In/for Translation: 7 Arab Women Writing Prison

In the genre of Arab prison writing — from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Morocco — it is men’s words that are better-known:

When tracing the roots of the prison novel, critic Sabry Hafez points to the colonial prison novel, particularly Egyptian author Ihsan Abdul Quddous’ popular 1957 novel A Man in Our House. But prison novels really flowered in the 1970s, with notable novels that included Abdelrahman Munif’s East of the Mediterranean and The Trees and the Assassination of Marzouq; Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell (tr. Robyn Creswell); and Nabil Suleiman’s The Prison.

In different countries, prison novels have flowered in different moments. In Morocco, for instance, there was a flowering after prisoners were released from Tazmamart. There have been many Syrian and Iraqi prison novels this century; one of the most stunning is Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell (tr. Paul Starkey), published in 2008.

Women’s prison novels and memoirs — outside of El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison — are lesser-known. Four of the books below are in translation; three more are recommendations for translation.

IN TRANSLATION: Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, tr. Marilyn Booth.

El Saadawi is at her best when writing nonfiction; turning her doctor’s gaze onto the world around her. Along with many other writers, poets, and scholars, El Saadawi was imprisoned under the direct orders of Anwar Sadat in 1981. This memoir was apparently written at Qanatir Women’s Prison with an eyebrow pencil on sheets of toilet paper, and it paints a portrait of the women’s lives inside.

IN TRANSLATION: Salwa Bakr, The Golden Chariot, tr. Dinah Manisty

An imaginative novel set in an Egyptian women’s prison; it’s Aziza who decides to create the titular golden chariot to lift her out of the muck and dread of prison. But here, prison is not just prison, but also sheds lives on the other prisons women face in their lives.

IN TRANSLATION: Latifa al-Zayyat The Search: Personal Papers, tr.

final section of al-Zayyat’s sharp, insightful autobiography was written in Qanatir Women’s Prison in 1981, and can be read along with El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison and Radwa Ashour’s Spectres, tr. Barbara Romaine.

IN TRANSLATION: Zainab al-Ghazali’s Return of the Pharaoh: Memoir in Nasir’s Prison, tr. Mokrane Guezzou.

There are comparatively few prison memoirs by Islamists; al-Ghazali was founder of the Muslim Women’s Association and driving force behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s re-establishment after its ban. She was imprisoned in the 1960s, and her memoir about that time was widely read.

FOR TRANSLATION: Haifa Zangana’s Hafla li-Tha’ira

Nora Parr writes: “Between them, the nine authors collected into Hafla li-Tha’ira [A Party for Thai’ra/the Revolutionary] lived nearly 50 years in Israeli prison. They saw babies born in confinement and raised so that they only knew the locking of doors. Others saw their children only through panes of glass.”

Also: “With more than 40% of Palestinians having now spent time in an Israeli prison (according to Adameer this means close to 50% of all men) what prison is and means for the national cause had all but been settled. Absent, however, were the stories and experiences of women prisoners of conscience.”

Zangana is currently working on a similar book with Tunisian women who are former detainees.

FOR TRANSLATION: Maysaa Alamoudi‘s Mimosa

This Scheherazade-like novel — with women’s life-giving stories nested one into the next — gives insight into women’s lives inside Saudi prisons. These are not only political prisoners, but also migrant laborers, women who fell in love, and others.

FOR TRANSLATION: Inji Aflatoun’s From Childhood to Prison

This book was chosen as a must-read memoir by Najwa Al Ameri, Dalia Ebeid, Mansoura Ezz Eldin, and others. Aflatoun was sent to prison by Pres. Gamal Abdelnasser, where she spent four years for her involvement with the Communist movement. “However,” as Menna Taher writes in a portrait of the artist, “that was not the first prison in her life. Her first prison in life was the strict catholic school that she was enrolled in until the fourth grade, the Sacred Heart.”

Aflatoun also spent time at Qanatir Women’s Prison, which she describes in the memoir.

The “in/for translation” series will run every Tuesday in August for Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth).