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In Etaf Rum’s ‘A Woman Is No Man,’ the prison of domesticity is hard to escape

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What is a woman’s life worth? This question echoes across countries and generations through Etaf Rum’s intense debut novel, “A Woman Is No Man.”

In 1990 Birzeit, a town in the West Bank, 17-year-old Isra prepares for some special guests: They’re seeking a bride for their son Adam. Dutiful and soft-spoken, Isra has wisps of longing; she dreams of romance and adventure. But her mother warns her: “There is nothing out there for a woman but her bayt wa dar, her house and home. Marriage, motherhood — that is a woman’s only worth.”

Isra’s parents are excited because Adam and his family now live in America, which could be their daughter’s ticket out of the occupied Palestinian territories. Driven from his home by the Israeli invasion, Isra’s father was reduced to a poor plot of land on the outskirts of Birzeit. Their lives there are harsh and austere.

The narrative draws links between economic desperation and discord in the home, driving apart parents and children, men and women. These men come and go as they please, but the women are virtual prisoners of the home — they don’t even eat dinner with their husbands. While many of these characters believe that it’s immoral for a woman to walk freely in public, the novel points out that such beliefs are not, in fact, consistent with Islam. At one point, an Islamic studies scholar recites a Koranic verse: “Heaven lies under a mother’s feet.” He explains, “When we accept that heaven lies underneath the feet of a woman, we are more respectful of women everywhere. That is how we are told to treat women in the Qur’an.” Sadly, this is not the reality of these characters’ lives.

Isra and Adam’s marriage is arranged, and within a matter of weeks, she’s whisked from her quiet home to the wilderness of New York City. Her dreams of love and freedom are crushed as she’s shown to the space she and Adam will share: a room in her in-laws’ basement. Her mother’s prophecy unfolds as Isra imagines a lifetime of domestic servitude stretching before her.

The novel shifts among character perspectives, including that of her overbearing mother-in-law, Fareeda. The older woman makes it clear that Isra’s most essential duty is to produce babies — specifically, male babies. When Isra gives birth to a daughter, she’s stunned by both her husband’s and mother-in-law’s disappointment. Isra’s failure to produce a male heir becomes an ongoing crisis that sucks the joy from their lives. Fareeda and her son consider girls liabilities, drains on limited family resources and sources of worry, not pride.

Some of the most moving moments in the book take place when Isra looks at her young daughters and realizes with horror that they are destined to live out the same patterns of servitude and confinement that she has. Beyond the books that her sister-in-law smuggles home, Isra has little sense of hope. Her days are spent under her mother-in-law’s thumb, cooking and cleaning for Adam, a man who seems to be disinterested at best and outright dangerous at worst.

One of the challenges that Rum tackles is speaking openly about the brutal treatment of these women. At one point, Isra says, “If a woman called the cops every time her husband beat her, all our men would be in jail.” Rum was herself in an arranged marriage, and this personal experience imbues her narrative voice with authority and authenticity. Still, a potential concern for Arab authors writing for an American audience is how to portray Arab patriarchy within a Western milieu of Islamophobic and anti-Arab stereotypes. The book tells us that these men are broken — by the occupation, by hardship, by bigotry — but what readers see, for the most part, is their assault on women.

Is the political environment outside the scope of artistic concerns? Authors must create without constraints or societal pressures, especially someone writing from such a vulnerable perspective. But from an artistic point of view, while Rum’s female characters have complexity and dimension, her male characters tend to lead their lives offstage, buried in work, and their humanity feels more elusive.

The book also touches on the legacy of violence passed down from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories — the humiliation of living with armed soldiers and checkpoints, the misery of life in a refugee shelter — and its lingering echoes in America: This is a brave move. Her female characters are doubly victimized, by both the occupation and a patriarchal culture. Isra is passive and fatalistic through much of the story. But her suffering sets the stage for a breakthrough when the next generation of women begins to speak up: With independence come the first rays of hope.

Like these bright rays, Rum adds her fresh voice to a burgeoning generation of Arab American women writers — Laila Lalami, Naomi Shihab Nye, Randa Jarrar, Mohja Kahf, Jennifer Joukhadar, among so many others — authors who take up the question of what it means to be an Arab woman in America now. “A Woman Is No Man” complicates and deepens the Arab American story — a tale as rich and varied as America itself.

Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of “Birds of Paradise” and “Origin.” Her most recent book is the culinary memoir “Life Without a Recipe.”

By Etaf Rum

Harper. 352 pp. $26.99

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