On Why Women’s Poetry in Arabic is Where It’s At

One of the greatest gaps in the translation of Arabic literature into English is the translation of poetry by women:

Most of the Arabic poetry that’s translated appears in small magazines or scattered on festival websites. The few collections that appear are mostly by men. Yet what’s striking is that this does not represent the energy in contemporary Arabic poetry.

Back in 2017, Egyptian poet and novelist Yasser Abdellatif said, “It seems to me there’s been a wonderful female invasion of poetic territory. Or, as my friend Alaa Khaled said, Poetry lately has recovered its female character. From Syria alone, recent years have brought forward dozens of distinguished poets, among them a large number of Kurdish women writing in Arabic, and sometimes Kurdish. In Egypt, too, there is a clear quantitative and qualitative superiority of women poets over men.”

Iman Mersal at the Zoom webinar “Female Voices in Arabic Literature”

At a recent webinar about women writing in Arabic, Iman Mersal said she’s had a long dialogue about this issue, with Abdellatif and others, and “we come up with different reasons, but really maybe it needs really to be studied. So far, Yasser might talk about masculinity and femininity. Old female poets in the ’40s and ’50s used to borrow the masculine voice. I think since the ’90s, female Arab poets don’t have to do this at all.”

Mersal, who had spoken earlier about prophecy having been an earlier mode of modern Arabic poetry, particularly written by men, said that now, “prophecy is defeated. The masculinity is defeated. But it doesn’t mean that this will make a woman a good poet, just because she is not a prophet or masculine. There are so many things that we need — I don’t even know what it is.

“For me, actually, I think we are impacted by male writers who are writing now, and they are writing about broken masculinity, which I don’t like either. So maybe women are free of this, relatively. Maybe they are marginalized, so they have more opportunity to think, to write.”

Iman Mersal added that in addition to twentieth-century Syrian poets Saniyah Saleh and Da’ad al-Haddad, when she thinks about canon, she thinks a lot about the work of contemporary Iraqi poet Siham Jabbar, who she called “one of the most remarkable voices in modern Arabic poetry. And she is not present at all. Why? I don’t know.”

In honor of Women in Translation Month, we end with a list of 13 more works by women poets writing in Arabic, which you should read in addition to Iman Mersal’s Until I Give Up the Idea of Houses.


Saniya Saleh, Complete Works. In translation, you can read “Cure Your Slavery with Patience,” tr. Marilyn Hacker, “The Condemned Lakes,” tr. Hacker, and “The Only Window, in Disrepair,” tr. Robin Moger, as well as Mersal’s essay about looking for Saleh.

Da’ad al-Haddad. About this poet, Golan Haji has said, “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. … Her “naïvety” is astounding sometimes, like raw brut art paintings.” In translation, you can read “Black is this night,” tr. Golan Haji

Siham Jabbar, As Old as Hypatia. About this collection, Mersal said, “I’d wish to see these poems read widely in the Arabic-[reading] world and translated into different languages.”

Soukina Habiballah, There’s No Need for You. Habiballah  introduces compelling and unexpected personifications into her narrative and filmic poems. You can read six poems in English, translated by Robin Moger.

Mouna Ouafik, Sharp Edge of Half of a Broken Plate. Ouafik is a Moroccan poet, short story writer, and photographer whose work was published in English translation for the first time in the anthology We Wrote in Symbols, as translated by Robin Moger; her writing on ordinary life and sexuality is simultaneously hot and banal. From “Orgasm”: “Quick as that, the tissues of my clitoris fill up with blood./ Each time I see white plastic gloves / I get turned on.”

Asmaa Yaseen, A Box of Colorful Stones. Yasser Abdellatif called this one of the notable collections he read in 2017.

Fatima Qandil, 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.” In translation, read “Keys,” tr. Josh Beirich.

Amal Nawwar, Intimate to Glass. Golan Haji has said, “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.” In English, you can read four poems, tr. Issa Boullata.

Rasha Omran, She Who Lived in the House Before Me. In translation, you can read three poems by Rasha Omran, translated by Phoebe Bay Carter and Defy the Silencea trilingual collection translated collaboratively by Abdelrehim Youssef, Kim Echlin, and Italian translator Monica Pareschi.

Rana al-Tonsi, The Book of Games. Al-Tonsi writes achingly and sparely on motherhood and love. In English, you can read poems from The Book of Games, tr. Robin Moger.

Asmaa Azaizeh, Don’t Believe Me If I Talk To You Of War. 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 six of her poems translated by Yasmine Seale.

Hoda Omran, Naive and Cinematic. Yasser Abdellatif called this one of the notable collections he read in 2017.

Mona Kareem, Femme Ghosts. You can read this trilingual publication, which includes Kareem’s poetry in Arabic, English and Dutch. It’s filled with straightforward women’s voices speaking from and to a place of deep emotional resonance. More here.


You can watch the whole Bookseller webinar on Female Voices in Arabic Literature: