By Hend Saeed and M Lynx Qualey
Inspired by our Algeria & Morocco Editor Nadia Ghanem, who pioneered the “30 Reads” series with a list of recommended books by Algerian women writers, we have put together a look at 30 literary works by 30 different Iraqi women writers, in Arabic and Kurdish. Where possible, we have noted the English translation.
Although there are many surviving classical works by women who lived in Iraq, including in collections such as Classical Poems by Arab Women (ed. Abdullah al-Udhari) and We Wrote in Symbols (ed. Selma Dabbagh), this list focuses on twentieth and twenty-first-century women writers.
And while there are many brilliant Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish women writers working in English — Ruqayya Izzidien, Choman Hardi — the focus here is on work written originally in Arabic or Kurdish.
Also, although this list focuses on single-author works, James Downs notes on Twitter that there was a Women’s Voices from Kurdistan poetry anthology published in 2020 that includes the writings of Jîla Huseynî, Hemin Mukriyanî, Abdulla Goran, Trîfa Doskî, Tîroj, and others.
We encourage others to add their own recommendations in the comments.
|Hayat Sharara (1935-1997)||1||–When Darkness Falls (Arabic)|
The novel When Darkness Falls (إذا الأيام أغسقت) was published in 1999, two years after Hayat and her daughter Maha committed suicide. Hayat’s sister, Balkis Sharara, wrote the novel’s moving sixteen-page introduction, translated to English by Hend Saeed. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of the sufferings of a university professor as the cultural sphere is under siege from all sides. As her sister, Balkis, writes in the introduction to her novel: “Hayat and her daughters spent time reading, walking, and watching the sunset as she wrote her novel (When Darkness Falls). But the continuous frustrations in her life made her feel she was facing a closed road—with no travel and no publishing—and she felt unable to face this ordeal, so she started to feel despair instead of facing and challenging the situation as she had before. She lost hope and reached the line between death and life and found refuge in ending her life’s journey.” Read the introduction to the novel, tr. Hend Saeed.
|Lamia Abbas (1929-2021)||2||–Had the Fortune Teller Told Me (Arabic)|
The poetry collection Had the Fortune Teller Told Me (لو أنبأني العّراف) was published in 1980. The collection is made up of 35 poems, most of them about love and the lover, others focusing on Paris, Baghdad, and Erbil. The titular poem “Had the Fortune Teller Told Me” became the beloved poet’s most famous work. In the poem, the woman tells her lover that, if only a fortuneteller had warned her that he would be her lover, she would have changed everything about her life. Read the titular poem in Hend Saeed’s translation.
|Nazik al-Mala’ika (1923-2007)||3||–Revolt Against the Sun, tr. Emily Drumsta|
Nazik al-Mala’ika was a poet and critic of great (and sometimes terrifying) influence and renown through the 1940s, 50s and 60s. She was both a poetic pioneer and a champion of old forms, whose work focused on re-invented the heritage of feminine, emotional, elegiac poetry-making. This bilingual edition was translated by Emily Drumsta. You can hear Drumsta speak about the collection, and her translation, in an episode of the BULAQ podcast.
|Inaam Kachachi||4||–The Outcast (Arabic)|
The historical novel The Outcast (النبيذة), which was shortlisted for the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is based on a true story that spans not just Iraq, but also Pakistan, Paris, Palestine, and Venezuela. As Mahmoud Hosny writes in a review on ArabLit, the novel begins in a military hospital in Paris, where Taj al-Muluk Abd-Elhamid is staying while ill. There, she discovers that Ahmed Bin Bella, the former Algerian president, is in a room near hers. In the novel, Hosny writes, “The past comes as an urgent visitor, with all of its power, to the journalist Taj, who is of Iranian descent and established the first magazine in Baghdad with help from the Iraqi Royal Palace in the 1940s.” Read an excerpt of The Outcast, translated by Sawad Hussain.
|Yasmeen Hanoosh||5||–Children of the Stricken Paradise (Arabic)|
This compelling collection of 21 short stories, Children of the Stricken Paradise (أطفال الجنّة المنكوبة), was published in 2021, and it threads together the magical, the allegorical, and the real in illuminating life in Iraq, as in Hanoosh’s compelling “The Cloven Ball,” in which a football falls from the sky into the possession of a child. Although at first seems like a dream come true, but later the boy finds himself more and more entwined with the lives of the tiny people who live on the ball. Read this story in the FOOTBALL issue of ArabLit Quarterly, in Leonie Rau’s translation.
|Maysloon Hadi||6||-The Brotherhood of Muhammad (Arabic)|
This novel, The Brotherhood of Muhammad (اخوة محمد), was longlisted for the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. In it, a woman novelist moves into a new neighborhood where all the men (save one) are called Muhammad. In a talk with Hend Saeed, Hadi said that, “The novel is based in an alley in Baghdad, where all the men have the name of Mohammed, except for Maria’s husband Abdulmalak. I used Muhammad not because it’s related to Islam, but because it’s the most common name in the world.” An excerpt of the novel, tr. Hend Saeed, opens, “My head was reflected in the rear-view mirror. This reflection showed my messy hair, while giving no indication of whether the head held any knowledge.” Read the excerpt in Hend Saeed’s translation.
|Dunya Mikhail||7||–The Beekeeper of Sinjar, tr. the author with Max Weiss|
This work of poetic and searing nonfiction, translated to English as The Beekeeper (US) and The Beekeeper of Sinjar (UK), was a finalist for the National Book Award in the translation category. The book — part biography, part poetry, part memoir — is dedicated to Abdullah Shrem, who worked, between 2014 and 2016, with smugglers to rescue dozens of fellow Yazidis from ISIS captivity in Syria and Iraq. The moving stories of these women, Mikhail said in an earlier interview, “occupied my mind even during sleep. In one of my dreams, I was kidnapped by creatures who came from another planet.” Read an excerpt in translation on Mikhail’s website.
|Duna Ghali||8||–Orbits of Loneliness (Arabic)|
When we asked Egyptian novelist Miral al-Tahawy for a favorite book in Arabic by a woman writer, she said, “Truth is, there is a long list of Arab women’s work that I’m sure was important in the history of my reading, but what I remember is the last text I read that had a profound impact on me, and that’s Duna Ghali’s Orbits of Loneliness (منازل الوحشة), a novel that tells about the narrator’s relationship to her young child during a time of war and siege in Iraq, both before and after the US military invasion. The novel describes the complex relationship between a mother and her son, the loneliness and togetherness, the fears and harsh life under siege. It is a feminist novel that in incisive and bold in its psychologyical complexity, unprecedented exploration in modern Arabic literature.” You can read an excerpt in maia tabet’s translation on Banipal.
|Siham Jabbar||9||–As Old As Hypatia (Arabic)|
Dunya Mikhail included work from this collection, As Old As Hypatia (قديماً مثل هيباشيا), in her anthology “15 Iraqi Poets,” and Egyptian poet Iman Mersal said of this collection, “I’d wish to see these poems read widely in the Arabic-[reading] world and translated into different languages.” Ferial Ghazoul writes in Arab Women Writers that Jabbar “uses the forces of compassion and motherhood, linked specifically with women, in the general context of national hardship, as the tremors that accompany the explosion are absorbed by Mother Earth: ‘Interpose blue tenderness and the motherhood of the wave to change the scene and smash the loneliness.’” Read “Like Hypatia in Ancient Times” tr. Soheil Najm.
|Haifa Zangana||10||–Packaged Lives: Ten Stories and a Novella, tr. Wen-chin Ouyang.|
Throughout this collection, translated as an act of friendship by scholar Wen-chin Ouyang, protagonists who are stuck in ready-made, “packaged lives” struggle to set themselves free from a web of relationships to find a life that might better suit them. As Zangana says, “At the time of writing the novella, I was preoccupied with a question: Is there free will? Naturally, this question led to others: And how does it fit in a socially controlled life? How can individuals who arrived in London, not by choice, escape the new constraints?” Read a talk with Wen-chin Ouyang about the collection.
|Kajal Ahmed||11||–Handful of Salt, tr. Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Mewan Nahro Said Sofi, Darya Abdul-Karim Ali Najm, & Barbara Goldberg|
The acclaimed Kurdish poet Kajal Ahmed writes work both deeply embedded in Kurdish literary tradition and also fierce, feminist, and sensual. From the poem “Godless Snow”: How addicted I am to freedom: / I create life from death, /lanterns from my scars..” You can find individual poems by Kajal Ahmad online through Poetry Translation Center, Words Without Borders, and Poetry Society of America.
|Buthaina al-Nasiri||12||–Final Night, tr. Denys Johnson-Davies|
In this tender collection, al-Nasiri brings together ragtag humans and animals and portrays their struggle for survival, as in “Circus Dog,” which follows a beggar, his ill-trained dog, and their desire to find work, and the story “Omar’s Hen,” about the relationship between Omar and his chicken. It is particularly the animals — and their relationships with people — that brings the collection alive. You can read al-Nasiri’s “The Death of a Dog,” from her collection Death of God and of the Sea, tr. Gretchen McCullough, with Mohamed Metwalli, online.
|Lutfiya al-Dulaimi||13||-Mistresses of Saturn (Arabic)|
Lutfiya al-Dulaimi is one of Iraq’s most popular and iconic feminist authors, and Mistresses of Saturn (سيدات زحل) is one of her best-loved works. As Salma Khadra Jayyusi writes in Modern Arabic Fiction: “Her work is original and precise and reflects a preoccupation with the inner life of women and their tribulations, while at the same time preserving the element of pleasure for the reader.” Mistresses of Saturn, published in 2010, is about the journey of a group of Iraqi women during their escape from Baghdad to Jordan fleeing horror and violence. You can read her “What the Storytellers Did Not Tell,” translated by Shakir Mustafa, as well as an excerpt from Chapter 8 of Mistresses of Saturn, translated by John Peate.
|Alia Mamdouh||14||–The Loved Ones, tr. Marilyn Booth|
Published in 2003 and winner of the 2004 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, granted by the AUC Press, this novel follows the estranged son of an Iraqi exile who travels from his home in Toronto to visit his mother in Paris. As Suhaila lies in a hospital bed, he gets to know her friends and becomes entangled in the relationships he’d tried to avoid.
|Hadiya Hussain||15||–What Will Come (Arabic)|
Hadiya Hussein’s 2017 novel What Will Come (ما سيأتي) plunges its characters into desire and darkness. Translator Barbara Romaine writes that, “Narjis, the novel’s protagonist, under surveillance by the authorities, has sneaked out of Baghdad against orders. She is on a mission to find the man she loves, who disappeared many months ago, but who she believes is still alive. On a tip, she has been taken to a Kurdish district in the north of Iraq, and is being sheltered by a Kurdish family, resisters who make a practice of helping people who seek their vanished loved ones.” Hussein, whose short story “Tunnels” (in Shakir Mustafa’s translation) won the 2020 ArabLit Story Prize, and her sixth novel, Beyond Love, was translated to English by Ikram Masmoudi. You can read an excerpt of Hadiya Hussein’s What Will Come in Barbara Romaine’s translation.
|Amal al-Jabouri||16||-Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation, tr. Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi|
As Jeremy Paden writes in his Asymptote review, “this collection of poems is about exile, wandering, and foreignness. But it is also about using language to mark out a place to be, about finding a way to speak and name the atrocities of both Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the American occupation.” It is a twinned collection — Arabic and English, poems before the occupation, after the occupation. Originally published in Arabic in 2008, it was al-Jabouri’s fifth collection. Read six poems from the collection at Connotation Press.
|Nermeen al-Mufti||17|| –Wounds in the Palm Tree: Stories of the Eyewitness in Iraq (co-edited by the author, Arabic)|
Nermeen Al Mufti was born in Kirkuk in 1959 and studied journalism and political science. She is a human rights activist, journalist, poet, and short story writer. Her “Pain Has a Color, Taste, and Smell” was included in the collection Wounds in the Palm Tree: Stories of the Eyewitness in Iraq (جروح في شجر النخيل), and she was also co-editor of the book, with Amin Maalouf. It brought together essays and testimonials by Lutfiya al-Dulaimi, Ahmed Saadawi, and other artists and writers. Her poem “ A Shadow “ was co-translated by Amir al-Azraki and Jennifer Jean. It opens: “To run is to hide / behind my shadow.” You can read “A Shadow” on The Common.
|Shahad al-Rawi||18||–The Baghdad Clock, tr. Luke Leafgren |
This novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018. Set in Baghdad between the 1991 Gulf war and the fall of Saddam, it follows the story of two young girls who became close friends when they spent days together in a shelter during 1991 Gulf war in Baghdad. This magical-realist tale takes us into the lives of the two girls and those around them in Baghdad as they experience the effect of economic sanction on Iraq and the fall of Saddam. A novel about memory and fortunes. Watch a book talk about The Baghdad Clock with Shahad Al Rawi and translator Luke Leafgren at Georgetown University.
|May Muzafer||19||–And None of Them Are Left (Arabic)|
This collection, And None of Them Are Left (ألم يبق منهم احد), brings together neglected Baghdadi tales; stories of people who did not make history, but lived and fled or died alongside massive events. Haifa Zangana, who recommends this book, writes, “May is a poet, short-story writer, critic, editor, and translator. Her book portrays, in a poetic style, that which defies categorization, the lives of ordinary Baghdadis who are no more, either because they were forced to leave the country or they died.”
–How the Days Went By (Arabic)
In the memoir How the Days Went By (هكذا مرت الأيام ), Balquis Sharara talks about her life from when she was born in 1933, the same year King Faisal I died, through her childhood, and her shuttered dreams of studying abroad. In 1952, she met Rifat Chadirji, an architect who had finished his studies abroad and returned to Iraq, who became her husband. From then her life with Rifat was rocked by politics. There was an attempt to arrest him in 1952, by the resistance party, and he was imprisoned in the 1970s, but released at the beginning of 1980, just before the Iraq- Iran war. At that point, the couple left Iraq and moved to Europe, later settling in the United Kingdom. Sharara talks about losing loved ones: her sister and her daughter and other friends. Balquis also wrote the introduction to Hayat Sharara’s novel, When Darkness Falls. Read the introduction to the novel, tr. Hend Saeed.
|Layla Qasrani||21||–The Blind Birds (Arabic)|
The Blind Birds (الطيور العمياء) is a historical novel set around the Armenian genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, in 1915. Kohar, a young Armenian girl who was forced by Ottoman soldiers to leave her village of Tobaraz along with her family, witnessed her father’s murder, her friend’s rape, her childhood love’s disappearance, and was separated from her mother and two brothers. After this, she was “gifted” to a Kurdish solider as a wife and slave and gave birth to a daughter. She later meets an Armenian man who promises to take her to Mosul to find her family, but he refuses to take her child. Kohar now faces a difficult decision: Will she leave her daughter to be raised by her father’s family in order to gain her freedom and reunite with her family? A dramatic
|Nasera al-Sadoon||22||–The Spiral of Departure (Arabic)|
This novel won the Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel in 2015. Nesera al-Sadoon’s novels often return to the themes of displacement and exile. The Spiral of Departure (دوامة الرحيل ) is a love story set in Iraq in 1991, after the invasion, when people were forced to leave their lands, homes, and families and resettle elsewhere. The novel talks about the continues uprooting of people and the consequences of that in the realm of love. According to the author: “It is a love story that may seem almost realistic, as it’s what might happen to many young people who were uprooted from their land and replanted in new lands that are hostile to their existence, and contrary to their values.”
|Daisy al-Amir||23||–The Waiting List An Iraqi Woman’s Tales of Alienation, tr. Barbara M. Parmenter.|
Al-Amir, born in 1935, was a leading force in the shaping of the twentieth-century Iraqi short story. This collection, originally published as على لائحة الانتظار, reflects women’s experiences in the Lebanese civil war and in Iraq during the rise of Saddam Hussain; the stories are set between Iraq, Cyprus, and Lebanon. As the book’s publisher, University of Texas Press, writes, “She deals with time and space in a minimalist, surreal style, while studying the disappointments of life through the subjective lens of memory. Honestly facing the absence of family and the instability of place, Al-Amir gives lifelike qualities to the inanimate objects of her rapidly changing world.” You can read al-Amir’s “The Next Step” online, in translation by Sharif Elmusa and Thomas Ezzy.
|Betool al-Khudairi||24||–Absent, tr. Muhayman Jamil|
This beautiful mosaic-like novel centers on Dalal, a young Iraqi woman who lives with her child-free aunt and uncle, and is set during the grinding US sanctions years. Comic and touching, it tells the interlocked stories of the people in Dalal’s building as Dalal falls in love. There is an excerpt on the Random House website. Her first novel, A Sky So Close, was also translated by Jamil.
–The Umbilical Cord, tr. by the author with Charles M Lewis
The Umbilical Cord is a collection of 14 interconnected stories that are told from the alternating perspectives of two middle-aged Iraqi women. Afaf and Madeha, who are living among other Iraqi expats in London. She does this, Susannah Tarbush writes, with “skill and humor.” Ruth Abou Rached writes, of the novel, that it is a “mosaic of stories of Iraqis telling stories, this novel conversely counter-acts this warning by imbibing the act of story-telling with a politics of hope: that by talking through fear by story-telling, the all-encompassing frames of fear can be fissured, or even broken.”
|Ibtisam Abdullah||26||–Baghdad, The Night and the Hedgerow: Short Stories (Arabic)|
Although a number of Ibtisam Abdullah’s individual short stories have been translated to English, by Shakir Mustafa and Denys Johnson-Davies, there is no collection of her work. This collection, evocative of an impossible dreamlike desire, is made up of eleven stories, including “Coma” and “Dust of the Days” and “In the Orchard.”)
|Raghad Qasim||27||–Details of the Black Square (Arabic)|
Raghad Qasim is an Iraqi medical technician, writer, and translator. Her first collection of short stories, Details of the Black Square (تفاصيل المربع الأسود) won a 2018 prize from the Iraqi Writers Union. You can read one of her short stories, “Hair or No Hair,” in Zeena Faulk’s translation.
|Iqbal Al-Qazwini||28||–Zubaida’s Window, translated by Azza El Kholy and Amira Nowaira.|
Al-Qazwini’s semi-autobiographical novel follows a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently living in Berlin. It is from there that she watches the 2003 invasion on her TV.
|Hawraa Al Nadawi||29||–Qismat (Arabic) |
In Qismat, the family at the heart of the novel originates in the province of Lorestan, located on the border between Iraq and Iran. When the modern borders were created, the area was divided in two: one side became part of Iraq, while the other became part of Iran. The central character Mulla Ghoulam’s grandfather was from Bisht Kowa in Lorestan, while Majid Ali’s father was also from Bisht Kowa—but Majeed Hussein was born in Mahran, which became part of Iran. Read more about the book in “Born on the Wrong Side of the Border.”
|Salima Saleh||30||-The Flower of the Prophets (Arabic)|
The Flower of the Prophets is a short-story collection in which the author walked back through her memories of her city, Mosul. She takes the reader back to her city and childhood and describes it through the eyes of a young girl. She describes in detail the lives of the people and their traditions. Each of the thirty-three stories tells us about one aspect of life from the monastery, to the mountain, to the house, to the vegetable sellers and others. All capture beautiful descriptions and details about the life that no one would know unless they had lived there. The collection is not only a series of beautiful short stories, but can also be considered a reference for the life and traditions of Mosul. You can read her “The Mulberry Tree,” translated by William Hutchins, on Words Without Borders.
More at arablit.org/iraq