By MARY-JANE DEEB
On the occasion of International Women's Day, the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division and the Women's Learning Partnership co-sponsored a March 7 program titled "Life Lines: The Literature of Women's Human Rights." The Women's Learning Partnership is a nongovernmental organization that works to promote better communication and cooperation between women around the world in order to advance women's human rights.
Speakers at this second annual lecture series included well-known women poets, writers and scholars from Egypt, Iran, Ghana and Argentina who shared their thoughts and writings with a packed audience. Beverly Gray, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division, welcomed the guests and introduced the moderator, Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the Women's Learning Partnership.
The first speaker, Azar Nefisseh, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, read a text prepared by Goli Taraghi, a prize-winning short story writer, novelist and filmmaker. A native of Iran, Ms. Taraghi lives in exile in Paris, but returns every couple of years to Iran to publish her work and show her films. She humorously described the difficult process of returning to Iran but then described the joy of arriving there, the beauty of the Persian language, the warmth of old friends and family, and the scents of the flowers and familiar foods. This pleasure was quickly eclipsed, however, by the shock of the new realities under a regime that censors literature and art in all its forms. Ms. Goli's humor was most evident in her description of a blind film censor who cut her films and decided what Iranians could and could not watch in theaters.
Ms. Goli was followed by Emma Sepulveda, an Argentinian professor in the Foreign Language and Literature Department at the University of Nevada and a columnist for the Reno Gazette Journal. She has written a number of books in Spanish, including Testimonio Femenino como Escritura Contestataria. Her presentation was supposed to have been simultaneous with that of Marjorie Agosin, an activist and poet who teaches in the Spanish Department at Wellesley College and who was recently honored with the U.N. Leadership Award for Human Rights. Unfortunately because of a blizzard, Ms. Agosin was snowbound and unable to fly to Washington.
The simultaneous presentation was to have been readings from the correspondence of these two women, over a period of almost four decades. The audience only got to hear the voice of Ms. Sepulveda writing to Agosin about her Catholic upbringing in Chile and her exiles first from Argentina because her father did not support Juan Peron, and then from Chile after Salvador Allende was overthrown and Augusto Pinochet took over. She arrived in Los Angeles, where she knew no English and had some big misconceptions of about American urban life. She then moved to Nevada, where she completed her studies, ran for office and became a professor and very important voice for Latino affairs as a newspaper columnist.
The third speaker was Leila Ahmed, professor of Women's Studies in Religion at Harvard Divinity School. She has written some classic works on women in Islam and most recently wrote a memoir, A Border Passage from Cairo to America: A Woman's Journey, which was reviewed widely. Ms. Ahmed read three passages from her Egyptian memoir. The first described the last days of her father as he lay dying in bed while his wife and daughter hovered around him trying to help him stay alive. A man of courage and vision, he had been destroyed by a political system that had rejected his ideas and ostracized him for not conforming. In another passage, reminiscent of an impressionist painting, Leila Ahmed describes her mother stretching on a chaise lounge with a beautiful garden in the background, sad because she is unable to write about the eventful life she has led. The last section of Ahmed's presentation focused on her contemplative grandmother in their summer home in Alexandria, Egypt, who taught her some of the most beautiful verses of the Koran and made her understand what it means to be a Muslim woman.
Abena Busia, a Ghanaian poet, writer and professor of English at Rutgers University, began her presentation with a magnificent "Poem to Mandela." It recaptured some of the important events that took place primarily in Africa during his 27 years of captivity, giving a sense of Mandela's courage. Every verse ended "You were still alive and you were still not free." Ms. Busia also read a moving poem about growing up the daughter of one of the founders of modern Ghana and following her father into exile. The poem, she said, was about the places she and her family had lived in while in exile in England, Holland, Mexico and elsewhere around the globe. Each place had a personal story of courage and exile.
To view a cybercast of this program, click here.
Mary-Jane Deeb is the Arab world area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.