Review: Layla AlAmmar's The Pact
Layla AlAmmar, The Pact We Made, HarperCollins UK, 2019
uwaiti author Layla Al-Ammar’s book has been branded as another #MeTtoo novel, but it is so much more than that. Kuwaiti literature boasts the names of Saud Alsanousi and Bothayna Al-Essa, whose works have been translated into English. Al-Ammar, like a few other Kuwaiti Anglophone writers, weaves the English language with an emphasis on Kuwaiti culture and protagonists’ who reflect modern modern-day Kuwait. Kuwaiti society is mainly a collectivist society with an emphasis on family rather than the individual. The language is lyrical and uses words like yathoom (nightmare) and khattaba (matchmaker) to ground her very Kuwaiti identity as an author. AlAmmar, like her protagonist Dahlia, straddles two cultures, living in a hybrid state (born to an American mother and a Kuwaiti father). Dahlia, on the other hand, must contend with her own aspirations and her family’s traditional expectations of marriage before the age of thirty and fall into the traditional role of femininity.
To some readers, the narrative will be reminiscent of Jane Austen’s work, notions of Victorian femininity, marriage as a social and necessary contract, and the female identity as strictly tied to family and family reputation. But of course, this is not a Victorian novel, yet the parallels of social expectations of women can be seen, if you look closely. In a sense, Dahlia’s journey is a bildungsroman and one in which she searches for her voice and agency over her life. Dahlia must forge her own path and figure out ways to carve out of the voices in her head to find out who she really is, buried under years of trauma and repression. As the narrative unfolds, we become more attached to Dahlia and want to be invited into her psyche, untangle her repetitive utterances, her anxiety and panic bouts, and find the root of her fears. AlAmmar weaves this narrative of trauma through a careful and realistic approach that it becomes hard to separate the author from her protagonist. As fictional as the narrative is, its believability is clearly the result of an observant author who has immersed herself in understanding trauma and trauma theory. AlAmmar is currently working on a thesis that examines Arab women’s trauma narrativesnarratives, so it seems fit that her creative output is informed by her scholarly interests.
Dahlia’s life is not especially significant. There is nothing that stands out about her, even with her artistic talent and her love for reading being a huge part of her identity. She is like so many women I know living in Kuwait or the GCC. She is straddling two opposing cultures and yet is extremely unhappy, which is not the case for every Kuwaiti woman. There are those who manage to strike a balance between a state of hybridity and lead a different narrative. Dahlia’s narrative is important, I believe, because of the sexual trauma, the abuse that has happened to her body, and the silence that ensued. Dahlia’s silence is common in the Gulf, and women’s bodies are mostly still considered taboo, (as with most patriarchal societies) let alone an abused body, a a body that is left to its own devices to bear the shame and silence. What AlAmmar does in her debut novel is to shed light on the shame and bring it to the forefront through Dahlia’s questions, provoking thoughts, and her final decision to escape and to begin a new life outside of Kuwait. I would have liked an alternative ending that did not involve yet another man who saves Dahlia (Bu Faisal), but I am also able to see the realistic options available to women like Dahlia. It takes a good-natured man to hold her hand through the woods and ease her out of her shell. But it also takes a choice to allow this man to enter her world. Dahlia makes this choice (possibly the first choice she ever makes) and finds her voice. To many readers, this can be seen as an anti-feminist narrative move, but in the same way that Jane Eyre marries Mr. Rochester, this is a choice that affords her a better life, one that is ultimately hers. Feminism has many different shades and is practiced through small acts of revolution, small glimpses of hope. Dahlia’s narrative ends in the clouds – she is on a plane, and there is a silver lining of hope that we can see as she ponders her choices. The last line, in an almost blatant way, states “I have chosen.” The novel reaffirms the idea of agency and choice, and this is what makes The Pact We Made significant. AlAmmar offers her female protagonist and her readers a narrative built on hope and healing and finding one’s path amidst the darkness.
Shahd Alshammari is Assistant Professor of Literature at the Gulf University for Science and Technology