9 Short Texts by Libyan 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 works by Jordanian and Saudi women writers.

This week’s list — of short works by Libyan women writers — couldn’t focus solely on short stories in translation, or even on excerpts of prose. This week, we’ve also included two poems.

There are relatively few anthologies of Libyan writing, either online or in print. Those that do lean heavily on writing by men. The anthology Libyan Stories, assembled by Libyan author Ahmed Fagih and published in 2000, seems to have no stories by women writers.

Eleven years later came Banipal 40, which focuses on Libyan writing and is one of the best issues of the magazine. It features four women writers: Najwa Binshatwan (the sole Libyan woman writer who has both a novel and a short-story collection in translation), Azza Maghur (Safa Elnaili is working on a whole collection of her work); an excerpt from Wafa al-Bueissa’s Hunger Has Other Faces, translated by Robin Moger, featured below; and an excerpt from Razan Naim al-Maghrabi’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-longlisted novel, Women of the Wind, translated by William Hutchins.

Also, in 2008, Ethan Chorin brought out Translating Libya: The Modern Libyan Short Story, which includes 16 short stories but just four by women. Again, Najwa Binshatwan and Azza Maghur appear, and also Lamia El-Makki and Maryam Salama.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t Libyan women authors at work. A number of Libyan women were included in the anthology Sun on Closed Windows, ed. Khaled Mattawa and Laila Moghrabi. Several Libyan women have had their work recognized by regional or international literary prizes; indeed, two Libyan women writers — Aisha Ibrahim and Najwa Binshatwan — were on the 2023 longlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Yet there remain relatively few translation pathways for work by Libyan authors and only a few translations of Libyan women’s work to English. Here was what we could find:

(1) “Mowgli and Shere Khan,” by Azza Maghur, tr. Safa Elnaili. It opens:

It’s not a jungle, it’s a city, but not any city, it’s the capital. He’s not “Mowgli”—his name is Ihab. As for “Shere Khan,” he’s nothing but an animal. This story takes place in Tripoli. As I write it, I won’t be telling you about the Tripoli that I’ve lived in for half a century; I’ll tell you stories about the war that’s devouring it.

(2) A chapter from the novel Hunger Has Other Faces, by Wafa al-Bueissa, tr. Robin Moger. It opens:

Time passes slowly, heavily, heightening the sense of oppression, of torture, of isolation. I watch the clock with the constant feeling that the second hand is stinging me each time it moves with the unvarying monotony that is driving me out of my mind. Night draws me to day and day hands me to night, where I am tormented by sleep as lonely as a life that slips away from me, empty and pointless.

(3) His Excellency and the Eminence of the Void,” by Najwa Binshatwan, tr. Suneela Mubayi. It opens:

I visited my paternal aunt’s home a little after noon to check on her health.

(4) Portrait of a Libyan Scream,” by Najwa Binshatwan, tr. Sawad Hussain. It opens:

The sole lamppost in the village decided to keel over onto Ikhmayyis’s head while on his way home. Usually, no one could make their way home, or their way out of the village, without passing by the post. Not only was it munificent in lighting their path, day and night, but it also became, of its own accord, a traffic light, whenever it felt that a car was about to knock into it. Those who were lost found their way, thanks to said lamppost, and it also defended the village from locust storms, whilst providing much-needed shade from the unrelenting sun.

(5) Run, George! by Najwa Binshatwan, tr. Sawad Hussain. It opens:

It was customary for the dead of Benghazi to visit their families whenever they pleased, sticking their noses into every affair—big or small—and, if a revolution were to break out, they would join its ranks, having no qualms about dying twice over. Such was, without fail, the habit of all the dead in Benghazi: those whose final resting place was in the Christian cemetery would invariably step out in the evenings dressed in their finest, impeccable, as if on their way to a wedding, bumping into those of the Muslim cemetery returning from their leisurely sit-downs in cafés, as if retiring after a day’s work.

(6) “The Sharp Bend at Al-Bakur,” by Najwa Binshatwan, tr. Sawad Hussain. It opens:

It appears that Khadija wasn’t precise enough with measuring ingredients when mixing together powders for her rejuvenating paste. Especially when all of a sudden the lights went out midway through. Trying to estimate the quantities based on the last thing she had seen, she calmly stretched out her hand to pour the bottles without so much as a drop splashing outside the bowl. She then managed to put them back; not a single thing fell off the table.

(7) “Click Like,” by Najwa Binshatwan, tr. M Lynx Qualey. It opens:

“With one eye open in the dark, I saw them tearing up campaign posters and setting them on fire. They didn’t hide their faces. There was no more fear.

“Under heavy Russian bombing, explosions roar, and Ukraine is plunged into darkness in a scene straight out of a Marvel movie.

“An elderly hunchbacked Italian woman rolls out pasta dough with a long, thick rolling pin. She has the extra time in this world to do everything slowly. Blessed be her mindfulness.”

(8) “Awaiting a Poem,” by Hawa Gomodi, tr. Nariman Youssef. It opens:

They await you:
The new poem

They await your downpour through my soul
My hands shaping your features

(9) An excerpt from “What Was Not Conceivable,” by Fatima Mahmoud, tr. Khaled Mattawa. It opens:

………spill their crimson autobiographies

Also read: Words Like Gunpowder: An Interview with Najwa Bin Shatwan