The Year of Reading (Arab) Women

I feel rather lukewarm about this “Year of Reading Women,” despite an earnest belief that women’s books are (generally speaking) not taken as seriously as men’s:

Joanna Walsh's "year of reading women" bookmarks.
Joanna Walsh’s “year of reading women” bookmarks.

Which women’s voices will this #readwomen2014 prioritize? Does it touch on any of the reasons why we gravitate toward male protagonists? Will it be, in the main, a celebration of English-language women’s voices? Of women at the center or the peripheries?

But despite my reservations, there’s a good enough chance that I’m wrong — in my lukewarmness — so if you’re keen to play along, this is a list of twelve suggestions of Arabic-writing women. Bonus points where the translator is also a woman. So here it is, one for every month of the year:

January: Hanan al-Shaykh, Story of Zahra, trans Peter Ford. You just cannot go wrong with Story of Zahra, which is also one of the five books on my “how to get started with Arabic literature” list.

February: Adania Shibli, Touch, trans. Paula Haydar. Or, if you prefer, We Are All Equally Far from Love, trans. Paul Starkey. Shibli is for those of you who are literarily-minded, who enjoy a woman’s narrative that lives outside traditional Western story-building. With its surprising poetic imagery, Touch could just as easily be classed as a collection of prose poems.

March: Samar Yazbek, Woman in the Crossfire, trans Max Weiss. Raw, honest, terrifying, hopeful portrait of the first few months of uprising in Syria by one of its leading novelists.

April: Hoda Barakat, Tiller of Waters, trans. Marilyn Booth. It’s true, Barakat is big on the male protagonist, but with an amazing empathy and sensitivity both to characters and to objects of daily life.

May: Sahar Khalifeh, Of Noble Origins, trans. Aida Bamia. Winner of the prestigious Mohamed Zafzaf prize, Khalifeh is a strong and prolific author with many novels in English translation. My suggestion is her most recent, in particular because it shows an important historic moment from a woman’s point of view.

June: Alexandra Chrietieh, Always Coca-Cola, trans. Michelle Hartman. This book is very much a piece of women’s writing, centered more on the contradictions of daily life than in rising and falling action. It’s also very funny.

July: Iman Humaydan Younes, Wild Mulberries, trans. Michelle Hartman. There’s also another book of Younes’s coming out this year, trans. Hartman, Other Lives. 

August: Radwa Ashour, Woman of Tantoura. I would like to recommend Radwa Ashour’s Farag (which is supposed to be out as Blue Lorries in May), trans. Barbara Romaine, but BQFP has been sliding on deadlines lately. But whenever it’s out, do get it. Ashour’s Spectres is also a wonderful metafictional view of women’s lives.

September: Najwa Barakat, Salaam!, trans. Luke Leafgren. This difficult and powerful novel finally brings an important Lebanese author into English.

October: Iman Mersal, These Are Not Oranges, My Love,  Khaled Mattawa. I would like to recommend Mersal’s Until I Give Up the Idea of Houses, but alas it’s not yet in English. Poems from Oranges here.

November: Miral al-Tahawy, Brooklyn Heights, trans. Samah Selim. All of al-Tahawy’s books deal with women’s lives (this one in New York and Egypt), but this one is additionally translated by an award-winning (woman) translator.

December: Betool Khedairi, Absent, trans.  Muhayman Jamil. I once had a torrid love affair with this book, which takes us from a vibrant and beautiful mosaic of Baghdad and moves toward the present.

More, more, more women:

Salwa Bakr on ‘Women and Arabic Literature’:  “When I first started to write, people would ask me – ‘Who wrote this for you?’”

6 Arab Women Authors on Why They Write

Arab Women Writers: A partial bibliography

There’s also a much longer list of authors at

And this is an anthology worth having.

What does the Arab Writers Union recommend? Women on “top 105 Arabic novels of the 20th century” list:

Beirut Nightmares, by Syrian author Ghada Samman, was translated by Nancy N. Roberts and published by Quartet Books in 1998. The book fell out of print, but Quartet Books re-released Beirut Nightmares this past September.

I Live, by Lebanese author Leila Baalbaki. Published in French – Je vis! Seuil 1958 and in German – Ich lebe, Lenos 1994. Not in English.

Memory in the Flesh, by the Algerian writer Ahlam Mostaghanmi, was published by AUC press in 2003 and republished this year as Bridges of Constantine, trans. Raphael Cohen.

The Story of Zahra, by the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh. I promise you can’t go wrong with this book.

Wasmiya Comes Out of the Sea, by the Kuwaiti author Laila al-Othman, was excerpted in Banipal 3. The whole book is not in English.

Granada, by the Egyptian author Radwa Ashour. Granada was translated by William Granara (sometimes Bill Granara) and published by Syracuse University Press.

Door to the Courtyard, by the Palestinian writer Sahar Khalifeh. Bab el-Saha, however, has not been translated into English. You can find it in German – Das Tor (Unionsverlag, 2004) and French – L’impasse de bab essaha (Flammarion, 1998).

The Blockade, by Bahraini author Fawzia Rasheed. Not in English.

Birds of September, by the Lebanese author Emily Nasrallah. Not in English.

Birds of The Dawn, by the Lebanese author Lily Osseiran. Not in English.

A Man from Bashmour, by the Egyptian Salwa Bakr, was published by AUC Press in a translation by Nancy Roberts.

The Open Door, by Egyptian author Latifa Al-Zayat, translated by Marilyn Booth, AUC Press.


  1. Another great list for we Arab lit ‘newbies’ – thank you. Why do they have to depict such elderly matrons on the bookmarks? Gives the impression that women only start writing in their twilight years when they have too much time on their hands and their kids are raised and/or they widowed!

    1. Haha, I wish I knew how to do graphics! I promise I’d throw on some younger women, like Ghada Abdel-Aal & Miral & Adania.

  2. Thank you! 🙂

    1. Very welcome!

  3. As always thanks for a fantastic list Marcia. Totally agree with Safia though that the bookmarks are awful and depict a very narrow and traditionalist representation of ‘reading women’. Very western and elitist. Here’s hoping that in reality the target audience is much, much wider

    1. That’s what worries me about a “year of reading women,” that of course we bring along all our usual baggage. But then I have seen people on the hashtag looking to break out and read all sorts of different women authors.

  4. Fantastic list ! Thank you very much. I decided to read women this year and I did not know about the ‘Year of reading women’ initiative ! Great to know that I am not the only one who decided to read women for a whole year.

    1. Reem,

      Wonderful! I’m sure you’ll find a lot of companionship on the #readwomen2014 hashtag.

    1. Excellent, thanks for sharing! Totally agree that you cannot go wrong with Mahasweta Devi. I look forward to reading some of your other suggestions.

      1. And I’m sharing this around. Thanks so much for letting me know.

  5. This post just added substantially to my reading list. And added to my motivation to read Story of Zahra!

    1. Great to hear! I’m now following, and look forward to seeing your thoughts on the books.

  6. Thanks for this! And, I know it’s not written in Arabic, but I’d definitely add “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa as one to read (apologies if it was on a previous list).

    1. Reem,

      No apologies necessary, of course! I’ve certainly interviewed Susan about the novel. (For this one, I limited to Arabic, because otherwise there was just too too much to choose from.)

      Thanks for adding to the list!

    1. Great! I look forward to seeing the log.

  7. Hi 🙂 I’m really interested in Arab literature, culture, religion.. well mainly everything and I have to do a project for a literature class where I could show the two faces of the use of the veil in by muslim women so I would like to find a book or maybe some poems where this appears reflected. Can you help me, please?
    Best regards from Spain

    1. You are supposed to be looking for fiction? I suggest, on this topic in general, Lila Abu-Lughod’s book, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” it addresses this narrative, although mainly through the lens of Western literature:

      In terms of clothing as a main motif in Arabic literature per se, there aren’t too many women who foreground it, although there is a story by Mona Prince…I can see if I can find it & send it to you. Oh, and on the other side, the work of Leila Aboulela…you know her? I’m not sure what has been translated into Spanish, though.

      1. Thanks for your Answer 🙂 it’s not a problem if I have to read in English because I’m bilingual, even I can read in Italian and French so I will try to find any book of the authors that you mention. The fact is that I’m working by my self (I could say researching) in the theme of the veil because Wester poeple use to see it as a punishment. So I have choose this topic to make an oral presentation on a Literature class where I could show the two faces of the veil maybe through a poem or just some quotations from a textbook. I have already written something on the topic. You can read it here in my fashion blog and If you want give me your opinion:

        I hope you like it.

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