#ReadWomen: 10 Arab authors you should read

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The Arab region has a rich literary tradition, ranging from pre-Islamic times to the present. While male writers have dominated the Arabic literary canon, women writers have had a continued presence over the years. From al-Khansa, the 7th-century poet who would recite her poetry in a marketplace in Mecca to contemporary Arab women in the Middle East and the Arab diaspora who write in Arabic, English, French, and German, among other languages, Arab women have used literature to comment on the role of women in Arab society, colonialism, class, religion, and other sociocultural issues.

We've put together a list of ten Arab women authors whose poetry, fiction, and nonfiction should be on your reading list.


Latifa al-Zayyat (1923-1996)

The Egyptian feminist writer and academic, Latifa al-Zayyat, is best known for her novel, The Open Door (1960), for which she was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. This coming-of-age novel, hailed as a landmark of Arabic women's writing, follows the sexual and political awakening of a middle-class girl in Cairo during the Egyptian nationalist movement. A recommended read is also her autobiography, The Search: Personal Papers, in which Al-Zayyat chronicles her childhood, political activism, and time spent as a political prisoner.

 

Alia Mamdouh (1944-)

Born in Baghdad to an Iraqi father and a Syrian mother, Iraqi novelist Alia Mamdouh now lives in exile in Paris. In Naphtalene, Mamdouh brings to life 1940s and 1950s Baghdad through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl. With its lyrical prose and hints of magical realism, this novel is the perfect introduction to Mamdouh’s works.

 

Mai Al-Nakib (1970-)

Born in Kuwait in 1970, Al-Nakib teaches postcolonial and comparative literature at Kuwait University. Read her The Hidden Light Of Objects, a collection of interlinked short stories set across the Middle East for an insight into the lives of ordinary citizens in the region.

 

Etel Adnan (1925-)

Born to a Greek mother and a Syrian father, the Lebanese-American poet, novelist, and visual artist Etel Adnan was raised in Beirut, Lebanon. As a result of her heritage, Adnan grew up speaking Greek, Turkish, Arabic, French and, later, English. In her 1977 France-Pays Arabes award-winning novel Sitt Marie Rose Adnan reconstructs the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War. For those interested in a poetic exploration of the Civil War, try her book-length poem The Arab Apocalypse.

 

Leila Abouzeid (1950-)

The first Moroccan woman writer of literature to be translated into English, Abouzeid – unlike her contemporaries – writes in Arabic instead of French. We recommend her novel Year Of The Elephant: A Moroccan Woman's Journey Toward Independence, set in a newly independent Morocco, concerned with the inevitable clash between modernity and tradition in a postcolonial state. We also enjoyed The Last Chapter, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel set in the second half of the 20th century.

 

Nawal El Saadwai (1931-)

Acclaimed Egyptian writer, activist, doctor, psychiatrist and human rights campaigner Nawal El Saadawi was born in 1931 in a village outside Cairo. A prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction, she has faced imprisonment, death threats and exile for her political activism. We recommend her feminist novel Woman At Point Zero, about a Cairo prostitute facing the death penalty, and her powerful feminist meditation on the oppression of women in the Arab world, The Hidden Face Of Eve. We also recommend her memoirs, Memoirs Of A Woman Doctor and Memoirs From The Women’s Prison.

 

Radwa Ashour (1946-2014)

Egyptian novelist and translator Radwa Ashour had a PhD in African-American Literature and taught at Ain Shams University in Cairo. We love her historical novels The Woman From Tantoura, a multigenerational saga that captures the lives and losses of a Palestinian family, and Granada, a story about a Muslim bookbinder and his family that is set in 15th-century Spain.

 

Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003)

Born in Nablus, northern West Bank, Palestinian poet and writer Fadwa Tuqan writes achingly of the loss and despair faced by Palestinians after the mass exodus of 750,000 Palestinians from British Mandate Palestine in 1948, an event which Palestinians refer to as Nakba. In her autobiography, A Mountainous Journey, Tuqan chronicles her life before and after the Nakba, the hardships faced by women in society and life under Israeli occupation.

 

Assia Djebar (1936-2015)

Algerian writer, translator and film-maker Assia Djebar’s work explores the linked themes of women’s rights, colonialism and patriarchy. In 2005, Djebar became the first North African to be elected to the Académie Française. The stories in Women Of Algiers In Their Apartment delve into the lives of Algerian women against the backdrop of Algeria’s struggle for independence from France. Her novel Children Of The New World depicts the intersection of women’s struggle for freedom and their domestic life in a rural Algerian village. We also recommend her semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel Fantasia, about a young girl’s fight for personal and national independence.

 

Leila Aboulela (1964-)

Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela was born to an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father and raised in Khartoum, Sudan. She was awarded the inaugural Caine Prize for her short story ‘The Museum’, published in her collection of short stories Coloured Lights. In her novel Minaret, a young Sudanese woman, forced into political exile in London, is caught between her privileged and secular upbringing and her current impoverished state in a practising Muslim community.