Celebrate Women in Translation Month with these 10 must-read books by female Arab authors
Girls in Riyadh by Rajaa Al-Sanea, translated by Rajaa Al-Sanea and Marilyn Booth, Penguin
Girls in Riyadh caused an uproar in its native Saudi Arabia when it first came out in 2005, so much so that it wasn’t officially banned but very few bookshops would stock it.
One of the first bold books of its kind written by a Saudi woman, this easy-to-read book is about the love lives of four close friends, Gamrah, Sadeem, Lamees and Michelle, in early Noughties Saudi Arabia.
Reflecting the realities of the very conservative society Saudi Arabia had two decades ago, the novel is structured in a series of emails by a fifth unnamed friend who discloses the secret lives of her friends on a weekly basis. Think Sex and the City but in ‘00s Saudi Arabia.
Discretion by Faiza Guene, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, Saqi
Translated by Sarah Ardizzone, who has translated Guene’s other novels from French into English, Discretion is the tale of an Algerian immigrant to France Yamina Taleb and her family.
The chapters switch back and forth between her present-day life as a 70-year-old woman in France, and Yamina’s past, where we learn about her upbringing in 20th century revolutionary Algeria followed by her family’s exile in Morocco.
Yamina goes about her life in France discreetly – something that annoys her children who think she is oblivious to the daily racism and microaggressions she receives from white French people. Just as in all her works, Guene has the remarkable capability of writing about the every day in an enticing, heart-warming, and comical way.
Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, translated by Sherif Hetata, Zed Books
Woman at Point Zero is one of the late El Saadawi’s most memorable and celebrated works, and for good reason. In this hard-hitting novella El Saadawi draws on her experience as a psychiatrist working with female prisoners, to tell the tale of Firdaus, a prostitute on death row for murdering her abusive pimp.
Just a few hours before she is due to be hung, a female psychiatrist is given access to Firdaus and sits and listens to her tell her life story. We learn about her childhood in a poor peasant family with an abusive father, followed by her move to Cairo to live with her uncle before he marries her off to a man much older than her, and ultimately how she came to be a successful prostitute, reclaiming her life via her sex work.
At every stage of Firdaus’ life, there is always a man trying take tyrannical control over her. A grisly story based on real life that is just as relevant today.
We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers, edited by Selma Dabbah, Saqi
Saqi’s groundbreaking anthology We Wrote in Symbols is a collection of over 70 poems, short stories, and excerpts written by female Arab writers from the Classical Period until the modern day.
Many of them are works by Abbasid, Umayyad, and Andalusian era poets which have been translated from Arabic into English by Wessam Elmeligi, Abdullah al-Udhari and others, while others have been written by modern-day authors such as Adania Shibli and Hoda Barakat, and have been translated by Yasmine Seale, Marilyn Booth and others.
From a sexual reawakening in the public toilets of a Palestinian refugee camp, to a meticulously planned and risky hook-up in a hotel in Doha, there is no one typical sexual encounter. The anthology also includes great queer representation with poems by Syrian British poet and performer Lisa Luxx and short stories written by khulud khamis and Farah Barqawi.
Minor Detail, by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jacquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021, Minor Detail is a harrowing and haunting novella that will stay with you forever. The story is split into two parts: first in 1949 Palestine, in the heart of Naqab Desert where the Israeli army is stationed as they ethnically cleanse desert Arabs.
During one of their daily missions, they come across a girl with her dog and kidnap them. Their capture culminates in a heinous crime.
Some half a century or more later we are brought to Ramallah, and through the first person, we are introduced to an unnamed Palestinian woman who becomes fixated with the case of the girl in 1949, so much so that she is willing to break Israeli rules to find out as much as she can – there is one minor detail that makes her feel as if she cannot stop until she gets to the bottom of what really happened, but it comes with consequences. An unforgettable read.
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Al-Harthi, translated by Marilyn Booth, Sandstone Press
The first novel from the Gulf to win the Man International Booker prize (2019), Celestial Bodies is set in Al-Harthi’s native Oman.
A family saga set in the Omani village of Al-Awafi, we get to know three sisters: Asma who marries due to a sense of duty, Mayya who marries wealthy Abdullah after her heart gets broken, and Khawla, who will marry no other man than her beloved Nasir who has emigrated to Canada.
The novel is set against the backdrop of a changing Oman as it moves from the colonial era into the modern-day Sultanate, the chapters moving back and forth between different generations. A touching story of family, loss, and heartbreak.
The Tiller of Water by Hoda Barakat, translated by Marilyn Booth, The American University of Cairo Press
Set during the Lebanese Civil War, this slim but captivating novel is the tale of the hallucinatory recollections of cloth merchant’s son Niqula Mitri, as he shuts himself up in the basement of his family’s bombed-out fabrics store after his apartment is taken over by refugees.
His parents have both died, and the family’s Kurdish maid Shamsa, someone he had an affinity for, has disappeared.
We are taken on a journey through the history of thousands of years as Niqula sits with the still intact textiles that he once used to sell, in a devastated Beirut.
Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan, translated by Georgina Kleege, The Post-Apollo Press
Also set during the Lebanese Civil War is Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose, which is also considered a classic of war literature. Based on the real-life story of Marie Rose Boulos who was executed by the Christian Militia, the novella is split into two “Times” – Time I and Time II.
In Time I it is 1975, on the brink of war, and an unnamed Lebanese female protagonist gets to know four Christian Maronite men – Mounir, Pierre, Tony, and Fouad, who love hunting. On 13 April 1975 a bus of Palestinian refugees are massacred by Phalangist militia and the Civil War erupts.
In Time II we meet Sitt Marie Rose, a divorced Christian Maronite woman who is in love with a Palestinian doctor, and who works helping Palestinian refugees – two “crimes” that see her get kidnapped by Phalangist militia – the men from Time I. A heartbreaking account of the realities of war, misogyny, and racism.
The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat, translated by Marilyn Booth, Hoopoe
Considered a modern classic, praised by Naguib Mahfouz, and one of the most celebrated works written by an Egyptian woman, The Open Door was published in 1960 and was very forward for its time due to its explorations of sex and feminism.
Our protagonist Layla comes from a middle-class family and along with her brother they become involved in the student nationalistic activism of the ‘40s and ‘50s as Egyptians revolt against British colonial rule.
It is both turbulent in the emotions Layla experiences as she comes of age, and in the turbulency of the nation as it moves through the stages of revolution, military coup and ultimately the Suez Canal Crisis.
The Woman from Tantoura: A Modern Palestinian Novel by Radwa Ashour, translated by Kai Heikkinen, The American University of Cairo Press
The Woman from Tantoura is all about the recollection of memories when a Palestinian woman’s son encourages to write down recollections of her past. Starting at the time of the Nakba, our female protagonist Ruqayya is barely a teenager when the Zionists ethnically cleanse her home village of Tantoura, forcing her and her mother to flee to her uncle in Lebanon.
We see the events unfold as Ruqayya remembers each stage of her life, from being a refugee in Lebanon until violence erupts there, to exile in Abu Dhabi. Wherever she is she longs for Tantoura.
At one point writing becomes too hard for her, to the point she tells her son she will die if she continues having to remember. Ashour’s book highlights the pain of re-opening traumatic memories that we may have pushed to the back of our minds, and how this is the story of so many Palestinian women.
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA