Marcia Lynx Qualey
Last updated: 28 January, 2015

Arab women writers pick their favorite Arab women writers

Blogger 'Arablit' asked ten acclaimed Arab women writers to choose their favorite novels by other Arab women writers.


Hoda Barakat’s Stone of Laughter (English version available from Interlink, trans. Sophie Bennett)

“The novel that I’ve loved the most by an Arab woman writer is Hoda Barakat’s Stone of Laughter, which I read for the first time when the Egyptian edition was issued in 1998, and this was the first time I knew her writing. I bought it during the last two years of exams during university from a newspaper-and-bookseller who stood in front of the University of Cairo’s main gate, after its cover grabbed my attention.

I read the first pages and couldn’t leave the book until I had finished it. Although I had an important exam the next day, I spent my night with the protagonist Khalil, and sympathized with him, and tried to see the world through his eyes.

I loved the way Hoda Barakat revealed her protagonist gradually, just as I loved the images of Beirut at the center of the craziness of the game of war, and I saw in the Beirut of the Stone of Laughter any city in a similar situation.

Even now, I still appreciate The Stone of Laughter and see it as one of Hoda Barakat’s strongest works.”


Duna Ghali’s Orbits of Loneliness (2013)

“Truth is, there is a long list of Arab women’s work that I’m sure was important in the history of my reading, but what I remember is the last text I read that had a profound impact on me, and that’s Duna Ghali’s “Orbits of Loneliness,” a novel that tells about the narrator’s relationship to her young child during a time of war and siege in Iraq, both before and after the US military invasion.

The novel describes the complex relationship between a mother and her son, the loneliness and togehterness, the fears and harsh life under siege. It is a feminist novel that in incisive and bold in its psychologyical complexity, unprecedented exploration in modern Arabic literature.”


“Hoda Barakat’s work, especially The Stone of Laughter and The Tiller of Waters, stand among my favourite works by modern Arab female writers. It’s not just the way she narrates the civil war or the madness of Beirut, but her humour, cynicism and first and foremost, her originality.


Another whose work I admire is Safinaz Kazem. When I was a young writer in my 20s, I would never have been able to admit this, as the Islamic ideology behind her work stood as a barrier between it and me. I read her 1970 Romantikeyyat, an account of her years in America as a young student, while working on my PhD dissertation on Arab Travel Narratives of America. Other female writers I read  would be filter their experiences through some ideological lense or another, as if they had left their bodies at home. Kazem’s account, on the other hand, was one of a transformative journey that made me read the entirety of her oeuvre with great relish. Likewise, there are memoirs written by some Arab female writers that deserve mention, even if one isn’t a fan of their work as a whole: Hamlat taftish: Awraq shakhsiya (1992), by Latifa Zayat, ِAwraqi…Hayati (1995), by Nawal El Saadawi, and Alaa al- Jisr (1986) by Aisha Abd al-Rahman (also known as Bint al-Shati). One feels, in these works, that the authors speak in their own voices, unfettered by the collective will or collective projects so present in their other writings.”


Rasha Al Ameer’s Judgement Day (translated into the English by Jonathan Wright)

“I consider ÙŠÙˆÙ… الدين, (Dar Al-Jadeed, 2002) the book of the Lebanese writer Rasha Al Ameer, the fiction that one should read.

* Translated into French by Youssef Seddik as Le dernier jour: confessions d’un imam, Paris: Actes Sud, 2009.

* Translated into English by Jonathan WrightJudgment Day: A Modern Arabic Novel, Oxford University Press, 2011.”


Iman Mersal’s A Dark Alley Suitable for Learning to Dance and Walking As Long As Possibleas well as Samira Azzam’s The Clock and the Man.

“Books I cherish and in fact allowed me finally to appreciate Arabic poetry are two collections by Iman Mersal:

  • ممر معتم يصلح لتعلم الرقص، دار شرقيات، القاهرة، طبعة أولى 1995.
  • المشي أطول وقت ممكن، دار شرقيات، القاهرة، 1997.
 “Whereas a writer who influenced my life is Samira Azzam, especially her:
  1. الساعة والإنسان ـ المؤسسة الأهلية للطباعة ـ بيروت 1963″

A number of Mersal’s poems were collected into These Are Not Oranges, My Love, trans. Khaled Mattawa. You can read some of the poems on Blackbird. 

I don’t believe a collection of Azzam’s work has ever been translated, although her stories can be found in a few collections, such as Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women. You can also watch a short film based on the short story “The Man and the Clock.”


Alia Mamdouh’s The Passion 

“Alia Mamdouh was my great discovery — her book al-Wala3 (published in 1993). You cannot imagine how beautiful this book is.”

This novel is available in French translation as La Passion and Mamdouh’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning The Loved Ones is avaiable in English (trans. Marilyn Booth) and her Napthalene is available in English (trans Peter Theroux).


* RECOMMENDATION FROM Fatima Sharafeddine:

The Granada Trilogy, by Radwa Ashour

Only the first part of the trilogy — named one of the top 105 books of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union — is available in English translation, by William Granara.



Radwa Ashour’s The Granada Trilogy and Sahar Mandour’s I’ll Draw a Star on Vienna’s Forehead.

Mandour was born in Beirut in 1977 to an Egyptian father and a Lebanese mother. She studied psychology at L’Universite Saint Joseph in Beirut and afterwards worked as a journalist.

Her first novel, I’ll Draw a Star on Vienna’s Forehead, was published in Beirut in 2007. This was followed by A Beiruti Love and 32, both of which were bestsellers at the 2009-2010 Arab Book Fair in Beirut. Her fourth novel, Mina, was about a young gay actress living in Beirut.


Sahar Khalifeh, Latifa Zayyat’s The Open Door and Salwa Bakr

“The Palestinian writer Sahar Khalifeh — her novels are all good. And the Egyptian novelist Latifa Zayyat’s The Open Door. Also the short stories of Salwa Bakr.”

Khalifeh’s Door to the Courtyard is perhaps her most acclaimed work. Bab el-Saha, however, has not yet been translated into English. You can find it in German as Das Tor (Unionsverlag, 2004) and French as L’impasse de bab essaha (Flammarion, 1998).

Still, you can find at least these five novels by Khalifeh in English: Of Noble Origins (trans. Aida Bamia, AUC Press), The Inheritance (trans. by Aida Bamia, AUC Press); Wild Thorns (trans. Trevor Legassick and Elizabeth Fernea, Interlink); The End of Spring (trans. Paula Haydar, Interlink); and The Image, the Icon and the Covenant (trans. by Aida Bamia, Interlink).

Latifa Zayyat’s The Open Door is also available in translation from Marilyn Booth, and a collection of Salwa Bakr’s stories, The Wiles of Men and Other Stories was translated by Denys Johnson-Davies and published by AUC Press.



Lina Hoyan El Hassan’s Nazek Khanum

“Lina Hoyan El Hassan the Syrian writer, I loved her novel Nazek Khanum. It is smooth and entertaining and the main character was depicted very well.”

None of Lina Hoyan El Hassan’s (sometimes El Hosn) work has been translated into English. El Hassan was born in Syria in 1977 and studied philosophy at the University of Damascus. Her first novel, Girl of the Sun, was published in 1998, and Nazek Khanum is her most recent. She has left Syria and is currently working and writing in Beirut.