Book Review: Notes on the Flesh (Shahd Alshammari)

Reviewed by Saloua Ben Zahra

Notes on the Flesh as written by the young Arab woman writer and English professor Shahd Alshammari is a groundbreaking and enriching contribution to the field of world disability literature. It is a novel work in the new genre of biomythography that sheds light on multitudes of minorities of unheard voices and perspectives. It represents to the readers essential aspects of what it means to be a Kuwaiti family and individual in Palestine. The readers learn from Alshammari's flow of stories what constitutes the identity of Kuwaiti Palestinians and diverse fellow war-displaced groups of the world, such as the Bedouin communities who are a lesser known body of the world population. The body and the flesh are central to the narratives that Shahd weaves throughout her book. As a combination of memoir and fiction, it is told from a disability perspective and voices the highly and intricately nuanced predicament and agency of being an Arab Muslim female in the Arab world.

As the expression "inspiring" is to be avoided in responding and connecting to experiential disability literature although it may come to mind in a positive light, an approximation of a sense that would arise within the mind and heart of the reader when reading Alshammari's Notes could be said to be a unique and most engaging kind of dialogue. Shahd's simple graceful prose marked by a light and subtle sense of humor is engrossing and compelling and would resonate with audience members from all walks of life and parts of the world. It speaks to and about the multitudes with disabilities and particularly invisible disabilities. Alshammari tells us with grace stories of how it feels and plays out when such invisible disabilities are inhabited within bodies that are in their turn made invisible by world politics and become thought-provoking embodiments of the personal being political.

Alshammari enables us to grasp and relate to the nuanced Arab and global life experiences of such persons and characters to a considerable extent through the teachable engaging and enlightening translations she offers of uniquely Arab concepts of human love and community. She teaches us the meanings of beautiful Arabic words that range from Ishq to Ishra. Arabic is the language of a hundred names of God and about a hundred synonyms of the expression "love." Ishq is one of them. As a speaker of Alshammari's mother tongue Arabic, I would say to her fellow readers Iqra, that is imperative "read" her Notes on the Flesh to discover and learn from some of the nuances of Arab Ishq as she dramatizes it in one of her vignettes about the experiences of love while bearing a disability. This book is a text about friendship and love, various kinds of love in physical and cultural disabilities context and that ranges from the bond of mother daughter as the protagonist tells us about an enabling, affirming educated and strong Arab mother who was a driving force for her daughter's independence within and from a Bedouin culture leading to fulfillment in international settings. Besides mother-daughter love, the book is also about romantic love hopes and impediments when the female body bears an invisible disability with a mind and will of its own and a young woman's coming of age and growing into emotional maturity and independence through embracing the self, body and soul, over the norms and demands of an able-bodied society that is ableist at times and uniquely accepting and supportive at other times in culturally specific ways. Alshammari's Notes teach us about culturally specific dynamics at the heart of Arab societies.

In composing her narrative, Alshammari invokes Audre Lorde's concept of biomytholgraphy, cutting across traditional genres because, as Alshammri says, "I am your unreliable narrator… My memory fails me, as my body has failed me, and this is but an attempt at reconstructing the experience of love, loss, meaning, and purpose." Whatever label one chooses to attach to Alshammari's story, her narrative provides insight into what it means to be disabled in a Muslim culture. To Western readers this will be enlightening in the ways that they are similar as wll in the way they differ. One similarity is the sheer sense of isolation the narrator Sarah (presumably a stand-in for Alshammari) feels at being a teenage girl diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Alone and far from home, her father cannot accept that his daughter has a medical diagnosis and insists her condition is all in her head. Her one time "best friend" is totally unsympathetic pronouncing her illness as retribution for the fact that she is "evil." While this latter may seem to some readers to hark back to the Salem witch trials, the inability of family members to accept a diagnosis that involves disability is something that frequently hits close to home.

A second example comes in the concluding chapter of the book's first half when Sarah finally finds someone she feels she can confide in.

…"I just wanted you to know."
"I appreciate it, Sarah. I won't tell anyone, either."
"Please don't. It's top-secret. Nobody should ever know. My family would kill me. I'm not supposed to tell anyone."
"Why not? It's nothing to be ashamed of!"
"Yeah, I know, but try saying that to them. They don't get it. They worry, you know, that if people found out, I would never get married. And maybe my sisters won't get any suitors either. Because who wants to marry into a family with sick or disabled people?" I argued. I was speaking as though I was explaining the logic to both of us.

As those in disability studies are well aware, stigma is a phenomenon that still clings to disability. Reading the above dialogue, one's first reaction might be an incredulity that families in the twenty-first century can be made the subjects of shame because of a disabled family member. Before becoming too self-congratulatory, however, readers may want to acquaint themselves some of the experiences of writers with disabilities from Canada, the United States or the UK that vary from Sarah's only by degree.

Notes on the Flesh is an important contribution to disability literature and one that any serious survey of the field needs to take into account. Rather than a final pronouncement, perhaps it is best to let the author herself have the last word: "I wrote this short story collection, part-memoir, part-illness narrative, part confused, part confusing,partially fabricated, partially the truth, and here it is."

Title: Notes on the Flesh
Author:Shahd Alshammari
Publisher:Faraxa Publishing
Publication Date: 2017


Saloua Ali Ben Zahra is currently based in North Carolina where she is Faculty-in-Residence at the Learning and Living Center at Appalachian State University and Director of the Arabic program and Assistant Professor of Arabic culture, language and literature in translation. She obtained her Masters' and Doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota where she was a recipient of Fulbright scholarships twice. For her doctoral project she worked on representations of disabilities in Arab / Islamic post-colonial literatures, cultures and societies. She taught diverse courses in Minnesota, Arabic language and culture most recently, but before that French and Italian. She is originally from Tunisia where she was educated at the university of Tunis-Carthage and taught at various Tunisian universities.