Consisting of sixty short stories by forty women writers from across the Arab world, this collection opens numerous windows onto Arab culture and society and offers keen insights into what Arab women feel and think. The stories deal not only with feminist issues but also with topics of a social, cultural, and political nature. Different styles and modes of writing are represented, along with a diversity of techniques and creative approaches, and the authors present many points of view and various ways of solving problems and confronting situations in everyday life. Lively, outspoken, and provocative, these stories are essential reading for anyone interested in the Arab world. (less)
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Published in 2005, this book contained 60 short stories by 40 writers from most of the countries of the Arab world. The works dated roughly from the 1930s to the 1990s, with the majority from the 1990s. As is common with anthologies for this region, for most of the stories information was lacking on the year of first publication.
Older writers included Mayy Ziyada, Suhayr al-Qalamawi and Ulfat al-Idilbi, born in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, while Nura Amin and Umayma al-Khamis, born in the 1950s/60s, were among the youngest. Others included Samira Azzam, Layla Baalabakki, Salwa Bakr, Ihsan Kamal, Buthayna al-Nasiri, Alifa Rifaat, Nawal al-Saadawi and Hanan al-Shaykh and more recent, less well-known authors. Many of the stories were quite short, averaging four pages.
The pieces were grouped by the categories of growing up female, love and sexuality, male/female relations, marriage, childbearing, self-fulfillment, customs and values, and “winds of change.” The intention was to introduce the English-speaking reader to Arab women’s ways of life, currents of thought, and creative expression.
The editor/translator selected the stories based on their artistic merit, the desire to include a variety of viewpoints and a wide range of subject matter reflecting “current interests and concerns of Arab women, from feminist issues to social and political problems to cultural and moral dilemmas,” and her own personal preferences. The preferences reflected a feminist and apparently secular outlook. Most of the works presented women struggling against traditional social values, restrictions or double standards, or showed the effects on women of such values.
Stories enjoyed included the ironic “International Women’s Day” by Salwa Bakr, in which a male teacher spoke to elementary schoolchildren about the need to appreciate women, but had trouble following his own advice, while the headmistress stood by listening idly and considering her own problems. “The Closely Guarded Secret” by Sahar al-Muji, in which a woman guarded carefully an unnamed secret all her life from parents and husband, preserving a sense of self. And “A Successful Woman” by Suhayr al-Qalamawi, in which a woman from the countryside sought love and success in Cairo, gaining and losing something in the process.
Also: “Homecoming” by Fadila al-Faruq, which showed a woman who returned to an unnamed Arabic country after living in London and experienced severe culture shock. “I Will Try Tomorrow” by Mona Ragab, in which a writer’s attempts to work were interrupted continually by the demands of raising her children. And Samira Azzam’s “Tears for Sale,” which showed the mask a person wore, and how death could strip it away. This was among the most affecting stories in the book, though in this case an even more sensitive rendering in English exists in another collection.
If anything was missed in this anthology, it was more stories written from an explicitly positive and religious perspective. Or maybe, that explicitly involved distinctly religious values as opposed to social ones.
Something that came close to being positive was Alifa Rifaat’s “My Wedding Night,” in which a woman overcame her distress on the first night, comforted by a Biblical story and the memory of a pure love from her childhood, and found that she and her husband could talk to one another and move beyond their anxiety.
Any serious collection that presents literature from this part of the world in English merits applause and attention. I’d certainly recommend this book. Other books to be recommended are Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s 1056-page Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology, also published in 2005, and Denys Johnson-Davies’ Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, published the following year.
Rating: 4 / 5