05. Muslim Women Writers of the Middle East: Breaking Out of Our Cocoons

“We grow most when we listen to those whose views are different from ours,” says Turkish writer Elif Shafak. “Our imaginations might shrink, our hearts might dwindle, our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons.” In this seminar, we shall discuss books by two different Muslim women from the Middle East, who know and love the traditional cultures of their countries, but who also break taboos.

In The Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Shafak tackles the theme of the Armenian genocide of l915. Her novel is set in present day Istanbul and is populated with colourful female characters and even supernatural beings of the Muslim world, called djinns that represent the irrational, spiritual elements of the human consciousness that enrich our lives.

Djinns are also to be found in Egyptian Alifa Rifaat’s collection of short stories, Distant View of a Minaret. While remaining a devout Muslim, Rifaat offers sensual, tender and poignant insights into the plight of women in traditional Muslim settings, by touching on taboo themes such as female desire and sexual pleasure.

The cultural barriers between our lives in the Western world and the lives of Muslim women are among the hardest to overcome. Stories are magical tools to help us to transcend cultural barriers. With the stories of Shafak and Rifaat, we hope to break out of our cocoons.


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Üstün Bilgen-Reinart is a former CBC journalist, author, and lecturer. Üstün was born in Turkey and came to Canada as a teenager. In 1998, she returned to Turkey to be near her aging parents and teach at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. After losing her parents, she chose a semi-nomadic lifestyle, straddling the two worlds that she knows and loves: Canada and Anatolia. She is passionate about literature, writing, and women’s lives.

Participants are required to obtain the specified editions in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

Distant View of a Minaret,
by Alifa Rifaat
(Heinemann paperback, 1987)
ISBN-13: 978-0435909123

*Distant View of a Minaret is not available in Canada, but can be ordered on amazon.com in the US.

The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak (Penguin paperback, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0143112716

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