Category Archives: Pop Culture

‘The Open Door’: A Classic Revisited

This post celebrates and complements our first group read of 2018 in the Middle East North Africa Lit group on الباب المفتوح / The Open Door by Latifa al-Zayyat! This is one of the most enjoyable feminist classics in all of Arabic literature, as far as I’m concerned. As a historical novel, it transports us to a time when Cairo was part of the British empire, and Egyptians were ready for a change! The protagonist, a young woman, comes of age in this society. We accompany her through all her discoveries – her newfound nationalism and political consciousness, her developing sexuality and womanhood / feminist consciousness, and her search for a path all her own.

AUC Press re-issued the English translation of The Open Door by Marilyn Booth in 2017. See here for a generous free excerpt and more information.

Here is a bilingual site dedicated to Latifa al-Zayyat’s work.

See our moderator Marcia Lynx Qualey’s article here on the 2015 Google Doodle for Latifa al-Zayyat.

The Open Door‘ is also a classic film 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!

In this recent interview, a professor at Brown University discusses teaching The Open Door in her class, Women’s Writing in the Arab World.

Finally, if you want to continue reading more by Latifa Zayyat, her short story “The Narrow Path” is available in English translation by Salwa Jabsheh and Christopher Tingley on pages 790-800 of Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology (2008), edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi.


Here is a tiny teaser excerpt from my Work in Progress translation of the epic Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma/سيرة الأميرة ذات الهمة from Arabic to English. (This translation project is funded by a grant from the NEA.) Note: I’m playing with the name of the main character. She was born Fatima, but is known as Dhat al-Himma in Arabic. It’s a mouthful in English, so I’m calling her Valor for now. Let me know if you have opinions about this!


For a full year, the Fiend of Bani Tayy conducted raids on the lands of Bani Kilab. Valor came and went with no trace, hunting on their lands, until one day she raided a clan allied to Bani Kilab (by her parents’ marriage, unbeknownst to her). Some of the people who had been tending the livestock came to inform Mazlum, and he called out to his men to make haste. They lept up like ferocious lions, seized swords and spears, and set out. Mazlum was in the lead, wearing iron armor and chain mail. Meanwhile, Valor had just reached a stretch of flat, unprotected land when she heard horses neighing, bridles clattering, blades hissing, and warriors whooping in pursuit. Mazlum shouted, “You bastard! No matter which sky shades you or which bit of earth upholds you, you are going down!”

“Shit!” Valor hefted the spear in her hand, and called to Marzuq, “Cover my back, brother!” She left the men who rode with her to look after the herds as she raced toward her pursuers. She saw that Mazlum was in the lead, and he saw her approaching and knew her to be the Fiend of Bani Tayy.

Image Source

Arabic Epics

As I talk with people about my current translation project, more and more people want to know about Arabic epics. These epics (Arabic: سيرة / sira) are long adventure tales that recount the exploits of a group of heroic characters and villains. Siras draw on historical events, although they are not to be considered conventional accounts of history. Peter Heath* has observed that heroic cycles cover almost all of recorded pre-Islamic and Islamic history:

  • Early Persian history (Sīrat Fīrūz Shāh)
  • Alexander the Great (Sīrat Iskandar)
  • The Sassanid dynasty (Story of Bahrām Gūr)
  • Pre-Islamic South Arabian history (Sīrat al-Malik Sayf Ben Dhī Yazan)
  • Pre-Islamic North Arabian history (Sīrat ‘Antar and the Story of al-Zīr Sālim)
  • Early Islamic history (Sīrat Amīr Ḥamza)
  • Tribal feuds and holy wars of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates (Sīrat al-Amīra Dhāt al-Himma, Ghazwat al-Arqaṭ, Al-Badr-Nār, Sīrat ‘Alī al-Zaybaq, Sīrat Sayf al-Tījān)
  • Conquests of North Africa (Sīrat Banī Hilāl) (this is my own addition to the list)
  • Fatimid and Mamluk history (Sīrat al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allah and Sīrat al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Baybars)

These epics are the product of oral storytelling traditions. Today they are available in printed editions in Arabic. There are not many translated into English. Probably the most comprehensive English version is the scholarly The Arabian Epic by M.C. Lyons (2 volumes). The most accessible is The Adventures of Sayf ben Dhi Yazan by Lena Jayyusi. In my current translation project, I am beginning to produce a similar edition of Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma. My primary source text is the most common printed edition (ed. Maqanibi et al., published by Al-Maktaba al-Sha’biyya, Beirut 1980). It consists of seven volumes, and each volume is about one thousand pages long. The length is one reason why no one has attempted to provide an English edition of this epic before. However, fortunately the genre of epic includes the repetition of clichés and a limited number of types of scenes. I would like to prepare a rendition of selected episodes, chosen for their importance to the overall storyline and for their appeal to a general audience. I hope that it will appeal to a broad audience, as it features fight scenes, love scenes, warrior women, and vibrant storytelling.

* See Peter Heath, The Thirsty Sword: Sīrat ‘Antar and the Arabic Popular Epic (Salt Lake City: U of Utah, 1996) xv.


Some Favorite Quotations in Arabic Literature

※ more favorite quotations welcome ※

On art, literature, and writing

Horses, night, and the desert know me

And the sword, the spear, paper, and the pen

– a famous line of poetry by the poet Al-Mutanabbi (known for his bragging!) from 10th century Baghdad

On education

What I want is knowledge of how things really are,

so must I not [first] try to find out what knowledge really is?

– from المُنْقِذ من الضلال / Deliverance from Error, by Al-Ghazali, a philosopher of 11th century Baghdad and the Arab empire

Knowledge is in the head
Not in the notebook
– Arab proverb

The king’s adviser had two daughters: the elder named Shahrazad, and the younger named Dunyazad. The eldest had read the great books, history, the ancient sagas of kings, and tales of past nations. It was said that she had collected a thousand books on the history of great peoples, and on the chief rulers and poets. She said to her father: Why do I see you upset, carrying worries and sadness? As it is said: “Tell the one who carries worries that worries don’t last forever. Just as happiness ends, so worries end also.” – from the opening story of الف ليلة وليلة / The One Thousand and One Nights in the Arabic Mohsen Mahdi edition, transcribed from a 14th century manuscript

On life

If an idiot wants to do you harm, disregard him

and leave it to time to teach him his lesson

And avoid dirty injustice, for when a mountain seeks to harm

another mountain, the aggressor will be ruined.

– Poetry in the Story of Jawdar, One Thousand and One Nights Mohsen Mahdi edition of 14th century manuscript

“There are two blessings which many people lose: good health and free time.”

– a saying of the prophet Muhammad, narrated by Ibn Abbas and recorded by Bukhari, a 9th century scholar (see Kitab al-Raqaq in Sahih al-Bukhari)

 On displacement

la anta anta wala diyaru diyaru

You are not you, and home is not home

– opening words in a poem by Abu Tammam

On love

You are the completion of my happiness

When you approach, good news alights, O Light of My Eyes

– a line of Moroccan malhun poetry (the subject of my dissertation)

On religion and spirituality

I fell in love; Is there anything wrong with love?
Love did not muddle my head
What did I and the others do wrong? How they revile me!
My religion is my affair and other people’s religion is theirs.

– by Abu Nuwas (Iraq c. 756-810) from Diwan Abi Nuwas al-Hasan ibn Hani, ed. Ahmad Abd al-Majid al-Ghazzali (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1966): 265

On travel

lisan jadid, insan jadid

New language, new person.

– An Arab proverb on the effects of language learning

NEA Grant Recipient!

Melanie A. Magidow Receives NEA Literature Translation Fellowship

Fellowship will support the translation into English
of The Adventures of Dhat al-Himma

(the Arabic epic Sirat al-amira Dhat al-Himma)



Washington, DC — Today, the National Endowment for the Arts announced that Melanie Magidow has been recommended for an NEA Literature Translation Fellowship of $12,500. Magidow is one of 23 recommended fellows for 2017. In total, the NEA is recommending $325,000 in grants this round to support the new translation of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 13 different languages into English.

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“Translating a work of literature takes not only deep knowledge of another language, but also skill, artistry, and dedication,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “I am proud of the NEA’s long commitment to supporting literary translation. This art form plays an important role in providing Americans with a truly unique insight into other cultures as well as access to some of our world’s greatest writers.”

Since 1981, the NEA has awarded 433 fellowships to 383 translators, with translations representing 67 languages and 81 countries. For the complete list of FY 2017 NEA Literature Translation Fellows, visit the NEA’s website at

Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. For more information, visit the NEA at

The announcement on the NEA site is here.

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.

Arts of the Arab World II: Popular Culture & Verbal Art






Image of Bayad playing his oud



Some of my favorite contemporary Moroccan artists:

See here for a concert of psalms sung in Arabic, performed by Lebanese Catholic nun Sister Marie Keyrouz.

 Poetry and Oral Compositions

The oldest extant example of Arabic literature is poetry, composed and performed orally. Here is a 9th century poem in English translation.

See here for James Montgomery’s translations of “Horse, Hawk, and and Cheetah: Three Arabic Hunting Poems by Abu Nuwas” (from the early 9th c.)

Check out this post for spoken word of the present day.


The most influential example of Arabic literature is the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, and it too was recited orally. German scholar Angelika Neuwirth has written of the Qur’an as a “late antique text” that emphasizes knowledge. See here for more on the implications of her work.

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


 Public Culture

In addition to poetry, aphorisms, and tales, oral culture can also include rumors that mold public discourses.

Broader than oral culture, public culture can include almost any art. Here are more resources on public culture in specific areas:


Moroccan Malhun (Sung) Poetry

(more to be added later).

Arts of the Arab World I: Material Culture

I have read a lot about the glorious accomplishments of “the Arabs” or “the Muslims” in the distant past. Instead of focusing on some mythic golden age, this site includes any material culture that I find beautiful and noteworthy. So while some examples are historical, some are contemporary.

For some incredibly beautiful historic art and architecture photos and information on patterns, see here.

Photo by Radwa El Barouni, carving in Fes


One of my favorite pieces of art is a blue and white lamp from the sixteenth century. For some contemporary ceramics that I think are well worth checking out, see the work of Myriam Mourabit (Rabat, Morocco).


One of the most distinctive kinds of woodwork in the Arab World is mashrabiyya, latticed screens traditionally fitted together without any adhesive or hardware. Historically, they developed as a strategy for comfort and privacy so that urban families could enjoy fresh air from the outdoors without exposing themselves to public scrutiny. For contemporary woodwork, I can recommend Nadim (Cairo, Egypt).

(Photo by Ruth B.)

Painting / Drawing

One of the most valued arts throughout the Islamic world is calligraphy. See here for the highlights from a contemporary calligraphy exhibition in Malaysia. This site has featured the work of Moataz Nasr of Cairo here.


Preview: khyamiyya appliqué (Egypt), Tally Art (southern Egypt), embroidery in Palestine and Jordan…


Top-of-the-line Azza Fahmy jewelry (Egypt)

More kinds of material culture to follow…


Photo by Radwa El Barouni


New Year, Old Words


Here in Rhode Island, we have had fairly warm weather. So many people receive it with trepidation, citing global warming. They worry what this means for the future. In other locations, people worry about an influx of refugees or an exodus of the most educated and skilled workers. Nearly everyone worries about violence, whether in schools or in terrorist attacks. At this time, when the Gregorian Calendar restarts, I find it important to recognize that in the midst of these concerns, there are many voices that express principles of courage, steadfastness, joy, and flexibility.

These words by Eleanor Roosevelt seem as apt today as they did in 1960…

“There is another fear problem which is growing more widespread and which, I think, we must do all we can to check at the source. Increasingly people are growing afraid of what is in store for the world. They wonder whether they should plan to go in for professions and build homes and bring up families.

‘There is so little security,’ they say. ‘We don’t know what to plan for.’

Well, what security did our first settlers have when they embarked on the Mayflower? Only what they could create for themselves with their own courage, their own activities, their own trust in themselves to be able to meet any situations–all unknown, all threatening–that they might encounter. It is the only way anyone can plan his life.

Today the world faces a great challenge: on one side a government preserved by fear, on the other a government of free men [people]. I haven’t ever believed that anything supported by fear can stand against freedom from fear. Surely we cannot be so stupid as to let ourselves become shackled by senseless fears. The result of that would be to have a system of fear imposed on us.

Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heros overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering that we have the strength to stare it down.”

Source Text: You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1960): 40-41.

Photo: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Indian Ocean Bali, 1991 (from here).

Psalms in Arabic

In response to the recent violence in Beirut and Paris, I offer this video featuring the music, philosophy, and singing of Sister Marie Keyrouz, a Lebanese Catholic nun who sings in Arabic. For more, see her website.

Also, I recommend this article: A Muslim Woman’s First Thoughts After the Paris Attacks by Hasnaa Mokhtar. She does an excellent job of showing why Muslims should not be held responsible for terrorist attacks. When mainstream American culture embraces Islamophobia, it holds Muslims hostage and endangers the humanity of all of us.