From Confinement to Creativity: Women’s Reconfiguration of the Prison and Mental Asylum in Salwa Bakr’s The Golden Chariot and Fadia Faqir’s Pillars of Salt

in Journal of Arabic Literature
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Abstract

Confined in a women’s prison in modern Egypt for murdering her stepfather, Aziza, the central protagonist in Salwā Bakr’s al-Arabah al-dhahabiyyah lā tasad ilā al-samā [The Golden Chariot] spends her time fantasizing about a golden chariot and selecting qualified inmates to accompany her on her journey to the heavens. As part of her screening project, Aziza informally ‘interviews’ various women prisoners and solicits their stories. Because the prison inevitably forces these women to interact with one another, the exclusively women’s space becomes boundless as it creates a space for the women to compare stories—while simultaneously negotiating socio-economic differences and individual idiosyncrasies. Similar to Aziza and her fellow inmates, Maha and Umm Sad, the protagonists in Fadia Faqir’s Pillars of Salt share a room in a mental hospital in Jordan. And like Aziza and her fellow prisoners, Maha and Um Sad’s relationship is fraught with tension at the beginning. As the novel unfolds, they learn to co-exist and develop an intimate friendship that makes their existence more bearable. Maha and Umm Sad tell their stories to each other—and their private stories become windows into the outside world in which they used to live. In this study, I provide a textual analysis of the two novels, shedding light on how the prison and mental asylum in Bakr and Faqir’s works are transformed from sites of confinement into vehicles of social critique, refuges for female solidarity, and forums for creativity and self-expression.

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