What’s in a ‘First’?: Notes on Arabic Literature by Women in 2019

When Jokha al-Harthi won the 2019 Man Booker International, she became the first author to win the prize for a novel written in Arabic:

By M. Lynx Qualey

By Chaibia Talal, 1929-2004.

However, since al-Harthi was only the tenth person to win that particular prize, and since four of the previous winners wrote in English, it wasn’t particularly surprising. After all, no French, Spanish, or German book has yet won the Man Booker International.

It was also reported this that al-Harthi’s novel Sayyidat al-Qamr — or Celestial Bodies in Marilyn Booth’s translation — was the first Omani novel translated to English. It’s unclear whether this was meant to be a milestone for the Omanis or for the English, but, in either case, it’s wrong. Omani novelist Abdulaziz Al Farsi’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-longlisted Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs, for instance, was translated by Nancy Roberts and published by AUC Press in 2013. 

Al-Harthi was, yes, the first Omani woman novelist to have a full book translated into English. Yet first, in Guinness Book of World Records style, if you do something specific enough, you’re sure to get a listing. More importantly, the statement erases as much as it illuminates. In one hand gesture, it throws into darkness any Omani woman’s literary work that was published before Celestial Bodies, including al-Harthi’s own earlier writings.

Yet al-Harthi’s first-ness has had a powerful effect. If you search the phrase “first Arab woman author” on Google images, you’ll find many images of al-Harthi, as well as a handful of others: Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, Emirati SF novelist Noura Al Noman, and, a bit farther down the scroll, Saudi novelist Raja Alem.

First-ness plagues anything outside the literary center, as anything beyond the absolute middle is in a constant state of being discovered. Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s The Desert and the Drum, tr. Rachael McGill, was the first Mauritanian novel in English in 2018; the adaptation of Wajdi al-Ahdal’s Land without Jasmine was the first Yemeni theatre production in the UK in 2019; in 2016, al-Ahdal’s “Crime on Restaurant Street” was the first ever Yemeni play translated to English. Also in 2016, Bakhtyar Ali‘s I Stared at the Night of the City was the first novel brought from Sorani Kurdish into English.

Some of these “firsts” might usefully highlight a previous absence. When asked about his first-ness, Bakhtyar Ali told Ekurd Daily: “It is unfortunate that we still talk about this. When a people does not have translations and is not able to promote its culture, it does not exist.”

Firsts can also serve the purpose of cultural re-definition. “A beginning,” Edward Said wrote in Beginnings, “gives us the chance to do work that compensates us for the tumbling disorder of brute reality that will not settle down.” Elliott Colla has written about how, and why, Zaynab became the “first Arabic novel.” There were many other beginnings to follow. Women’s work, in particular, seems to get first-icized on a rotating basis, as though women writers were constantly in the state of beginning. When Hoda Barakat won this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction, for her novella The Night Post, it was sometimes reported as the “first outright win” by a woman (as Raja Alem was previously co-won the prize) or sometimes it was reported she was the “second woman” to have won the prize. (Is second-ness now also a thing?)

First-ness is an easy narrative around which to organize a short article. Recently, when I was writing a short essay on Sudanese short stories, I had to regularly drag myself away from the appealing narrative of firsts (Nahda and al-Fajr as the first literary magazines; Malakat Al Dar Mohammed as the winner of the first short-story prize from Sudan Radio Station; Tayeb Salih as the first to achieve global renown…). In fact, instead of first-ness, what stood out to me about Sudanese literature was that women’s writing was always present. At the time of Nahda and al-Fajr, there were women-led literary salons. And before Nahda and al-Fajr, there were the popular nineteenth-century spoken-word poets Bint al-Makkawi and Umm Misaymis. And before Bint al-Makkawi and Umm Misaymis? Surely thousands of anonymous story-composers, inventing oral tales.

Women’s literary works have often been forgotten, erased, and de-emphasized out of literary traditions, such that women have beginnings, and more beginnings, and yet more. The internet has several hundred thousand “First Arab Woman” stories, including one in the Washington Post titled “A First for Arab Women” about an Arab Women’s Book Fair that was held in Cairo, which asks, breathlessly, “What could a Western observer expect of such an historic event?” The fair is surely a great idea, not unlike the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Indeed, the Cairo fair organizers handed out literary prizes to Radwa Ashour (The Granada Trilogy), Ahlam Mostaghanemi (Memory in the Flesh), and Bouthaina al-Nassiri (they don’t say what for, but we’ll imagine her short stories).

The article, which ran in 1995, leaves the reader feeling that Arab women’s writing has found its first-ness at that very moment: “A few elite Arab women have always written, since the time of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century. But they have tended to write for a private audience of friends and family. Not today. What the first Arab woman’s book fair has done is send a clear message: Women’s writing has become competitive and is selling well across the region and abroad.”

This Washington Post observation was not the first of the firsts. Nor was it, unfortunately, the last.

There are certainly productive ways to look at shifts in women’s writings, and also in shifts in reception. To return to Jokha al-Harthi; Mona Kareem helpfully observes in an interview titled “The Feminist Novel Is on the Rise in the Arab Gulf” that al-Harthi’s win will probably lead to better opportunities for Arab women writers.

This Women in Translation (#WiTMonth), we will try not to firsticize Arab women’s writing. Instead, we will try to remember a few of those who have been forgotten: Egyptian author Enayat al-Zayyat (? – 1967), Syrian poet Saniya Salih (1939-1995), Moroccan writer Malika Moustadraf (1962-2006), and Palestinian writer Samira Azzam (1927-1967), as well as al-Khansa (575-645), Laila al-Akhyaliyya (d. 709), and Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (994 – 1091). As well as all the young women writing vibrant new work.

Throughout the month of August, the sixth annual Women in Translation month (#WiTMonth), ArabLit will run interviews, essays, lists, and new translations by and of Arab women writers.