An Unnecessary Listicle: 7 Saudi Women Writers in Translation

Perhaps the most cringe-worthy part of ABC Family’s “Alice in Arabia” announcement was its creator’s apparent assertion that she had written the show not just for the fame and fortune (a motive we can all understand), but “to give Arabs and Muslims a voice on American TV”: 

src.adapt.480.lowAs a number of observers have pointed out (for instance novelist Laila Lalami), Muslims and Arabs do…etc., etc., etc.

As the Itinerant Cook notes below, the project has been scrapped following signicant backlash.

To be clear: Criticizing “Alice in Arabia” (then or now) is not to say that non-Arabs and non-Muslims shouldn’t write Muslims and Arabs into their fictions. Our worlds are inextricably entangled, and thus we should show up in one another’s imaginations, as Kamila Shamsie discussed in Guernica two years back. Pale-skinned people should write brown-skinned people into their fictions. Men should write women into their fictions, and occasionally do a lovely job of it — as in Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman.

Also: Translators do important work re-vocalizing work originally written in Arabic (or Bengali or German or…). Still, the voice isn’t so much being “given” as being “re-crafted” in another language’s clothing.

And so: To state the obvious, suggesting that a military cryptologist (or university Arabist, or Arabic-speaking social worker, or itinerant blogger) can “give Arabs and Muslims a voice” certainly suggests that these aforementioned Arabs and Muslims cannot quite make intelligible sounds on their own.

Perhaps the show’s creator never made that statement. And now the show’s a no-go. Plus, it doesn’t bear refuting. Yet one always likes a good (unnecessary) listicle:

Fawzia Abu Khaled (1959 – present). Although poetry probably can’t be turned into an ABC Family show, poems by the remarkable Abu Khaled — lauded by Adonis, among others — can nonetheless be found in Mothers and Daughters in Arab Women’s Literature and in Gathering the Tide.

Dr. Aisha Al Mana and Dr. Hissa Al Sheikh. Their book, which documents the first demonstration to lift the ban on Saudi women driving on November 6th, 1990, is being translated by Saudi (female) blogger Eman al-Nafjan, who has posted an excerpt on her blog. Eman al-Nafjan, who blogs in English at saudiwoman.me, is another Saudi woman writer worth reading. Perhaps she could also do a screenplay.

Badriyah al-Bishr (1967-present). Al-Bishr’s latest novel, Love Stories on al-Aisha Street, was longlisted for the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. One of her short stories is in Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers, along with work by Jamilah Fatani, Najat Khayyat, Jamilah Fatani, Rajaa Alem, and others.

Leila al-Johani (1969-present). Critic Fakri Saleh writes that “Two female Saudi writers took the responsibility to experiment with style – Rajaa Alem and Laila Al-Johani.” Read an excerpt from her novel Jahiliyatrans. Piers Amodia. The full novel is forthcoming, in translation, from BQFP.

Rajaa Alem (1970-present). Alem has co-translated two of her novels (Fatima: A Novel of Arabia and My Thousand & One Nights: A Novel of Mecca) with Tom McDonough. Her International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning novel The Dove’s Necklace, trans. Adam Talib and Katherine Halls, should be forthcoming any moment now from Duckworth.

Rajaa Al-Sanea (1981-present) Al-Sanea’s only novel, Girls of Riyadh, published in Arabic in 2005 and English in 2007 (somewhat controversially, because of translation issues), has been extremely popular and has been credited with starting a new wave of Saudi girl-lit. No excerpt from Girls of Riyadh immediately apparent online, just a few quotes on Goodreads. Actually, now that I think of it, perhaps Girls of Riyadh could lend itself to an ABC Family TV show….

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7 comments

      • I beg to differ. Just once, I wish I would see a book or TV show depicting one of the happy, well-adjusted women (Arab and non-Arab) who live in Saudi Arabia and intend to stay there– voluntarily.

        Sure, the country has issues with women. I know them first-hand and I’ve seen seen what they can do to Saudi women who don’t buy into them, and men who do. However, I’ve also known women (Arab and non-Arab) whose lives are full, purposeful and rich, in spite of, and sometimes because of, the limitations.

        Westerners never see them.

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        • I don’t see what we differ about? I don’t suggest we shouldn’t hear about those women/from those women. Sure, we should, absolutely. I’m only suggesting that Saudi women don’t need to be “given a voice” — nor do non-Saudi women living in the KSA. “Giving” a voice is also a sort of erasure.

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          • When I read about the program, I realized it used the stereotypical situation of a woman held in the Kingdom against her will. I guess I’m pleased we won’t have to be subjected to yet another media effort that focuses upon a poor, confined woman hidden away as a prisoner in her own Saudi home.

            You are right about that “giving voice” business. If a Western TV producer thinks he needs to “give a voice” to Saudi women, his program is already flawed with prejudice and misinformation.

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  1. I second that Mazen. It would be great to see something deeper though, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking on my part…

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