The problems and yearnings of Arab women make for fascinating reading, and this well-meant but confusing fiction by a 35-year-old Cairo novelist shows insight into issues like “salon marriage” (desirable brides for sale), the authoritarianism of traditional Muslim husbands (“A good wife must obey every word uttered by her Master,” one of them shouts here) and the quandary of young “modernists” bucking centuries of male oppression.
“Here you are doomed if you are not born a man!” one woman laments. “If that equipment down there is missing bang goes your human rights in jolly old Egypt.”
Angie Eissa completed Perplexed a year before the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the social paroxysms of the Arab Spring, but her four heroines would likely face the same problems today. Dina is a pregnant teenager eager to throw off the shackles of stigma; Mai is the boozy mistress of a tyrant who treats her like a sexual appliance; Leila is a 30-something wife trapped in an abusive marriage; Malak Abdel Ghafaar is a prominent Egyptian businesswoman who, at first glance, appears to promise salvation to the others.
Enlivened by plenty of Cairo nightclubbing, sex, violence and psychological complexity, the intertwined tales of Eissa’s strivers reveal a vivid cross-section of contemporary Egyptian womanhood. But muddy prose and structural difficulties damage the book. Of her native Cairo, the author confusingly writes: “It’s the single spot on earth joining all possible extremes where the authenticity of failure, corruption and betrayal is rooted.” To make things worse, the author deploys an amateurish plot twist in which the reality of her characters comes into doubt.
Eissa may yet emerge as a vital creative voice in a culture that could use more of them—especially among women. But she will have to work on her writing to achieve more powerful results.