For International Women’s Day: 8 by Arab Women in 2019

For the eighth of March, eight new books by Arab women, translated from Arabic or French, set to be published in 2019:

(1) All That I Want to Forget, Bothayna al-Essa, tr. Michelle Henjum (Hoopoe, March 2019)

In this book, Fatima escapes her domineering brother Saqr and marries an adequate, liberal-ish man. But — we find in this fast-paced, funny, back-and-forth romance — that is simply not enough for a young woman who wants to be a poet.

From an excerpt published on the Hoopoe website:

Saqr pressed some switches and the blue lights of the long neon bulbs trembled.There were wires fixed to the wall with tape. The place lookedlike it had vomited its guts out. The vast desert of what he called my room spread before me, and he gently pushed my shoulder into it, a mouth that opened to swallow me up.

“You’ll live with us from now on,” he said. “You can be my daughter instead of my sister. You’re too young to be my sister anyway. You can be a sister to my children.”

(2) The Book of Disappearance, Ibtisam Azem, tr. Sinan Antoon (Syracuse University Press, May 2019)

From the publisher:

What if all the Palestinians in Israel simply disappeared one day? What would happen next? How would Israelis react? These unsettling questions are posed in Azem’s powerfully imaginative novel. Set in contemporary Tel Aviv forty eight hours after Israelis discover all their Palestinian neighbors have vanished, the story unfolds through alternating narrators, Alaa, a young Palestinian man who converses with his dead grandmother in the journal he left behind when he disappeared, and his Jewish neighbor, Ariel, a journalist struggling to understand the traumatic event. Through these perspectives, the novel stages a confrontation between two memories. Ariel is a liberal Zionist who is critical of the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but nevertheless believes in Israel’s project and its national myth. Alaa is haunted by his grandmother’s memories of being displaced from Jaffa and becoming a refugee in her homeland. Ariel’s search for clues to the secret of the collective disappearance and his reaction to it intimately reveal the fissures at the heart of the Palestinian question.

You can read an excerpt on Words Without Borders and another on Banipal, and a review by acclaimed author and critic Mazen Maarouf.

Read with: 

(3) The Frightened Ones, Dima Wannous, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette (Harvill Secker, July 2019 pushed back to 2020)

This novel was shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and Wannous said of it that in it, she confronts “the inability to write and invent imagined lives far from the immediate reality in which we are immersed, because of the massacres in Syria that stain the soul and spirit; and also the personal incapacity we Syrians experience who are scattered abroad, displaced in exhausting, difficult circumstances.”

From the publisher:

Suleima and Nassim meet in the reception of their therapist’s practice in Damascus. Some months into their relationship, before fleeing Syria for Germany, he gives her a manuscript whose protagonist’s life bears discomforting similarities to her own. Whose story is it? And how much of her history can she believe? Written in a powerfully intimate voice, and narrated in alternating chapters by Suleima and by the mysterious woman in Nassim’s novel, The Frightened Ones explores living under oppression and what it does to one’s sense of identity. As Suleima reads, her whole past comes bubbling up- her relationship with her mother, her attachment to her father and inability to accept his death, and the strains put upon an Alawite-Sunni family crushed by the tyranny of dictatorship. And so she sets out on a journey with her lover’s book, to try to make sense not only of what has happened to her country, but also of who she is and what she has become.

Read a review in Qantara.

(4) Velvet, by Huzama Habayeb, tr. Kay Heikkinen (Hoopoe, September 2019)

This book won Huzama Habayeb the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature; judges called it ‘a new kind of Palestinian novel.”

Velvet is Habayeb’s third novel, and it depicts life in al-Baq’a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan in the 1960s and 70s. In the words of judge Rasheed El-Enany, this novel:

…is not about the political cause, the resistance, the dream of return. It is rather about ordinary Palestinians, whose life goes on meanwhile, unnoticed and unrecorded, in the background, while the high dramas of politics occupy center-stage. And more particularly, it is about the life of the brutally repressed women in the camps, and the heroic life and savage death of one particular woman, in what society would label a ‘crime of honor.’ The fabric of her life was made of the coarsest material imaginable, but she always hankered for the soft touch of ‘velvet’, the Mukhmal of the title.

Habayeb herself called it a “novel of women, loved and beloved, the women who, though exhausted by injustice, bitterness, the rugged alleys of life, and the oppression of men who have been eaten away by the defeats of history, is skillful at fashioning love and living love and death for love.”

Also read: A Story by Huzama Habayeb: ‘A (Somewhat) Realistic Dream’

(5) The Sea Cloak, by Nayrouz Qarmout, tr. Perween Richards (Comma Press, August 2019)

The Sea Cloak is a collection of fourteen stories by Gazan writer Nayrouz Qarmout. The titular story was included in the Book of Gaza, published in 2014.

“The Sea Cloak,” in Charis Bredin’s translation, begins:

Read with: Book of Gazaed. Atef Abu Saif, especially for the introduction to the Gaza short-story landscape Abu Saif gives in his introduction.

(6) Thirteen Months of Sunrise, by Rania Mamoun, tr. Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press, March 2019)

This collection won a PEN/Heim grant. From the citation: “These stories — possibly the first collection by a Sudanese woman to be fully translated into English — offer an emotionally intimate look at urban life and alienation, while demonstrating an impressive range of literary styles, from realist to reality-bending.”

An excerpt from the collection, trans. Jaquette, opens:

The dogs told me about themselves: about their pacts with cats, excavations in piles of garbage, and even what they knew about humans. I don’t know what language they spoke. Maybe they talked to me or maybe I imagined it; it’s hard for me to say now. I was on the brink of passing out and at the time I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy. But I had a good time with them. They were kind, and treated me like one of them.

I’d never paid much attention to dogs before. I hadn’t feared or loved them, or ever really thought of them, except for when I saw one. That night, I learned to tell the difference between the males and females. I learned about their habits, ways of life, relationships with people, characteristics, and qualities they have that people lack. They were generous with me, entertained me, sang and danced for me, and did everything they could to keep me alive.

Keep reading the translated excerpt.

(7) The Selected Poems of Samira Negrouche, by Samira Negrouche, tr. from the French by Marilyn Hacker (Pleiades Press, 2019)

Born in Algiers and trained as a doctor, Samira Negrouche is a poet and translator with a focus on interdisciplinary collaborations with visual artists and musicians. The poem “Seven Little Jasmine Monologues” first appeared in Pleaides magazine, in Marilyn Hacker’s translation, and was reprinted on ArabLit with permission.

light shot up its way

like an angel fallen in love

with green colored


(8) Muslim: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani, tr. from the French by Matt Reeck (Deep Vellum Publishing, March 2019)

From the publisher:

“Muslim” A Novel is a genre-bending, poetic reflection on what it means to be Muslim from one of France’s leading writers. In this novel, the second in a trilogy, Rahmani’s narrator contemplates the loss of her native language and her imprisonment and exile for being Muslim, woven together in an exploration of the political and personal relationship of language within the fraught history of Islam. Drawing inspiration from the oral histories of her native Berber language, the Koran, and French children’s tales, Rahmani combines fiction and lyric essay in to tell an important story, both powerful and visionary, of identity, persecution, and violence.

Read an excerpt translated by Lara Vergnaud.