Arabic literature finds its home in experimentation. Arabic writers, perhaps less burdened by conformity to “canon,” demonstrate year after year their willingness to take risks with form and subject. Many English-language readers are largely unfamiliar with Arabic literature, partly due to the relative dearth of translation as compared to translation from, say, French. There are a number of ways to begin to span the geographical and cultural distance between English-language readers and Arabic literature in translation. Here, I will focus on one gateway into Arabic literature by reviewing works originally written in Arabic by women.
The women on my list are members of a generation of writers determined to challenge conceptions of feminism, identity, and class. These women dismantle the reductive stereotype of Arab women as helpless victims through diverse portrayals of the female experience in the Middle East. Arab women are participants in history-making and shapers of culture whose contributions are only recently being translated for English audiences.
Lebanese journalist and author, Alawiya Sobh also founded Snob Al-Hasnaa, the most-read women’s cultural magazine in the Arab world today. Her novel, Maryam: Keeper of Stories, depicts women’s experiences during the Lebanese civil war. Sobh tackles a diverse range of topics from love, female friendships, loss, society’s restrictions on women, violence, and survival.
“The war silenced me, I invented Maryam to tell the story for me.”
Better known for her first novel, Always Coca-Cola, Lebanese author Alexandra Chreiteh wrote Ali and his Russian Mother in 2010, in which she depicts a young Lebanese-Russian woman who reconnects with her childhood friend, Ali. These two characters represent the voices of the post-war generation of Lebanon as they are forced to reflect upon their choices and lack of them in a country that is yet again torn by war.
Syrian journalist and activist Samar Yazbek is best known for her novel Woman at a Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, in which she supports the Syrian uprising against then-president Bashar al-Assad and as result is exiled to Paris. But Yazbek’s lesser-known first novel, Cinnamon, is an important meditation on life among Damascus’ upper class. The novel enables the reader to catch a glimpse into certain socio-economic dynamics of everyday life in the Middle East that remain unrepresented in Arabic literature in translation.
Samar Yazbek also wrote the prose-poem “Waiting for Death”, which conveys the ubiquity of death and violence in Syria in 2011.
BASMA ABDEL AZIZ
The dystopian novel, The Queue, was written by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz. The novel is a successful critique of authoritarianism and is often compared to Kafka’s The Trial and Orwell’s 1984.
YASMINE EL RASHIDI
In her debut novel, Chronicle of a Last Summer, which the New York Times titled “the novel of Egypt’s Cheated Generation” – Yasmine El Rashidi, an Egyptian journalist, explores the country’s political turmoil through the lens of a girl’s coming-of-age in Cairo.
Iraqi-Danish author, Hawra al-Nadawi, completed Under the Copenhagen Sky, at the age of twenty-seven. The reader is presented with chapters from the protagonist, Huda’s, manuscript and her email exchanges with her lover, Rafid. The reader must, then, attempt to piece together the story of their romance. In 2011, Nadawi’s novel was the only book by a female author that made the long list for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).
Palestinian-American author and professor Randa Jarrar has gone viral for her article Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers. Her most recent short story collection, Him, Me, Mohamed Ali, centers around a misunderstood family anecdote that becomes central to a woman’s attempt to come to terms with her father’s death.
One of Palestine’s first and foremost feminist writers, Sahar Khalifa is known for her complex portrayal of women in contemporary Palestinian society. Khalifa gives a female point of view to life under occupation. One of her most well-known novels, The Inheritance, recounts the countless sacrifices Palestinian women must make for their country and men, only to be later marginalized by these men in society and in the general political discourse of liberation.
Interested in additional information on literature and culture in the Middle East? Jadaliyya gives access to the latest publications, interviews, arts, and news from the region.
Originally from Lebanon, Nicole Fares completed her MFA in creative writing and translation. She is a PhD candidate in comparative literature and cultural theory at the University of Arkansas, where she teaches creative writing and world literature. Nicole translates from and into Arabic, English, and French, and she is currently completing the translation of a novel by Mahmoud Shukair.