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from the March 2020 issue

Beyond Representation: Life Writing by Women in Arabic

Arabic literary traditions are rich with women telling their own stories, from Andalusian Wallada bint al-Mustakfi’s fakhr poetry—allegedly embroidered on her clothes—through the epistolary practice of Nahda writers like Mayy Ziyadeh to the autobiographies of feminist pioneers Huda al-Shaarawi and Nawal al-Saadawi, as well as the memoirs of established literary authors such as Radwa Ashour and Samar Yazbek. In this feature, we bring you a small selection of contemporary voices that expand and challenge these diverse traditions of nonfictional life writing.

Translations of women authors from the Arab world are often read in reductive ways. All it takes is a look at the rolling landscape of women in veils adorning book covers to realize that there’s a voyeuristic impulse that—at least until very recently—has governed many of the publishing trends around Arab women’s literature. And that, when it comes to writing by women from Arab countries, the assumption that women’s life writing would tend toward the domestic and private spheres still prevails. These considerations make it difficult to gather pieces under a header that contains both “women” and “Arabic” without running the risk of essentializing.

Much has been written since the early 2000s about the packaging and reception of Arab women’s writing, specifically in English translation. For instance, Margot Badran’s translation of Huda al-Shaarawi’s memoirs, titled Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1987), gives more weight in the preface and other paratextual material to the subject of the veil than Shaarawi’s own narrative does. Life in the “harem” is also foregrounded in ways that it is not in the Arabic. Shaarawi, who redefined women’s public engagement through the Egyptian Feminist Union, affords a lot more space in her text to her public action and nationalist politics. The Arabic does not even have “harem” in the title.

Nawal al-Saadawi, one of the most translated authors from Arabic into English, has been read and discussed in ways that exaggerate her subversiveness. Saadawi occupies a space in the multifarious feminist and leftist movements of her country, but editors and critics in English have repeatedly—often against her own best efforts—foregrounded sensationalist topics in her writing, portraying her as a lone fighter and the majority of Arab women as hapless victims.

The term “Arab women” itself comes with its own set of problems. It imposes a fictive homogeneity on diverse life experiences and varied contexts that have as much to set them apart as to unite them. Then there is the question of language. Not all writers identifying as Arab write in Arabic, and not everyone who writes in Arabic lives in the Arab world. But even if we take Arabic language as a defining criterion—which we do for this selection—we have to be careful not to erase literary expressions in any of the many tongues that are not the predominant modern standard Arabic, including local colloquial variations.

What is to be done, then, to give Anglophone readers a better chance to appreciate women writers from the Arab world, beyond the politics of representation and away from the public/private dichotomy? Perhaps the answer is to let as many texts as possible speak for themselves: texts that are personal and specific enough to inevitably question easy assumptions and restore the plurality missing from the representation narrative, but also topical and daring enough to show that there are countless links between the personal and the public, and many routes from the particular to the universal. We hope that the selection of texts in this feature goes some way in the direction of doing just that.

Razor Blade Rattle and the Beginnings of Being Tamed,” translated by Sawad Hussain, is an excerpt from the autobiography Woman of the Rivers (2015) by Ishraga Mustafa, a Sudanese-Austrian writer, poet, and translator. An intimate and visceral piece that describes childhood trauma with a chilling lyricism, it deals with the physical loss of genital cutting and the emotional loss of trust in older women in the family. But this is far from a story of female victimhood: Mustafa’s voice here is strong and poetic, connected to nature and to her own body, sharp in its resistance to the controls exerted over it. It recaptures the spirit of the defiant child owning her losses and growing “the fruit of that pain [. . .] into palm trees.” Just as she grows herself into the author who inhabits a place from which she can speak about “the hundred lanterns in her mind.”

If autobiography is defined by the concurrence of the author with the “I” that speaks, Nadia Kamel’s Born: The Story of Naela Kamel, née Marie Rosenthal challenges that supposition. This oral-history-cum-autobiography is based on Kamel’s recordings of her mother and written entirely in ammeya (spoken Egyptian Arabic). In a feat of literary ventriloquism, Kamel channels her mother’s voice to tell the story in the first person: mother and daughter crossing together—as Kamel puts it in the introduction—“the threshold of telling, an act of stepping out.”

Mary’s/Naela’s voice is wise and inquisitive, embracing the multiculturalism of the generations of migrants she hails from while constantly interrogating her place in the world. In “Communism in Style,” translated for this feature by Brady Ryan and Essayed Taha, Naela/Mary shares anecdotes from her covert work for the printing press of a 1940s Egyptian Communist cell. This is a sardonic account of the cell’s work that gently mocks her own youthful naivete as well as the amateurish operations of the group. She is subtly aware of questions of privilege and class prejudice and, without taking herself too seriously, insists on going against the grain of the expectations of her milieu.

Palestinian writer and activist Sahar Khalifeh is also known for her refusal to conform. In “University Student,” excerpted from her autobiography A Novel for My Story (2018) and translated by Sawad Hussain, she recounts her reaction to receiving an offer of place at Birzeit University as a mature student in 1973, a pioneering move at the time and especially daring under Israeli occupation. It is a bittersweet recollection of that era in Khalifeh’s life, told in a tone that is steady and determined but never overconfident. Her stated ambitions are to become a writer and to be financially independent, but the obstacles are many: societal expectations, lack of funds, and the logistics of movement under occupation, to name a few. Khalifeh’s account moves beyond the initial reactions from those around her—“What was that? One of whimsical Sahar’s latest pipe dreams?”—to offer a vivid snapshot of female solidarity and mutual empowerment.

The final piece in this selection is Rasha Abbas’s “Six Proposals for Participation in a Conversation about Bread.” Included here in Alice Guthrie’s translation, it first appeared in al-Jumhuriya alongside a number of essays that interrogate the relationship of food to power and political turmoil. Poetically, it strips down the struggles of war and military coups, and questions of exile and belonging, to a focal point that is as basic as it is universal: bread in its many forms, traversing eras and geographies, from the 1940s through the 2010s in cities like Damascus, Moscow, Latakia, and Berlin. The first person is mostly implicit in Rasha Abbas’s personal essay, somewhat secondary, hiding behind the wider political upheavals, witnessing without seeming to directly engage.

In Greek tragedy, female choruses were introduced to serve the dramatic purpose of passive witnesses and commentators. A chorus of men, you see, would have been expected to intervene in the events unfolding onstage. Women, on the other hand, were not expected to act. In other, more recent European traditions, autobiography used to be considered an androcentric genre. In its most basic format, it depicted an individual hero’s journey from childhood to public accomplishments, focusing on external trials and triumphs and the role played in public life. It was assumed that to play a role in public life, you would have to be a man. Again, we see the division of what is ultimately expected of public- vs. private-sphere denizens. 

But one cannot write about real-life experiences from the place of the “I” without laying claim to a place in the world. The pieces included here—like most genuine, impactful life writing by good writers of all genders or none—cut across the private and public spheres to give us stories that can be surprising, shocking, or eerily familiar and relatable. This feature is meant to broach rather than summarize a rich and diverse area of reading possibilities. We invite you to cross the threshold of telling and enjoy a discordant cacophony of voices—certainly not a passive chorus—each weaving the narrative of a life that is simultaneously individual and connected with the world around it, so that the Arabness of the writer's identity or location becomes secondary to the vital human stories she shares.


© 2020 by Sawad Hussain and Nariman Youssef. All rights reserved.

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