Most of the marriages in Alifa Rifaat’s stories are unhappy. Many of the husbands cheat, and the wives are dissatisfied both sexually and emotionally. This is not too surprising, since most of the marriages in the stories—and in Islamic communities—are arranged marriages, so the husband and wife are not in love before marrying. Often, the marriage is arranged so that land or wealth can be kept in the family, as in the case of Zennouba in “The Long Night of Winter.” Clearly, Rifaat believes two main things about marriage in the Islamic world: marriages should not be arranged, and husbands should meet the emotional and sexual needs of their wives. Arranged marriages completely ignore the desires of the women.
In her stories, Rifaat makes clear that sexual intercourse should be enjoyable for both husband and wife. “Enjoyment” does not refer only to physicality; the act of sex should be one of consideration, leading to a stronger bond. For example, in “Distant View of a Minaret,” the husband and wife do not connect on a sexual level at all. The husband is concerned only with his own sexual urges, and he prevents his wife from experiencing sexual pleasure. He is even cruel to her, telling her that he has had sexual experiences with other women. The wife resembles a slave or a concubine, rather than a life partner.
Rifaat’s depictions of husbands are not favorable. In “Distant View of a Minaret” and “The Long Night of Winter,” both husbands are disgusting and animal-like while having sex. In “Distant View of a Minaret,” Rifaat describes the husband’s face in “ugly contortions,” and in “The Long Night of Winter,” the husband has “evil-smelling breath” and repugnant, “rough hands.” The men are selfish and often have affairs. In “The Long Night of Winter,” the wife Zennouba asks her mother if it is true that her father also had affairs. Her mother tells her that, “All men are like that.” In “Badriyya and Her Husband,” Badriyya’s husband Omar is a worthless womanizer who lies to Badriyya and never even sleeps with her.
Death permeates the stories in Distant View of a Minaret, and with it are those who are still alive but who are left stunned, sad, and bewildered, never to be the same. In “Telephone Call,” the widowed narrator believes a late-night phone call could be a message from her dead husband. Her life begins to resemble death: she sleeps during the day, when the rest of the world lives and carries on their day-to-day life, and she stays up through the dark and lonely night, thinking of her dead husband. She wants to know that there is life after death, so that she can be comforted by the fact that she and her husband will someday be reunited. In “Thursday Lunch,” the narrator’s mother confesses that she has thought of her dead husband every day since his death twenty-four years ago. Death may separate lovers, but the love remains.
The changes death brings are not always unwelcome. In “Just Another Day,” the narrator is an old woman who endures a tiresome, unchanging routine. She feels she is a useless burden to her children, and she struggles to find activities that will eat away at time. But death releases the narrator from routine. When she finally realizes she has died, she willingly and happily gives in to death. Widad in “The Kite” has a similar attitude of relief. She, too, is in a routine, and though she doesn’t dislike it, she has come to terms with the fact that she is in the last phase of life and will soon die. By facing death and realizing its inevitability, she alleviates her own fear of death and the change it brings.
In Distant View of a Minaret, women endure many restrictions, and a woman’s freedom and power come only at the sacrifice of her life, marriage, or honesty. In “The Incident in the Ghobashi Household,” Zeinat must lie to protect her pregnant, unmarried daughter and the family honor, and the money she gave her daughter was money she’d kept secret from her husband. For an Islamic woman, financial power sometimes comes only as a result of dishonest behavior. In “The Flat in Nakshabandi Street,” Aziza controls the household and its finances, but she’s never had a husband, and she’d never really explored her freedom: she leaves her apartment only for funerals. In “Mansoura,” the only time Mansoura successfully fends off Hindawi’s sexual advances is when she falls into a canal and drowns. After her death, Mansoura attains a supernatural power, and she crushes Hindawi beneath the arm of the bulldozer. Mansoura avenges Hindawi’s wrongdoings, but only at the cost of her own life.
In six of the stories in Distant View of a Minaret, characters stop what they’re doing for prayers, which Muslims do five times a day. In “Distant View of a Minaret,” the call comes just as the husband and wife are having sex, and, in a way, it liberates the wife so that she may pray, make coffee, and carry on with the rest of her day. In “Telephone Call,” the narrator expects the morning call to prayer to come soon, to end another night of staying up and longing for her dead husband. In “An Incident in the Ghobashi Household,” Zeinat has woken up to find that her daughter is showing signs of pregnancy, but before she attends to this dilemma, she makes her ablutions and performs the daily prayer. The men working on the canal in “Mansoura” finish their day and say the last of the daily prayers before gathering around the fire to hear the legend of Mansoura. And in “The Kite,” though Widad does not know any verses of the Qur’an and cannot perform the daily prayers, she makes gestures of gratitude and thinks back to when her husband was alive and she could stand behind him as he prayed.
Only one character hears the call to prayer and does not pray: Aziza in “The Flat in Nakshabandi Street.” As others begin to pray in the street, Aziza thinks to herself that she no longer has to pray. This, she feels, is because she has prayed enough during her lifetime, she has not committed the sins of married women, and she leads the women in funeral dirges during every funeral she attends. Her self-righteousness is striking when compared to the humble obedience of the characters in other stories.
Muslims’ daily language includes praise and thanks to Allah. In “Bahiyya’s Eyes,” Bahiyya’s language makes her faith in Allah clear. The story opens with the sentence, “We praise Him and thank Him for His favour for whatever He decides.” Bahiyya praises Allah despite the fact that she has not been allowed to live fully because of the restrictions placed on women in her society. She constantly references “Allah’s hands,” a phrase that demonstrates her faith that whatever happens, regardless of how tragic, is Allah’s will. Bahiyya also uses phrases such as “Allah have mercy on her,” “Allah bless you,” or “Allah forgive me,” which are simply habits of speech rather than true prayers. Other stories contain similar language. In “Thursday Lunch,” the narrator converses with her mother’s servant, making small talk that is punctuated with the phrase “Thanks be to God.” In “An Incident in the Ghobashi Household,” the phrase “May Allah keep him (or her) safe” is used twice, when the characters refer to travel. These phrases are simply part of everyday language in an Islamic society. By using them in the stories, Rifaat sets her collection firmly in an Islamic setting.
Most of the characters in Distant View of a Minaret are widows, and the state of widowhood takes different shapes with each woman. In “Distant View of a Minaret,” the wife is not emotionally connected to her husband, and she feels calm when he dies. When Bahiyya’s husband dies in “Bahiyya’s Eyes,” Bahiyya feels like a stranger in her own village: other women avoid her for fear that she’ll steal their husbands. In “Thursday Lunch,” the narrator’s widowed mother confesses that she has constantly thought of her dead husband for the past twenty-four years. The widow in “Telephone Call” loved her husband enough to seek signs of him from beyond the grave. The women in “The Kite” and “Just Another Day” are widows as well.
Some of the women who are not actually widows lead lonely lives that resemble those of widows. In “Badriyya and Her Husband,” Badriyya is married to a selfish womanizer and has not even had sex with him. In “The Long Night of Winter,” Zennouba must constantly deal with her husband’s affairs with the servant girls. In “At the Time of the Jasmine,” Hassan’s wife has left him and now lives in her homeland of Turkey, and she basically leads a widow’s life. Each of these wives must find the strength to endure a lonely life.
In “My World of the Unknown,” the narrator/wife falls in love with a snake, which is also a monarch from the spirit world. Traditionally, the serpent is known as the creature that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. When the snake deceives Eve into eating from the fruit of the forbidden tree of wisdom, Eve seduces Adam into partaking as well, and they are both exiled from the Garden of Eden by God. The snake in this short story is also a seducer, but she does not seem evil or demonic. In fact, she tells the wife that their affair is not shameful, because in the eyes of Allah they are now married. The narrator presents the snake as a creature that brings only good to her life and overturns the equating of sex and sin. The snake represents what seems to be lacking in her marriage with her husband. The snake’s shape also renders it a phallic symbol, and it indeed brings the narrator sexual pleasure. The narrator seems to be willing to give up her husband in his entirety in exchange for this single representation of a sexual organ, which she immediately finds beautiful and begins to yearn for. However, in the context of Rifaat’s other stories, the narrator’s desire is natural: an important part of a successful relationship is the sexual connection.
In Egyptian culture, water is viewed as a source of life. The Nile River and the irrigation systems it feeds have been vital to the success of Egyptian civilization since the time of the pharaohs. Strangely, Rifaat depicts the canal in “Mansoura” as a representation of death and tragedy. Mansoura dies when she slips into the canal during a confrontation with Hindawi, a man who is obsessed with her. At the end of the story, the canal is a setting for another death. Hindawi flees town to avoid being killed by Sayyid, and he takes a job laying pipe in the canal. The ghost of Mansoura avenges her death by causing a piece of pipe to fall and crush Hindawi. The canal is far from life-giving; Rifaat has turned a traditional symbol on its head.