AN ARAB WOMAN SPEAKS
A dramatic monologue
by Dario Fo and Franca Rame
translated by Ed Emery
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Original text copyright © Dario Fo and Franca Rame
Translation copyright © Ed Emery
At the start of the 1970s, we decided to put on a show dedicated to the Palestinian resistance. It was called Fedayn. This involved me travelling to Lebanon to visit a refugee camp. The organisers of the camp had brought together around a hundred people. Our idea was that we would choose about a dozen young people, who would come to Italy to be part of the show, performing songs and recitations. They were to be the principal performers in this show, and we would have toured the whole of Italy, performing in upwards of a hundred locations.
I listened to a lot of people in that camp, but, curiously, none of them were women. Even though there were many women present in that tent.
Some of the women had babes in arms, others were extremely young, and I had been told that many of them were stupendous singers. I asked whether it would be possible to invite one of them over to Italy, for the show. "Quite impossible," they replied. "The girls are doing a great job in this period. And leaving aside the organisational problems, there’s another problem which is a bit hard to explain."
"Am I right in thinking that, despite all your talk about women’s liberation, when it comes to the crunch you’re not prepared to let your women go?" I asked one of the camp officials. "And you prefer to keep them shut away, hidden out of sight?"
"Perhaps you’re right," he replied. "For us the problem of women’s liberation is probably the biggest hurdle that we’ll have to overcome."
Sitting nearby was a woman who had a baby in her arms. She looked tired. When I asked her to tell me something about herself, she shook her head, as if to say that she had nothing to tell.
A short while after I returned to Milan, a comrade from Beirut sent me a tape. It was a recording of a woman’s voice, speaking in Arabic. I had the tape transcribed and translated, and this is what she had to say:
AN ARAB WOMAN SPEAKS
[The Performance Text]
"I am the comrade who didn’t reply to your question at the camp. Now I can tell you about myself. I am Bedouin by origin, from the Monchem tribe. My mother lived for many years in tents, like all the nomads, moving the length and breadth of the Jordan valley. She fell in love with a peasant, married him, and so it was that I came to be born between four walls, in a stone-built hovel. I hated the work of a peasant woman... What kind of a life was that? Dying of fatigue, like animals, always hungry for bread, hungry for sleep. And women were always bottom of the whole pile: always bent double. Bent over to weed the fields and gather in the harvest, bent over the well to fetch water, bent over the washing, bent to knead the dough for bread, bent before the priests, before the bosses, before their own husbands, even bent over their children, as they breast-fed them and helped them to take their first steps.
"My mother had been a fine figure of a woman when she was young, but now her skin was so cracked and withered that she looked like a piece of clay.
"Every now and then she would sigh as she remembered the days of her life as a nomad. She used to tell me that the men used to treat their women like queens, and they would always make sure that they didn’t work too hard, because work makes you old and ugly before your time. ‘They used to prevent us from carrying too heavy loads,’ she used to say. ‘And we used to wear light clothes, so that the wind could ruffle them and keep us cool. Our role in life was to sing well, and to dance better. To laugh pleasantly and to talk of things that were not too serious. A woman should never appear too intelligent.’
"But one day a caravan of bedouins stopped near our camp, and I saw these famous ‘queens’. Poor women, they were, all dressed in rags, with a gaggle of children around them, and obviously living a wretched life. I suppose you could say that my mother had a strong imagination, but I went way beyond her. I never missed a chance to play the part of the Bedouin queen. I was still a little girl, but I could ride a horse better than any Bedouin. I used to wear the transparent veil of my mother’s tribe, and I would use white make-up on my face. Everyone took me for a lunatic. I used to go to school in a nearby village, because I enjoyed studying, and I was fairly clever. I got as far as the sixth grade. I hated working in the fields. I would have turned my hand to absolutely any job at all, just to escape that animal life. But my fate was that I ended up marrying a peasant. He had a bit of money, but he was still a peasant. I was sixteen years old at the time, and one Sunday there was a big celebration in the local square. Horseriders had come from outside, and they were performing fancy tricks on horseback. There was one man, dressed all in black, who stood on his horse’s neck as he rode round, and fired into the air with a silver-embossed rifle. ‘That’s the man for me,’ I thought. And I ended up marrying him. I’ll spare you the details of all the little tricks I used to get him to marry me. He was strong, and really handsome, but as far as culture went, he was a disaster. The only thing that interested him was his silver rifle, his horse, and doing tricks on horseback. We married in his village. I arrived on my horse. He had given me the horse in place of an engagement ring; it was my engagement horse. All the relations greeted each other, in the customary fashion, and then the wedding celebrations began. They began with the dancing. I used to love dancing. All the men were asking me to dance. Then the stamping game began. The husband has to try to stamp on his wife’s foot, as a sign that he has imposed his authority over her. It was a game, or so I thought, but I suddenly noticed that my husband was putting a lot of effort into it. His family were looking strangely tense, too. I managed to keep ducking out of his way, but in the end he gave me a big push, and then, bang, he stamped on my foot. I reacted immediately. I kicked him back. Hard. All the guests burst out laughing, but not his relations. They didn’t laugh at all. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘I see they have no sense of humour.’ And I thought no more of it.
"I had heard my mother tell that in many of the villages of the interior they had the custom that the husband was supposed to beat his wife on the wedding night, before they made love. The idea of beating her was so that she got it firmly into her head that he, the man, was the boss, and that this was the treatment she could expect whenever she stepped out of line. I never suspected that this custom was still applied in my husband’s village. But I did notice that, as we were going up into the bedroom, he seemed a bit embarrassed. When we were on our own, he said, ‘You know, I’m supposed to beat you now. But don’t worry, I won’t beat you very hard. All you have to do is start shouting and crying, so that they can hear you from downstairs.’
"‘What?’ I said. ‘Are you crazy? You lay one hand on me, and I’ll break this copper pot over your head.’
"‘Try to understand! These are our customs. I have to beat you. My dignity in the village is at stake.’
"‘To hell with your dignity. You’re a bunch of cavemen here, and if you so much as touch me, I’ll kill you!’ So saying, I picked up the copper pot, ready to throw it at his head. And at this point, he burst out crying. ‘...You mustn’t show me up like this.’ By now he was pleading. ‘Please, just do it for me. All you have to do is shout a bit and cry a bit, and I can bang on the mattress, like this...’
"‘No. If you want, I’ll bang on the mattress, and you can do the crying. Go on, start screaming!’
"And so saying, I pulled aside the bed cover. There I saw a large linen sheet, half a bedsheet, spread across the bed.
"‘What’s that for?’
"‘It’s for the show.’
"‘Tomorrow morning this sheet has to be hung out of the window, to show that it’s bloodstained, so as to show the whole village that you were a virgin.’
"I couldn’t stop myself. I threw the copper pot at him. It hit him on the head. He let out a yell, and blood started pouring from his forehead... Then I tore off the linen sheet and shouted: ‘There you go, make the most of it. Put your blood on it, you stupid man!’
"At this point, his mother came in. A terrible woman, short and fat, and I’d never seen her smile since the day I arrived there.
"‘Why are you taking so long? Why haven’t you beaten her?’
"‘She won’t let me.’
"‘In that case, I’ll send your brothers up, and they’ll beat you, and I’ll tell them to throw you out. I’m not having a man with no balls living in this house.’
"At this point my husband began shouting like a lunatic, and he leapt up and started beating me as if he was trying to kill me.
"I couldn’t even manage to scream; and for the first time I saw his mother smiling. She was happy now!
"The wretch had made a real mess of me. I was bruises all over. But then, afterwards, when he came close, to kiss me, and to make love, I gave him such a kick in his stomach that he yelped like a castrated dog, and started to vomit.
"I’d had enough. At dead of night I went down into the stable, saddled up my horse, and off I went, off into the night, and I’d taken my husband’s silver rifle with me.
"At dawn I stopped up on a mountain pass; down below, on the plain, I saw a dozen men on horseback, coming towards me. These were the men of my husband’s family, coming after me.
"I took up my position, aimed the rifle, and fired. With the third bullet I hit one of the horses, and it crashed to the ground, taking its rider with it. I hadn’t killed it, only wounded it. That stopped them. They did an about-turn, and off they went, as fast as they had come. As far as those bastards were concerned, their horses were worth more than a runaway wife.
"I returned to the town, and I went to work in a hospital, as a nursing assistant. To tell the truth, at the start I was more or less a cleaning woman. People who knew that I had run away from my husband looked at me as if I was a prostitute. They kept me on at the hospital, though, because it wasn’t so easy to find women prepared to do the night shifts. Some of the patients actually refused to allow me to touch them. But even though they gave me a hard time of it, I enjoyed the work, and after only four years, I became head of the department.
"At the time of the Sinai war, and the Israeli victory, I wasn’t in Palestine. I was in Egypt. I had been there for three years. My hospital had sent me to Alexandria, to do a special course in theatre nursing.
"I had been a communist for some time. Together with other Egyptian comrades, I was doing clandestine work. The official Communist Party in Egypt hadn’t existed for many years; in fact, when Nasser came to power (thanks to the support of the working classes and the peasants), the first thing he did was to force the communists to dissolve their party. The Egyptian proletariat actually believed that the leaders of its party would hold firm, even if it meant going into clandestinity. But a large number of those leaders ended up joining Nasser’s party. The rank and file of the party, and some of the leadership, didn’t admit defeat, though. They continued their struggle, even though the party had been broken up. Nasser’s police did a good job. They had spies everywhere, and every day they were arresting communists. I was arrested too, exactly two years after I arrived in Egypt. They locked me in the fortress prison in Alexandria. The one that stands on the canal leading into the port. One morning I woke up with a feeling of emotion almost bursting my heart: I could hear a band playing the Internationale.
"‘What’s that?’ I shouted. ‘The revolution?’
"I stood up to look through my cell window.
"A big warship was sailing into the canal.
"There was a red flag on it.
"It was a Soviet ship.
"It was the ship which was bringing Brezhnev to meet with Nasser.
"There were many political prisoners in that prison. They began yelling and swearing and shouting abuse... But the Internationale, played by Nasser’s band, drowned them out. I couldn’t stop crying. How could this be? There was Brezhnev, who was supposed to be a communist, hugging Nasser... and doing business with him... And there was me, a communist, locked up in one of Nasser’s prisons.
"Then, after the Sinai defeat, and Nasser’s crisis, there was a kind of amnesty. They set me free, and I went back home, or rather, close to my home, on the Jordanian side of the River Jordan.
"Later on I joined the Popular Democratic Front, where I had some friends. But it was not easy to stay in it. There were only about ten of us women, and the bourgeois elements were putting it around that we were riff-raff and prostitutes. And even the poor people had a low opinion of us. To the Arab way of thinking, a revolutionary woman is a cheap woman. But we paid no attention. We used to work in the tent towns, looking after the sick, and doing propaganda work.
"Then came the battle of Amman. We women were involved in the shooting too. Many other women followed our example, and came out into the streets. They picked up guns from the hands of the wounded, and began shooting.
"Then we had to leave. The leadership of the Front ordered us not to let ourselves be seen around in uniform any more. We went into clandestinity.
"They asked me if I was willing to join an armed action group which was intended to assassinate Mohammed Jaffis, one of Hussein’s police captains, and a filty torturer who had butchered dozens and dozens of our comrades. It was supposed to be an ‘exemplary’ action. Because morale was low during this period, it would act as a sign that the underground struggle had begun.
"Already another woman, in Amman, had blown up a wing of a big American hotel, with two or three VIPs in it, and in Cairo a group of revolutionaries had assassinated Hussein’s Minister of the Interior, Wasfi Tall, the man who had organised the repression in Jordan in July and September.
"Now it was Jaffis’s turn.
"At the start I said that I was against revenge killings, but the Front’s leadership convinced me that in a desperate situation like this such an example would give an important boost to the whole struggle.
"My task was to act as a bait for the captain, and to lure him to a house where a comrade would be waiting to kill him.
"I got myself hired as a private nurse for an old lady at the French Embassy, who was very ill. I remembered the blue veil of my mother’s tribe, and I put it on, so that I could pose as a practising Muslim who went round veiled in the old style. Every day I passed in front of the building where the torturer-captain had his office. But every time he came out he always had an escort of two or three bodyguards. I felt like dying every time he came near me, but I soon succeeded in getting myself noticed. This captain dropped his guard one evening and accosted me as I passed. He passed a couple of rather heavy compliments my way, in a low voice. I stopped, and rounded on him, and started insulting him in Alexandrian dialect, like a street woman. At that point he began courting me for all he was worth. He used to come out and wait for me to pass in front of his house, but every step he made was watched by the men of the secret police, and they in turn were shadowed by our comrades.
"Finally the big day arrived. I agreed to meet him for a rendezvous at his place. One of our comrades was supposed to be in the flat, but it turned out that Hussein’s police had got wind of something. Without saying anything to their captain, in order not to spoil his amorous adventure, they had stormed into the flat before we arrived, and had killed my comrade.
"The captain and I arrived just as they were carrying his body out. It was a terrible moment for me. I had to start play-acting, staring and crying, and carrying on as if I had no idea what it was all about. By the end, though, I was screaming like a hysteric, because it had finally sunk in that the policemen who had killed him were still there, in the other rooms, and they would be ready to kill me too at the first false move I made.
"I was trembling, but for real. I allowed him to console me and cuddle me and kiss me. I allowed him to make love to me. But first of all, I put up a big performance, to force him to get rid of the police in the other rooms. I started crying, and said that I couldn’t make love if I thought that somebody else was there, spying on us. The captain was so eager to have me that he literally chased the policemen out of the flat.
"We made love. Or rather, he made love, and he wanted to carry on. He made the most of me, all night, and I had to wait until daybreak before I could kill him.
"I had brought a gun with me, which I hid in the bathroom. When daylight finally appeared, I got out of bed, as if I was going to the toilet. I went to the bathroom, and took my gun, and looked out into the garden. There was a policeman there, fast asleep on a bench. So I took a cushion, stuck the gun into the stuffing of the cushion, went over to the bed where the captain was sleeping, and shot him in the head. Without even a tremble, as if I was bringing him his morning coffee.
"Four shots. Four dull thuds, like someone banging on a wall. I looked out of the window into the garden, to see whether the policeman had heard. He was still fast asleep. I left the house, with no problems. I crossed the entire city on foot. Almost running. The police were all over the place. They were looking for a woman wearing a blue veil, in the style of a practising Muslim.
"A few days later they arrested two women. The newspapers denounced them as the two women who had murdered Jaffis. But in fact those two women had given themselves up voluntarily. And when the police interrogated them, it came out that they were lying. They beat them black and blue, and threw them out in the street. The chief of police referred to them as ‘the usual megalomaniacs’. But then, within another few days, the police in Amman began receiving other letters from women who said that they had been the ones who had assassinated Jaffis. Within a month the desk of Hussein’s Chief of Police was literally covered with hundreds of self-confessions. With this gesture the Arab women had found a way of expressing their solidarity with me; they wanted to show the whole country that, whatever the sacrifice, whatever the cost, they were with us, completely. With the revolution, with our revolution, the revolution of the Arab proletariat."
[From Fedayn, Milan, 1972.]
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Please be aware that this translation can only be performed with explicit permission in writing from the agency representing Dario Fo and Franca Rame, the Danesi-Tolnay agency in Rome.
Last updated: 3.viii.2012