For Your Syllabus: Teaching Arab Women’s Writing in Translation

Among those who participated in ArabLit’s 2018 series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation Shadi Rohana, who talked about his experience with two classes, “Literatura árabe moderna” and “Literatura árabe moderna II: literatura testimonial femenina” at El Colegio de Mexico:

Among other things, we asked him:

Why did you make a conscious effort to include women writers in Part 2, “Literatura árabe moderna II: literatura testimonial femenina”?

Shadi Rohana: Because Part 1 was almost entirely men writers. I wasn’t really trying to follow any canon at the beginning; I was sort of improvising, looking for the available translations and books we can get the library to buy in order to have them permanently in the library, whether for current students or in the future. Las semester, when I started giving the course at El Colegio de México, it was the first time that I know of that a course on modern Arabic literature was given in Mexico. I had to start from scratch, and very few books were available. We were only going to read books in Spanish, so we ended up reading only men for two reasons: 1. the availability of translations the library was able to obtain, ordered from overseas; and 2. my own ignorance of Arab women writers and masculine practice in reading.

For this reasons, together with the students, we decided that the following semester will entirely be dedicated to women writers translated into Spanish and English. The latter are much more available and easier to bring here, given the proximity of the United States, and the fact that there is a greater variety of Arab women writers from different periods and countries that are translated to English, as opposed to Spanish. Needless to say, in the case of most of the women writers we are reading right now, I am reading them for the first time together with the students.

In terms of the bibliography and designing the course, I had to resort to friends for advise. Amal Eqeiq from Williams College in the US, who also teaches literature there, guided me in preparing the course, and we actually just had a Skype session with her, in Spanish, from our classroom in Mexico City right at the beginning of this semester.

It’s excellent that you decided this together with your students. Huda Fakhreddine seemed relatively satisfied with women writers being largely absent from her syllabus, indicating that the most important thing was aesthetic merit (& arguing, reasonably, that women shouldn’t be given a “sympathetic” inclusion). Why was it important to you (or your students?) to include women’s writing?  

SR: I agree with what Huda says. One shouldn’t read women writers in a condescending manner. When this happens, one would also start looking for specific ways of how women should write beforehand, and only for women writing in a “womanly” manner, while deeming others as “non-womanly” and so on. This happens a lot, not just with women.

However, considerations for reading, such as the motives for writing, can vary. They can be related to gender, sexuality, class, rural vs. urban, politics and ideology, history, etc. Here, in this course, considerations weren’t aesthetic to begin with, but to see how individual women, through literature, were thinking about the issues that came up during last semester’s course: colonialism, sex, aesthetics, history, poverty, language, literature, religion, independence, the veil and revolution.

To that end, read:

Amal Eqeiq on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: ‘Arab Women Memoirs, Writing Feminist History’

Emily Drumsta on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: ‘Women’s Writing in the Arab World’