From Ibn Khaldun and Al-Tabari to Abu Bakr al-Razi and Al-Jahiz, the famous Graeco-Arabic translation movement was highly focused on canonizing medieval men. Despite the recent efforts made by official Arabic literature institutes across the region, the translation movement from Arabic to English still doesn’t offer enough representation for Arab female writers.
Female writers significantly trail behind their male counterparts in the number of books translated and authored by women. For instance, of the 14 works submitted to the 2020 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, 10 were by male writers and only four by women. In 2019, women accounted for three of the books in comparison to 13 by men.
A small sliver of hope came from the esteemed Man Booker International Prize when they recognized Omani writer Jokha Al-Harthi for her book Celestial Bodies in 2019. While we remain optimistic for some changes in the current translation movement, we picked some of our favorite women writers to celebrate. Below, the four best reads for the slowed-down weeks ahead.
The American Granddaughter by Inaam Kachachi and translated by Nariman Youssef
Shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize, Inaam Kachachi is one of Iraq’s most cherished and renowned novelists. In her award-winning The American Granddaughter, she traces the journey of Zeina, an Iraqi -born US citizen who returns to her birthplace after 15-years as an interpreter for the US Army. Through her eyes, the reader has a first-hand account about the US “war on terror” and the tragedy that fell onto the Iraqi people merely because they fought to emerge from dictatorship.
The Woman From Tantoura by Radwa Ashour and translated by Kay Heikkinen
Radwa Ashour wore a lot of hats: a novelist, a poet, and a human rights advocate. Her relationship with her husband, renowned poet Mourid Barghouthi, is one of the most epic love stories in the Arab World. The international recognition of her literary works is proof that she succeeded in not being overshadowed by her husband’s fame or notoriety. In The Woman From Tantoura, Ashour chronicles the life of a Palestinian family living in the village of al-Tantouria in Palestine. Through the story of Roqayah, the reader explores the journey of a refugee in Lebanon and how every aspect of the family’s life is affected by politics.
Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat and translated by Marilyn Booth
One of Lebanon’s most acclaimed writers, Hoda Baraket won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2019 for her novel Voices of the Lost, which is also her most recent novel to be translated to English. The novel traces the story of five Arab migrants, or asylum seekers, through letters they wrote themselves to be later found by a journalist in different places: a hotel room, a trash can, an airplane seat, and so on.
The Dove’s Necklace by Raja Alem and translated by Katherine Halls
The Mecca-born novelist is the first Arab woman to win the Arabic Booker Prize. In one of her interviews, she stated: “My novels are deeply rooted in the spirit of my hometown Mecca, an unexplored world.” The Holy city is always present in her novels and The Dove’s Necklace is no exception. The literary work explores the secret life of Mecca and the conflict between modernity and authenticity. Alem herself described her book “as if I have taken a whole generation to a therapist and allowed it to express how it felt growing up in Mecca in the 70s or 60.”