9 Short Works by Saudi Women, in Translation

This year, we continue our Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth) Wednesday series of “9 Stories” lists.

In 2021, we featured short fiction by Sudanese and South Sudanese women, by Algerian women, by Egyptian women, and by Syrian women, all in translation. In 2022, we added collections of short-form work by Palestinian women writers, by Lebanese women writers, by Moroccan women writers, and by Iraqi women writers, also in translation.

This year’s first collection was of short stories by Kuwaiti women writers, followed by short stories by Jordanian women writers.

However, this week’s list — of short works by Saudi women writers — couldn’t focus solely on short stories in translation. When it comes to prose works by Saudi women in translation, most of the works available online are excerpts from novels.

There are a number of Saudi women writers whose works are available in translation: Raja Alem, author of the award-winning novel The Dove’s Necklace; Omaima al-Khamis, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for her novel The Book Smuggler; the bold Saudi novelist and commentator Badriah Albeshr; acclaimed novelist Laila Aljohani; and the pop sensation Rajaa Alsanea, to name a few. However, the number of short stories available online are vanishingly few.

This doesn’t mean they don’t exist; there are many in print: There is the 1997 anthology Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers, edited by Abubakr Bagader, Ava Heinrichsdorff and Deborah Akers; the 2002 anthology Whispers from the Heart. Tales from Saudi Arabia, ed. Bagader and Akers; the 2006 anthology Beyond The Dunes: An Anthology of Modern Saudi Literature, ed Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Mansour al-Hazimi and Izzat Khattab; as well as New Voices of Arabia. The Short Stories. An Anthology from Saudi Arabia, ed. Abdulaziz al-Sebail and Anthony Calderbank, published by I.B. Tauris in 2012. The introduction to this most recent collection is available online.

In it, they write: “In the 1980s, short-story writers, male and female, numbered only a few dozen, but by the beginning of the twenty-first century they were in their hundreds. Some of those writers have only a single collection to their name, while others have produced dozens. The subject matter they dealt with was unlimited and the artistic ambition of their stories also varied greatly. While some writers tended towards a straightforward narrative, seeking to give their stories a plot with a purpose or moral, others approached the story as a linguistic expression based on self-revelation and self-expression.”

New Voices of Arabia has a number of short works by Saudi women writers, including Amal Al-Faran, Badriah Albeshr, Khairia Al-Saqaf, Heyam Al-Mufleh, Laila Al-Ahaideb, Raja Alem, Sharifah Al-Shamlan, Wafa Al-Omair, and Zainab Hifni. Other trailblazing short-story writers, according to scholar Abdulrahman Hezam, include Fawziyya Al-Bakr, Maryam al-Ghamidi, Omaima al-Khamees, and Noura al-Ghamdidim.

There is no absence of writing by Saudi women, and Saudi women have been recognized by regional and international awards. Nonetheless, few short stories by Saudi women writers seem to be available online. Indeed, the only ones we could find were here on ArabLit. Thus, to give a sense of some contemporary Saudi women’s writing, we have expanded this list to include excerpts from novels as well.

(1) Four flash fictions, by Wafa Al-Harbi, tr. Sarah Aldawood. The first is titled “Henna”:

“Before I went to bed that night, my grandmother’s braid had been white. When I woke up in the morning, it had turned red! I couldn’t think of a rational cause, so I went through my grandfather’s papers, hoping to find a love poem he had written for her that had even made her hair blush.”

(2) The Boa,” by Raja Alem. tr. Rana Ghuloom. It opens:

“He squirmed a bit, feeling heavy all over, and opened his eyes. They were full of wrath, and it was with great difficulty that he raised his palm and brushed off the layers of dust that had gathered on his eyelids, struggling to move his stiff body. It wasn’t easy. When he stretched out an arm in search of his pack of cigarettes, he glimpsed his naked body,  just the remnants of a thick white cloth that had been wrapped around him. He looked around with contempt.””Everyone knows me as Fatima the Meccan. But the truth—which I have hidden so well throughout my eleven years of existence—is that I wasn’t born in Mecca, but rather in the year 500 Hijra, or 1106 in the Christian calendar, in Wadi Acci near Granada. Anyone who has delved into history and dates would recognize that this matches the birth date of Abu Bakr Mohamad ibn Abdul Malek ibn Mohamad ibn Mohamad ibn Tufayl al-Qaisi, known for short as Ibn Tufayl.”

(3) An excerpt from Sarab, by Raja Alem, tr. Leri Price. It opens:

“The gas bombs forced the revolutionaries to abandon their positions guarding the huge gates and retreat to the cellars of the Grand Mosque. There, they hunkered down and prepared for the fight to the death.

“Squadrons of paratroopers poured in torrents from the helicopters until they covered the courtyard of the Grand Mosque. They reminded the city of the flock of birds described in the Quran which cast handfuls of death on Abraha’s army as it marched with an elephant at its head to destroy Mecca, but this modern flock proclaimed an unparalleled, modern horror. Soldiers in gas masks fanned out instantly to comb the halls and corridors of the mosque for pockets of resistance, and they opened the gates to the troops of the National Guard who were waiting outside.

“That was on November 29, 1979.”

(4) An excerpt from The Dove’s Necklace, by Raja Alem, tr. Katharine Halls and Adam Talib. It opens:

“The only thing you can know for certain in this entire book is where the body was found: the Lane of Many Heads, a narrow alley with many heads.

“The first thing you should know, though, is that it’s not me who’s foolish enough to try to write about a place like the Lane of Many Heads; this is the Lane itself speaking, me and my many heads. I am that narrow alley in Mecca, off the highway where pilgrims make their ablutions and don their white robes to begin the Umrah rituals: the cleansing of the soul, washing away the past year’s sins in preparation for another year of debauchery.”

(5) An excerpt from the essay “My Literary Influences,” by Raja Alem, translated by Ghenwa Hayek. It opens:

“My father was a mitwaf, a spiritual guide for the pilgrims, and recently, my siblings and I inherited this appointment. He would host pilgrims in our home, and put up tents for them on Arafat and Mina, and lead them in the holy rites. The day at Arafat is the most dramatic. From noon, pilgrims of every guise gather in the barren desert, remaining until the afternoon turns to evening. One man’s ancient stand has forever coloured that day, which has now been named the waqfa – the stand. During it, thousands of bare heads are raised before a sky shimmering with chants that are more like anthems until God emerges, hidden by clouds, and with the sun kneeling as it sets, the white-clothed pilgrims set off towards the horizon, a crowd of thousands moving to gather stones to chase away the devil, whom we believe is standing between us and God. If you stone the devil, you unburden yourself of your sins. Pilgrims also perform sacrifices, cleansing themselves with blood in order to lighten their load.”

(6) An excerpt from The Book Smuggler, by Omaima Al-Khamis, tr. Sara Enany. It opens:

“I turn my face to the city of Jerusalem, and I am neither prophet nor saint nor missionary.

“I am no disciple in the first stages of reaching up to attain knowledge, excavating for answers in the discussion circles of mosques and the loneliness of monks’ cells; I am but a bookseller in the era of sedition, or, as it is known, fitna: conflict and quarrel, the lust for burning records and manuscripts, and purging sins with blazing coals.”

(7) An excerpt from Days of Ignorance, by Laila Aljohani, tr. Nancy Roberts. It opens:

“According to senior officials in the US administration, the White House is expected to announce today that Iraq has violated United Nations resolutions demanding that it disclose its weapons of mass destruction. The officials stated that President George Bush will discuss the matter in a special meeting of the National Security Council prior to the White House’s announcement.”

(8) An excerpt from Love Stories on al-Asha Street, by Badriah Albeshr, tr. Sawad Hussain. It opens:

“’Where should we install the phone?’ asked one of the workers.

“’In the men’s seating area, their majlis,‘ Abu Ibrahim replied.

“The two workers entered the majlis, which was next to the main door. They then extended the wires, placed a yellow book next to the phone, and stuck a sticker with five digits on the handset.

“When the two men left, Awatif and I rushed towards the new device. I touched it. It was a gray phone with a disc circling around ten numbers from zero to the number nine. I held the receiver, put it to my ear, and said, ‘Darling, give me Egypt.’

“Ibrahim wondered aloud, ‘How were you all living without a phone?’”

(9) An excerpt from Thursday’s Visitors, by Badriah Albeshr, tr. Sawad Hussain. It opens:

“On the first night, Masha’el didn’t see his face. The light in the room was dim. His voice, stifled by a shy greeting, slithered towards her. Her father had forbidden him from entering the women’s section in the Palace of Happiness, the wedding hall, so she hadn’t sat with him on the stage prepared for the newlyweds, but instead just got into his small white car afterwards and headed towards his house, both of them, alone, in silence.

“She sat in the car, a heavy veil draped over her face and a black abaya over her white wedding dress, the two colors coming together in a comic mix; a withered, black abaya and a puffy, cheerful, chiffon-layered dress. That evening, her night abaya was the blackest it had ever been, what with the moon missing and the clouds grey. The glow of the streetlights along the way was pale. She arrived at his family house where he lived and, tripping over her lengthy veil and long train, climbed upstairs. She then settled on the seat in front of the vanity table and began to observe him.”