Women Writing in Arabic: 10 Poets to Read Now

There is very little Arabic poetry by women translated to English; for Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth), we offer a brief look at ten poets. Of the women writers below — an eclectic list of personal favorites and by no means canon — only one, Iman Mersal, has a collection traditionally published in English translation:

1) Asmaa Azaizeh

Palestinian poet Asmaa Azaizeh was the first director of the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in Ramallah. She won the Young Writer Award from Al Qattan Foundation in 2010 for her first volume of poetry, Liwa, published in 2011. Her sophomore collection, As The Woman From Lod Bore Me, was published in 2015. Elements were also staged. Her poems have been translated into English, German, Spanish, Farsi, Swedish, Italian, Dutch and Hebrew, among others; she is currently a cultural curator in Haifa.

As ArabLit contributor Amira Abd El Khalek wrote of Azaizeh’s work, her “poems are potent yet delicate renderings of seemingly simple everyday things.”

Read now: Dragonflies,” tr. Yasmine Seale

Dance of the Soma,” also tr. Seale

“Do Not Believe Me Were I to Talk to You of War,” tr. Yasmine Haj

“I Didn’t Believe I Would Ever Learn to Die,” tr. Yasmine Haj

“A Corpse in Ramallah,” tr. Khaled al-Masri

“Revival,” tr. Khaled al-Masri

2) Soukaina Habiballah

Soukaina Habiballah is a poet, novelist, and screenwriter who has received many awards, including, in 2015, the Buland Al Haidari Prize for Arabic poetry, and the 2019 Nadine Shames Prize for Arab Screenwriters for her short film Who Left the Door Open? Her poetry has been translated into French, English, German, Spanish, and Montenegrin, and she introduces compelling and unexpected personifications into her narrative and filmic poems.

Read now: Six translated by Robin Moger

Watch: “On the Map 2019”

3) Rana al-Tonsi

Rana al-Tonsi has been publishing since she was a teenager; her first collection, The House From Which Music Came (2001), was published to wide acclaim, and she has since published many more.

The late Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad said that al-Tonsi “carries the concerns of an orphan generation rejecting the experience of the fathers who inherited the homeland.” Recently, she writes achingly and sparely on motherhood and love.

Read now: Poems from The Book of Games, tr. Robin Moger

A Rose for the Last Days,” tr. Sinan Antoon

4) Fatima Qandil

Qandil is a widely admired poet, born in Cairo in 1958, especially acclaimed for her collections Questions Hanging Like Slaughtered Animals and My House Has Two Doors.

In a chapter in Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, 1873-1999, Hoda Elsadda writes that Qandil “gives voice to conditions of human existence that cannot be summarized or conveyed using other means of expression. She weaves the strands of her lexicon with the utmost care and then scatters them on paper, creating meanings that quietly pierce deep into the walls of consciousness”

Elsadda translates from her “Jawarib shafafa” (Pantyhose): “Small tensions. No emptiness, then, since the penknife turned / And filled the room with all this delicately honed wood.”

Poet Golan Haji has said: “The range of her poems and of their mood is as admirable as that of style. Despite all shifts in attention and approach, she builds a stable familiar vision made of poems intensely personal.”

It is eternally shocking to find so little of her work in English translation.

Read now: Keys,” tr. Josh Beirich

5) Saniya Saleh (1935-1995)

Iman Mersal wrote an essay on the under-appreciated Saniya Saleh, originally published by Al Akhbar in August 2015 and translated by Robin Moger as “One of us comes out from the other.”

It opens: “I did not find Saniya Saleh in Cairo.” Later, Mersal writes, “What interests me about Saniya Saleh’s voice is not just its individuality but its wasted potential, those mysterious zones which she—despite being an Arab woman writer active in the ‘60s and despite the prophet-crowded space of that historical moment—could have opened up and did not.”

Syrian poet Golan Haji writes that, “Saniya Saleh’s poetry often celebrates in solitude two major topics of poetry: love and death. I hope Marilyn Hacker or Robin Moger would translate more of her work, especially of the later poems that poignantly question womanhood, motherhood and childhood.”

Read now: Cure Your Slavery with Patience,” tr. Marilyn Hacker

The Condemned Lakes,” tr. Hacker

The Only Window, in Disrepair,” tr. Robin Moger

6) Da’ad Haddad (1937-1991)

Syrian poet Golan Haji has written movingly about Da’ad Haddad:

Regardless of the superlative “most notable” woman poet in the Arab world, I could mention Fatima Qandil or Sanyyah Saleh, but I’d love to talk about Da’ad Haddad who died in 1991. Once, ten years ago, I tried to organize some of her unpublished poems in a small collection There’s Light. Da’ad is one of the “absent” characters in a documentary film, shot by the Syrian filmmaker Hala Alabdalla who lives in Paris; the film’s title “I am The One Who Carries Flowers to Her Own Grave” is taken from one of her poems. Da’ad was abandoned by her family in the Mediterranean city Lattakia, so she lived in Damascus, moving around the houses of her friends. Her “naïvety” is astounding sometimes, like raw brut art paintings. In her last years, she had become severely depressed. She sometimes begged for bread in bakeries, carrying a basket of old raw vegetables. Those were her meals. She spent her nights in the printing house at the ministry of culture, and slept sometimes in public parks. Once she was seen walking under the rain of night, in her tattered nightgown in the crowded souk of Al Salihyya, in the heart of Damascus. One of her closest friends told me that one night, when his visitors were about to leave, he found her asleep on the threshold. Perhaps because of the noise she heard beyond the closed door she didn’t dare to ring the bell.

Hopefully, Haji will translate more of Haddad’s work in the future.

Read now: Black is this night,” tr. Golan Haji

7) Rasha Omran 

The work of Syrian poet Rasha Omran is full of narrative joy, wit, and insight. Omran was born in Tartus, Syria in 1964.

Omran said, of her childhood, in an interview with Kim Echlin:

 I cannot remember details of my early life without seeing poetry present in them. Our house was a meeting place for poets, especially after the family moved to Damascus in 1968 when I was four years old. We moved when my father changed his career from teaching to journalism. At that time the only newspapers in Syria were in Damascus, the capital. Books of poetry were scattered everywhere in our house. I remember the voices of poets reciting poems at the end of weekly soirees at home. For me, our house was not a normal one, it was more like a library.

She now lives in Cairo.

Read now: Three poems by Rasha Omran, translated by Phoebe Bay Carter

Defy the Silencea trilingual collection translated collaboratively by Abdelrehim Youssef, Kim Echlin, and Italian translator Monica Pareschi

8) Amal Nawwar

Amal Nawwar is a Lebanese poet and translator who was born in Kuwait in 1964, but grew up in Lebanon. She left for Canada in 1992, and worked in banking, but later returned to literary writing.

Syrian poet Golan Haji has said of her work: “Amal Nawwar’s internal worlds in Hers Is Blue Wine and Intimate to Glass and The Jungle Woman originate from various experiences in Lebanon and abroad. Her dense poems grow like dark flowers at the edge of an abyss inside the poet herself, and no one can jump into it since it’s already full of restless words and muffled emotions.”

Read now: Four poems, tr. Issa Boullata

9) Iman Mersal

Mersal is the only poet on this list who has a conventionally published poetry book in translation, These Are Not Oranges, My LoveEnglished by Khaled Mattawa.

Mersal’s most recent collection Until We Give Up the Idea of Houses, is hopefully forthcoming in translation by Creswell. Her poetry combines a vibrance of language with a sarcasm of spirit and a deep interest in making connections. She has also authored two tremendously moving nonfictional prose works, How to Heal: Motherhood and Its Ghosts (tr. Robin Moger) and In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat, not yet translated.

Read now: Raising a Glass With an Arab Nationalist,” tr. Robyn Creswell

The Idea of Houses,” tr. Creswell

The Window,” tr. Creswell

“They Tear Down My Family Home,” tr. Mattawa

More from the poet who is “one of Edmonton’s best-kept secrets.

10) Mona Kareem

US-based stateless poet Mona Kareem, who was born in Kuwait in 1987, is also a translator and scholar. As Nisrine Mbarki wrote in Poetry International, “Kareem creates captivating and visual miniatures of day-to-day situations. Her work is characterized by its simple language. Her short lines rise above place and language, as is evident in the poem ‘Dying like a Statue’: “You sit in a plane, surrounded by black soldiers / sleeping and dreaming of Iraqis they had to kill.’ And, later on in the poem: ‘You know: / that your heart beats alone, / […] / that no promises can be saved after crossing the ocean.'”

She has published several collections of Arabic poetry, as well as an English translation of Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within.

Read now: Eleven poems by Kareem, various translators