The Mother and the Motherland in Arab Literature

Moroccan novelist Mohammed Berrada’s Lu’bat al Nisyan (The Game of Forgetting, 1987) begins with “In the Beginning was the Mother.”   The main character in the novel, Hadi, is a leftist journalist suffering from a midlife crisis, disillusioned on the communal level by the deteriorating political situation in Morocco, and devastated on a personal level by the death of his mother, Lala Lghalya. Hadi’s mother is referred to as “indispensable, like salt in food” and represented in terms that depict her as a repository of memory, ”the roots of a tree extending far beyond this old house, which is firmly implanted in our of the alleys deep in the heart of Fez”. There’s a lot of this going on throughout the novel:

“She has always been like a root striking deep in the depths of the earth …Her existence precedes and extends…It is like a yearning for one’s homeland, like longing for the soil of one’s birthplace.”

Towards the end of the novel, Hadi wonders, “Is memory victorious over the game of forgetting?  We water a dying tree, unsure if it will live, and despite that we can do nothing but water it in hope that its branches will unfurl with green.” Through the symbol of the tree, the novel returns as it began with the mother/the origin. It ends in an impassioned address to her: “We want you to stay with us. You won’t escape this time, we won’t lose you. We will draw from you patience and determination to remain.”

Hadi’s form of remembering the mother is of course a widespread trope in nationalist and nostalgic literature. Mona Fayed has examined this idea of the woman as representing an authentic connection to the land within the twentieth-century Arab literary tradition; she argues that “Woman as historical metaphor is most commonly represented through the allegory of mother/earth/country…al-umma, abstract feminization of al-umm, the mother.” [Read more...]