed on a certain kind of respectability. In that sense, not much has changed since the period Mahfouz chronicled in his Cairo Trilogy, 1919 to 1944.

Alexandria native Cleopatra once ruled Egypt, choosing her own lovers with deliberation and care. Despite this legacy of female empowerment, however, women in Egypt and elsewhere in the world still contend with the age-old labels: Madonna and whore.

I am not sure which of these stereotypes would best apply to me. I am probably too old to possess the sex appeal of the debauched woman, going by the tepid reception I now receive. So that just leaves the other category. Does that shoe fit? I’m not sure.

As a young woman in the Middle East, it would have been the other way around. Like Zubayda, I was seen as being outside the social system, due to my status as a foreigner. As a romantic partner I was not deemed entirely suitable or respectable, as I enjoyed a level of liberty that was not shared by my cloistered female peers.

Though I lived in the Arab world for close to a decade in my youth, I was always regarded as a stranger–at least in matters of the heart. In this, however, I am reminded of Durrell. Forever associated with Alexandria by virtue of his stunning, multifaceted portrait of the city, he was put firmly in his place by the mighty Mahfouz.

Quoted in Christopher Dickey’s “Expats,” the celebrated author said of Durrell’s tetralogy, “It is very beautiful, but it is about foreigners.”

Well, yes — but also no. And just what does it take to gain acceptance in the Arab world?

When we first meet Leila Hosnani — mother-in-law of Justine, the titular character of the Quartet’s first volume — she is a recluse, her looks ravaged by age and smallpox. Her place in society has been claimed by her captivating daughter-in-law. The two women are not close, but in Justine, Leila recognizes something of her former self.

Once renowned in Alexandrian society as the “dark swallow,” all that remains of Leila’s looks are her “dark, clever, youthful eyes,” carefully made up with kohl. The veil she once eschewed “became now a refuge in which she could hide the ruins of a beauty, which had been considered outstanding in her youth.”

She has allowed no mirrors in the home since her illness, Durrell writes, but “in a gold-backed pocket mirror she touched and penciled her eyes in secret … trying to give what was left of her looks a vocabulary as large as her lively mind.”

A Copt from Egypt’s landowning class, Leila is educated and well-read, intellectually curious and multilingual, and might have made a new life abroad after the death of her much older husband. Instead, she remains in Egypt and withdraws from society, taking refuge in the family estates, turning her focus to her two adult sons, and writing letters to her onetime lover, British diplomat David Mountolive.

We meet her again as a younger woman in the third volume of the “Alexandria Quartet,” through Mountolive’s eyes. She is married and still beautiful. Her sons are grown but still youths. She embarks on an affaire de coeur with Mountolive, who is then not much older than her sons. But he must leave, and Leila understands she cannot keep him.

With her beauty “no longer in its first flower,” Leila calculates that she might keep Mountolive to herself “in the one special sense most dear to maturity, if only she could gain the courage to substitute heart for mind.”

For years, an eternity, the two correspond, with “long, well-written, ardent letters” flowing between Egypt and Mountolive’s postings in Prague, Oslo, and Bern. “Leila became his only mentor and confidant, his only source of encouragement.”

When, years later, he finally receives a posting back to Egypt as ambassador, he is in the prime of his life and career, while her star has faded. He longs to see her, but she holds him at bay. When they meet at last, however, in a plot twist that finds her pleading for the life of her son, any hope of rekindled romance is crushed into dust.

Meeting Leila again, Mountolive can hardly recognize her voice or her face: “He saw a plump and square-faced Egyptian lady of uncertain years, with a severely pockmarked face and eyes drawn grotesquely out of true by the antimony-pencil.”

This devastating passage goes on to describe her large, shaking jowls, her straggling hair and plump, unkempt hands. Even her smell is abhorrent to her former lover.

Any illusion that this long-nurtured marriage of minds will prevail, that soul mates will be reunited, is shattered irrevocably for Mountolive by the visceral shock of this encounter. He “suddenly realized that the precious image which had inhabited his heart for so long had now been dissolved, completely wiped out! He was now face to face with the meaning of love and time.”

This is the end of the road for Leila, at least in terms of this defining relationship. There is no recourse. Mountolive falls in love with a blind woman who is, if not explicitly younger, still regarded as beautiful.

In middle age, the men of the Middle East are no longer fascinated by me. The women no longer resent me. I walk through the souk without frisson. I stare into the mirror like Leila, trying to make the most of my looks. Because without them, who am I?

What we once shared, these characters and I, was our sexual currency.

What we now share is its devaluation.

For Mountolive and al-Sayyid Ahmad, love and lust have been supplanted by revulsion, tinged with a sense of obligation. Mountolive delivers his coup de grâce in a letter in which he thanks Leila for laying the foundation to his new love. Al-Sayyid Ahmad says he will do what he can to help the penniless Zubayda sell her house.

The passion these women once aroused in their lovers has vanished without a trace, along with all that remains of their beauty. The net gain of their investment in love is nothing. But what could they have done? There is no turning back the hands of time.

Reading about the treatment these women received at the hands of the men who once cherished and desired them, I feel the twist of the knife in my heart and gut. Their stories tap into my worst fears about growing older and leave me with a cold dread. As older women, is this really how we are regarded?

I feel the visceral pain of Zubayda’s physical rejection acutely. But with Leila? I have no words. What can you say when your “soul mate” rejects you because of your looks?

The thought that there might be a kernel of truth in these devastating portrayals of older women worries me like a grain of sand in an oyster shell. Perhaps it will keep worrying me, stinging and smarting, until the sharpness smooths out, like a pearl.

There are lessons to be learned from these characters when they are truly old women: from Zubayda that, however far we fall, we can still tell stories of a life richly lived; from Jalila that we can save our money and pursue our own goals; and from Leila that we can “refuse every self-deception,” master our emotions, and endure.

But in midlife, we are still in transition, moving away from our youth yet near enough to acutely feel its loss. Having been conditioned, and even encouraged, to trade on our looks, we have to go deeper in middle age to find a sense of self-worth.

As we face down midlife, in the Middle East and beyond, we must steel ourselves. In time, we will come to terms with growing older, as we must do, as the women in these series have done. But for now, we must look at ourselves with love and accept that the seasons are changing and that we, alone, are the authors of our destiny.

“Don’t you know how dangerous love is?” Leila asks the young Mountolive as they begin their affair. At the time, it seems she is warning him about the pain of its intensity. But with the clarity of hindsight, maybe she was foreseeing its end.

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