This is the second part of a two-part report on Ain Shams University’s two-day conference in honour of Professor Radwa Ashour. Contributor Amira Abd El-Khalek was there and captured some of the most striking moments, as when Ashour and her husband, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, talked about the responsibilities of writers. “A poet should be a poet even when she or he is asleep,” Barghouti said.
By Amira Abd El-Khalek
As the conference convened for a second day, what grabbed my attention were the little things.
I was approached by a student with a big smile on her face, carrying a quaint little basket: She handed over the basket and told me to pick one. I looked and saw badges of different sizes, picturing the various covers of Radwa Ashour’s books and two of her portraits, one in sepia and the other in black and white.
By the end of the day, everyone was proudly donning a badge. A beautiful personalised guest book, red with a gold frame, was circulating amongst the guests throughout the two days.
The keynote address of the second day was delivered by Youmna El Eid, critic and professor at the Lebanese University. El Eid portrayed a deep understanding of the many aspects of Radwa Ashour: the patient, the revolutionary, the historian with a mission, and the novelist through the characters in her various works, weaving her own critical writing with that of Ashour’s creative writing in a powerful and emotional paper.
A panel on “the family” in Radwa Ashour’s works examined traits of the epic in Al Tantoureya as an Arab roman fleuve and Arab family relations across generations, with special regard to mothers and daughters. The latter, presented by Ms. Alena Sindelarova, a PhD candidate from SOAS and Charles University in the Czech Republic, compared Ashour, Leila Ahmed and Laila Abou Saif as regards autonomy in a patriarchal society.
In a wonderful rendering of translations of the works of Radwa Ashour, Sayed Wasel and Doaa Embabi discussed translations of Granada into Spanish and Siraj into English respectively. Embabi talked about the challenges of translating a culturally-rich novella and the translator’s efforts in balancing these challenges through her position in the text and the use of elements of domestication vs foreignisation. Wasel’s paper examined the problematics of translation both from an artistic point of view — in terms of time, dialogue, and maintaining distance between the narrator and the characters — and a cultural point of view, in the use of folk sayings and idioms.
One of the best talks of the day was Hala Kamal’s talk on “Memory, History and Fiction: Writing the Self and the Homeland in Radwa Ashour’s Memoirs.” Hala explored two of Ashour’s works: Al-Rehla and Athqal min Radwa, analysing the diverse aspects of cultural memory as portrayed in her works through her choice of titles, the use of national memory, the contemplations of the author throughout the text, and her use of symbolism.
One interesting thing I learnt from the talk was that autobiography is sometimes classified as history rather than literature. When Hala was a PhD student about to start her dissertation, she was told to register it at the history department. An autobiography, however, is different from history in the sense that it depends on memory and selective memory, hence includes some literary imagination. It also depends on the type of work, be it autobiography, memoir, or diary, and the position of the writer at the time of writing.
On the responsibilities of writers
The final panel, a roundtable discussion on the responsibilities of the writer, included Radwa Ashour, Amina Rashid, Mourid Barghouti, and Amin Haddad. It was a treat to have them together in the famous Shafiq Ghorbal auditorium that had witnessed endless lectures, PhD vivas, and conferences.
Mourid Barghouti said that the first responsibility of writers is to master their trade. They have a responsibility not to be afraid, to be modest, and to put their individual and collective self in the position of constant questioning.
Mourid Barghouti said that the first responsibility of writers is to master their trade. They have a responsibility not to be afraid, to be modest, and to put their individual and collective self in the position of constant questioning. A poet should be a poet even when she or he is asleep. Amin Haddad stressed that the responsibilities of the writer are both towards society — in terms of content — and towards themselves in terms of whether or not to write. Writers who are honest will be affected by and interested in society.
Radwa Ashour talked about Jean Genet’s eyewitness account in his 1982 article “Four Hours in Chatila”, in addition to a lesson she received when she was twelve years old when she came across the book by Gisele Halimi and Simone de Beauvoir on Jamilah Bubasha. It was a lesson that she would never forget, one of rejecting injustice and of the responsibility of the writer in rejecting injustice. As for Amina Rashid, she stressed the influence that books have over people and that is where the responsibility lies. Writers should possess a madness that allows them to write from the depths of their soul, in Edward Said’s words, to speak truth to power.
Radwa Ashour talked about Jean Genet’s 1982 article “Four Hours in Chatila,” in addition to a lesson she received when she was twelve years old when she came across the book by Gisele Halimi and Simone de Beauvoir on Jamilah Bubasha. It was a lesson that she would never forget, one of rejecting injustice and of the responsibility of the writer in rejecting injustice.
The highlight of the evening was an oud recital by Mustafa Said, director of Arab Music Archiving and Research and former student of the English Department. After a brief talk on Arab musical heritage, he played and sang some amazing pieces.
The cherry on the cake was when Tamim Barghouti accompanied him, reciting his poem “Ya Hobal” as Mustafa performed it. Playing without a mike and seated on the floor of the podium, half way through his performance, the electricity was cut off. Mustafa performed to the lights of mobile phones, surrounded by students who sat around him on the stage, on the floor and on the desks.
It was a wonderful element of resistance, heartfelt and inspiring. His music stayed with us long after we had said our goodbyes and walked out of the university.