Arab Women (Part II): The Literary Pioneers

After creating #NotYourNarrative, a Twitter-based discussion centered around the mainstream media’s usurpation of native voices, with Rania Khalek, a hashtag which amassed more than 6,000 tweets in less than a single day, I found it essential to provide a list of Arab women writers and their contributions. While compiling a list I found that Nahla Hanno, creator of Arab Women Writers, has already organized a brilliant collection aimed at ‘celebrating and recognizing Arab women writers, and promoting awareness of the breadth of their contributions to Arab and world culture.’

The following is a modest selection, part II*, taken from Hanno’s ‘Arab Women Writers’:
Rose (Fatma) al-Yusuf (1889-1958) was born in Lebanon in 1898. Her real name was Fatima, but she was known to all as Rose. She came to Egypt with her father while she was a child where she would go on to work as an actress in her early life.
In 1925, she published a weekly magazine carrying her name in which she laid down the basic rules of stage performance as she saw them. To her, the magazine was a stage in which poets, men of letters, and critics performed at their best. But the magazine did not remain for long confined to arts. When both Makram Ebeid, the political “Wafd” Party Secretary-General and Mohamed al-Tabei, who was one of the leading political journalists joined the editing staff of Rose al-Youssef, the magazine launched into politics and social criticism and was transformed into a strictly political magazine.

Just as she was sincere in respect to the arts, al-Yusuf was also devoted to politics and the press. Her 17,000 EGP-earnings from the weekly magazine were spent in 1935 on publishing a daily newspaper. Competition was too strong for her to continue and she lost all her money; resilient and strong-willed, she pooled her resources and was able to republish her weekly magazine.

Rose al-Yusuf’s magazine attached particular importance to the art of caricature as a means of expression.

Al-Yusuf’s courage led to her imprisonment once but her magazine circulation skyrocketed nevertheless. Her publishing house issued a number of political books in addition to the magazine.

Rose al-Yusuf was also a dynamic leader of the feminist movement, and she called upon women to work in all fields. Her magazine remains one of the most popular and widely circulated weeklies in Egypt and the Arab world along with its twin “Sabah Al-Kheir” (Good Morning)

Mayy Ziyade (1886-1941) was born in Nazareth in Palestine to a Lebanese Maronite father and a Palestinian mother. Her father, Elias Ziyade, was editor of al-Mahroussah. As her father came to the Keserwan region of Lebanon, at 14 years of age she was sent to Antoura to pursue her secondary studies at a French convent school for girls.

In 1908, she and her family emigrated to Egypt. Her father founded al-Mahroussah newspaper while the family was in Egypt, to which Ziyade contributed a number of articles. Ziyade was particularly interested in learning languages, studying privately at home and then at a local university where she studied modern languages while in Egypt. As a result, Ziyade had practical knowledge of Arabic, French, English, Italian, German, Spanish, Latin and Modern Greek. She graduated in 1917.

Ziyade was well known in Arab literary circles, receiving support from many male and female writers and intellectuals at a literary salon she established in 1912. Among those that frequented the salon were Taha Hussein, Khalil Moutrane, Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, Antoun Gemayel, Walieddine Yakan, Abbas el-Akkad and Yacoub Sarrouf.

Ziyade was deeply concerned with the emancipation of the Arab woman; a task to be effected first by tackling ignorance, and then anachronistic traditions. She considered women to be the basic elements of every human society and wrote that a woman enslaved could not breastfeed her children with her own milk when that milk smelled strongly of servitude. She specified that female evolution towards equality need not be enacted at the expense of femininity, but rather that it was a parallel process. In 1921, she convened a conference under the heading, “The goal of life”, where she called upon Arab women to aspire toward freedom.

Publications: (Arabic)
al-Hubb fi-l-madrasa (Love at school, short stories), 1934
Nashid al-sharq (Hymn of the East, poetry), 1934
al-Sirr al-muwazza (The Open Secret, short stories), 1935

Widad Sakakini (1913-1991) was a pioneering Lebanese-Syrian novelist, short-story writer, and critic born in Sidon, Lebanon. She was educated at the al-Maqasid Islamic College and taught at the Higher Institute for Girls before devoting herself to writing. She had several critical debates, the most prominent being with Tawfiq al-Hakim.

Sakakini’s work is considered to be “a milestone in women’s attempts to make short-story writing a craft based on capturing snatches of life, minimizing the didacticism that characterized the early stories from the late 19th and early 20th century.” In Arwa bint al-khutub, written in 1949, Sakakini “addresses one type of oppression: men’s view of women as sexual objects […] The novel stands in stark constrast to women’s struggle in Lebanon to change the predominantly masculine collective consciousness.” (From Arab Women Writers A Critical reference Guide by Radwa Ashour and Feryal Ghazoul)

Publications: (Arabic)
Maraya al-nas (People’s Mirrors, short stories), 1945
Bayn ai-Nil wa-I-nakhil (Between the Nile and the Palm Tree, short stories), 1947
al-Hubb al-muharram (Forbidden Love, novel), 1947
Arwa bint al-khutub (Arwa, Daughter of Woe, novel), 1949

Nazik Al-Mala’ika (1923-2007) is a renowned female writer, women’s advocate, poet and critic from Iraq. Nazik was born in Baghdad in 1922 to a literary family; both of her parents wrote poetry.

Nazik was trained as a teacher of Arabic and graduated in 1944 in Baghdad. After that, she obtained a degree in music in 1949, and an MA in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin in the USA in 1959. Later, she worked as a lecturer at the University of Baghdad and the University of Basra where she met her husband. Nazik knew Arabic, English, French German and Latin.

Nazik published some poems in newspapers and magazines during her university study, and she published her first poetry book in 1947 under the title “She Who Loves The Night”. Nazik’s poetry deals with topics like death, disillusion, illness, etc. One of her best-known poems is ‘Cholera’, which is written in free verse; she is famous for being the first Arab poet to use free verse.

Nazik is considered one of the most influential literary writers in the Arab world who was also a respectable critic who contributed prominent literary criticisms, e.g. “Issues of Contemporary Poetry” and “Psychology of Poetry”.

Fatma Moussa (1927-2007) was for many years one of Egypt’s, and the Arab world’s ,foremost academics; she was an educator and literary critic.

In her work she constantly built bridges and articulated relationships between the literature of ‘the West’ and that of ‘the Orient’. She wrote accounts of each literature in the language of the ‘other’ literature. She translated two major works of English literature into Arabic and one major work of Arabic literature into English. She helped, encouraged and educated generations of young people to work in this area of shared culture.

Fatma Moussa’s academic career started with her work on the influence of the ‘Oriental tale’ on European literature in the 18th and 19th centuries. She is, for example, a widely quoted source on the history of The Thousand and One Nights and its entry into and influence on European literature.

She then went on to develop another line of academic inquiry: the influence of the European novel on the rise of the novel form in Egypt. As a literary critic writing for the Arab press she wrote widely on both European and Arabic literature. At one point Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz said she was the most perceptive critic to write about his work.

She was, in fact, the first serious translator of his work into English – long before he won the Nobel prize. Her translation of Miramar into English is arguably still the best among all the English translations of Mahfouz’s work. On the other hand, her masterly translation of King Lear into Arabic has been much admired over the years.

In her last years she remained very active: teaching a graduate course at Cairo University, supervising PhD theses, running a major state-funded program for translation from English to Arabic of important works, sitting on various University and Ministry of Culture academic committees and working hard to establish a serious presence for PEN Egypt.

The Arabic Novel In Egypt: 1914 – 1970
Women in the Arabic novel in Egypt, 1976

*Arab Women (Part I): The Literary Pioneers


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