ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a conversation between ArabLit’s editor and Amal Eqeiq, Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies and Comparative Literature at Williams College, around her course “Arab Women Memoirs: Writing Feminist History.” A list of required and recommended readings can be found at the end:
How did you arrive at the idea of women’s autobiographical writings & the role of first-person narratives—in shaping not just literature but also wider social and cultural discussions? In what ways is a first-person narrative (about an author’s own life and experiences) a different sort of intervention, and a different way of teaching? Are there challenges you think are particular to teaching these first-person “true” forms?
Amal Eqeiq: It all began when I was in grad school and read Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass for fun. Reading this memoir as a theoretical text transformed the way I thought about the history of consciousness. I was fascinated with the birth of Mernissi’s feminist subjectivity and how she came to be a feminist at different stages of her life, at the backdrop of shifting relationship to space, orality, and storytelling in Morocco. I felt that Mernissi’s voice was expressing a social and political history that was missing from the majority of the literary history that I would later read to prepare for my comprehensive exams on the modern Arab novel. As for teaching these first-person forms, I think that there are several challenges that stem from the genre itself. For example, helping students identify “biases” within the personal narrative in order to observe the difference between factual historical events and the writer’s reflection on and perception of these events. Moreover, as a very intimate genre, memoirs often involve personal revelations and belated confessions about familial relations and interpersonal dynamics. This exposé puts the reader in a complex position: a voyeur, a judge, a sympathizer, and so on. And because they have a “real” quality to them, readers tend to find the narrative more relatable. For example, when we read Fadwa Tuqan’s Mountainous Journey: An Autobiography, I noticed that students were more personal in their analysis of her complicated relationship with her mother. In fact, the class discussion felt like a collective intervention in a family fight. Encouraging students to develop critical distance and think about the role of the mother figure in the text without forsaking the familiarity of mother-daughter dynamics was both challenging and intriguing.
Is there any danger here in focusing on women’s autobiographical writing, when there seems to be a bias toward thinking that Arab women’s fictions are always autobiographical?
AE: Strangely enough, teaching autobiographical writing was liberating from this danger. Since the memoirs and the selected personal essays that we read are essentially creative non-fiction texts, there was virtually no danger of reading them as fiction. Nevertheless, we discussed the false binaries of fiction and autobiography and the blurry lines that separate non-fiction from fiction in general. We also addressed the reasons why women’s fiction (by Arab women and non-Arab alike) is always seen as autobiographical. Throughout the course students developed critical reading skills that enabled them to identify the discursive erasures that marginalized the voices of Arab women writers in both fiction and non-fiction. The goal of this course was to help students recognize these voices as important sources of social and intellectual history. In general, non-fictional texts lend themselves to historical interpretation more easily.
Are the students who take the course mostly women? Do you have a sense about what they’re expecting, hoping to find, from this course?
AE: The vast majority of the students who took the course on both times that I taught it were self-identified women. Due to its interdisciplinary approach and structure, the course is cross-listed in Arabic Studies, Comparative Literature, History, as well as Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies. As a result, the course attracts students from different majors and academic backgrounds. This creates a very diverse classroom. Students majoring in History, for example, might be more familiar with modern Arab history, whereas students in WGSS, who tend to be more acquainted with gender theory, may have only came across the name of an Arab feminist in a footnote. Although this diversity creates dynamic discussions in the classroom, which often reveals political, epistemological and disciplinary gaps, it makes it hard to identify a general trend. However, I would say that the majority of the students who signed up were eager to read literary texts by Arab women. Inevitably, in the first class meeting we address the genealogy of this eagerness and the presumed exceptionality of Arab women.
You have works written originally in English and others translated into the English. Do you position these texts (and their contexts, interventions, audiences) differently? And do you discuss how the texts have different audiences in different language-landscapes? (For instance, reception of Nawal El Saadawi in English vs. in the Arabic.)
AE: Surprisingly, the usual discussion about the reception of Nawal El Saadawi in English vs. in the Arabic didn’t come up in this class. Perhaps because the syllabus featured only interviews with her from the documentary, Beyond Borders: Arab Feminists Talk About Their Lives East and West (Dir. Jennifer Kawaja, 2000) and the short essay,“Alone with pen and paper” from the anthology In the House of Silence: Autobiographical Essays by Arab Women Writers (Fadia Faqir & Shirley Eber, 1998). El Saadawi’s reflection on writing in the context of exile in this essay generated a very interesting discussion about writing and alienation. However, a debate concerning language and audience came out poignantly when we read Leila Ahmed’s Border Passage From Cairo to America: A Womans Journey and Jumanah Haddad’s I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman. For some reason, Ahmed’s English was read as “authentic” whereas Haddad was accused of writing in English because of cultural imperialism and her intent to explain her post-feminist agenda to “the West.” Students didn’t dwell too much either on the fact that Mernissi wrote in French. Observing such discrepancies in students’ reaction to these texts became an opportunity for a special class discussion on issues of translation, representation, and the politics of Anglophone vs. Francophone literary expressions.Following this discussion, I assigned a paper that asked students to examine the intersection of language and colonialism in these memoirs. In assigning this paper, I wanted them to engage more critically with their own reading and misreading of “authentic” Arab feminism. It was interesting to see how many students integrated in this paper Hamida Na’na’s essay “Writing away the prison” as a critical framework that highlights the role of Arabic in constructing an Arab feminist identity. In this essay, Na’na’s insistence to write in Arabic, the language of the chains in rural Syria, from which she had escaped to join the Palestinian armed resistance in Jordan before ending up in exile in France, is juxtaposed with her rejection of French, which she describes as the language of Western laws, norms, and values that are not necessarily her own.
Are there texts you wish were translated (but aren’t) so you could include them in the course?
AE: The memoirs and/or letters of May Ziadeh and Nazik al-Mala’ika. The reflections of these poets capture a very important moment in the emergence of Arab women poetics as well as the formation of a women literary canon. I would have loved to teach their autobiographical texts to explore notions of the vanguard and early reflections by women writers on alternative forms and the challenges of creating a literary movement. I would have also loved to teach the memoir of Radwa Ashour Al-Rihla: Ayyam Talibah Misriyah fi Amrika [The Journey: An Egyptian Woman Student’s American Memoirs]. Michelle Hartman has recently translated the first chapter from this memoir and I hope that the rest will be out soon. Ashour’s reflection on her years of studying in the U.S. in the 1970s alongside her close encounter with African-American literature and political struggle provides a personal testimony on a foundational period in the emergence of not only Third World Feminism, but also of transnational Arab feminism.
How do you see the role of the anthology in the teaching landscape? How would your ideal anthology be structured? What sorts of works would it include?
AE: I often think of anthologies as buffets or mezzes in an Arab restaurant. They offer samples of a variety of different tastes, and although one might feel satisfied quickly, leaving room for the main course is still expected. Most contemporary anthologies on Arab women writing are eclectic both thematically and regionally. I don’t have an ideal anthology in mind, but I would teach an entire course that includes only anthologies in order to engage more critically with their form as marketable and digestible collections of scattered voices; usually subaltern voices. The ultimate goal of this course would be to investigate the history of publishing work by women in fragments rather than promoting works of single authors. In this course, we would also experiment with dismantling these anthologies and reorganizing them anew. How to structure this book would be an exercise in feminist historiography.
The earliest text (I think) is Aisha Al-Taimuriya’s “The Results of Circumstances in Words and Deeds” (1887). Why do you begin here? Why do you start chronologically? What sort of footing does that give you and your students?
AE: This essay is one of the earliest examples of writing about gender equality and women’s rights in the nascent press culture at the time. I wanted students to trace the origins of lettered feminism by observing how Arab women in the late 19th century were involved in nation building by carving a space for a women literary culture in journals, newspapers, and magazines. Also, as a historical figure, Aisha Al-Taimuriya represents a generation of upper-class Arab women who had access to religious and secular private education at home. Educated, multilingual and members of an elite society that was socially oppressive, they called for public education for all women while fighting against gender inequalities within their families and social milieu.
What sort of historical/social context do you think is necessary with these nahda-era writings? What might be missed without the context?
AE: The preoccupation with and the construction of the modern Arab nation were major projects of al-Nahda. In the writings of Arab and Muslim male writers and founders of national movements, such as Qasim Amin and Taher Haddad, the quests for women liberation and gender inequalities were evoked as major national concerns and tenants of literary modernity. However, women were coopted into this project, and the feminism that galvanized during that era established a model of gendered nationalism, which ultimately promoted women’s rights for the sake of the nation, and not in service of women as free subjects. Reading texts by Arab women from the nahda-era in light of this historical and social context enables us to gain a critical understanding of the role that women played in both forming and contesting the envisioned model of the modern nation. Without this context we would not be able to fully understand the tension that evolved over the years between Arab feminists and nationalist movements. Equally, we would underestimate the real struggle of Arab women against European colonialism, which ironically reiterates the nationalist discourse about progress and liberation of Arab women.
What sorts of productive discussions are there around the word feminist, or the phrase Arab feminist?
AE: Most popular discussions around Arab feminism have focused on trying to prove the compatibility of feminism to the social context of Arab women through the repetition of reductive and dismissive questions, such as: Are Arab feminists products and agents of Western imperialism? Can Muslim women be feminist? I believe that in recent years, and with the emergence of a wide range of feminist scholarship and activism in the Arab world, which have struggled face to face with multiple and intersecting forms of patriarchal oppression enacted by nationalism, colonialism, capitalism, sexism, racism and militarism (and other oppressive isms), there has been a dramatic move away from trying to prove the relevance and authenticity of Arab feminism. While Arab women continue to fight for self-representation, access, citizenship, visibility, equality, the intervention of feminism as a political movement advocating for ending gendered-based violence, discrimination in state and religious laws, economic and social marginalization, free expression of sexuality, and the right for a shelter in the age of displacement is evident throughout the Arab world to various degrees. The achievements of Muslim feminists in Morocco and their critical engagement with feminist interpretation of the religious tradition, the constitutional reforms written by the Tunisian women movement, the ongoing organization of Egyptian women to counter state violence and sexual harassment in the street, the fight for maternal citizenship and mixed marriage in Lebanon, repealing of rape laws in Jordan, the production of self-identified queer music in Palestine alongside rejection of Pinkwashing and the post-Oslo NGOization of Palestinian women activism, as well as the increasing engagement with decolonial thought and anti-racism among Arab and Muslim feminists in Europe and beyond, as exemplified in the works of Sirin Adlbi Sibai and Houria Bouteldja, are only some of the examples of some arenas were we see Arab feminism addressing the lived reality of Arab women while intervening with local, regional and global discussion about women, gender, sexualities, religion, immigration, and so forth. Of course, these interventions with male domination and hegemonic power are happening at the backdrop of bloody counter-revolutions, civil wars, massive displacements, imprisonment, exile, economic exploitation of the poor, islamophobia, and too many on-going Nakbas. Articulating the complexity of this historical moment is appearing in written, visual and performative texts that center the first-person narrative as a historical witness and agent. In the next few years, I believe that we will see more memoirs and testimonials by Arab women.
When choosing your texts, what criteria/lenses are you applying? Are you looking for those that exhibit particular literary craft or the importance is their influence, how they have managed to affect the social & literary conversation, or something else?
AE: Most of the selected texts were based on their significance in shaping the history of modern Arab feminism throughout its diverse regional differences and discursive shifts. Obviously, the collection of texts that are available in English translation is limited and as we all know, not everything that gets translated is translated for qualitative reasons. These limitations pose challenges for considering other literary crafts, such as oral testimonies, folk songs, elegies, political chants, etc. However, this does not mean that the literary craft is not important. Although Ghada Samman has a rich oeuvre of feminist texts, I chose “Our Constitution — We the Liberated Women” (1961). With it political manifesto form and legislative language this text constituted Arab feminism in political terminology akin to second wave feminism.
The weeks seem generally structured around a particular country: Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Maghreb, … How does that help structure the discussions?
AE: There is a historical framing behind this geographical mapping of the readings. The first two weeks focused on texts by early feminists from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Creating this regional block was important to demonstrate the cross-regional aspiration of women writers from the Nahda period. It also allowed students to gain a deeper understanding of the emergence of the Arab woman writer as an urban historical figure. May Ziyada and the role of her literary salons in establishing a literary movement between Cairo-Beirut is a perfect example. However, the order of the readings in the following weeks is structured around countries. The focus on specific countries was to allow for a close and in-depth analysis of each country, while giving specific attention to its particular historical and social context. The narratives of Arab feminists are not homogenous. For example, the memories of Arab women writers that depict the memories of war and exile in Iraq and Lebanon exhibit distinct histories of sectarianism and nationalism. Feminist narratives of anti-colonial resistance in Palestine, Morocco and Algeria reveal different modes of national struggle. The contribution of Arab Jewish feminists to these narratives also entail different approaches to language, religion, and borders.
Are there particular blogs you have them follow, or online cartoons, or other sorts of contemporary life-writing? How do differences in literary gatekeepers change the sorts of first-person narratives in play? Is that part of the discussion?
AE: Students followed the blog, “Footnotes and Unhistoires: Excavating the Dustbin of Modern Egyptian History” to familiarize themselves with a digital archive that seeks to preserve and restore a collective memory of women in Egypt. I also asked them to follow the Facebook pages of “Uprising of Women in the Arab World”, and the feminist graffiti collective, “NooNeswa.” Although these blogs and FB pages focus mostly on Egypt, I wanted students to observe how Arab feminists use social media as a popular platform for outreach and dissemination of a feminist discourse. The regular circulation of academic articles, journalistic report, first-person anecdotes, and confessional statuses that concern women, gender and sexuality, ultimately created an Arab feminist counter public sphere that was more open and accessible to a wider audience. In fact, the class poster was a reprint of a feminist stencil from NooNeswa. The stencil features a fractured headshot of the Egyptian actress Soad Hosny and her famous song: “El bint zay el walad” (“the girl is like [or equal to] the boy”). How Egyptian feminist graffiti artists after the revolution in 2011 reclaimed a feminist slogan from a popular song that Hosny, aka the Cinderella of the Egyptian cinema, performed in the 1970s illustrates an important moment in the evolution of Arab feminism and its inter-generational history. What does it mean to think of Soad Hosny and her song as an ontology of contemporary Arab feminism is a question that guided and framed our concluding discussions.
Samar Yazbek’s intervention in the current landscape, with A Woman in the Crossfire is very immediate & accessible to a contemporary reader. Do you also talk about or read responses to her book? Is reader response to these first-person texts an important part of the discussion?
AE: Yes, the discussion concerning the reader’s response to contemporary first-person texts versus Nahda era texts came up in the first weeks of the semester when students described the feminist agenda of early Arab women writers as traditional and conservative. Then, we had to talk about historical context, the positionality of the modern reader and biases in anachronistic interpretation of historical texts. This discussion reoccurred again at the end of the semester when students found the feminist ideas of Jumana Haddad in I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab, more relatable. Was the text accessible because of the familiar Western feminism vernacular that Haddad employed, or because of its contemporaneous account of a life that millennials can identify with was a key question that we debated. Yet, it must be noted that the students had a more political reading of sections from Yazbak’s A Woman in the Crossfire, because they saw the text as a feminist testimonial from the civil war in Syria. For most of them, the context of war is unfamiliar, but their keen interest in current events made the text accessible. So, we had to talk about how students position themselves in relation to contemporary texts and discuss the distinction between what resonates as familiar versus accessible.
In future iterations of the course, what would you like to change (add, drop, modify, play around with?)
AE: I would add the memoir of Assia Dejbar, Fantasiato pair it with her documentary, Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua. Although we had a very good discussion about the film in terms of its aesthetics as a visual ethnography of Algerian women during the Algerian revolution, reading it alongside Fantasia would do more justice to the legacy of Djebar who recognized the epistemological significance of women’s oral histories and their first-person accounts. Her engagement, both literally and cinematically, with these narratives marked an important feminist intervention in writing history from below. It also made visible the tension between feminism and anti-colonial nationalism in Algeria. I would also add more texts from the Gulf and travelogues by women. Moreover, I would ask students to follow the snapchat and/or Twitter of Arab women from the media.
I see you have “Conducting an interview with an Arab woman writer who is not on the syllabus is another potential project.” Have students taken you up on that? What do you hope they get from this? (And this interview is a collaborative project? How does collaboration change their work?)
AE: In asking for a collaborative project at the end of the course, I wanted students to reflect on what they have learned and expand on their knowledge of Arab feminism beyond what the syllabus offers. In the syllabus, I list this project as performance, and urge students to be as creative as possible. And they often respond very well, partly because students in liberal art educational settings tend to be more comfortable with experimental models and alternative pedagogical practices. I also remind them of the merits of performance as a form of embodied knowledge. The impetus for performance in groups is to encourage collective thinking, collaborative work, and embodiment of anti-capitalist feminist ethics. These performance also compliment individual projects, including the weekly journals that they write. In these journals, which embody the form of the first-person narratives that the course examines, the students reflect on their learning process and free-write on class discussions and readings. The performances that students staged in the two times that the course was offered were definitely the highlight of the course. On the day of the performance, students take over the classroom and turn it on their creative lab. In one performance, for example, students transformed the classroom into a museum featuring an audio-visual exhibit of Syrian graffiti artists and poets, including Sara Shamma and Amal Kassir. One group of students created a collage for Nawal El Saadawi and read their own spoken word poetry, which they wrote as an interpretation of her essay, “Alone with pen and paper”. Another group read out loud a series of postcards from an imagined correspondence between Aisha Al-Taimuriya and Leila Ahmad. Some students wanted to learn more about the work of Arab women artists, so they created a tumblr for Arab women visual and performance artists from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Lebanon. Others conducted interviews with Arab-American playwrights Mona Mansour and Betty Shamieh. Students who were majors in Arabic Studies and had read in my course on the Arab Anglophone Novel, Iman Mersal’s essay, “Eliminating Diasporic Identities” (2008), in which she reflects on her intimate relationship to Arabic and her resistance to identifying as a woman of color in the U.S., decided to interview Mersal and ask her about Arab women writers, Anglophone narratives and translation.
Are there other particular interesting moments (or challenges) of teaching the course that you’d like to build a discussion on.
AE: There were two dramatic moments in the course that become teaching moments, but also called my attention to the challenge of teaching about Arab women in a U.S. classroom setting, where students are trained to develop critical thinking around the intersection of gender, race and class. In addition to having this critical framework, these students would have either exhausted Said’s theory of Orientalism or could be totally unaware of it. Navigating this fine line between oppression and Otherness, and their overlapping histories, is not always easy or straightforward. One of these moments occurred when we watched the documentary, Beyond Borders: Arab Feminists Talk About Their Lives East and West. In the documentary both El Saadawi and Rabab Abdulhadi pointed to the role that media in the U.S. had historically played by invisiblizing the work of Arab women feminists in order to support U.S. imperialism, which used women’s rights in the Arab and Muslim world, as a pretext for military invasion. During the discussion of this documentary, students evoked Ferguson as a parallel example of media using visibility and invisibility to support state military and police brutality. The racialization of Arab women in this comparative reading of events was illumining, but also problematic.
As a class, we had to struggle with finding a more nuanced and historically accurate comparative lens to examine these related, yet distinct events. Another teaching moment occurred when an African-American student called out the class as a whole for not paying attention to the racial erasure of Nubians from the narrative of Ahmed about the Aswan Dam in A Border Passage: From Cairo to America-a Woman’s Journey. Her comment provoked a very important discussion about anti-blackness in the Arab world, the roots of historical alliance between Arab women feminist and black feminism, and the limits of reading racial histories outside the context of the U.S. As a Palestinian feminist in solidarity with black struggle, I felt that I had failed the student. I reached out to friends for help and asked: How can I talk about race in a class about Arab feminism, if talking about race was generally absent from this history? In addition to many good ideas that I got from several friends and colleagues, my interlocutor, Egyptian feminist scholar Jacinthe Assaad suggested a more critical examination of the history of transnational feminism in the Arab world .My friend, Michael Vicente Pérez in the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington suggested circulating with the students the Sherman Jackson’s chapter “Black Orientalism” from Islam and the blackamerican: The Third Resurrection (2005). I also asked students to visit the archive of the Williams College Museum of Art, to look at images from an earlier exhibit by Fathi Hassan, a Nubian artist who painted a mural that was critical of Egyptian nationalism, Nasser’s dam project, and racisms by the Nile. Ultimately, this discussion became a teaching moments as new questions surfaced: When did Arab women feminists engage with race? Will the solidarity of Palestinian and Arab-American feminist activists with black struggle in the U.S. affect racial discourse in the Arab world? What does intersectional and transnational Arab feminism look like? Although we addressed these questions, in future reiterations of this course, I would also examine them in juxtaposition with Suheir Hammad’s collection of poems, Born Palestinian, Born Black, or her memoir, Drops of this Story. I would also include Nubian narratives and texts by Sudanese women writers whose voices remain largely untranslated and missing, even in recent anthologies, such as Literary Sudans: An Anthology of Literature from Sudan and South Sudan (ed. Bhakti Shringarpure, 2016).
Ahmed, Leila. Border Passage From Cairo to America A Womans Journey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. Print.
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Faqir, Fadia, and Shirley Eber. In the House of Silence. Reading: Garnet, 1998. Print.
Haddad, Jumanah S. I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman. Chicago, Ill: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011. Print.
Mernissi, Fatima. Dreams of Trespass Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, 1994. Print.
Mikhail, Dunya. Diary Of A Wave Outside The Sea. New York, NY: New Directions Pub, 2009.
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Moussa, Ghaida, and Ghadeer Malek. Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space & Resistance. Toronto, Inanna Publications and Education, 2013.
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Amal Eqeiq is an Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies and Comparative Literature at Williams College. Her research interests include: modern Arab literature and popular culture, Palestine Studies, feminism(s), performance studies, translation, indigenous studies in the Americas, and literature of the Global South. She is currently completing her manuscript, Indigenous Affinities: A Comparative Study in Mayan and Palestinian Narratives. Amal is also a creative writer and has published a number of short stories and essays in Mada Masr, Jadaliyya and several anthologies, including Being Palestinian (2017) and Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Resistance and Space (2014). Her translation of selected poems by Hussein Al-Barghouti (Arabic-English) and Miguel ´Angel Asturias (Spanish-Arabic) appeared in Jadaliyya (2011 & 2017). Amal keeps a Facebook blog called “Diaries of a Hedgehog Feminist” and is currently writing her first novel.