Selected: 10 Arabic Short Stories by Women, in Translation, Online

Each Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth), ArabLit selects 10 Arabic short stories by women, in translation, online:

By artist Helen Zughaib, in an exhibition “Arab Spring/Unfinished Journeys: Humanizing Politics Through Art.” A detail image of her piece Generations Lost, 2014. Photographer: Stephanie Mitchell.

Some of these are old favorites, such as Rachida el-Charni’s “The Way to Poppy Street,” (here translated by Piers Amodia), while others are new discoveries.

Two short-story collections by women were among my favorites of 2018 — Pearls on a Branch and Withered Flowers — while Rania Mamoun’s Thirteen Months of Sunrise, tr. Elisabeth Jacquette, has been one of my favorites of 2019.

Here a handful of pearls, stitched to a digital branch:

1. “Steps Astray,” by Rania Mamoun, from her collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise, tr. Elisabeth Jacquette. (Sudan)

Jaquette won a PEN/Heim grant to translate this tender, generous, and fragile collection of short stories. As you read, you can also experience a literary playlist we put together for the collection earlier this year.

2. “و,” by Colette Bahna, tr. Robin Moger, from Issue 17 of The Common magazine. (Syria)

It opens:

Once I’d been stripped and forced to stand naked before the gaze of the military medical examination board, for the purposes of identifying any defects that might prevent me receiving the honor of being conscripted, the examiner seated on the right-hand end of the bench rose, approached me, and circled me three times, inspecting every inch of the body before him, then turned back to his fellow board members and, stroking my ear with a disconcerting delicacy, said, “Sound. Big ears.” 

3. “Pearls on a Branch,” from the collection of folktales Pearls on a Branch: Oral Talesed. Najlaa Khoury, tr. Inea Bushnaq. (Lebanon)

This gorgeous, subversive, beautifully translated collection — subtitled “Tales from the Arab World Told by Women” — is a must-have for all ages. This story, published on Tin Houseopens:

There was or there was not
In olden days that time has lost…
O you who like stories and talk
No story can be pleasing and beautiful,
Without invoking the Almighty, the Merciful.

THERE WAS A KING – there is no sovereign but God – and this king had a daughter. She was his only child and he liked to please her. So when the month for the pilgrimage to Mecca drew near, the king asked his daughter:

Tell me what do you want me to bring you from the Hajj?

4. Rachida el-Charni, “The Way to Poppy Street,” tr Piers Amodia. (Tunisia)

This story — by Tunisian writer Rachida el-Charni — was also selected for the Granta Book of the African Short Story, ed. Helon Habila. It’s an old companion of mine.

She saw him coming towards her, whistling and humming. He stopped in front of her to ask politely if she knew the way to Poppy Street. Not for a moment did she imagine that he would use the second she took to think to snatch her gold necklace and take to his heels.

5. Malika Moustadraf’s “Just Different,” tr. Alice Guthrie. (Morocco)

This story, by the maverick Moroccan short-story writer Malika Moustadraf (1962-2006), opens:

Avenue Mohammed V is silent and desolate this late at night, empty apart from a few stray cats meowing like newborn babies; it’s a creepy sound.

6. Hadiya Hussein’s “The Blizzard,” tr. Srpko Leštarić and Edward Alexander (Iraq) 

From the story’s opening:

Time: 1 January 1996

Place: Any place in the world suitable for a tragedy.

Wait a moment while I just catch my breath, why’re you in such a hurry anyway? Besides, I don’t want anything right now, I’ll wait for him, he said that he’d come at ten o’clock. What time is it now? Five to ten? So he’ll come soon, just give me a coffee. I’ll pay, believe me when I tell you. Look, this is his letter, it arrived yesterday, and it was his choice to meet here, as it’s always been till now. You can de nitely remember him, can’t you? The handsome one, with chestnut hair and honey-coloured eyes. Well, his hair isn’t chestnut-coloured anymore – the wars have painted it the colour of snow. Tell me honestly, my good waiter – do I look beautiful? I put a lot of effort into looking good, don’t I look pretty? And this dress, does it suit me? Look at it carefully. What? The colour? But you haven’t got any taste, I’m stupid for even asking you what you think about something which is hard for you to understand. What time is it now? A quarter past ten? Never mind, you know how many things can happen to a man on the road.

7. Rasha Abbas, “The Gist of It,” tr. Alice Guthrie (Syria)

There are also a number of other Rasha Abbas stories online, such as “Statement of Absolute Hatred,” “Falling Down Politely, or How to Use Up All Six Bullets Instead of Playing Russian Roulette,” and “Statement of Absolute Hatred,” all tr. Guthrie.

8. “The Sea Cloak,” by Nayrouz Qarmout, tr. Charis Bredon (Palestine)

A collection for Qarmout’s stories, titled The Sea Cloak and tr. Perween Richards, is forthcoming from Comma Press this May. The story isn’t printed online, but you can listen to it performed by Grazyna Monvid:

9. “The Route Through Purgatory,” by Omayma Abdullah, tr. Nassir al-Sayed al-Nour (Sudan)

This story — of seemingly endless travail and hot sand — was published on the new Short Story Project platform, which has dozens of stories translated from Arabic. This story has so much suffering and yet, somehow, perseverance.

The sands lolled and swam in the sun’s blazing rays all day, then when darkness fell, they patiently waited for the sun to rise. As far as the eye could see, the sands swelled in every direction, wild and silent. It even felt like they were stealthily watching us. Everyone except the leader and I slept like the dead. We had walked barefoot the whole day, but the journey ahead was still long. The sun had hollowed faces and etched deep lines; lips were painted the color of ash.