Yesterday, Elisabeth Jaquette celebrated International Women’s Day by highlighting gender disparities in translation. Today, for Un-International-Women’s Day, nine works by Arabophone women that shift how we see the possibilities of language:
1) Consorts of the Caliphs, collected and edited by Ibn al-Sa’i’, edited in translation by Shawkat Toorawa, translated by The Editors of the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL). This wide-ranging collection of women’s writings — and anecdotes about said women writers — is out in a newly edited manuscript and facing-page, bilingual edition from the LAL. Words are weapons, and many of these women, who lived in the tenth through thirteenth centuries CE, knew how to wield them. Read more.
2) The Principles of Sufism, ‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah (d. 1517 CE). This text was recently edited and translated by Th. Emil Homerin, who said, in a 2014 interview, “I was looking for all sorts of poets, but part of my concern was to see if I could find women poets. I had read about women poets, I had their names — hers I did not have — but of others. People would say, ‘Oh, such-and-such a woman wrote poetry,’ but you could never find it. Or you might find one or two poems, or a few verses in a death notice.”
“‘A’ishah is one of the very few women mystics in Islam who wrote and spoke for herself prior to the modern period,” Homerin said.
3) Nazik Al-Malaika (1923-2007). Skipping over the top of a few centuries, al-Malaika was credited — along with the great Badr Shakir al-Sayyab — with being one of the shape-changers of twentieth-century Arabic verse. But, Emily Drumsta wrote, “Unlike her modernist contemporaries, al-Mala’ika was not ready to throw out the old Arabic meters entirely. Instead, she sought to reconfigure and adapt them for a new era without letting poetry lose its “Arab-ness”—that is, its rootedness in the undulating long and short vowel patterns of the Arabic language.” Read: From ‘A Song for Mankind’ by al-Mala’ika, trans. Drumsta.
4) Latifa al-Zayyat, The Open Door. Al-Zayyat (1923-1996) was one of Egypt’s twentieth-century remixers of Arabic prose, and also a political figure and a mentor, mentioned by Radwa Ashour in her meta-auto-biographical (a remix, surely) Spectres. From Ashour’s book:
In my initial meetings with Latifa al-Zayyat, her laughter brought me up short. The woman was always surprising me with her continuous, sometimes abrupt, and loud laughter; and then she no longer surprised me — I got used to and grew to love both Latifa herself and her laughter. She was constantly laughing, but when she told me about her experience in prison, she laughed even more. … Latifa al-Zayyat would laugh at herself and at her comrades in the cell as she told the story, so that the whole subject seemed like a comic play — no, not black comedy, despite the darkness of the experience, but rather a marvelous comedy that redeems the tale of stark realities by cleansing it of the blemish of fear, of bitterness, of petty grudges. What remains is the lightness and transparency of the story, as well as the capacity of human beings to overcome adversity with humor.
An excerpt, trans. Marilyn Booth.
5) Stone of Laughter and Tiller of Waters, by Hoda Barakat (b. 1952).
Barakat — who was recently a finalist for the Man Booker International — mixes her Arabic writing with a stern, anti-sentimentalism in her fearless explorations of sect, gender, sexuality, power, belonging. Perhaps her femaleness makes her freer. From an interview with Brian Whitaker: “…I always felt that the men who were near to me suffered more than the women, because a society in crisis asks from men much more than it asks from women. They don’t ask us women which side we are on, but men have to be combatants. They have to declare sides and take up arms and go to battles for what they believe. But women are not public beings, so it gives you more freedom in your head.” An excerpt of Barakat’s most recent novel, trans. Ghada Mourad.
6) Iman Mersal (b. 1966). The poet who was once Egyptian “90s Generation” Iman Mersal is — well, the same Iman Mersal — but has also traveled widely, moved to Canada, shared stories with many poets in Eastern Europe, read deeply, and dissolved all of this, feeding it into her work. In a forthcoming interview, she further names a number of poetic remixers she admires, including poets Sania Saleh, Aya Nabih, Asmaa Yassen, and Malaka Badr. Ten poems by Mersal, translators various.
7) Ghada Abdel Aal’s I Want to Get Married! Does writing by women have to be serious to be a serious literary act? Abdel Aal (b. 1978) is one of the most enjoyable remixers of a new genre works with her funny, satiric Ayza Atgowaz, which started out as a blog, became a book, and then a television series.
8) Alexandra Chreiteh’s Always Coca-Cola and Ali and His Russian Mother stretch the ways in which Lebanese women’s lives, genders, and identities are talked about, and the language in which it happens.
9) Manifesto Against the Woman, by Mona Kareem. Just so we don’t get too kumbaya around here, Mona keeps us on our feet. You can also listen in on the chat she had with ArabLit: Gulf Women’s Writing: On Slavery, Migrant Labor, and Statelessness.