Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: ‘Women’s Writing in the Arab World’

Today, ArabLit is launching a new series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation, set to run on Mondays through Spring 2018:

Artwork taken from Drumsta’s syllabus. Helen Zughaib, “Generations Lost.”

There are several texts on teaching Arabic literature in translation, such as the one edited by Michelle Hartman that’s coming later this year and the one edited by Muhsin al-Musawi and published in 2017. This, instead, will be a series of conversations around specific syllabi and teaching moments: in the classroom, through lecture series such as Tarjamat, through independent projects, or in other ways. Hopefully, the open nature of the series will allow for some comment and counter-comment; answer and question.

The first short conversation is with Emily Drumsta at Brown University, and it centers around her course, “Women’s Writing in the Arab World.”

As her course description notes, “Women’s Writing in the Arab World” takes a long view, including Arabophone women writers from the last millennium and a half:

This course examines the writing of Arab women from pre-Islamic times to the present. Over the course of the semester, we will read poems, novels, short stories, and critical tracts from numerous national contexts across the Middle East, including Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and Tunisia. Beginning with a survey of pre-modern female literary personae in Arabic (the elegist, the mystic, the singing slave), we will move on to examine major figures in the early modern feminist movement, autobiography, film, and the novel. No Arabic required.

The reading list includes:

Ibn al-Sa‘i, Consorts of the Caliphs
Huda al-Shaarawi, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924
Hanan al-Shaykh, The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story
Latifa al-Zayyat, The Open Door
Miral al-Tahawy, The Tent
Hoda Barakat, The Tiller of Waters
Adania Shibli, Touch
Betool Khedairi, Absent
Assia Djebar, Women of Algiers in their Apartment
Fadwa Tuqan, A Mountainous Journey

Although there are a number of other short stories, essays, and chapters giving critical context, beginning with Maya Mikdashi’s “How Not to Study Gender in the Middle East.”

Why start out with 20th c short stories by Egyptian women & then loop back to classical works? What do you establish with Alifa, Radwa, and Salwa? 

Emily Drumsta: First, before I answer your questions, I just want to say that this class is still very much a work-in-progress. My hope is that it will bridge multiple historical periods as well as geographical regions and national contexts across the Arab world. As you can imagine, this is no easy task

As to your question: the purpose for this rather odd introduction (beginning the course with several modern short stories) was purely pedagogical: in the first three weeks of class, I asked students to write a diagnostic essay so that I could evaluate where everyone’s writing was at early on. This kind of essay helps me tailor in-class writing exercises and tasks for students, who always arrive with a variety of experiences with and attitudes toward writing. For this diagnostic essay, I wanted to give them a range of texts that weren’t classical—texts, in other words, to which they would have readier access, without the need for a lot of historical background information (as with, say, the mu’allaqat, or Consorts of the Caliphs). Short stories seemed a good choice, since they’re both manageable in terms of length and accessible as a genre with which students are often familiar.

What were you looking for in the pre-nahda woman’s writings? When you chose selections by Aisha al-Bauniyyah, al-Khansa’, what attracted you about a piece or a translation? What elements were you looking for? How did/didn’t your students connect with these works? What writing around/about them seemed most helpful to push with/against? 

ED: In general, I was hoping to introduce to students the genres (premodern and modern) where women writers have contributed to what we might, with some skepticism, call the “canon” of Arabic literature. Of course, the choice of texts for this premodern portion of the semester was largely determined by the availability of translations. I wanted to survey three premodern female literary “personae”: the tribal elegist, the Sufi mystic, and the singing slave-girl (jariya or qayna). It’s impossible to talk about elegy without starting with al-Khansa’, and Van Gelder’s translation of her most famous poem (for her brother Sakhr) is really quite good. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many poetic translations of other prominent premodern women elegists; I relied on Marlé Hammond’s literal translations of elegies by Layla al-Akhyaliyya and Bint al-Shamardal as two other examples for the students. After this, we moved on to Sufi mystics (Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya and, seven centuries later [!] ‘A’isha al-Ba’uniyya) and singing slave-girls (in Consorts of the Caliphs).

Looking back on this early portion of the semester, I realize that it must have felt very disjointed and difficult for my students jumping back and forth across numerous centuries and geographical contexts the way we did. (We moved, for example, from pre-Islamic Arabia to early Islamic Basra to medieval/Mamluk-era Cairo in the span of only two weeks!) I usually don’t like to offer too much explanatory framework when I work through a text or group of texts with students, preferring instead to have them react to the text on their own, discuss it amongst themselves, and see what they can piece together from their own insights. With something like tribal elegy, however, or Consorts, I found that I had to spend a good deal of time simply explaining premodern textual and poetic cultures—explaining the structure, social function, and oral transmission of pre- and early Islamic poetry, for example, or the nature of the biographical genre (tabaqat) in pre-modern Arabic, what Ibn al-Sa’i is doing with that genre, and why it matters, etc. Since my research doesn’t strictly focus on premodern literature, I relied heavily on Suzanne Stetkevych’s chapter on women’s elegy (from The Mute Immortals Speak) and Michael Cooperson’s Classical Arabic Biography. This was tough stuff for students, though! I’m thinking of revising the syllabus a bit for next year.

How did you do the work of contextualizing the literary work in Consorts? What were the particular hurdles to cross before you could get to the texts themselves?

ED: The main issue we faced reading Consorts was confronting the students’ preexisting ideas about the “harem,” what that word means, where the idea comes from, and how much it was manipulated by nineteenth-century Orientalist painting and literature, on the one hand, and American-style imaginings of “Arabia” (e.g. Aladdin), on the other. By the time we had contextualized Ibn al-Sa’i historically, socially, and culturally, it was difficult to actually dig into the poetry and tales about these women, whether slaves or wives. For historicizing and contextualizing the students’ preexisting ideas about the harem, I found that the volume Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces, edited by Marilyn Booth, was very helpful.

Latifa al-Zayyat’s amazing The Open Door is not only a crackle-pop read, but illuminates so many issues about contemporary women’s lives and shows another possible feminism, beyond the neoliberal lean-in variety. What elements did you want to draw out of reading Marilyn’s translation? What elements did students focus on? What does viewing the film change, bring, shift?

Project by one of Drumsta’s students.

ED: What I personally love about The Open Door is the way Al-Zayyat connects her critique of patriarchy with a critique of capitalism and consumerism. She implicitly criticizes the commodification of women’s bodies through marriage, as well as the socialization processes that encourage women to overlook their own emotions in favor of material gain through “good” marriage. Published in 1960, the novel just embodies its historical moment so well: simultaneously concerned with women’s role in the anti-colonial struggle and national liberation, and with literature’s role in achieving these goals. Furthermore, through her incorporation of various levels of colloquial Egyptian Arabic, Al-Zayyat attempts to craft what I think of as a form of “collective narration,” imagining the new, independent Egyptian nation as a polyvocal community that demands new forms of multi-voiced narrative. Although these multiple levels of speech pose quite a task for the translator, I think Booth managed to pull things off incredibly well, integrating appropriately colloquial English in moments where the characters speak ‘ammiyya in the original Arabic.

My students, however, were most interested in the long passages of interior monologue and self-exploration conducted by Layla, the novel’s protagonist. Where I initially chose the text for its political aptness—i.e. as one that offers a window onto the hopefulness inspired by the 1952 Officers’ Revolt in Egypt—the students found political dimensions to Layla’s internal self-searching as well. They argued (I think convincingly) that clearing narrative space to articulate a female protagonist’s desires, hopes, and dreams was itself an act of political defiance on al-Zayyat’s part. Of course, this element of internal monologue was almost completely absent from the film version, yet the students very capably mapped many of al-Zayyat’s narrative strategies onto Henry Barakat’s visual language. (In general, I often find my students are much more practiced at reading visual than textual media!)

Betool Khedairi’s Absent is a book I really enjoyed, although I don’t see if often discussed. What does it bring to this lineup? What resonances, echoes? 

ED: To be perfectly honest, I initially included Khedairi’s text on the syllabus primarily because I wanted to expose students literary voices outside the major centers of Cairo and Beirut (Zayyat’s The Open Door, Hoda Barakat’s The Tiller of Waters, etc.) That being said, I appreciate the historical sensibility of Absent, specifically the way it contrasts the “Years of Plenty” with the years of the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the years of U.N. sanctions & siege, and, finally, the 2003 U.S. invasion. I anticipated students arriving to this class with an extremely limited understanding of Iraqi history and culture, one based mainly (if not exclusively) on the American news media. My hope is that Khedairi’s text inspires them to take a longer, closer, and more nuanced look at modern Iraqi history—to understand, for example, how integral American imperialism been in creating the war-torn present they see on the television and the internet today. When we discussed the novel in class, the students really latched onto and appreciated Khedairi’s dark, tragicomic humor. (One of their favorite passages describes a phone conversation between two women, one of whom has recently seen her son emigrate from Iraq to New Zealand. The second woman asks, “What? How could you send him to New Zealand? What about the hole in the ozone layer? Don’t you care about his well-being?” And the first woman replies, “My dear, if you manage to get out of Saddam Hussein’s hole, who cares about the hole in the ozone?”)

In general, with its vivid descriptions of modernist paintings by unnamed Iraqi modernist painters, its rich and complex imagery of beekeeping, and its focus on the everyday effects of American bombings, I found Absent to be an eminently teachable text.

Are there books, poems, excerpts you might add when you teach this class again?

ED: When I teach this class again, I will begin by laying some groundwork for how to speak and write critically about gender in the Middle East. Specifically, I want to devote the first three units of class to the topics which students often most want to discuss: Orientalism, the “harem,” and the “veil.” Having laid some critical groundwork in these first few weeks, I could envision units on the following, for example: women and elegy from the pre-modern to the modern eras; women’s autobiographies & the problem of translation; women writing war (we’d read al-Shaykh’s Story of Zahra and Khedairi’s Absent); and women and experimental prose (we’d read Shibli’s Touch and Tahawy’s The Tent). I’d also love to be able to integrate Radwa Ashour’s Tanturiyya in future years!

Emily Drumsta is a literary scholar specializing in modern Arabic and Francophone literatures from the Middle East. She is currently teaching Comparative Literature at Brown University. You can find her academic bio here.


If you would like to get in touch about this evolving series, please email ArabLit’s M. Lynx Qualey at mlynxqualey – at – gmail.com.