Written by Tom Little
A couple of months ago, Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahdaf Soueif gave a talk at London’s Mosaic Rooms about the Egyptian revolution, her art and the place of art in the uprising. As the lecture came to a close, the floor was opened up to questions. Usually, I find it a little tricky to concentrate for this part of the night as people have a tendency to ask questions that are a little too clever for me, but one question stuck in my mind.
A young lady, speaking in a marked D4 Dublin accent, stood up to introduce herself as a Libyan poet. She said that at a recent forum for significant female Arab writers, she and her significant female Arab writer colleagues had agreed that literary society in the Arab world marginalized women authors. What could be done to change this, she wondered out loud? Soueif looked baffled and said that she just couldn’t see that this was the case. Some of the Arab world’s best-known writers, both in-and-outside the region, are women. It seemed unbelievable to her that someone could think this was the case.
Agree or disagree, I have to admit that I was taken aback by how strongly Soueif felt that this was the case, and her response has had us thinking over the last few weeks. So, in honour of International Women’s Day 2012, we have decided to put together a list of our five favourite women novelists from the Arab world. For a number of reasons, but mainly my inability to read anything other than basic Arabic, we have limited ourselves to writers whose works are published in English too.
She may be one of Lebanon’s most famous authors, but pitifully few of Barakat’s novels have been translated into English. Still, we recommend you beg, borrow or steal the three novels by Huda that were published in the UK…
Huda found herself in Paris studying for a doctorate when the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, and headed back to Beirut the year after to work as a teacher and translator, staying through the darkest years of the conflict.
The author returned to Paris in 1989 and has lived there since, but her experiences of the civil war are key to her writing, with many of her books set in civil war-era. She also courted controversy by featuring a gay protagonist in her novel, The Stone of Laughter.
The elder stateswoman of Francophone literature, Djebar is one of the most distinguished writers in the Arab world, although she herself comes from the Algeria’s significant Berber minority.
Djebar, whose real name is Fatima-Zohra Imalayène, has written about the role and repression of women in Algeria in many of her novels and says “Like so many other Algerian women authors, I write with a sense of urgency against misogyny and regression.”
In recognition of her (not inconsiderable) literary talent, Djebar was elected to the Académie Française, the body responsible for maintaining the purity of the French language, in 2005. A number of her novels have also been translated into English from the French, and all are more than deserving of your time. We particularly recommend Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, if you can rustle up a copy from somewhere.
Back to Lebanon for the indomitable Hanan al-Shaykh. Born in 1945 in the newly-independent Republic of Lebanon, Hanan al-Shaykh was educated variously in the country’s conservative south and in an American school for girls in Cairo.
Al-Shaykh, who worked as a journalist at the co, was forced to leave Lebanon in 1975 because of the civil war and eventually settled in London. She has written about the repression of women in Arab societies, drawing on her own strict childhood in south Lebanon, as well as exile and the Lebanese civil war.
Most recently, Hanan’s re-imagining of the One Thousand and One Nights was published in English by Bloomsbury (we’re very much looking forward to taking a look ourselves), but Only in London is another great starting point.
One of Egypt’s most respected living authors and a key figure in the early feminist movements in the Arab world, Nawal El-Saadawi has had a huge influence on writers across the region.
Born in 1931 to a distinguished family, Nawal El-Saadawi’s parents died young and left her responsible for the care of her siblings. Working as a doctor in 1950s Cairo, she saw the physical suffering of Egyptian women first-hand and believed strongly that these problems were symptoms of the patriarchal, misogynistic and class-riven society in which they lived.
Author of a host of novels and social criticism, El-Saadawi was even imprisoned under the Mubarak regime for her activism. Mercifully, a large number of her works are available to the English-language reader, although as a starting point, her autobiographies are particularly inspiring.
After the preamble to this list, how could we possibly neglect Ahdaf Soueif? Although I was forced to translate an excerpt from her novel The Map of Love for my finals at university, I have managed to see past this and forgive her. Her novels, written in English and recently translated into the Arabic, are beautifully crafted and a pleasure to read.
Not only is Soueif an accomplished novelist, but she was also a courageous and insightful voice on the Egyptian uprising last year and her dispatches from Tahrir Square regularly appeared in the western media. Her reporting from Cairo also inspired her account of the revolution, Cairo: My City, our revolution, published last month by Bloomsbury.
Get in touch to let us know who you think should, or should not, have made the cut. What glaring omissions have we made? We want to hear from you…