Two New Novels About Palestine from Egyptian Author Radwa Ashour

If there is a first family of Arabic literature, it might well be Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, Palestinian poet/memoirist Mourid Barghouti, and their poet-son Tamim Al-Barghouti.

This year, Ashour has out two new books. One is really “new” (The Woman from Tantoura, الطنطورية , Dar el Shorouk 2010) and the other is “new” to English (Specters, أطياف, Interlink/AUC Press 2010). The latter is translated by Barbara Romaine, who did a lovely version of Bahaa Taher’s Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery.

According to a piece about الطنطورية this week in Al Masry Al Youm: “The book chronicles the Palestinian nakba by following the story of a woman from the village of al-Tantoura, one of the villages of the Palestinian coast which was destroyed in 1948.”

The paper asked Ashour why the nakba, why now:

Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict are strongly present in our modern history, and in the experience of my generation, as well as in my personal experience, and this is what explains their presence in my writing. Years before “Al-Tantoureyya” I wrote “Atyaf” (1999) and “Qataat min Europa” (2003) which partially address the subject.

Atyaf, or Specters, should be out from Interlink this month in the U.S., AUC Press in our region, and Arabia in the U.K.

Specters, the winner of the Cairo International Book Fair Prize, makes an interesting companion to The Woman from Tantoura. Both deal in Palestinian history: The Woman from Tantoura with one woman’s experience of nakba and Specters with two women’s views on the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin.

Specters “alternates between the stories of Radwa and Shagar: two women born the same day, one a professor of literature, one of history. The novel that results is part fiction, part autobiography, part oral history, part documentary—a metafiction moving between Radwa, who is writing a novel called Specters, and Shagar, whose has written a history, titled Specters….” (Interlink)

Both books have been well received. My favorite review is of Al-Tantoureya, by GoodReads user Hagar Hisham:

finished it at 6 am! Finished reading it in three days! It’s a book you cannot feel but missing it when you turn the last page!

Ashour, meanwhile, speaks interestingly about how fiction and history twine in الطنطورية in the interview with Al Masry Al Youm:

…I sometimes make a fictional character like Raqia or one of her family members participate in a scene with a real personality like Maruf Saad (the Lebanese leader who was martyred in 1957) or Dr. Bayan Nubhad (the Lebanese historian), or Dr. Anise Sayegh,  founder of the Palestinian Research Center, and so on. It’s an artistic game that a reader may or may not notice and it evokes additional meanings. So I entwine the fictional with the factual, but the imagination in this novel as in other novels, for me and other writers, strives to achieve an equation not without some irony: the imagination gathers and gives wings but stays drawn to the reality in which it is suspended.

I should receive my copy of Specters today, ISA, and greatly look forward to sitting down with it. Al-Tantoureya should be available at a good bookstore near you; you can also find it on Neelwafurat.