For International Women’s Day, ArabLit contributor Norah Alkharashi has put together a list of Arabophone women poets who may be acclaimed in Arabic, but are little-known in English:
By Norah Alkharashi
Like poetry, Arabic literature lives at the margins of the Anglophone book market and literary scene. The marginalization of both, it seems, comes down to assumed expectations of what the general reader wants to read. Poetry as a genre remains widely invisible in translation, even moreso if it is from a less-translated language like Arabic and from the muted voices of women.
The publication of English translations of women’s Arabic poetry in book form, accordingly, is close to nothing compared to what is really produced in Arabic. But the good news is, with the impact of computer technologies, a number of poems are published online.
The list of five below combines female Arabic poets from different places and generations, although they are all writing now. What unifies them is that they are promising and acclaimed poets, yet surprisingly little-known in English. This collection of short poems, found in Banipal and Words Without Borders, will allow you to enjoy a different angle on Arabic literature.
Rasha Omran, “When Longing Tormented Me”
This poem, translated by Camilo Gomez-Rivas, was published in Spring 2005 in Banipal.
Rasha Omran (1964- ) is a well-known Syrian poet and an intellectual. She published five poetry books between 1980 and 2014 and is also the author of An Anthology of Syrian Poetry, 1980 – 2008. She is an activist who has spoken up for the civilians in Syria and against the regime, and she had to flee her hometown of Damascus for Cairo in 2012.
Rasha says that poetry “does not reveal itself to you with happiness or gain. Poetry always springs from the darkest areas in our subconscious, which lives on the anticipation of loss. Loss is what makes up the chemistry of poetry.” (Alarab newspaper, 20/01/2015, issue: 9803, my translation).
Rana al-Tonsi, “A Rose for the Last Days“
This poem, translated by Sinan Antoon, was published in Spring 2006, also in Banipal.
Rana al-Tonsi (1981- ) was born in Cairo and currently lives Doha, Qatar. She published eight poetry books between 2005 and 2015, and her works are widely acclaimed in the Arab world. Her style is descried as both intimate and rebellious — she has a special, intimate relationship with the Arabic language and she rebels against the traditions and expectations of previous collective generations.
Her poetry is an individual experience that speaks of her times and generation. On poetry, she writes “It is my only wing that flutters, my dry voice. Poetry is all that I do not have, but somehow I own.” (Assafir newspaper, 14/11/2014, p. 10, [my translation])
Nujoom al-Ghanem, “A Night Heavy on the Night – Two Poems”
These poems were translated by Khaled al-Masri and published in Banipal in 2011.
Nujoom al-Ghanem (1962- ) is a full-time poet from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She published six poetry collections between 1989 and 2008, and she also directed nine movies and short films.
When al-Ghanem started writing poetry, female poets were not expected to publish using their names in the newspapers. Due to her conservative upbringing, she had to wait several years before pushing through. Her themes open a dialogue with Sufism, spirituality, postmodernism, and philosophy. She describes her writing style: “I made a decision and I stopped imitating rhythmic or structured verses, and I became faithful to only to free-verse poems.” (Ana Zahra magazine, 24/09/2010, [my translation])
Reem Ghanayem, “Mag, fi Sirat al-Manafi – Selected poems“
These poems, published in Banipal in 2012, were self-translated.
Reem Ghanayem (1982- ) was born, and still lives, in the he village of Western Baqa inside the Green Line in Palestine. She has published two poetry collections, and also produces translations from English literature including James Joyce and Charles Bukowski.
Soukaina Babiballah, “Anatomy of the Rose“
This poem, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zaid, was published in Words Without Borders in March 2016.
Soukaina Babiballah (1989- ) is a young, promising poet and novelist from Casablanca, Morocco. She has two published poetry collections and also won an Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) grant for the organization’s novel-writing program, which resulted in her first novel, Bait Alqashlah, by Arabic Scientific Publishing in 2016.
Norah Alkharashi is a Ph.D. Candidate in Translation Studies and a translator. Twitter: @norahmodi.