The blocking of 21 news websites and the trial of Khaled Ali are not very good birthday presents for Egyptian novelist, scholar, translator, teacher, and activist Radwa Ashour (May 25, 1946-2014). So we remember her, instead, with a fond tribute to five of her books and a preview of another coming soon to translation:
1) The Woman from Tantoura, translated by Kay Heikkinen.
This is one of Radwa Ashour’s best-loved books, within Egypt, and with good reason. A historical family novel, Tantoura follows a Palestinian woman from pre-1948 through multiple exiles: in Lebanon, Egypt, and Dubai. Much of the novel’s heartbreak — and despite herself, Ashour is excellent at heartbreak — is the mother’s fraught relationship with her exiled children. Although it’s also an examination of coming to grips with seeing events such as Sabra and Shatila from afar, a large part of the novel’s charm is the relationship between the author and her three very different sons.
2) Blue Lorries, translated by Barbara Romaine
This is also a generational novel, of exile and politics, of Egypt then and now. It follows the half-French, half-Egyptian Nada and is a story of what activism means in the context of a human life (and what human life means in the context of activism).
3) Spectres, translated Barbara Romaine
Romaine was (rightly) recognized for this artful translation, a beautiful meta-memoir twined with an echoing fictional character. Winner of the Cairo International Book Fair Prize and a runner-up for the Banipal translation prize, the book alternates between the stories of Radwa and Shagar: two women born the same day, one a professor of literature, one of history.
4) Siraaj, trans. Barbara Romaine
This short novella is very different from Radwa Ashour’s modern histories: It’s the story of a doomed revolt against a despotic sultan and is set on an imaginary island near Yemen at the close of the nineteenth century. It is fable-like history or historical fable, beautifully told, rendered in clear, warm English by Barbara Romaine. One of my favorites among Ashour’s oeuvre.
5) Granada, trans. William Granara
This is the novel for which Ashour is perhaps best-celebrated — the one for which she made the “top 105 novels of the 20th century” assembled by the Arab Writers Union. A story of Granada during the time of Christopher Columbus and religious persecution, it is also a story of books and book-lovers, and the bookbinder Abu Jaafar.
Also, coming soon: Michelle Hartman has translated Ashour’s Al-Rihla as The Journey and it will be published by Interlink Books.
As I wrote elsewhere, “The Journey is Ashour’s memoirs of 1973-1975, her years doing a PhD in Massachusetts on African-American Literature, and they work to tie together struggles in the US, Palestine, and Egypt, much like Angela Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement does from a US vantage. A pioneering look at the United States through the eyes of one of Egypt’s major writers.”
You can read an excerpt here.