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The Red Tent – Anita Diamant

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What can I say about this book, except that it is perhaps one of the best books I have ever read. It reads in some ways as an alternative to the bible with the main focus being the role of women in biblical times. The voice of Dinah is finally heard in this version of events, as are the voices of other women, a first for biblical readings – an alternative version of events.

I found the concept of ‘the red tent’ very appealing indeed-a place of sanctuary for women to recouperate and simply share experiences, gossip and stories. The bond between women of the time is expressed with great emotion and conviction by the author, even though many of these relationships would be ‘unacceptable’ or intolerable in today’s world. Take for example the fact that Jacob takes many wives, (who are sisters). Here we see Patriarchy in its fullest form with Jacob controlling the lives of the women and benefitting from them. What is significant though is that these women are not presented as weak victims of patriarchy, but instead are determined, headstrong and resiliant. The cental character, Dinah (daughter of Jacob and Leah) is apparently raped by a prince of Shechem in the biblical story, but in the Red Tent he is genuinely in love with her and she readily agrees to marry him. However, her brothers in the book, Simon and Levi, insist that the prince be circumcised as a form of punishment for the rape of their sister. While the prince agrees and undergoes the painful circumcision, the brothers still seek revenge and go ahead and kill him. The grief-sticken Dinah then leaves her brothers and father Jacob and goes to Egypt where she gives birth to a son. She later reunites with her brother Joseph. The characters, with their biblical affiliations were interesting and perhaps less romanticised than the biblical images we may have had growing up. The stories of Jacob and Joseph were significant as they told that which is part of history, yet with more reality and ‘heart’ than has been previously been demonstrated.

On a personal level, I found the story intriguing and experienced a real connection, perhaps because I have always been fascinated by biblical stories and ‘stories of old’. Growing up with a mix of stories of Jacob and Yacub, Joseph and Yousef etc. this story was able to overcome cultural and religious boundaries. Having named my son Yousef, this story once more made me think about the meaning behind his name and the strong character of the man he was named after. The book is significant also in terms of women’s position and role in different societies and cultures, over different times, presenting them as active participants in their lives, rather than passive victims, which I found to be truly inspirational.

Written by Um Yousef

1 April 2006 at 10:00 pm