Problems and Prospects for Publishing in the West: Arab Women Writers Today
Amal Amireh, USA/Palestine
September 1, 1996
"ARABIC is a controversial language," Edward Said was once
told. This intriguing statement by a New York publisher was
offered as an explanation for turning down the Arabic titles
that Said recommended for possible translation and
The awarding of the Nobel Prize to the Egyptian novelist
Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 must have made Arabic "less
controversial," for several of Mahfouz's books have since
then been translated and released in the West. Other
writers have benefitted from this international interest in
Mahfouz, living to see some of their works available in
English to readers in Britain and the United States. Among
those whose works have been translated are the Lebanese
Elias Khouri, the Palestinians Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan
Kanafani, the Egyptians Gamal al-Ghitani and Edwar
el-Kharrat, the Moroccan Muhammad Barrada, the Saudi
Abdelrahman Munif, and the Syrian Hanna Minah, to name just
Many of the works recently published in English translations
are also by women. That a market exists in the West for
Arab women's creative products is hard to miss. The first
Arab woman writer to catch the attention of western readers
was the Egyptian feminist Nawal el Saadawi. Her
non-fictional book "The Hidden Face of Eve" [Al Wajh al-ari
lil-Mar'a al-Arabiya, 1977] appeared in English in 1980,
instantly becoming a "classic."
The interest that this work generated carried over to
el-Saadawi's fiction. Her novel "Woman at Point Zero" appeared
in English in 1983. Since then thirteen of her books have
been published in English translations, making her the most
visible of Arab women writers. The popularity of her books
in the American College classroom makes her particularly
El-Saadawi's positive reception sparked interest in other
Arab women writers. The Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh's
"The Land of Sand and Myrrh" (Misk el Ghazal), which centers
around the oppressed lives of four women in a Saudi-like
desert country, was a commercial success when it was
published in English in 1992. It was voted by "Publishers
Weekly" one of the year's best books. Its publisher,
Doubleday, prepared a guide to go with it and arranged a
22-city American book tour for al-Shaykh, the first ever for an
Riding on this success, an earlier novel of Al-Shaykh about
the Lebanese Civil War, "The Story of Zahra" [Hikayet
Zahra], was translated, followed by her most recent one
"Beirut Blues" [Bareed Beirut], also about the war and its
aftermath. Works by other writers such as Alifa Rifaat,
Ghada el-Samman, Emily Nasrallah, and Assia Djebar have also
become available in English.
The effort to translate Arab women writers into English is
now more systematic. The Project for Translation from
Arabic (PROTA), established and directed by the Palestinian
poet, editor, and translator Salma Khadra Jayyusi, has
helped bring out in English works by Palestinian women
writers like Fadwa Touqan, Sahar Khalifeh, and Liana Badr,
along with works by other Arabs. Garnet Publishing of
London has begun a series called "Arab Women Writers" edited
by the Jordanian novelist and critic Fadia Faqir. The five
novels published so far are by the Palestinian Liana Badr,
the Iraqi Alia Mamdouh, the Syrian Hamida Na'na', the
Egyptian Salwa Bakr, and the Lebanese Hoda Barakat.
How is one to explain this interest in Arab women writers?
One might first ask whether this is a fair question to begin
with. No such questions are raised about Arab male writers.
In the case of Mahfouz, the translation of his works is seen
as the logical outcome of his winning the Nobel prize and a
long overdue appreciation of his literary genius.
Yet while it is taken for granted that Arab male writers who
have not won international prizes are still worthy of being
translated, their female compatriots appear on the western
literary market with a cloud of suspicion hanging over their
Nawal el-Saadawi is a case in point. Her success in the
West generates much skepticism. The western interest in her
is not innocent, some critics believe. They argue that she
is acclaimed not so much because she champions women's
rights, but because she tells western readers what they want
to hear. In this view, the West welcomes her feminist
critique of Arab culture because it confirms the existing
stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as backward, misogynist and
Her promotion, critics charge, is part of the systematic and
historical Euro-American demotion of Arabs and their
culture. Some dismiss this assessment of el-Saadawi as one
coming from male critics hostile to her feminism. But this
argument is also advanced by Arab women writers who
themselves are being translated into English.
Earlier this year, at a conference in London organized in
conjunction with the new Garnet series and titled
"Translating the life of the Arab Woman," the discussion
focused on the issue of the Arab woman novelist in
translation. In an interview with the Arabic newspaper "Al
Hayat" about the issues raised during this meeting, one of
the novelists, Alia Mamdouh, declared that she has "large
question marks about the West's celebration and focus on"
According to Mamdouh, "Nawal el-Saadawi does not present the
true picture of the creativity of Arab women." She
criticized the way el-Saadawi "turns `creativity' which is
imagination and living memory into a lab to show the sick
samples which are deformed, which she represents as
generalized social types."
The novelist Ahdaf Soueif, another participant, concurred
with Mamdouh's assessment. She added: "El Saadawi writes
scientific research which is good. But she writes bad
novels and it is unfair that the West thinks that what she
writes represents Arab women's creative writing." While both
novelists acknowledge the leading role el-Saadawi played as
a feminist, they dismiss her as a novelist and view their
generation of writers as superior representatives of Arab
women's creativity ("Al Hayat", May 20, 1996: 12).
Interestingly, Mamdouh makes it clear that she is suspicious
of the attention her own writing is getting outside the Arab
world. But she believes this attention is ultimately for
her benefit since it allows her to present nuanced work that
enlightens and provokes western readers, instead of merely
confirming their ready-made assumptions and prejudices.
I agree that el-Saadawi is popular in the West partly
because her works have played into western prejudices. But
I don't think this fact should be merely used to dismiss her
achievement. This current generation of Arab women writers
face the same problems of reception she has faced, and will
be better off reflecting on the historical factors behind
this kind of reception than elevating themselves at the
expense of a predecessor.
To understand the problem Arab women writers face we need to
look at the long and complex history of their reception in
the West. Historically, the West's interest in Arab women
is part of its interest in and hostility to Islam. This hostility was
central to the colonialist project, which cast women as victims
to be rescued from Muslim male violence. The fixation on the veil,
the harem, excision, and polygamy made Arab women symbols of a region and a religion that were at once exotic, violent, and inferior.
Recently, the Iranian Revolution in 1978-1979, which toppled
the pro-USA shah, revived and intensified western attention
to Islam. So did the increased visibility of the new
Islamist political groups in Algeria, Egypt and Sudan.
"Fundamentalist Islam" has become the number one enemy for a
post-cold war West desperate for something to hate. The
Gulf War once again cast the Middle East as violent and
This history cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant, nor
these political events seen as marginal to literary
reception. Arab women novelists still carry the burden of
this history, whose effects are too obvious to ignore. They
can be seen in the way Arab women's books are marketed and
received in the West, in the way they are manipulated to
meet the expectations and assumptions of western readers.
For example, when the memoirs of the Egyptian pioneer
feminist Huda Sha'rawi were translated into English, the
original title their author gave to them, "My Memoirs", was
replaced with the more provocatively loaded one "Harem
Years". Fadia Faqir's "Nisanit", which is about the
Arab-Israeli conflict, appears with a woman draped in black from
head to toe on its cover--although this cover has nothing to
do with the novel's content.
The changes are not limited to titles and covers, however.
El-Saadawi's English translation of "The Hidden Face of Eve"
emphasizes female genital mutilation more than the Arabic
original does (I discuss this issue in detail in my essay
"Framing Nawal el-Saadawi: Arab Feminists in a Transnational
Reviewers of Arab women's books seem to take their cues from
the titles and covers. Unfailingly, they read these novels
as sociological and anthropological texts that "reflect" the
reality of Islam and the Arab world and "lift the veil" from
what one reviewer called the "unimaginable world of Arab
women" (Maureen Harrington, "Veil Lifted to Reveal
Unimaginable World of Arab Women," "Denver Post", February
13, 1994: G-08).
The blurb on the back cover of Rifaat's "Distant View of A
Minaret" states that the stories "admit the reader into a hidden
private world." The one on Al-Shaykh's "Women of Sand
and Myrrh" declares that "little is known of what life is
like for contemporary Arab women living in the Middle East"
and promises the reader that al-Shaykh's novel will provide
a glimpse behind this "still-closed society." The heroine of
one of al-Shaykh's novels is said to be always passive "in
the best tradition of Muslim womanhood" (Judith Atwater, "A
Muslim Woman's Powerful Story and a Search for Self," "Rocky
Mountain News", March 27, 1994: 71A).
Most reviewers conclude that Arab-Muslim culture "is vastly
different from [read: inferior to] the West," especially
regarding the treatment of women (Sara Terry, "Journey Into
the Heart of a Radical Woman," "Christian Science Monitor",
September 5, 1986: B5). One reviewer, an American feminist,
was reminded after reading one of el Saadawi's books of
where western women "have come from" (Vivian Gornick, "About
the Multilated Half," "New York Times", March 14, 1982: 3).
Predictably, issues of sexuality and oppression take center
stage in these reviews. Thus while Alia Mamdouh praises
Ahdaf Soueif as a better representative of Arab women's
creativity than el-Saadawi, the reviewer of Soueif's novel
"In the Eye of the Sun" classes the author with el-Saadawi
as another writer who challenges "the denial and
circumscription of female sexuality" in the Arab world (Maya
Jaggi, "Eastern Conflict," "Financial Times," August 8,
Although colonial and neo-colonial biases inform western
interest in Arab women, this fact should not be used to
reject any interaction with the West. Other positive
factors inspire this interest. One for instance is the
United Nations' Declaration of 1975-1985, the international
decade of women, which heightened First World concern about
Third World women and gave the impetus to global feminism.
That decade culminated in 1986 with the first International
Feminist Book fair in London, which provided a forum for
Arab women to present their work to an international
The renewed political interest in the Middle East region
also coincided with the establishment of women's studies
programs in the Euro-American academy. These programs,
along with more recent interest in multicultural education,
have helped clear space for Arab women writers on college
syllabi. Arabic books are being taught now more than at any
Moreover, recent events, especially the Palestinian Intifada
and the Gulf War, have politicized a new generation of Arab
and Arab-American scholars. Their commitment to making
Arabic works more widely available has two aims: to better
inform a hostile American public and to educate the young
generation of Arab Americans about the culture of their
parents and grandparents.
In talking about the increased visibility of Arab women
writers in England and the United States we must not
underestimate this tireless work of Arab intellectuals
situated in the West. They (along with many excellent
non-Arab scholars) are active agents in this effort to promote
It is simplistic, then, to assume that Arab women writers
are just pawns being manipulated and used by the West.
While recognizing that their texts are liable to misuse,
they should not be defeatist and abandon all responsibility
for their reception.
So what is to be done?
The more Arabic books made available in English, the better.
The complexity and diversity of the Arab world and its
literatures can be represented best by a wide range of
works. Even though reviewers tend to represent whatever
Arab woman writer they happen to be reviewing as a "lone
voice" and a victim of Arab censorship, there is really no
dearth of talent: The literary historian Joseph Zeidan lists
480 Arab women writing between the 1880s and the 1980s.
Last year, 150 women writers and twenty-six publishers from
throughout the Arab world converged on Cairo for the first
Arab Women Book Fair, which exhibited more than 1500 titles.
With this depth of field, there is no reason that any one
writer or group of writers should shoulder the daunting
responsibility of representing a whole culture.
Diversity guards against stereotyping and pigeon-holing.
Once western readers are exposed to a range of styles,
nuances, and ideologies, they will learn that Arab writers
are individual artists, who speak in multiple tongues and
belong to vibrant and diverse cultural movements.
But this is not all. We need to encourage a vigorous
critical discussion about Arabic literature and culture in
the West--one that does not limit itself to the academy. The
debate should go beyond "appreciative" criticism that
condescendingly praises Arab women writers for "daring" to
put pen to paper. Serious debates about fiction will remind
readers that they are reading not documentaries, but
"literature," which draws on particular conventions and
emerges from specific traditions. Critics aware of the
original context in which these works appeared should convey
a sense of these contexts to their readers.
To teach about the Arab context requires Arab critics to
play a pivotal part in the debate. To guarantee their
active involvement, we should encourage the translation of
both literature and criticism. So far, the Arab world has
been supplying the cultural "raw materials" which then get
ground in the First World critical mill.
Arab critics, particularly those situated in the Arab world,
are viewed with suspicion, especially when they are men
writing about women. If they don't write about Arab women
writers, they are chastised for ignoring them. If they do,
they are accused of attempting to "contain" and
"marginalize" them. Worse, if critical, they are branded as
hostile to women and their cause.
While this judgment may be true of some, it should not be
used, as it often is, as a blanket statement to dismiss Arab
critics as a whole. We don't want to silence voices that
have much to contribute to the debate. After all, Arab
women writers have no reason to fear a strong critical
Amal Amireh teaches in the English Department at Boston
University. A Palestinian, she is a contributing editor of
Al-Jadid, a monthly magazine devoted to Arab culture and
its arts (P.O. Box 24966, Los Angeles, CA 90024-0996).
This essay first appeared in Al-Jadid, vol. 2., no. 10 (August
1996), and is reprinted with permission of the author and the