Rewriting National History from a Personal Perspective: Hiyem Cheurfa on Arab Women’s Life Writing

By Tugrul Mende

This March, Hiyem Cheurfa’s new book Contemporary Arab Women’s Life Writing and the Politics of Resistance appeared as part of Edinburgh Studies in Modern Arabic Literature series. In it, Cheurfa takes us on a journey through a number of women’s memoirs, written in the context of twenty-first century uprisings. In this conversation, the author talks about the challenges and the difficulties of writing this book and how the texts she studied changed her life. 

What led you to this topic? How did you settle on the idea of life writing, and during this period? 

Hiyem Cheurfa: I have always been interested in life stories, particularly women’s; an interest that has shaped my academic and research choices. During my Master’s degree, I became fascinated with the lives of migrant women authors, particularly the life and writings of New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield. I wrote my dissertation on her quest for wholeness as a woman and a female artist, and how this quest is manifested in the formal and representational strategies of her life narratives, mainly her diaries and letters. 

During this period, I started to think about the life narratives of women from my own region, and the issues their writings engage and evoke. I grew up reading Fadwa Tuqan, Nawal al-Saadawi, and Huda al-Shaarawi but I had not considered their life stories from the perspective of literary criticism. After doing some research, I was surprised by the paucity of critical studies on Arab women’s autobiographical works, particularly in English—which, of course, has developed in the past few years. I started to ask questions about Arab(ic) conventions of the genre from a gendered perspective, in different languages, and the preoccupations of more recent life narratives from the Arab region, which is already fraught with national conflicts and revolutionary drives. That’s what motivated me to examine the relationship between revolutionary movements and life writing forms by contemporary Arab women; a PhD project which I turned later into this book. 

Are there particular characteristics of women’s life writing in Arabic, vs Arab women’s life writing in French, English, and other languages? 

HC: I think that each life narrative is distinctive, regardless of the language in which it is written. Autobiographical texts reflect personal experiences that are presented from a subjective lens. What I find interesting in Arab women’s life writing, in general, is their consciousness of the importance of the genre as a cultural medium of resisting systematic silencing and their deliberate use of life narrative to enact their own involvement in national struggles and revolutionary moments, and also to re-write mainstream national history from a more personal perspective.

Can you talk a bit more about life writing and resistance? What is at the core of the relationship between writing, describing, or revising one’s life and resisting structures of power? 

HC: For me, life writing as a form of resistance can be defined as literary autobiographical discourses that emerge from and/or speak to national struggles as sites of resistance, through which the authors intentionally interrogate existing structures of power that demarcate the agency, autonomy, freedom, dignity, and basic rights of the people writ large, and of women specifically. This contested structure of power, as I conceive it, is intersectional. It is represented by state oppression, colonial and neocolonial domination, social and gender-based oppression, and cultural (mis)representational dynamics. These form concentric spaces where the very act of producing culture of self-representation becomes an act of resistance that denotes independent action.

In my book, I argued that some Arab women write autobiographically in order to chronicle the resistance happening on the street in and to attempt to challenge official records that tend to marginalize the role of women in national resistance. So, life narratives in times of conflict act as chronicles of resistance and sites for asserting historical and public engagement. The Arab women I selected for my study also use the genre as a space of agency to “speak truth to the power(s)” against which their narratives emerge. Their stories are first-hand personal testaments that also constitute political statements. They speak against tyrannical regimes, exploitative and oppressive constructions of gender in the region, and prevalent—often monolithic—discourses of cultural representation that tend to demarcate Arab women’s life and participation in the public arena of political struggle.

Why did you choose the authors you did? What were your criteria? 

HC: The texts that I examine in my monograph are all by contemporary, politically engaged Arab women, some of whom are also established writers. These texts engage overtly with revolutionary/ resistance movements taking place in their national and/or regional landscapes. This selection enabled me to look carefully at the relationship between writing and “fighting” and between autobiographical discourse and socio-political activism, as well as the tension in the literary expression and how the authors conceived the woman/author/revolutionary identity, which all of my selected writers claim. 

What were some of the most remarkable works, stylistically or otherwise? 

HC: One of the major aspects that I wanted to investigate in this book was the idea of how women write autobiographically in times of socio-political unrest, not only what they write about. Each work has its own style and approach to autobiographical writing. I have discovered that many contemporary Arab women tend to move away from the conventional ways of writing autobiographically as established by Western critics like Philip Lejeune and Georges Gusdorf, because they are not adequate to reflect experiences of women in turbulent and violent times. Late Egyptian author Radwa Ashour had a very interesting approach to the autobiographical text. Her narrative, Ayāf (1999), (Specters, 2011, tr. Barbara Romaine) is remarkable for its blending of fiction with non-fiction and generic in-betweenness, which is reminiscent of Assia Djebar‘s L’Amour, la fantasia (1985), (Fantasia, An Algerian Cavalcade, 1993, tr. Dorothy S. Blair)_in its fragmentation and generic liminality. Such new literary spaces for self-representation, and, to some extent, fictionalization, enable the author to search for a form that can speak to, and also speak for, revolutionary women in the Arab region, when both fiction and non-fiction fail to do so separately and adequately.

What difficulties did you come across while researching this work? 

HC: I faced two main challenges when conducting this research. First, choice of texts. It was really hard for me to decide which texts to include and which to exclude, especially considering the growing field of Arab life writing. The second challenge was much more theoretical; each chapter is about a specific autobiographical mode (such as the diary, testimony, and digital life writing) which necessitates specific scopes of research across different areas, such asautobiographical studies, media/social media studies, humor theory, and so on. 

Were there any in particular books you would like to see translated? 

HC: Again, Radwa Ashour is a personal favorite. Her illness autobiography, which is also a narrative of the Egyptian revolution, entitled Athqal min Radwā: Maqātiʿ min Sīrah Dhātiyyah (2013) (Heavier than Radwa: Fragments of an Autobiography), deserves to be translated into English and other languages. Her autobiography’s sequel Al-arkhah: Maqātiʿ min Sīrah Dhātiyyah (2015) (The Scream: Fragments of an Autobiography), published posthumously in its unfinished and fragmented form, is an important part of her autobiographical project that deserves wider readership. 

How much did social media change the writings of the authors you looked at? 

HC: Social media is one of the contemporary forms of life writing that does not necessarily replace more traditional (published) forms. It rather, in the context of my study, enables the mediation between the virtual/personal spaces of autobiographical expression the physical/public spheres of participation and activism. It has its advantages and also its limitations. I explore this point in detail in the last chapter of my book “Arab Women’s Digital Life-Writing: Resistance 2.0.” 

Why did you choose this particular art for the cover? 

HC: The image of Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old Sudanese student chanting during the anti-government protests of 2019, went viral and captured the hearts of many Arab women, including mine. The picture, redesigned by Hassân Al Mohtasib as cover art, captures the essence of my book: the participation of women in Arab revolutions, the notions of voice and self-narrative, traditions and cultural values (symbolized by her thoub), resistance to preconceived images of what an Arab women is and can do, the impact of social media and its role in the uprisings, and finally, the diversity of cultural identities in the region.

How much has this genre changed in recent years, both in its form and its effects? 

HC: Autobiographical narratives are an ever-evolving form of writing in the region which, despite the impacts of different media of self-representation, retains the personal aspect and remains a distinctive and intimate voice of the experiences of its writer. The rapidly changing political landscape in the region confirms the importance of examining life writing as an important form of resistance which penetrates and give alternatives to the essentialist national narratives that tend to dominate. 


Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.