9 in 2018: Best of New Translated Arabic Lit by Women

As Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) opens, we list nine of the best women’s works translated from Arabic to English and published in 2018:

Three best of nonfiction

It has been a tremendous year for translations of nonfiction by Arab women, usually a space that sees little movement. From Arwa Salih’s political theory to Dunya Mikhail’s poetic journalism to Radwa Ashour’s rihla, these are three that should be read:

1. Stillborn: Notebooks from the Student Movement, by Arwa Salih, tr. Samah Selim

Arwa Salih’s (1951-1997) Stillborn was a focus on Bulaq Episode 11; although the subtitle might suggest memoir, the book is part political philosophy, part history, and part personal reflections. The book, as Selim said at a conference at Yale earlier this year, “provoked a scandal when it was published” in 1996, and a short while later, Salih committed suicide. After a long search, Selim said she found a copy of the book in 2010, and read it in 2013 “with the full weight of those three intervening years at my back.” After giving a talk about the book in Cairo, it was reissued in Arabic, and the “print run ran out almost immediately.”

The book speaks urgently to political structures in Egypt and beyond, gender politics, and philology, and is an intellectual delight.

2. The Beekeeper, by Dunya Mikhail, tr. Mikhail and Max Weiss

Mikhail’s book — part biography, part poetry, part memoir — was named one of the Christian Science Monitor’s Best Books of March.” You can also hear it discussed in Episode 8 of the Bulaq podcast.

The book is dedicated to Abdullah Shrem, who worked, between 2014 and 2016, with smugglers to rescue dozens of fellow Yazidis from ISIS captivity in Syria and Iraq.

An excerpt in World Literature Today opens:

Twenty years after leaving Iraq on a one-way ticket, I returned to my country today, on May 27, 2016, not so much to visit the living as to visit the dead.

You can also read a review of The Beekeeper in The National.

3. The Journey, by Radwa Ashour, tr. Michelle Hartman

This book, the first work of Ashour’s nonfiction to arrive in English, is set in the mid-70s while the celebrated Egyptian novelist (1946-2014) was a PhD student in Massachusetts. An examination of Egypt, the US, and the many different possibilities for relationships between the two, official and unofficial.

Thoroughly enjoyable, and particularly worth reading for US residents and citizens. More on ArabLit.

Three best of short stories

There are some excellent short stories this year, and although Pearls on a Branch and Withered Flowers are very different works, they are both among the best works of translated Arabic literature this year.

4. Pearls on a Branch: Tales From the Arab World Told by Women, collected by Najla Jraissaty Khoury, tr. Inea Bushnaq

One of my favorite books in 2018, this all-ages collection is a delight and translated with delight. From a piece that appeared on The National:

In her moving introduction, Khoury writes about how she went to people’s homes in the late 1980s, asking mostly older women to tell the oral tales they remembered from their childhoods.

Khoury and others turned the stories into theatre for a project called Sandouk El Fergeh (Box of Wonders), staging them in spaces throughout Lebanon during the war.

In 2014, decades later, Khoury published the stories in Arabic. Now, 30 of them have been brought out in Inea Bushnaq’s dazzlingly artful translation.

5. The Sea Cloak, by Nayrouz Qarmout, tr. Perween Richards

‘The Sea Cloak’ is a collection of 14 stories that center both on the author’s experience growing up in a Syrian refugee camp and her current life in Gaza. This book won a PEN translates award, and it’s one of the books up for the Edinburgh International Book Festival “First Book Award 2018.”

You can listen to the title story being performed by Grazyna Monvid.

6. Withered Flowers, by Stella Gitano, tr. Anthony Calderbank

This book, discussed in Bulaq Episode 15, is one of my favorites of the year, although I don’t yet know how people outside South Sudan can obtain a copy. This collection has moves reminiscent both of short-story writers Yusuf Idris and Muhammad Zafzaf and gets a strong recommend. A beautiful passage among many beautiful passages, in “It’s Getting Very Hot Part One: Time to Die, or Go to Prison”:

Her excessive smiling despite her inner turmoil also confuses you because the drinkers will think her morals are loose and they don’t like women with loose morals. She walks over to you, her skinny body rattling about in her dress like a spoon in a glass.

It’s a slim collection, but very worth having, if you can find it.

Three best of novels

There are almost always some good novels to be had, and this year is no exception.

7. Cigarette Number 7, by Donia Kamal, tr. Nariman Youssef

Cigarette Number Seven is Donia Kamal’s second novel, for which she won the Sawiris Emerging Authors prize, three years after it was originally published in 2012. A charming family story set around the 18 days, one of the aspects that must have charmed the Sawiris judges — when there were so many books about the 18 days that spanned January 25 to February 11 — was how grumpy the protagonist, Nadia, was about her time in the square. The familial relationships and friendships in the novel are rich and full of life, and although Kamal might not write the same novel were she to begin it seven years after the eighteen days, it is a moving book and smoothly translated by Nariman Youssef.

An excerpt online, translated by Youssef, begins:

I sat next to my grandmother on an old wooden couch in the spacious apartment and watched as she sifted uncooked rice to remove the small stones and mites that might have crept into the cloth sack she had bought at the cooperative. On a bed in the same room, my grandfather lay on his side next to the radio. The voice of Umm Kulthum was inter- spersed with radio static. For the rest of my life I would never learn to appreciate Umm Kulthum without the static.

8. Celestial Bodies, by Jokha al-Harthi, tr. Marilyn Booth

Celestial Bodies, winner of the 2010 Best Omani Novel Award, is set in Oman’s al-Awafi village and interleaves the lives of a family, focusing on three sisters: Mayya, Asma, and Khawla, and their different relationships to love. The book also tells the stories of the enslaved people who were bound to the family, and how the relationships changed and how they didn’t.

Vibrantly translated by Marilyn Booth.

9. Sarab, by Raja Alem tr. Leri Price (Forthcoming: September 1, 2018)

I haven’t read this novel. Nor has anyone, presumably, outside of Leri Price and the editors at Hoopoe, a Alem chose to write the book in Arabic but to publish first in translation. I make a leap of faith for the novel, written by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction’s only woman winner, on the strength of her previous writing and Price’s translations. This novel is set around the 1979 siege of Mecca’s Grand Mosque. From the German publisher Unionsverlag:

On a morning in 1979, the world is holding its breath. A troop of terrorist fanatics occupy the Great Mosque in Mecca and take thousands of believers hostage. Among the insurgents, hidden in men’s clothes, is the girl Sarab.

When the counterattack starts, and paratroopers rain from the sky, she flees into the catacombs, where she encounters an unconscious French soldier. Through a sewer, she drags him outside and hides with him in an empty apartment. These two, who at first violently hate each other, tell a story that transcends all boundaries in Mecca, then in Paris.

Note: No, this list is not comprehensive, nor meant to be. As in the past, ArabLit will observe Women in Translation Month throughout August.

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