Women Recommending Women: 12 Arab Authors Share Their Favorites

By Essayed Taha

To mark Women in Translation Month, we asked 12 Arab women authors to recommend readings by other Arab women that they have enjoyed and admired. The result is a diverse and exciting list that covers a range of genres, from poetry to novels, memoirs to essays, by women writing from the early twentieth century through those writing now..

Syrian poet Rasha Omran chose the late Syrian poet Saniya Saleh and the Lebanese novelist Huda Barakat. Omran wrote:

“[Saniya Saleh] wrote a unique prose poem that was free from the influence of her husband, Muhammad Al-Maghout, and free from the Adonisian modernist perspectives (Adonis being the husband of her sister, the critic Khalida Said). Her poetry reflected her own self, but it was also a reflection of the feminine self, full of pain and extended genius that reaches back to the beginning of time. It embodied the pain and genius of the womb as the creator of the universe, in addition to its deep and indirect impact on Syrian feminist poetry.

“On the other hand, the Lebanese novelist Huda Barakat writes novels that are light on the historical and political dimensions that have characterized Arab novels, without completely disregarding history and politics. She also abandons the local and the lengthy, in favor of a transcendent novel written in a smooth and easy language, yet profound and enjoyable.”

Lebanese writer Iman Humaydan recommended Day of the Sun (يوم الشمس) by Hala Kawtharani and The Peacock’s Eye (عين الطاووس) by Hanan Al-Sheikh. Humaydan wrote:

Day of the Sun by Hala Kawtharani, published by Hachette Antoine, is a novel worth reading. In this novel, the Arabic language, calligraphy, fonts, and drawing play essential roles alongside the female character in her journey to search for her mother and, therefore, her feminine identity. For the first time, this subject is presented in an Arabic novel. The language is delicate, and the style is elegant.

The Peacock’s Eye by Hanan Al-Sheikh is a new novel that seems like the pinnacle of a fictional architecture that the author started more than fifty years ago. In it, she presents realistic and symbolic female characters. The Peacock’s Eye tells stories of alienation, nostalgia, transformation, and loss. It confronts the expected reality with a distant story that is another shocking reality.”

Saudi writer Fatima Abdulhamid selected One-Size-Fits-All Blue Dress (ثوب أزرق بمقاس واحد) by Heva Nabi, in addition to Fatima Al-Nahid’s works. Abdulhamid wrote:

“In One-Size-Fits-All Blue Dress, I felt like I was standing over a marble grave, its cover removed, seeing bones seeping moisture inside a body that had just given life and had not kept anything for itself. Using beautiful language and a smooth narrative style, Heva Nabi writes about the heaviest thing a woman can go through: postpartum depression.

“I have read all of Fatima Al-Nahid’s novels, so I can say that she is the novelist who turns the coat inside out! What was normal and hidden is exposed in front of us with all its turmoil, and with no small amount of skill and amazement in her storytelling style.”

Lebanese writer Rula Jurdi chose The Journey: An Egyptian Woman Student’s American Memoirs (الرحلة: أيام طالبة مصرية في أمريكا) by Radwa Ashour, which has been translated by Michelle Hartman and published by Interlink, and The Blond Texts & The Age of Embers by Nadia Tuéni. Jurdi wrote:

“Radwa Ashour’s The Journey: An Egyptian Woman Student’s American Memoirs  is a memoir of her intellectual and political journey as a progressive novelist and critic, shedding light on the people she met in the United States and those who inspired her, especially Black Americans.

“Nadia Tuéni’s The Blond Texts & The Age of Embers, translated from the French by Amir Parsa, is a powerful interweaving of anguish at the loss of her daughter, with the mystery and bewilderment of the other world. Her voice, linguistic play, and particular use of mythology run against the prevalent modernist poetic trends of her time.” 

Iraqi author Inaam Kachachi recommended Maqam Al Kurd (مقام الكرد) by Maha Hassan, Not Mentioned in Metaphors (لا يذكرون في المجاز) by Huda Hamed, and South (جنوب) by Duna Ghali. Kachachi wrote:

Maqam Al Kurd is the latest novel by Syrian writer Maha Hassan. It beautifully portrays Kurdish identity through the lens of a young girl who discovers her identity through traditional folk music. This novel, like Maha Hassan’s previous works, deserves to be translated and to reach a wider audience of readers.

Not Mentioned in Metaphors, by Omani writer Huda Hamad, is written in a smooth language that captivates the reader with its unique subject matter and the fascination of exploring unfamiliar worlds. Who are those forgotten ones who have read books about magic, stars, and the secrets of the hidden eye?

“In South, by Iraqi writer Duna Ghali, the author starts from the country of immigration where the characters reside, then revisits the city of Basra in southern Iraq to which they belong. It is an intimate novel about friendship and an attempt to arrange past events, touching the lives of those who try to maintain their connection to their roots.”

Egyptian author Amina Zaydan said: 

“I am pleased to recommend two novels by two Arab women writers I am proud of. They are: The Story of Zahra (حكاية زهرة) by the Lebanese writer Hanan Al-Shaykh and The Women of Tantoura (الطنطورية) by the Egyptian writer Radwa Ashour.

“The reason for my recommendation of these two novels, despite their significant differences, is that I read The Story of Zahra at a young age and was shocked by Hanan Al-Shaykh’s extreme boldness in presenting Zahra, the girl whose life ended with a bullet in the back by the sniper who impregnated her. This experience refers to the civil war that Lebanon suffered from, and its effects which still hinder the growth of this beautiful country.

“As for The Women of Tantoura, I read it at an advanced stage. Its events take place in the village of Al-Tantoura, which witnessed one of the horrific massacres carried out by what is now called the Israeli occupation army, where a large number of its inhabitants were killed, and the rest were displaced. Their possessions were stolen and they were stripped of everything they had, in front of the whole world.

“So, I wish you an enjoyable reading of these two novels, which I believe are narrative testimonies of events that still affect our region.”

Libyan novelist Aisha Ibrahim said: 

“I recommend Egyptian writer Nora Nagy and Libyan writer Kawthar Al-Jahmi. Nora Nagy is a writer who writes in a smooth and deep style. She has the ability to delve into the depths of marginalized women of different generations, translating their feelings and observing cases of pain, joy, and the desire for life and love. In her writings, the image of a woman in her daily struggle with life is sometimes strong and sometimes fragile, but each of her stories is like a scream that pierces the reader’s consciousness and puts him in front of many questions about values, ethics, justice, and humanity. Among her most prominent works, in my opinion, is the novel Daughters of the Pasha (بنات الباشا) and her short story collection Like Silly Movies (مثل الأفلام الساذجة).

“Kawthar Al-Jahmi is a Libyan novelist whose narrative advantage lies in her ability to consciously immerse herself in the issues of Libyan society, its transformations, and its ideological struggles, both old and contemporary. She presents it in a neutral and creative language that is more like a challenge, because everything she presents is sailing through a thorny and highly complex landscape–but she arms herself with striking intelligence and a vast store of knowledge. Among her most important works, in my opinion, are the novels The Colonel (العقيد) and Returnees (عايدون).”

Yemeni writer Mariam Qahtani recommended Tangency (تماس) by Tunisian writer Aroussia Nalouti. She wrote:

 “Despite being one of the top 100 Arabic novels in the 20th century, Tangency remains one of the least recognized gems in Arabic literature. This literary masterpiece captures the subtle interplay of love and aggression, the constant struggle to endure wounding relationships and overcome oppressive systems. With impressive and poignant language, Aroussia Nalouti exquisitely crafts characters deserving of psychoanalytic exploration.”

Syrian writer Shahla Ujayli said:

“I am pleased to present three books by Arab women writers, each of which adds an intellectual and aesthetic dimension to Arab narrative. Fatima Al-Mernissi’s Shahrazad is not Moroccan (شهرزاد ليست مغربية) showcases her ability to extract heritage stories from their cultural context and place them in a post-modern context that arouses the curiosity of the reader. She possesses the skill of comparison and measurement, which allows her to reveal the aesthetic mask that hides the truth of women’s abilities, their complex relationships with themselves, and with political and cultural power. 

“Samihah Kharis’s Babnous (بابنوس) demonstrates her power of artistic narrative and courage in representing narrative cultures of marginalized ethnic groups in Sudan. Through her work, she showcases the sanctity of the maternal structure that forms the backbone of that group, with its values, customs, and prohibitions. She also shows how post-modern colonial powers target that maternal structure and undermine it to control its wealth and the bodies of its women. 

“Rabia Raihan’s Our Big House (بيتنا الكبير) is an adventure in which she writes a novelistic biography that presents the other side of history, written from the perspective of women. Our Big House is a novel that explores the transformations of politics, economics, and geography that shape the identity of society. She delves into the lives of men and women, highlighting their tragedies, joys, love stories, and successes. Through her narrative, Raihan emphasizes how these individual experiences contribute to the overall identity of society.”

Palestinian writer Ahlam Bsharat selected three books by two Palestinian activists. She wrote:

Dreams of Freedom (أحلام بالحرية) and Price for the Sun (ثمنًا للشمس) are two books written by the Palestinian activist Aisha Odeh. Aisha Odeh was born in 1944 in the village of Deir Jarir, Ramallah district. She spent ten years in Israeli occupation prisons from 1969 to 1979 and was able to convey her detention experience in a transparent language in her books. Her experience was stubborn, harsh, and instructive, conveyed in the language of a professional writer, close to her soul and the souls of Palestinian female prisoners in the early stages of the Palestinian struggle. These books are considered international books that approach everything written about experiences of rejection, challenge, and resilience. They are a testament to the victory of many Palestinian women inside four walls, the walls of prison, and the thicker walls of Israeli occupation of Palestine.

“Khaled in My Life (خالد في حياتي) by Rima Nazzal Katana. How can a woman walk this thread of tenderness and strength? Rima Nazzal did just that. Rima carries both her family name and the name of her husband, the fighter Khaled Nazzal, assassinated by the Israeli Mossad in Athens, Greece, on the ninth of June 1968, after ten years of marriage that bore two children: Dima and Ghayth. Her transparent biography holds sharp edges that wound anyone who treads upon it, bleeding with red blood and warm tears, the blood and tears of love and struggle.”

Egyptian novelist Areej Gamal picked short story writer Alifa Rifaat. She said:

“In my head, I carry around the names of many influential Arab female writers, as well as the titles of books they have published. However, I would like to use this space to mention a writer I love, Alifa Rifaat, and talk about two separate short stories by her. I first came across the story “Another Evening at the Club,” (أمسية أخرى في النادي) and the initial reading was terrifying and unsettling. She is a strong and talented writer, and her storytelling has a unique spiritual impact. I also studied the story with my professor, the writer Samia Ramadan, who is the author of the beautiful novel Daffodil Leaves (أوراق النرجس). Later on, I discovered another story by Alifa Rifaat called “My Unknown World” (عالمي المجهول) in an anthology of Arab female writers published by the [Egyptian] Supreme Council of Culture. The second story reinforced the impact of the first story and opened a gateway to a new world in my aesthetic, literary, and even physical consciousness. Today, I can say that Alifa Rifaat has left her mark on my novel Hi Maryam, It’s Arwa with her two amazing stories.”

Moroccan poet Mouna Ouafik recommended a novel, a short story collection and a poetry collection. She wrote:

“The novel Wounds of the Soul and Body (جراح الروح والجسد) and the short story collection Trente-Six (ترانت سيس) were written by the Moroccan novelist and short story writer Malika Moustadraf. I greatly admire Malika Moustadraf. My admiration for her stems from my admiration for the triumph of “writing” in her life and the perseverance it takes. Malika believed deeply that writing could bring about change. She was bold, sincere, free, and courageous in her storytelling. I often asked her if writing was worth all the effort and sacrifices she made, but her answer had already reached me. The late Moroccan writer Malika Moustadraf struggled to afford medication for anemia and calcium deficiency to pay off her debts to the printing press after publishing her novel Wounds of the Soul and Body, which later had an impact on her health. She feared exclusion, marginalization, and being trapped, considering it the true death. She sought death multiple times, just as it sought her, but life insisted on her existence. Today, some of Malika’s dreams in writing are coming true, even though she is absent from the recognition she had long awaited and deserved. She had grand aspirations in cinema, theater, and writing. If she had lived, she would have undoubtedly been one of the most important Arab novelists.

I, Who Cries From The Intensity of Poetry (أنا التي تبكي من شدة الشعر) is the complete work collection of the Syrian poet Daad Haddad. Daad Haddad was a unique and pure poet who cried from the intensity of her emotions and eventually passed away due to the same intensity. She held a bouquet of poems in her hands, which she planted on her grave before joining it. Daad’s poetry is a pure and immense flow of emotions. She is the most exceptional female poetic voice in Syria since the mid-nineties. Reading her work feels like exploring different artistic realms such as music, sculpture, and painting. Each realm offers colorful satin ribbons that envelop your wandering and lost soul. Her heartfelt texts break through barriers with the innocence of a bulldozer, allowing you to truly understand and appreciate the elegant and transparent sadness. Reading her work makes you realize that sadness only enhanced Daad and her poetry, adding to its beauty. You devour her words like fruit, savoring every bit, even the parts that may seem challenging. As you do so, you look at the world with a sense of superiority, wondering how it could have been so preoccupied before and after the departure of Daad Haddad, oblivious to the true talents. Her poetry embodies fierceness, femininity, and luxurious imagery, if only people truly understood.”

Essayed Taha is a member of the ArabLit editorial staff. He is a poet and translator from Alexandria, Egypt. His Arabic translations of The Time Machine, The Man Who Would Be King, and The Shadow Line were published by Dar Dawen, among other translations. He co-translated excerpts from al-Mawluda (Born) by Nadia Kamel for Words Without Borders and The Los Angeles Review. Taha writes poetry in Arabic; English translations of his poems have been published in Lock Raven Review.