Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ni Putes Ni Soumises Ni Sphinx: Arab Women Writers Speak Out

Today's Daily Star has a great article on women writers from the Middle East. Alice Fordham notes the "anglophone appetite of late for female authors from the Middle East," and investigates why that appetite tends to depictions of honour killings and repression, on the one hand, or what could be seen as updated versions of the Arabian Nights harem fantasy on the other. French junior minister Fadela Amara started a group for Arab and North African women in France, whose name aptly sums up the Orientalist imaginings these writers have to fight with: Ni Putes Ni Soumises: Neither Whores Nor Submissives.

To which, in a talk, Joumana Haddad added, neither veiled dancers nor Sphinxes. Surely part of the point about reading is to break down illusions and deeply-held beliefs, not have them confirmed (er, for me, anyway). But publishers have to do what sells - even poetry publishers, as Chris Hamilton-Emery writes in his Salt publishing blog - so it's repression or wild abandon.

The dubious infamy of Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh as a Saudi Sex and the City ignores the facts that a) it's a pretty clever email newsletter novel that's very deliberately playing games with identity and storytelling and b) under the shoes and cellphones froth is a pretty hardcore, depressing picture of double standards (across gender and class) in Saudi society. Alsanea disguises her pin-sharp analysis under a chick-lit dress -- you can't say that for Freya North.

But what's more depressing still (for readers) is that while Girls of Riyadh is available in every airport and megachain bookstore, where are the books by Naguib Mahfouz prizewinners like Nabila al-Zubair, Alia Mamdouh, or Hoda Barakat?

Perhaps the popularity of Alsanea's novel, and a growing interest in the region (even if it's the queasy Dubya 'feminism' that saw (as reported in Harper's) a group of Texan women airlift vibrators to Iraqi women after the 'liberation' -- it should be pointed out that it's supposedly illegal to purchase or own sex toys in Texas...) will lead English-language publishing to reflect the diversity of women's voices across the region -- and booksellers to take stock of what already available through presses like Saqi and the American University in Cairo Press.

Two new online initiatives are also designed to apprise English-language publishers and readers of the depth and diversity of publishing in the Middle East: the British Council has a focus on Arab literature this year, including the New Arab Books list. Most exciting is the English PEN Online Atlas, a handy world literature wiki-type site that is also focusing on Arabic-language writing at the outset. The site was soft-launched at the London Book Fair earlier this year, and there's already hundreds of books and authors listed, and not a houri or moustachioed sheikh in sight...

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