Classics, Revisited: Safinaz Kazem’s ‘Romantics’

It’s acclaimed Egyptian poet and writer Iman Mersal who originally recommended Safinaz Kazem (b. 1937) to ArabLit readers:

Indeed, Mersal has redirected our gaze to work by a number of women writers who have fallen out of print or out of literary conversations, including Saniya Salih and, more recently, Enayat al-Zayyat.

Kazem is a Marxist-turned-Islamist literary critic who — to borrow words off the Arabist — is also an “Egyptian essayist, cultural critic, columnist, anti-Nasserist, anti-Sadatist, anti-Mubarakist, anti-Saddamist, feminist, nationalist, Islamist, ex-wife of poet Ahmad Fouad Negm, and all-around terrifying woman[.]” This description came on the occasion of the launch of Kazem’s blog, which unfortunately hasn’t been updated since 2014.

While Kazem certainly hasn’t been forgotten, her literary side has been minimized. For an old “Arab Women Writers Recommend Arab Women Writers” feature, Mersal had said of Kazem’s Romantikeyyat (1970):

Another whose work I admire is Safinaz Kazem. When I was a young writer in my 20s, I would never have been able to admit this, as the Islamic ideology behind her work stood as a barrier between it and me. I read her 1970 Romantikeyyat, an account of her years in America as a young student, while working on my PhD dissertation on Arab Travel Narratives of America. Other female writers I read  would be filter their experiences through some ideological lens or another, as if they had left their bodies at home. Kazem’s account, on the other hand, was one of a transformative journey that made me read the entirety of her oeuvre with great relish.

A good deal has been written about Kazem, but very little of her work has been directly translated. Also, in English, she is often referred to not for her own work, but for being the mother of activist writer Nawara Negm or ex-wife of poet Ahmed Fouad Negm.

In 1996, Kazem won the Ali and Mustafa Amin Journalism Prize, and she certainly has been an important social critic and commentator. Yet she did not consider her work to be unadorned journalism. According to Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, Kazem “considers all her writing creative writing, even if the subject is literary criticism or politics.” She is known for a wide range of books, including The Nasserist Ruse (1983), Diaries of Baghdad, London (1984), The Truth and Brainwashing in Contemporary Issues (1985), and Theatre in the 1960s (1991).

Kazem is also featured in the compelling 1997 documentary Four Women of Egypt (Quatre femmes d’Égypte), a Canadian-Egyptian production by Tahani Rached. Don’t miss Kazem talking about her time in prison.

The piece on Zaynab Fawwaz initially was set to run today has been rescheduled for later in the month. Marilyn Booth is currently finishing a study on Fawwaz’s works; she will answer a few unanswered questions.