‘Whenever I Think of Writing…I Remember Radwa Ashour’

On March 22 and 23, Ain Shams University’s Department of English Language and Literature held a two-day conference in honour of Professor Radwa Ashour. Contributor Amira Abd El-Khalek reports from the first day:

By Amira Abd El-Khalek

Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek.
Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek.

I look upon Radwa Ashour seated in the second row of the auditorium listening attentively. Her eyes wide behind her glasses, open, full of curiosity, filled with anticipation at what is going to be said. A small bouquet of flowers on her lap, she sits composed and modest, surrounded by colleagues, friends, and family. I look upon her and wonder at what she might be thinking as she listens to the panelists read, talk, praise, and analyse her writings and her life.

I think back on Radwa Ashour and her influence on my life and, though I had not seen her in a long time, I closely followed her news and her writings. I hold an infinite gratitude to her for having nurtured in me a political awareness, not just of Egypt but of the region, of Palestine, of our position in colonial and post-colonial discourse, and of African and Afro-American literature. Whenever I think of writing and the process of writing, I remember Radwa Ashour’s talks, both private and public, where she would describe what writing means to her.

Most importantly, she opened up the doors to a heritage of Arabic literature I was totally unaware of – seemingly strange for a professor of English literature in a department of English language and literature, but such is the multi-faceted Radwa Ashour.

Most importantly, she opened up the doors to a heritage of Arabic literature I was totally unaware of – seemingly strange for a professor of English literature in a department of English language and literature, but such is the multi-faceted Radwa Ashour.

radwa2
Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek

Ain Shams University’s department of English language and literature has organised a two-day conference in honour of Radwa Ashour, entitled ‘Radwa Ashour: Writer and Critic’. Guests and scholars included professors and MA students from Ain Shams, Cairo, Tanta, Alexandria and Sohag Universities, the American University in Cairo, the British University in Egypt, and Charles University in the Czech Republic. The keynote speakers are Professor Ferial Ghazoul from the American University in Cairo and Professor Youmna El Eid from the Lebanese University. That is, in addition to Mourid Barghouti and Tamim Barghouti, whose presence added a personal flavour to the day. The aim of the conference is to honour Radwa Ashour, but to also bring forth and encourage more research comprising Ashour’s works and interests.

The Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Prof. Abdel Razek Barakat, gave a very interesting opening speech, linking Radwa Ashour to the sufi tradition, an aspect I had never heard of before in reference to her. He drew from the words of Ibn Ataa’ Allah El-Sakandari, Ibn Arabi, al-Hallaj, Aba Hayyan al-Tawheedi and others to illustrate her vast knowledge, her passion for writing and research, her perseverance, her endurance of pain, and confrontation of adversity.

In her keynote address, Professor Ferial Ghazoul discussed her long relationship with the multiple and singular Radwa. She described how Radwa’s passion for writing emerges from a fear of a lurking death, in a metaphoric sense, a fear of “life burial and assassination of potential.”

Ghazoul portrayed a woman difficult to contain in one category: a professor, editor, critic, novelist, activist and translator.

Ghazoul portrayed a woman difficult to contain in one category: a professor, editor, critic, novelist, activist and translator. The triple suppression that haunts Radwa has made her particularly sensitive to the voiceless and dispossessed and marginalized. Ghazoul ends her keynote address accentuating the multiple talents and singular presence of Radwa Ashour: “noble in spirit, steadfast in temperament and comely in appearance.” She makes us feel her unique and singular presence by nurturing our hopes and dreams and bringing out the best in us, urging us to march on.

Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek.
Photo credit: Amira Abd El-Khalek.

The three panels of the day, which alternated between English and Arabic, went into more detail on specific works of Radwa Ashour within a wider critical, literary and political context. The first panel was on renegotiating modernity and modernism, exploring alternative histories, viable modernities, post-colonial writing and the “dark middle ages.” It whisked me back to the days when I was a student and lecturer at the university — those good old days when we learnt first-hand from Radwa Ashour and Edward Said who would often visit Egypt to give talks.

The second panel explored a new Arabo-Islamic Narrative. Mona Tolba, from the Arabic department, spoke passionately about “The Book” as a holy text and books in Ashour’s Granada Trilogy, stressing that the true character in Granada is the language and the defeat of culture rather than the defeat of power as shown through the references to the books in the novel: protecting, preserving, and burying them to eventually bring them to the light.

The third panel focused on the female characters in Radwa Ashour’s novels and the feminism prevalent in her writings. The panelists, in addition to Professor Mustafa Riad, who examined Ashour’s westward travels as a student, determined to provide a voice to the marginalized rather than to follow the American dream, were three young female scholars who explored Ashour’s female characters within the political context of her novels.

The testimonies were the most moving part of the day. There were both live testimonies from the audience and those recorded on video from those who couldn’t make it to the conference.

The testimonies were the most moving part of the day. There were both live testimonies from the audience and those recorded on video from those who couldn’t make it to the conference. The videos ranged from testimonies of readers, friends and students of Radwa Ashour, to a young woman from Palestine, to Chopin’s nocturne played in her honour. They were touching words spoken from the heart, filled with love and hope and gratitude.

It was a conference, rich in content, and even richer in the love and dedication reflected in the students and colleagues of Radwa Ashour, young and old, those present, those who were not able to be there in person, those who have read her works and have learnt from her without ever having met her, and the passion of those who have had the privilege to work with her and be close to her. This was all reflected in a single day at a time when standards and ethics and a passion for reading and for research and for teaching seem to be muddled up in a chaotic plethora of disappointments and disintegration of values. It was a ray of hope and a sweet promise that there is a lot of good in this world and that the labour of love of one remarkable person in every little and big thing she does holds a lot of weight and value.

Editor’s note: Radwa Ashour’s Woman from Tantoura is forthcoming in translation momentarily, from AUC Press.

More on Ashour:

Writing, Teaching, Living: Egyptian Novelist Radwa Ashour

Barbara Romaine on Translating Radwa Ashour

Winners of Al Owais Award Include Novelist Radwa Ashour, Poet Mohammad Ali Shamsuddin

Radwa Ashour’s ‘Siraaj’: A Trip into the Past that Ends in the Present

Radwa Ashour on the Train of Images in the Egyptian Revolution

Amira Abd El-Khalek studied English literature and anthropology in Egypt and the UK. She has held academic positions at Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo and has worked in national and international NGOs. She is an avid reader in English and Arabic, enjoys writing and is passionate about films.

Advertisements

9 comments

  1. Amira Habibty, thank you for your beautiful words, a great coverage. It was wonderful to see you again after all these years.

    Like

Comments are closed.