10 Books: Influential Arabic Nonfiction by Women, 15th C-Present

Although Arab women’s novels are (sometimes) celebrated in English translation, their nonfiction contributions are largely overlooked:

There are many Arab women who were intellectually influential yet without an extant book-length work — many can be read about in Baghdadi scholar Ibn al-Sa’i’s Consorts of the Caliphsfor instance. But for this list, we highlight authors who compose their works in Arabic; otherwise Fatima Mernissi and Asma Lamrabet should surely be included. For the most part, we’ve listed authors who have a book translated into English, but felt May Ziadeh and Aisha Abd al-Rahman could not be overlooked.

‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah (died 1517 CE)

(1) Recommended read: The Principles of Sufismtr. Th. Emil Homerin.Al-Ba’uniyyah was one of the great scholars of Islam, both a mystic and prolific poet and writer. As her translator said in a 2014 interview, “‘A’ishah is one of the very few women mystics in Islam who wrote…for herself prior to the modern period.” She was one of the most prolific premodern women writing in Arabic, composing both poetry and scholarly works. Homerin added: “Certainly her poems would’ve been recited among men. She exchanged poems with male scholars when she was in Cairo; we have the exchanges. So they’re writing poems back to each other. Oftentimes poems of praise, and they’re being clever with their plays on words and names and so forth. It’s a kind of educated pastime among the elite, sharing poems.”

Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947 )

(2) Recommended read: Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924tr. Margot Badran. Founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, Shaarawi helped organize women’s demonstrations against the British occupation, and was an influential publisher and philanthropist.

From the memoir: “I loved Umm Kabira immensely, and she returned that love and showed compassion toward me. She, alone, talked frankly with me on a number of matters.… She knew how I felt when people favoured my brother over me because he was a boy. She, too, occasionally fanned the flames of jealousy in me, but without diminishing my love for my brother.”

May Ziadeh (1886-1941)

Ziadeh was born in Nazareth on February 11, 1886. In Anbara Khalidi’s Memoirs of an Early Arab Feminist, in a chapter on “The Literary Scene of the 1920s and Beyond,” she describes the Palestinian-Lebanese author as being “at the very pinnacle of women’s literature, and, without any doubt, without equal. A captivating writer, a brilliant literary salon hostess, and an orator who won the hearts of all who heard her, she was the focal point around whom revolved the most prominent men of science, literature, and poetry.” Lebanese poet Henry Zugheib said, in an interview with Al Jazeera: “She translated novels from German, French and Italian. She injected a new flavour, unknown to Arabic literature at the time.”

Bint al-Shati / Aisha Abd al-Rahman (1913-1998)

Also known by her pen name Bint al-Shati (Daughter of the Riverbank), Abd al-Rahman (1913-1998) was an important scholar, critic, author, and columnist who wrote dozens of books. Egyptian poet Iman Mersal particularly suggests a translation of Alaa al-Jisr (1986), where the author speaks in her own voice. Currently, none of Abd al-Rahman’s influential works are available in translation.

Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003)

(3) Recommended read: A Mountainous Journey: A Poet’s Autobiography, ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, tr. Olive E. Kenny. Tuqan, one of the top Palestinian poets of the twentieth century, was born in 1917, and writes her difficult journey from there to 1967. Tuqan remains an influential figure, and you can find Tuqan-related book swag at the art shop Watan.

Zainab al-Ghazali (1917-2005)

(4) Recommended read: Return of the Pharaoh: Memoir in Nasir’s Prisontr. Mokrane Guezzou. As the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World notes, al-Ghazali was “Egypt’s prominent female Islamist” of the twentieth century, founder of the Muslim Women’s Association and driving force behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s re-establishment after its ban. She was imprisoned in the 1960s, and her memoir about that time was widely read.

Latifa al-Zayyat (1923-1996)

(5) Recommended read: The Search: Personal Papers, tr. by Sophie Bennett. The great Egyptian poet Iman Mersal, when asked to recommend Arab women writers, said, “Likewise, there are memoirs written by some Arab female writers that deserve mention, even if one isn’t a fan of their work as a whole: Hamlat taftish: Awraq shakhsiya (1992), by Latifa Zayat, ِAwraqi…Hayati (1995), by Nawal El Saadawi, and Alaa al- Jisr (1986) by Aisha Abd al-Rahman (also known as Bint al-Shati). One feels, in these works, that the authors speak in their own voices, unfettered by the collective will or collective projects so present in their other writings.” More about al-Zayyat (1923-1996) at latifaalzayyat.net/.

Nawal El Saadawi (1931 – )

(6) Recommended read:  Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, tr. Marilyn Booth. El Saadawi’s fiction never quite found its legs, but her feminist nonfiction has been widely influential; a number of contemporary authors, among them Iraqi novelist Ali Bader, have cited her as shaping their views on gender. Her work has also certainly been influential in English; she is the second-most-translated author from Arabic after Mahfouz, and is often cited in Western feminist and imperialist scholarship.

Radwa Ashour (1946-2014)

(7) Recommended read: The Journey, 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.

Arwa Salih (1951-1997)

(8) Recommended read: The Stillborn: Notebooks from the Student Movement, 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.

Dunya Mikhail (1965 – )

(9) Recommended read: The Beekeeper, 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.

Iman Mersal (1966 – )

(10) Recommended read: How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts, tr. Robin Moger (forthcoming)

In How to Mend, Mersal — best known as a poet — writes about motherhood’s hidden, interior spaces. In an earlier excerpt and an earlier translation by Anna Ziajka Stanton: “The idea of a struggle between the mother and her newborn child falls outside the grand narrative of human experience, which records motherhood as a practice of giving, of mutual identification between two selves, of love at once unlimited and unconditional.”


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