Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour (1946 – 2014) was an acclaimed author, activist, scholar and teacher. She was one of only 12 women writers to have made the Arab Writers Union’s list of the “Top 105 Arabic Novels of the Twentieth Century” for her Granada trilogy, which remains popular with Egyptian and other Arabic-language readers:
Last year, Ashour’s articles and talks, collected from the last ten years of her life, were brought together in All the Oppressed Have Wings, which Ahram Online chose as one of their best books of 2019.
As Marina Warner wrote after Ashour’s death in 2014: “Radwa Ashour was a powerful voice among Egyptian writers of the postwar generation and a writer of exceptional integrity and courage. Her work consistently engages with her country’s history and reflects passionately upon it.”
Ashour’s novels never shy from the political, although they are also filled with real-feeling characters faced with difficult choices, whether they are in Andalusia, a mythical nation, Palestine, or contemporary Egypt.
And as translator Barbara Romaine said, in an email exchange about translation and Ashour’s work some years ago:
Among the things I love about Radwa’s writing is her courage in confronting the unthinkable – like those atrocities I referred to a moment ago. There is room for sentiment in her writing (in some of her depictions of family relations, for instance), but ultimately she does not shy away from harsh truths, and accordingly she doesn’t spare the reader, either.
Ten to read:
Ashour made the Arab Writers Union’s “top 105” list with her celebrated Granada, the first of a trilogy, translated by William Granara. The novel interleaves the story of Granada during the time of Christopher Columbus — a time of extreme religious persecution — but is also a story of books and book-lovers, and the bookbinder Abu Jaafar.
Ashour’s first book, The Journey, was translated by Michelle Hartman and published by Interlink Books in 2018. The Journey is Ashour’s memoirs of 1973-1975, her years doing a PhD in Massachusetts on African-American Literature, and they tie together Ashour’s personal life with struggles in the US, Palestine, and Egypt. It’s a pioneering look at the United States through the eyes of one of Egypt’s major writers, and you can read an excerpt here.
The short but lovely Siraaj, trans. Barbara Romaine, is markedly different from Radwa Ashour’s modern histories: It’s the story of a doomed revolt against a despotic sultan and is set on an imaginary island near Yemen at the close of the nineteenth century. It is fable-like history or historical fable, beautifully told, rendered in clear, warm English by Romaine. This novel is easy to love. You can read an excerpt at the University of Texas Press website.
Spectres was also translated Barbara Romaine — a translation for which she was rightly recognized. This is two books: a beautiful meta-memoir twined with an echoing fictional character. Winner of the Cairo International Book Fair Prize and a runner-up for the Banipal translation prize, the book alternates between the stories of Radwa and Shagar: two women born the same day, one a professor of literature, one of history.
Blue Lorries, also translated by Barbara Romaine, is a generational novel, of exile and politics, of Egypt then and now. It follows the half-French, half-Egyptian Nada and is a story of what activism means in the context of a human life (and what human life means in the context of activism). You can read an excerpt online.
One of Ashour’s most popular novels was The Woman from Tantoura, translated by Kay Heikkinen. A historical family novel, Tantoura follows a Palestinian woman from pre-1948 through multiple exiles: in Lebanon, Egypt, and Dubai. Much of the novel’s heartbreak — and despite herself, Ashour is excellent at heartbreak — is the mother’s fraught relationship with her exiled children. Although it’s also an examination of coming to grips with seeing events such as Sabra and Shatila from afar, a large part of the novel’s charm is the relationship between the author and her three very different sons. You can read a very short excerpt here.
Two short stories by Ashour, “The Man Sitting in the Park is Waiting“ and “He Wants to be Reassured“ have been translated by Emily Drumsta. The first opens: “At first I didn’t notice him. I was busy playing with the little one: he would throw the ball, I’d raise my head to follow it as it flew up high, then I’d run with my arms open to meet it as it fell.”
Ashour’s “My Experience with Writing,” tr. Rebecca Porteous is a moving and illuminating essay that addresses the question: “Am I a Writer?”
Also, if you don’t mind reading on Google Books, “The Report of Mrs. R Concerning the Last Day of the Week,” translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.
One to translate:
In Heavier than Radwa, Ashour shares the warmth, love, steadiness, scholarship, and careful self-knowledge she assembled over her lifetime. The review in Ahram Online opens:
Waking up from surgery in the US, Radwa Ashour hears that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has been toppled. Still drowsy from the anaesthesia, Radwa cannot help but smile. She has lived, like most of her generation, for this day.
After four brain surgeries over five months, Radwa returns to Egypt fit and finally able to visit Tahrir Square, which she does on 26 May, incidentally coinciding with her birthday.
In Heavier than Radwa, Radwa shares her triumphant defeat of sickness, weaving in the Egyptian revolution’s labour pains over a journey stained with blood and sniper bullets.