The challenge of having Western readers see past culture and gender

There has been a certain anglophone appetite of late for female authors from the Middle East. “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea, the tale of four young women living and loving in Saudi Arabia, sold millions in Britain and the US, generating a few positive reviews and many column inches for its taboo-busting stories.

Similarly, “Persepolis,” Mariane Satrapi’s stylish graphic novel about her Iranian childhood, has proven popular with curious Westerners whose newspapers feature more about Iran every day. Lebanon’s Joumana Haddad, already widely translated in the rest of Europe, is publishing a collection of her poetry in English this autumn.

The curiosity of the English-language readership has clearly been helped along a little. On one hand, the media has been flooded with news from the Middle East – even before the events of September 11, 2001. On the other hand, academic programs focusing on Middle East studies and women’s studies have been a staple of left-liberal universities in North America and the UK for some time now.

Whatever the reason for the piqued curiosity, the interest itself is clearly a cause for celebration. Nevertheless, some women writers, particularly in Lebanon, have expressed reservations.
They are nervous about being lumped together with the other countries of the region, concerned that diversity will be ignored. Neither do they want to be considered separately from men as “women authors” rather than as simply authors.

Most particularly, some of these writers are conscious that the books that find commercial success in translation are those that reinforce stereotypes about the Middle East – of hijabs and forced marriages as well as repression.

Haddad welcomes the increased number of women writers in the Middle East, however. It is, she says, a slow process and partly the result of the gradual erosion of the patriarchal society, something she is keen to point out is not peculiar to this region, but a global phenomenon.

Alawiya Sobh, whose novels include “Maryam al-Hakaya” (Mariam of the Stories) and “Dunia,” also welcomes the increased number of women’s voices in literature. Nowadays, she says, there are “good women writers who have their remarks and contributions in pushing forward Lebanese literature and activating and lighting the Arabic literature as a whole.”

“Frankness is very necessary to art,” Sobh says, “but it’s not enough to make art.” Yet it is sometimes frankness, specifically the frank confessionals of women writing about negative experiences in “the East,” that sells in English translation.

One of the best-selling books in the US by a Middle Eastern woman was not a novel or a collection of short fiction but one that purports to be a memoir. Jean P. Sassoon’s “Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia” was depicted in the Washington Post as portraying the “position of women in Saudi Arabia … out of its historical and sociological context.” The result, the reviewer wrote, “reeks of tabloid journalism.”
Another memoir, “Sharon and My Mother-in-law,” Suad Amiry’s account of life in Palestine, is a more-recent popular hit. While this book is indeed interesting and well written, the subject matter is once again the Middle East itself, and in particular women here. Books by women that are recognized as literature in their own right, rather than true-life confessions, are rare in English translation.

The way the books are received can also be frustrating for the authors.

Rajaa Alsanea’s “Girls of Riyadh” tells a story of young Saudi women living within the restrictions of Saudi society. Just 25 years old when she wrote the book, Alsanea was then living in Chicago, and the book was banned in Saudi Arabia.

Writers are also nervous about assumptions that all authors across the Middle East and Arab world are the same.

Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat, whose books include “Hajar al-Dahik” (The Stone of Laughter) and “Harit al-Miyah” (The Tiller of Waters), sees the gradual increase of women writers as part of the “natural evolution of things. Women are more numerous in the workplace, in schools and so as a consequence they are more numerous as writers.”

(Source: The Daily Star)

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