Category Archives: Modern Lit

Arts of the Arab World III: Print Culture

EgyptianPreacherWomanPhoto of Magda Amer from BBC







Resources for Arabic Literature & Culture

Note: Manuscript photo from l-Jaami‘ l-Kbiir of Meknes, Morocco.

For more on the role of literature in Arab society see here.

For SciFi, see here.

For Moroccan literature in English, see here.

Note: Manuscript painting of a library in Basra

in Al-Maqamat by Al-Hariri (1054-1122),

copied and painted at al-Wasili in Baghdad (1236).

Manuscript held in Paris, BnF.

Returning to Ourselves

A poem for spring–for thawing out, for growth, for warmth, for vacation. My husband and I recently learned that we are expecting a son in the fall. Facing the prospect of motherhood is complex for me: I don’t picture myself as a mother yet. Aren’t parents all grown up? This poem does a nice job, I think, of reminding all of us of our inner children, our childlike nature, perhaps our best selves…

Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 2.01.35 PM Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 2.01.54 PMSource for English text: This Same Sky poetry collection by Naomi Shihab Nye

For Arabic text, see below (see here for source).

بين الجزر والمد

حين الكلمات تصير على

ألسنة الكذب هلاميّه

أتداخل في ذاتي ، أتقلّص

أنكمش وأضمر

أتجنب كلذ هلاميات الدرب –

وكلّ لزوجته البشريه

أتراجع في ذعري أتحاشى

في الدرب مراوغة الزئبق

أتماسك حتى لا أزلق

وأثبّت قدمي في أرضٍ صابونيه

أقبض كفي لا أبسطها

وأعارف ملامسة الأشياء ، أعارف البسمات

الشوهاء ، وأكفر بالانسان الثعلب


لكني حين يعانقني

طفل ويلامس وجهي المتعب

الخدّ المخمل والكفّان الناعمتان

وأصابع زنبق

لم ينبت فيها مخلب

وتطلّ على قلبي عينان

كسماءٍ غسلتها في الفجر الرطب –

ملائكة الأنوار

يتمدد قلبي

يكبر قلبي

تهرب من قلبي المغلق

كل الأسوار

يتدفق فيه النهر القطبيّ-

وتنمو فيه الأشجار

يرجع من منفاه إلى

قلبي الواسع وجه الانسان

Retelling Tradition

I have a new translated short story online at K1N here !

The author, Somaya Ramadan, and I discussed its publication ages ago. It’s nice to have it see the light of day at last. This story comes from a fun volume titled Qalat al-Rawiya / قالت الراوية / What She Said, which consists of stories written by women in Cairo with the purpose of retelling tradition, reimagining canonized stories and telling new stories with traditional flavors and new ideas.

Portrait Of Sultan Muhammad Mirza. Attributed To Sayyid Mirza. Persia, C. 1835. source


Love & Poetry

One of the most inspiring couples I know of in contemporary Arabic literature are the writers Mourid Barghouti and Radwa Ashour.


So it was hard when Radwa Ashour passed away in 2014: I would miss her writing and her activism. And I could only imagine how much her family would miss her. One of her husband’s responses to her passage represents for me their constant attitude of gratitude and love:

I recently got the opportunity to read Barghouti’s collection of poetry, Midnight (or, my translation, Middle of the Night), available in Arabic-English parallel translation. It was another shared project for the couple, Barghouti writing the poetry and Ashour translating it to English. My comments on the collection are here. In this post, I just want to share my favorite excerpts of love poetry…

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 2.02.51 PM

Take me now!
Take me, no one but you, to the window of your morning
so that we can see from it together:
so I can see the roads as less arduous.
Girl, take me
that we may both become more disturbing to the institution of love
and more defiant
than I could bear to be
alone.                                       – My rendition ( p. 144)

On the value of human connection:

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 1.58.55 PM
Nothing equals one more hour with you. (p. 112)

New Book



Here’s a sneak peak from my new translation I have coming out this December. The following two excerpts introduce the three main characters in this social comedy / drama…

Excerpt 1

Captain Murad’s house was crammed full of antique furniture and relics, like the Egyptian Museum. As Hazim’s eyes roamed the villa, he felt like retching, for nothing irritated him like extravagant taste and flamboyant designs. It seemed to him that the captain had flung gold at his floor as if that would give it value, but the gold was lost amid the junk, dust, and massive furniture that devoured everything like dinosaurs.
Pouring wine in his glass, the captain asked, “Does it bother you if I have a glass before dinner?”
Hazim shook his head.
The captain drained the bottle. “I only drink it to preserve my heart. Red wine is good for the heart.” He sighed. “In the seventies, no Egyptian house was without wine. Do you remember? How old were you? You look to me like you’re in your forties.”
“Right. In the seventies, a bottle of Black Label whiskey resided in every Egyptian kitchen in the summer, just in case of hard times, and no one got upset or angry about it. What a time! I don’t know how to describe it. When I was little, people told me: ‘Stay out of politics.’ We Egyptians don’t interfere in politics, as if our country were run by an unseen magician. Then, when the 1952 revolution started, they said, ‘This is your country, returned to you, but stay out of politics: leave the bread to its baker. You’re young and inexperienced, and we’re in a state of emergency.’ For fifty years, we’ve been in a state of emergency.

Excerpt 2

Since she had given birth to her first son, Asma had believed that he would become Egypt’s ambassador to the United States. Since she had given birth to the youngest boy, she had believed that he would become a prominent police officer, and then the First Assistant to the Minister of the Interior. When she had her daughter, she never doubted that she would become the first of the Abid family to go to medical school, the first to build a private hospital, and the first to discover a cure for hepatitis C. Asma thought nothing of the obstacles she would face to realize her dreams. She did not think of the greatest obstacle until quite a bit of time had passed. Asma’s children may have been geniuses, as she claimed, more intelligent than anyone, Egyptian or not. They may have memorized all their schoolwork, scrutinizing their books into the night and gulping down arithmetic, logic, and chemistry like a bitter daily medicine. They may have studied nonstop for hours. However, poor Asma forgot about the most important thing needed to realize her dreams. Poor Asma did not think through how things would turn out. Poor Asma forgot that she was completely unknown!
Who was Asma? Who was her husband, Muhammad Abid? They had several acres in Benha, a large house, and one agricultural employee to maintain the land. Asma was, unfortunately, an utterly unknown woman.

For anyone interested in more translations into English by women writers, see this database by translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski.

Labor Day

Happy Labor Day (in the U.S.) !

My favorite labor day quote, by philosopher Olfa Youssef of Tunisia from here (my translation) :

“It’s not so important for workers to have a holiday. The important thing is for work to be more like a holiday. That won’t happen until humans stop exploiting other humans. You can’t expect someone to be happy when they’re working to exhaustion for less than a living wage. You can’t expect someone to celebrate when they’re disrespected, and their work is belittled. And you can’t expect someone to be cheerful, when their work is repetitive, like a cog in a machine, with no acknowledgment or encouragement. A work ethic is important, but a human ethic is more important.”

قيمة العمل هامة لكن قيمة الإنسان، صانعِ العمل، أهمّ

ليس مهما أن يكون للشغالين عيد…المهم أن يصبح الشغل عيدا…ولن يتحقق ذلك إلا إذا قل استغلال الإنسان للإنسان…فلا يمكن أن تطلب من شخص أن يكون سعيدا وهو يعمل مرهقا بأجر لا يفي بالحاجة…ولا يمكن أن تطلب من شخص أن يكون فرحا وهو يعمل مهانا أو محتقَرا…ولا يمكن أن تطلب…من شخص أن يكون جذلان وهو يعمل برتابة آلة دون عرفان أو تشجيع. قيمة العمل هامة لكن قيمة الإنسان، صانعِ العمل، أهم

Favorite Egyptian Films

Egypt has prioritized its film industry more than any other Arab nation, and it shows in the quantity and quality of its output. (It also shows in the predominance of Egyptian Arabic throughout Arabic media internationally.) The following films stand out to me for their entertainment value and also for their intellectual contribution to social and cultural studies. They are also available with English subtitles.

Terrorism & BBQ was the first Arabic film I ever saw; I was studying Arabic at Emory University. I liked it because it made me laugh. It’s a comedy of errors, focusing on the tenuous position of common people living through bureaucratic challenges. It has some talented actors, and a cast of characters that shows multiple parts of Egyptian society.

The Open Door is a classic from the sixties generation, based on the eponymous feminist novel by Latifa Zayyat. If you want a black-and-white cinematic experience, from the days of the silver screen, that envisions independence for Egypt and for individuals, then this is your movie!

The Yacoubian Building is a classic. The novel on which it was based was the best-selling book in the Arab world (after the Qur’an) when it came out, and the movie was the most expensive Egyptian film when it came out. I heard the author speak in 2004, and he explained how his day job (as dentist) gave him the material for his book, in which he explores Egyptian society and a number of controversial issues (such as homosexuality, religious extremism, violence, and illicit relationships). This film stars plenty of talented actors, and portrays downtown Cairo (prior to the 2011 Arab Spring), with plenty of both grit and glamour.

Feel free to write to me with more suggestions!

Alice Walker, Writing from Gaza



Alice Walker speaks in the occupied

West Bank city of Ramallah.

Lazar Simeonov TEDxRamallah



Because I have studied Arabic for a long time, people sometimes ask me for my analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I usually let others steer the conversation, not because I have no ideas or opinions, but because sometimes I have little to say. I recently read Alice Walker’s book The Cushion in the Road (2013). These quotes regarding the situation in Israel / Palestine resonated with me:

“I think one reason it is so hard for people to deal with the Palestine/Israel issue is that so much of it is unbelievable.  Even when you’re standing there, in the middle of it, the mind has to struggle to grasp what is happening.  What has been done for the past sixty-odd years, and what is being done now.  Just as my niece finds it impossible to imagine what a segregated American South felt like, I find it hard to believe Israelis assume they can live through generations of brutally oppressing the people whose lands they occupy.  The greatest, most obvious expression of their intent to do this is THE WALL.” – p.305 and here

“There is, finally, a sense of overwhelm, trying to bring comfort to someone whose sleeping child has been killed and buried, a few weeks ago, up to her neck in rubble; or a mother who has lost fifteen members of her family, all her children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters, her husband. What does one say to people whose families came out of their shelled houses waving white flags of surrender only to be shot down anyway? To mothers whose children were, at this moment, playing in the white phosphorous laden rubble that, after 22 days of bombing, is everywhere in Gaza? White phosphorus, once on the skin, never stops burning. There is really nothing to say. Nothing to say to those who, back home in America, don’t want to hear the news. Nothing to do, finally, but dance.” – p. 335 and here

As Alice Walker says, “Hard times require furious dancing.”

Jews in the Arab World


Here are some sources that I can recommend that relate to Jews in the Arab World:

Medieval Middle East

  • Norman Stillman’s source book is excellent, especially for those seeking an overview of the earliest records regarding Jews and the spread of Arabic culture (from the 7th to 19th century). It gives access to primary sources in English translation, and is very balanced in its representation of societies.
  • Shlomo Dov Goitein’s work is magnificent in adding to historical scholarship on the Mediterranean. His multi-volume A Mediterranean Society is the place to go for details, but this collection of letters is wonderful, I think, for a sense of the daily life of Jewish merchant families in the medieval Middle East region.

Medieval Iberian Peninsula

Maria Rosa Menocal was an outstanding figure in medievalist academic circles because she forged her own path. Her training in graduate school largely excluded Arabic sources and perspectives from medieval historical studies. She sought to revise her field, and to open its horizons toward inclusiveness and broad information. I heard her speak eloquently on her subject. Some find her work too flowery, or too idealistic. But if you’re looking for someone who writes passionately about the shared culture of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who lived in the area that has since become Spain and Portugal, then Ornament of the World is for you.

20th Century Middle East & North Africa

Mark Wagner writes about Jews in Yemen in the early twentieth century. Like Joseph in Beauty is about sung poetry. I have also written about Jewish contributions to sung poetry in Moroccan culture in my dissertation available for download here. For more on Jews in Moroccan history, see Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life in Morocco by Haim Zafrani. (And if you visit Morocco, you may want to see the Jewish Museum in Casablanca. As far as I know, it is the only Jewish museum in the Arab World!)

For an introduction to Judeo-Arabic literature, focusing on North Africa, see Yosef Tobi, “The Flowering of Judeo-Arabic Literature in North Africa, 1850-1950” in Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries, ed. Harvey Goldberg (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996): 213-225.

Contemporary Syria

If you like music, there is also a recent project to present mystical chants from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in Aleppo, Syria. So far, Jason Hamacher has released one album called Nawa: Ancient Sufi Invocations & Forgotten Songs from Aleppo. I do not see a lot of details regarding his sources, but I’m watching for more. There is also an informative book by Shelemay on Syrian Jewish music and community.

20th Century Egypt

Lucette Lagnado writes the story of her family, focusing on her father and his life in Cairo, in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. (And for the record, I think the Arabic translation is excellent!)

Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary Western Mediterranean and North Africa

This collection (Poems for the Millenium vol. 4) of poetry and excerpts of fiction includes Jewish contributions to Arabic culture throughout history.

I have more sources on my to-read list that I might add later. Feel free to write to me with more recommendations! I haven’t included any films here–yet. Do you have any favorites?


Note Regarding Title of this Post:

Judaism is just one of many cultural facets in the Arab World. I selected this group because political events have contributed to relatively high interest in this topic, but I do not mean to belittle the presence and significance of other minorities (such as Christians, Druze, Bahai, and other spiritual communities), as well as diversity more broadly defined that has come to shape the Arab World (for example, languages such as Aramaic, Greek, French, Italian, Persian, Syriac, and Turkish, and connections to many regions, such as South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe).