Distant View of a Minaret is a collection of fifteen short stories that give readers a glimpse of what it means to be a woman in an Orthodox Muslim society in Egypt. The stories are not interconnected, but together they form a vivid portrayal of Rifaat’s world.
A woman and her husband are having sex. The wife thinks about her lack of sexual fulfillment—her husband always stops as soon as he climaxes. She’s told him her desires, but he ignores her and makes her feel embarrassed for trying to prolong their sexual intercourse so that she, too, might have an orgasm.
The wife hears the call for the daily afternoon prayer. She gets up to wash herself after having sex, in accordance with Islamic practice. Her husband stays in bed to nap. After prayer, the wife gazes out the window of their apartment, thinking that she once had a view of the entire city of Cairo. The city has built up over the years, and now the view is limited to that of a single minaret (tower of a mosque). She had wished to have a house with a garden in the suburbs, but because of her husband’s job, they got an apartment in the city. She didn’t mind so much because of the wonderful view, but now it is gone.
The wife prepares the afternoon coffee and brings it into the bedroom for her husband, only to find that he has suffered an attack (about which the reader receives no other information except that these attacks have happened before) and died. She tells her son to fetch the doctor, then pours a cup of coffee for herself. She thinks to herself that she is surprisingly calm.
Bahiyya, an elderly woman, tells a story to her visiting daughter. Bahiyya recently took herself to the hospital because she was losing her sight. The doctor indicates that it is too late to help her—Bahiyya will soon be blind. She tells her daughter that her blindness is a result of the tears she has cried for being born a girl rather than a boy. Bahiyya explains that she had to accept her brother’s abuse because he was the man of the family. She learned about sex from watching animals. When some of the village women found that she had made mud dolls with genitalia, they castrated her. Bahiyya liked a boy in the village, but her family arranged a marriage for her with another man. Her husband died soon after they married. Bahiyya describes the loneliness of being a woman without a man and says that she feels her life and youth have been a waste.
In the middle of the night, the narrator hears a phone ringing in another apartment. Her husband has recently died, and as she sits alone she hopes for some sort of sign from beyond the grave. Since his death, she sleeps during the day and stays up at night. Suddenly her own phone rings. She picks it up, but there is only silence. The narrator believes that this is her sign. Morning comes, and during her morning prayer she is grateful and content. The phone rings again. This time it is the phone operator, who tells the narrator that a call was accidentally directed to the wrong house last night. She returns to her prayers to ask forgiveness from Allah for having asked for so much.
The narrator has recently turned fifty. She thinks of how old she looks, after having borne three children, and also reflects that in old age one has fewer close friends to rely on. She has no one to whom she can talk about the poor relations between herself and her husband. She angrily sends the servant out on an errand and immediately feels very alone and starts to cry.
She must pull herself together since she is meeting her mother for their weekly Thursday lunch. She is not close to her mother and has always been afraid to be open with her. They have a very large meal, and as her mother is complaining about young people, the narrator wishes she and her mother were close and that she could speak about her marriage problems. Suddenly, her mother reveals that today is the anniversary of the death of her own husband and that she still thinks of him every day. The narrator, unsure what to do or say, notices her mother crying. Her mother then bids her goodbye, until next Thursday’s lunch.
Zeinet awakes to find that her unmarried daughter Ni’ma is showing signs of pregnancy. Zeinet’s husband, Ghobashi, left their home to work in Libya. Ni’ma tells Zeinet she became pregnant right after Ghobashi went away. The night before he left, Ghobashi told Zeinet to watch over Ni’ma and said he hoped to bring back a wedding dress for her so that she could be married. Zeinet considers the dishonor of Ni’ma’s illegitimate pregnancy and how Ghobashi might react.
Ni’ma tells Zeinet it would be best if she just slipped into the canal so that the family would not be troubled, but Zeinet rebukes her and says they will find another solution. Zeinet takes out some money she’s stashed away and gives it to Ni’ma. She tells Ni’ma to go to Cairo, have the child, and come back in the middle of the night. Then Zeinet wraps some clothing under her own clothes to make it look like she is pregnant. She will tell Ghobashi, when he returns, that the baby is their son, rather than their illegitimate grandson.
Badriyya sees her husband, Omar, walking down the street with a group of men. They are celebrating Omar’s release from prison. Badriyya’s mother comments that Omar was a fool for stealing a couple of worthless tires, and she clearly disapproves of Badriyya’s choice of a husband. Omar comes home late, and he is drunk. He is glad that Badriyya’s mother has gone to bed so that he doesn’t have to endure her snide remarks.
Badriyya remembers their romance. Omar followed her into a movie theater and sat beside her. He asked her out for the next week. Omar talked of his plans to open his own café. Badriyya felt that Omar, like a hero in the movies, would rescue her from a life that seemed like a long, dark tunnel. Badriyya’s uncle told her that Omar was “all talk,” but allowed her to marry him. A month later, Omar was arrested. Badriyya’s uncle and mother then tried to convince Badriyya to divorce Omar, for they believed he was a good-for-nothing who was simply looking for a woman to support him. Badriyya refused.
The morning after Omar’s return, Badriyya comes home from work to find her mother and Omar laughing and playing cards. Badriyya thinks that she has never seen her mother in such a good mood, and her mother says that Omar has turned out to be a nice fellow. Omar tells them about the people he met in prison, especially a contractor/vendor who has promised to help Omar. Omar is to meet him that evening, but Badriyya is disappointed that he’s leaving because she has made them a nice dinner.
From then on, Omar stays out late and comes home tired from drinking and drugs. He says that at night he’s scouting for a location for his café. They have not had sex, and when Badriyya hints at it, Omar replies that there’s plenty of time for that in the future. When Badriyya’s mother asks when she can expect a grandchild, Omar implies that Badriyya never wants to have sex. Badriyya is upset and thinks she is unattractive to Omar or that he is having an affair. She goes to the store to buy Omar a pack of cigarettes on her own credit account. The store’s owner tells her Omar is no good, and everyone knows that he sleeps around every night. Badriyya finally understands and hopes she will have the strength to turn him away when he tries to come home that night.
The narrator is a little girl. Her older sister, Dalal, tells their mother she wants to go to a party that evening and that she will take the narrator so their mother won’t worry about her going out alone after dark. Dalal is often mean to the narrator, sometimes hitting her and causing their father to believe that she has been bad.
When they go out, they don’t go to a party. Instead, Dalal meets a boy named Mahmoud. He picks them up in a car, and Dalal and Mahmoud speak in French so the narrator doesn’t understand. Dalal threatens the narrator and makes her swear to Allah that she won’t tell anyone where they have gone. Mahmoud buys perfume for Dalal and chocolates for the narrator, then drives them to a kiosk where he buys some hashish. Mahmoud and Dalal get into the backseat together.
They repeat the secret meetings many times, and eventually Dalal tells Mahmoud that though her father has arranged for her to marry someone else, she loves Mahmoud and wants to marry him. Mahmoud tells her he does not want to marry her. The next time they meet, Dalal tells the narrator to go on without her and tell Mahmoud that she will meet them in an hour. Mahmoud takes the narrator to the kiosk, has her sit on his lap, and touches her chest and shoulders. The narrator kisses his face, and then he tells her they should go to meet Dalal.
Dalal and Mahmoud fight in the car, and he loses control and crashes them into a hedge. Dalal has blood on her face and passes out, and Mahmoud drives the girls home. Their mother and sisters help them in, asking them what happened and concerned about the fact that they were with a strange boy. The narrator keeps quiet, and as she falls asleep, Dalal smiles at her. The narrator knows that Dalal won’t hit her or yell at her again, since she protected Dalal’s secret.
Sheikh Zeidan leads a crew of men who lay pipe. At the campsite, he tells a newcomer the story of Mansoura. She was a beautiful woman with great powers, whom every man loved. She married a strong, good man named Sayyid, and they were initially very happy. Then Sayyid took a job guarding the bean crop of a man named Hindawi. Hindawi would go to Mansoura at night when Sayyid was away. It is not certain whether he would rape her or whether she submitted to his advances out of loneliness. The villagers began singing lewd songs about Mansoura’s honor, but Sayyid did not realize that they were about his wife.
At Mansoura’s urging, Sayyid quits guarding Hindawi’s farm. Hindawi obsesses about Mansoura and meets her at the canal to convince her to leave Sayyid for him. She refuses, and while arguing, she slips into the canal and drowns. Hindawi tells no one of his meeting with Mansoura, and Sayyid is put in prison for murder when Mansoura’s body is found.
Hindawi flees the area and works with the men laying pipe. One day, Hindawi looks up at the bulldozer as it is lowering pipe, and he grows terrified. The pipe falls from the arm of the bulldozer and crushes him. Just before dying, he says, “Mansoura, you cruel one.” Because of this legend, the men chant Mansoura’s name as they lay pipe, to ask for her help to make their work easier.
Zennouba awakes to find that her husband is not in bed. She starts to think back on her life, especially her loss of freedom since puberty. In order to keep their land in the family, she was married to her cousin Hagg. Sex with Hagg was unpleasant, but eventually he began sleeping with the servant girls. When she asked him for a divorce, Hagg revealed that Zennouba’s own father did the same, so why should he grant her a divorce? Zennouba’s adoration and reverence toward her father are wounded. She wonders if all women are doomed to the same fate.
Hagg returns to bed and Zennouba notices it’s almost dawn. She wakes the servant girl and asks her to fetch hot water for a bath. Zennouba thinks that she, like the servant girl, was once beautiful. She has the girl scrub her back so hard with a loofah that it is actually painful.
The narrator’s husband has been transferred to a country town. She journeys there to find a suitable house. A house on the canal resembles an image from her dreams, and she wishes to occupy it. A young woman named Aneesa has been squatting there with her child, and Aneesa tries to prevent the narrator from entering. Kamil, one of her husband’s employees, tells the narrator that the local people believe that spirits inhabit the house, but the narrator is determined to live there.
A short time later, the narrator returns to begin moving in. Once again, Aneesa confronts the narrator, telling her to leave. Eventually the authorities come to take Aneesa and her child away, and Aneesa points under the house and tells the narrator, “I’ll leave her to you.”
One day, the narrator sees a huge, beautiful snake. She feels intoxicated and elated at the sight, but when she tells her husband, he boards up the crack where the snake has disappeared. A sheikh from the town is summoned. He tells the narrator that the snake is a female spirit, one of the monarchs of the earth, and should be considered a blessing. The narrator is skeptical, but later she begins to fantasize about seeing the snake again. Though she fulfills her duties as the woman of the house, she becomes more isolated and sits around lazily. Her fantasies become sexual and she is consumed by a painful yearning for the snake.
The snake reappears and her sexual desires are fulfilled. However, the narrator again tells her husband that she has seen a snake, and he boards up a hole in their bedroom wall. The snake later tells the narrator that there is no sin in their actions, as they are now married and the narrator will have “abiding youth and the delights of love.” They carry on their love affair. The narrator’s vitality increases and she is taken through worlds of unimaginable beauty. Their affair lasts many months.
Then the narrator’s husband kills a snake, breaking the pact of peace between snakes and man. The snake comes once more to bid the narrator goodbye, in a passionate embrace, and tells her they must leave. The narrator still yearns for her snake lover and hopes that one day she will reappear.
Hassan is traveling by train to his hometown because his father has recently died. Hassan thinks back to images of his father making ablutions before daily prayer and of his father’s pride in young Hassan. Then, Hassan spent his adolescence with foreign tutors and his love for his father became frozen. Hassan abandoned emotions and instead began to rule his life with reason and rational standards. He eventually opened an accounting office in Cairo and hardly ever returned home. When his daughter was born, Hassan’s father sent him a telegram saying to name her Jasmine. Hassan’s wife later left him and took their daughter back to Turkey, her homeland.
The men of the town greet Hassan when he arrives for his father’s funeral. The jasmine in the air causes him to cough badly. The burial rites begin, and tears come to Hassan’s eyes when he sees his father’s body. The body is washed and carried to the grave. It is Hassan’s duty to cut the burial shroud away before his father is buried. As the men remember his father, Hassan thinks to himself that they knew his father better than he did. Hassan generously offers to pay for a feast for all of the men.
That night, Hassan finds that his father mentioned Jasmine in his will. He regrets that he never brought Jasmine to meet his father. Hassan also regrets that he did not go on a pilgrimage with his father, something that his father mentioned once. He wakes during the night and thinks, “Father, you gave me a real beating tonight,” referring to his own emotional suffering as a result of death and regrets.
Aziza is a seventy-year-old spinster who lives with her nephew, Mahmoud, and their servant, Waheeba. Aziza had lived with her brother, Saleh, until Saleh and Mahmoud’s parents died. She then moved in with Mahmoud and now lives off of their family savings. Whenever she hears of a death, she attends the funeral, regardless of whether she knew the person well, and leads the women in mourning. This is the only time she leaves the house. She spends most of her time yelling at Waheeba or looking out the window, often scolding boys in the street.
Mahmoud talks to Aziza about his desire to privately tutor some of his students at home, but Aziza rejects the idea. Mahmoud, who is outwardly very agreeable to Aziza, leaves to smoke in his room and think about his desire to tutor a young girl in hopes of meeting one of their older sisters and possibly finding a wife. He secretly has sex with Waheeba at night and wonders if his aunt knows this is going on. He puts on some cologne, studies his face in the mirror, and goes out.
The call to prayer comes. Aziza no longer prays, thinking that she has done much praying in her life, and besides, she has not committed the sins of other women and has acquired much grace by attending so many funerals.
Waheeba leaves to buy vegetables. This is her time of freedom, when she can meet up with friends at the market, often retelling stories of the household in such a way as to make it seem that she has the upper hand. Meanwhile, Aziza wonders what Waheeba during her time away from the apartment. Aziza also relishes the thought of how much money she has saved up for Mahmoud’s inheritance—over 54,000 pounds. She is very proud and grows happy at the thought of surprising him someday. Aziza also ponders Mahmoud’s relations with Waheeba, which she is well aware of. She decides it is best to hide both the amount of money in the bank and her knowledge of this affair. Aziza hopes to maintain the current routine as long as possible. Suddenly, though, she suffers a heart attack, and sits clenched with terror, waiting for Mahmoud or Waheeba to return.
The narrator is a young girl. Her grandmother buys her some rabbits. She spends her time lying in the enclosure built for the rabbits, watching their leisurely existence, and eventually they have babies. Of all the animals on their farm, these are the only ones with which she has bonded. Then one day she sees Nanny Zareefa, the servant, cut the throat of one of the baby rabbits. The narrator runs home, upset at the sight of the slaughter and the loss of its life. She realizes that for adults, there are degrees of death, varying in importance between man and animals, and even between certain men and others.
Widad lives alone. Her children have grown up and moved away, and her husband Ahmed has died, so she lives a strict, unchanging routine, caring for her chickens and the property. She knows each chicken and its particular characteristics. Widad regrets that she never learned the verses used in the daily prayers and is too shy to ask the neighbors if she could join them in their prayers, but in her simple way she still thanks and praises Allah. Her only interaction with others is when she sits on her bench outside and watches people pass by.
Mitwalli, her childhood sweetheart, has come to ask her to marry him. She loved him when she was younger, but her father arranged for her to marry Ahmed, and she did not object. Widad tells Mitwalli that he should have come thirty years ago, and they are both old now so it is too late. Mitwalli says that the past is over, and they both have the right to live out the rest of their lives happily. He tells her he will come back tomorrow for her answer.
Widad thinks that she should live the rest of her life alone. But suddenly she notices a kite swoop down and grab one of the chicks from the courtyard. She is upset, and her only thoughts are about how to prevent this from happening again. That night she has a vision of Mitwalli standing over the chickens to protect them. She also dreams of standing behind him during his daily prayers, as she once did with Ahmed, and she is filled with contentment.
The narrator is an old woman who feels like a useless burden since her children have grown up. Today she decides to stay in bed, thinking that it makes no difference if she doesn’t get up. Every day she had the same routine, going to the market for food and meeting the same people. Once a month she went to the center of the city and bought a scarf or slippers, which she probably wouldn’t wear. She simply used the act of shopping to pass the time and actually spends more and more of her time living in past memories.
She thinks of the gardener in her father’s country house, spraying water on the lime trees. The vision is interrupted by her daughter coming into the room to ask if she has had a nice rest. Her son, too, approaches, and then her children leave and close the door to the room. Later she hears the voice of her brother, who has not visited her in years. She also hears the voice of his wife, with whom she doesn’t get along. Finally a woman comes in and begins undressing her, and a reciter is reading the funeral verses from the Qur’an. A feeling of peace flows over her and she abandons herself to the funeral ritual.
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