In/for Translation: 5 Arab Women Playwrights

The “In/for Translation” series — set to run Tuesdays in August — focuses on work by women that we recommend either in or for English translation. Here, work by five Arab women playwrights:

From “Desert of Light.”

1) Raeda Taha: Where Would I Find Someone Like You, ʿAli?” from Modern and Contemporary Political Theater from the Levant, ed. and tr. Nada Saab and Robert Myers.

This Palestinian political comedy was first staged as a one-woman show in Beirut in 2015 and is born of Taha’s personal experiences as the daughter of a martyr, as well as her long relationship with literature (she apparently told Mahmoud Darwish that she wanted to do stand-up), and her collaboration with Lebanese theatre-artist Lina Abyad. It opens with her sexual assault, when she was 24, by a PLO functionary. This might not seem like a launching-off point for comedy, but political comedy, by its nature, must make us laugh and open our eyes to things as we haven’t seen them before. There is perhaps no tool to make us trust a narrator better than candor.

Throughout the piece, Taha maintains a loving commitment to Palestine while also opening herself, fellow children of martyrs, and her mother up to comic exaggeration, and particularly skewering predatory men. At one point, the family visits a friend of hers, Simsim, who has complained about not being able to go on field trips for martyrs’ kids (who apparently got to have all the fun). Then Simsim’s father is assassinated and, “as we entered the house, right in the middle of the crying and screaming and the horrific scenes that we knew all too well, stood Simsim–smiling! ‘My wish has come true,’ she said. ‘Now I can travel with you.’ And she did. We would go on trips together and represent Palestine and perform dabka. Our group grew and grew.”

Raeda is also the force behind “36 ‘Abbas Street, Haifa,”which also should be in translation.

2) Laila Soliman: “Egyptian Products,” translated by Khalid Laith

Soliman has written far more widely received plays: “Whims of Freedom,” for instance, as well as “No Time for Art” and “Lessons in Revolting.” But I am partial to this tragi-romantic-comedic collage, examining the relationship between Hadia and her would-be knight-in-shining-armor, Gasir, a painfully awkward lab assistant with attachment issues. Egyptian Products is also available in the collection Plays from the Arab World.

3) Yasmeen Emam: The Mirror, tr. Mohammed Albakry and Rebekah Maggor

Emam’s The Mirror is a one-woman monodrama that explores the role of social expectations, class, corruption, and more in the mirror of womanhood. It appears in translation in the anthology Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution, tr. Mohammed Albakry and Rebekah Maggor, and was written directly after Emam finished university, and its central character is haunted by the voices of parents, relatives, friends, and love interests who police her behavior.

4) Dalia Taha:Fireworks,” tr. Clem Naylor

Taha’s second play (her first was “Keffiyeh/Made in China“) examines claustrophobic life under siege, in an unspecified Palestinian city, and particularly how a couple comes to understand — and re-understand — the death of their son. “There’s no-one in the streets but us. You run that way and I’ll run this way. Whoever gets back to the front door first without getting shot, wins.”

5) Rama Haydar: “Desert of Light, tr. Rama Haydar and Rebekah Maggor

Also a tragicomedy, this takes place as two Palestinian refugees debate the best plan of escape from Damascus’s Yarmouk refugee camp. You can watch a reading of the translation from PEN World Voices 2017:

The “In/for Translation” series will run every Tuesday in August for Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth). Next Tuesday, August 13, will be a look at Arab women graphic novelists.