An unfulfilled desire has no sanctuary other than remembrance. Radwa Ashour’s novel, The Woman from Tantoura (Hoopoe Fiction, 2019), explores the ramifications of memory and how its story is told. Chronology, while important, plays a lesser role than emotions, while memory takes on its own trajectory. “The story moves on, but sometimes not completely, because as it advances in time it goes back, and remembers.”
Ruqayya, the novel’s protagonist, was just 13 when the Palestinian village of Tantoura was ethnically cleansed by Zionist paramilitary forces. Prior to the arrival of Palestinian refugees from Qisarya, Ruqayya had accepted a marriage proposal. There is an abrupt change from a celebratory tone to one of impending destruction, as refugees bring their stories of displacement and news of colonial settlements. As Zionist forces close in on Tantoura, the Palestinian Nakba becomes a tangible experience for Ruqayya. Whilst fleeing the village with her mother, she sees the corpses of her father and brothers. Ruqayya is temporarily unable to speak due to shock, while her mother refuses to acknowledge the evidence and fabricates a story in which her husband and sons survived yet are unable to return from their self-imposed exile in Egypt.
As a refugee in Sidon, Lebanon, living with her uncle and his family, Ruqayya questions her identity and role. Alongside what she learns of death during the Nakba, she realises that the trauma of displacement in such a short period has also distanced her from her previous plans. Her marriage to Amin, her cousin, adds to her confusion as she settles in, yet questions, her new role. As time passes, and her three children become adults, each with their own way of relating to Palestine, Ruqayya’s memory is haunted by Tantoura and the refugee identity, which she revisits and brings up on occasions when she feels it is necessary to assert her origins. Read more.