A Collection of Short Stories by Arab Women
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Just in time for International Women’s Day, a collection of short stories edited by Roseanne Saad Khalaf and Dima Nasser, Arab Women Voice New Realities, brings us narratives by Arab women writers reflecting on their changing and often war torn landscapes.
Khalaf, who teaches English and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut and has written and edited eight books, writes in her introduction that in the time since she last edited an anthology of women writers, 2006's Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women, “the Arab world today is a vastly different place. As wars continue to rage with horrific consequences, the region is fast becoming darker, more volatile, and dangerous. Violence and devastation have assumed a haunting presence, harshly intruding upon and shattering the daily lives of millions. Yet in the midst of such oppressive times, and in stark contrast to the prevailing mood of pessimism, comes a watershed moment for writers, particularly Arab women, the beginning of a deep, long term and thoughtful attempt to re-imagine, reshape and restructure a culture that has long sidelined and silenced their crucial voices. A vibrant creativity that is fluid, constantly evolving, liberating, and never confined, has burst upon the landscape.”
Years ago the Lebanese civil war and other regional wars had the same liberating effect on women, despite the suffering, but the work was more rooted in reality and bringing everyday life to the fore. In Miriam Cooke’s 1987 landmark study on women writers during the Lebanese Civil War, War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War, she noted that women were the ones to document everyday life in detail, and that these details were what brought the experience of war to readers in profound ways. In an anthology (in French) of Iraqi women writers that Iraqi author Inaam Kachachi (featured in the new collection) edited, she echoed Miriam Cooke in her reasons why she chose women authors—women write about daily life, an interior life common to every human being. But the short stories in Khalaf and Nasser’s new collection feel different, from stories written twenty and even ten years ago. There is something decidedly dystopian, darker, magical and even delirious about them. For example, in Inaam Kachachi’s short story, “Nude in Waziriyya of Baghdad” a French woman returns to Iraq with the ashes of her dead husband. She searches for a place to scatter his ashes leading to a zany and sensational ending. The Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s “This Sea is Mohammad Al-Khatib’s” examines what a 20-year old called Mohammad from Hebron, in the West Bank, might go through if he wants to go to the sea with friends. From there transpires the surreal reality of Palestinians, who in the West Bank have no way of getting to the sea, and in Gaza are imprisoned by the sea. How many circuitous and dangerous routes would Mohammed have to take, to get to “his” sea in Gaza?
Lebanese author Hanan Al-Shaykh’s story, “Angel” is short but packs a punch examining the power of illusion.
The editors have assembled here fiction and non-fiction, mixing established authors, such as the ones mentioned above, and newcomers, which is a nice approach, if sometimes with uneven results. Divided into thematic sections ranging from “Magic Moments” to “Body Language” or “Disturbing Reflections”, stories about body image by the Lebanese Zeina Abi Assy, or the Syrian Zaina Erhaim on gaining independence with a backdrop of war are well written and effective.
Some of the authors write in English, others are translated from Arabic, some have emigrated to the West, and others are still living in the Middle East. Altogether this collection of narratives in Arab Women is a welcome one, whether for readers new to Arab women’s voices, or for others who have been following literature from the region. The short story form, and the reflections on a darker, complex, and often surreal reality provide an intriguing window onto a region of the world in the throes of violence yet constantly mutating and evolving.
Translations are by Michelle Hartman, Rula Baalbaki, Amahl Khouri, and Yasmine Haj.
Banner image "Women Against the Night" by Helen Zughaib (c)
gouache on paper, 20 x 30" 2008