9 Short Stories by Egyptian Women, in Translation

In 1993, University of Texas Press brought out a collection of short stories by Egyptian women, in translation, edited by Marilyn Booth, called My Grandmother’s Cactus:

In her introduction, Booth notes that Egyptian women writers have been contributing to the short-story genre since the 1890s; her collection presents work by eight writers whose work began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s: Salwa Bakr, Seham Bayomi, Mona Ragab, Etidal Osman, Ibtihal Salem, Neamat el-Biheiri, Radwa Ashour, and Sahar Tawfiq.

Although this list does include short stories by Radwa Ashour and Salwa Bakr — who also has a whole collection, The Wiles of Men, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies — it largely focuses on work by women writers who emerged in the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s.

Esraa Mokaidam’s Red, Shiny, and Pleasing to the Eyes,” translated by Basma Ghalayini

Painting by Reda Abdel Rahman

Egyptian storyteller and scriptwriter Esraa Mokaidam published her first poetry collection in colloquial Egyptian in 2014, won first place for the short story coffee library project contest in 2016, and second place for the Goethe Institute Cairo Short Stories competition in 2018. Her “Red, Shiny, and Pleasing to the Eyes” was translated by Ghalayini; it centers around a strange wooden mannequin who stands in, brilliantly, for a wife. It opens:

She stood naked in the window display; still, she seemed fully made up. This was not the first time he had seen her, with her red cascading hair setting her apart from the bald ones. However, the cause of the crowd this morning was her round breasts which she had exposed for the first time.

Amal Al Banna’s “The Drowned,” translated by Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi

This tale, which mixes elements of horror, folktales, and magical realism, opens on a moonless night.

It was a harsh cold night, and the moon was nowhere to be seen. It was at the end of its cycle, the high clouds covering its penumbra and concealing the light of the stars. The superstitious say the spirits live at night, and that they even take over the roads, especially during the long winter nights. Thunder, they say, is nothing but the sound of their fighting, and lightning the blood from their endless wars.

Farah Abey’s “Behind the Casuarina Trees,” translated by Katharine Halls

Egyptian author Farah Abey, born in 1998, writes short stories and reviews books and films. Her “Behind the Casuarina Trees,” translated by Halls, is a surreal, meta-folktale set around the village of Kafr al-Walga, in which: 

The deeds of our ancestresses were passed on. The craft of fashioning a story in this way was inherited by generation after generation. The killers were given distinctive details to ensure that the story born would be exciting, that trees and tongues would pass it on.

Hend Ja’far’s “Running in Circles,” translated by Basma Ghalayini

Hend Jaʿfar is a writer and academic from Ismailiyya who works in the manuscripts department at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Her story, “The Soul at Rest,” appeared in her first collection, which was published in 2015 and took a Sawiris Prize. A translation by Basma Ghalayini appeared in The Book of Cairo, ed. Raph Cormack, and she spoke about storycraft with ArabLit. “Running in Circles,” also translated by Ghalayini, begins with a dream that seeps into the protagonist’s waking life:

About a year ago, specifically on the night of 28 October, I dreamt that I was running scared in a circular forest filled with medium-height, triangular-shaped trees. The trees had been attentively pruned by some gardener whom I hadn’t met in my dream so far, but the exaggerated coordination of the forest made me imagine him to be a dexterous man with phenomenally skilled workmanship and a rigid mind, explaining why he had duplicated the forest trees from originals in public parks.  No one was chasing me, but the density of trees formed a maze that made running necessary.

Sherin Younis, “A Fish in Search of Its Limbs,” translated by Enas El-Torky

This surreal story about motherhood in search of a self opens:

Drowsily, I opened my eyes, only to be overwhelmed by a strong fishy smell that made me nauseous. I cursed the allergy that transformed my nose into a hotbed of intermingling scents, prone to sudden bouts of flu. It looked like a fake clown nose, while it was as effective as that of a bloodhound. The smell controlled me like a strong drug, compelling me to wake up, as if it were a higher power. Then it forced me to stagger until I sat on the toilet, then shoved me, unwilling, under the showerhead to take my morning wash, in hopes of getting rid of the scent. And still, my body remained as if hypnotized, the odor holding me in a stupor-like state. 

Camellia Hussein’s “Spiders,” translated by Basma Ghalayini

This terrifying short-short story was written as part of Short Stories Cairo, a collaboration between KfW Stiftung and the Goethe-Institut for the promotion of young literary talent. It opens: 

Every morning he shaves his beard so spider legs fall, fill the sink and block the plug hole. He emerges from the bathroom with a soft shiny face, and leaves the sink for me to clean after him.

Miral Al-Tahawy’s “The Guest,” translated by Samah Selim

This story, by the Mahfouz Medal-winning Al-Tahawy, focuses on the lives and bodies of women. It opens:

She has become more like her grandmother than her mother, Hend thinks to herself.

She remembered how she used to squirm in her grandmother’s lap, an angry child with a bare bottom. She was hard to keep up with as a child, light and thin, teething and crawling and speaking well before any of her brothers did. She proved that she was a creature capable of surviving and flourishing on the barest necessities of life. Her mother often left her to her own devices. She would crawl up the hill behind the western balcony right up to the solitary room roofed in wood and clay that looked, for all the world, like a heavenly dome. They called it “the high place.” A woman sat at its door, a woman that they did not call “Grandmother” but rather “the Guest,” though she never once stepped out of the confines of the family home. “The Guest is sleeping,” they would say, or “The Guest wants such and such” or “Go bring the buttermilk pan from the Guest’s room.”

Salwa Bakr’s “How The Peasant Woman Kneads Her Dough,” translated by Srpko Leštarić and Edward Alexander

Stories by Salwa Bakr blend satire, feminism, and folk stories, often setting characters against unachievable desires. This story opens:

The door opened suddenly and the sunlight soaked the dark mud hut which had no other openings. At this, all three monkeys began to shriek and jump up and down, in the hope that it could be the beginning of the end to the suffering which they had endured throughout the whole of the previous night.

The first monkey, who was named Zaqzuq by their keeper Sharshar, attempted to be courteous and, when Sharshar burst through the door, raised a hand as though to greet him. He didn’t respond to this in any way, maybe out of haughtiness (since he looked down on the monkeys), but maybe just because he had quickly turned to his wife who had entered after him, leading a goat. They had, namely, brought a goat, for whose presence at that moment the three monkeys could not see a single sane reason. In any case, when Zaqzuq saw that the man did not acknowledge him with any sort of polite gesture, he swallowed the insult and dropped his hand back down onto the floor, as though he were waiting for something.

Radwa Ashour’s “The Man Sitting in the Park is Waiting,” translated by Emily Drumsta

This short story, by the great Radwa Ashour, focuses on the interplay between a mother, a son, and a man sitting in the park. It 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. The little one was jumping and running, babbling and laughing endlessly, and like him I was running and laughing, though my movements were heavier, my cries fewer.