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.