Is it news when an Egyptian trilogy, an Algerian love story and a short-story collection by an Iraqi win prizes in Cairo?
After all, the Arab world is full of literary competitions: Literature holds a central place in Arab culture, and poets and writers have enjoyed high status in the Arab world since pre-Islamic times. So why the fuss?
In fact, the prizes awarded in Cairo last November had a special significance: They were awarded to three women, in a moving ceremony that concluded the first Arab Women's Book Fair.
There have always been women writers in Arabic literature, fewer in number than men, but in many cases much respected and admired. Tumadir bint 'Amr, called al-Khansa', was born in Najd, in the center of today's Saudi Arabia, at about the time of the Prophet Muhammad; she was celebrated not only for the intensity and tenderness of her elegies, but also for the new directions she gave that long-established form of verse.
The Andalusian poet-princess Walladah bint al-Mustakfi wrote spirited and classical verse of her own, maintained a literary salon in the waning days of Muslim Cordoba and inspired at least one of the era's greatest male poets. And in our own day, Nazik al-Mala'ika is often credited with founding the free-verse movement in Arabic in the 1950's.
For this first women's book fair, 26 publishers from 10 countries brought 1500 titles—fiction and non-fiction—to exhibit in the Hanager Center, the cultural complex that also houses Cairo's opera house and the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art. Arabic books were shown from Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; Dar el Fennec of Morocco exhibited works in French as well as Arabic; Arabic and English-language books were offered by Al-Saqi Press of London and Palestinian women's studies centers in Jerusalem and at Bir Zeit University. The presses of the University of Texas and the American University in Cairo showed English-language titles.
"Not bad for a first effort," commented Hesna Makdashi, executive director of Cairo's El Nour publishing house and head of a committee of independent writers, editors and social activists who spent two years putting the fair together. They raised funds from local businesses as well as international agencies to finance installation, publicity and the three prizes.
Radwa Ashour of Egypt took first prize with her Andalusian trilogy, whose component novels are named after a place, a person and an event: Granada, Manama and Al-Rahil (The Departure). All are set around 1492, when the fall of Granada marked the end of Arab hegemony in Spain (See Aramco World, January/February 1993). Ashour was cited for her lyrical approach to the lives of ordinary people during a turbulent century that, said the judges, "also evokes present events." The work was published by Dar al-Hilal, Cairo.
Second prize went to the Algerian novelist Ahlam Moustaghanami for Dhakim al-Jasad (Memory of the Body), published in Beirut by Dar al-Adab. The first novel written in Arabic by an Algerian woman, the work is a love story set in the context of political struggle and painful exile.
Bouthaina al-Nassiri, who lives in Baghdad and Cairo, won third prize for her short-story collection Watan Akhar (Another Homeland), published by Dar Sina of Cairo. The judges, Ferial Ghazoul, Edward Kharrat and Latifa Zayyad, noted al-Nassiri's ability to engage readers in the difficulties of everyday life. And in the closing ceremony, they paid tribute to the quantities of excellent work submitted to the milestone competition.
"This is a way to showcase women's writing," publisher Makdashi explained. "We knew that a lot of first-rate work was being produced by women, but it never seemed to show up at the big book fairs." She paused, smiled, then added, "It's true that once in a while you might find a little booth off in one corner. We decided to try and change that."
The fair clearly made the point that Arab women's writing, no longer produced just for a private audience, has become competitive in the literary marketplace. But it also raised other questions about the marginalization or "ghettoization" of women's work, and the neglect of other writing.
"No, no," protested Makdashi. "None of us is interested in segmenting society, separating one sector from the others. Women's work should be judged like all literary work, in terms of its quality. But," she added, "one must remember that women's work is often not taken seriously, either in the West or in the Arab world. It needs a bit of a public push, I think, and our fair is an effort in that direction."
Four hundred guests showed up for the gala opening, to hear the keynote address by Dr. Salma Khadra al-Jayyusi, Palestinian poet and critic (See Aramco World, January/February 1991). Jayyusi cited the emergence of Arab women in the last half of the 20th century and "their achievements in education, science and politics as well as in arts and literature."
All the Egyptian media, along with journalists from Italy, Germany, Spain, Morocco and the Netherlands, covered the book fair, which included daily seminars and panel discussions. Students flocked to the evening sessions, when visiting women writers discussed their work and talked about the difficulties of balancing the demands of family with those of art.
And there were dramatic moments, when poets and novelists from different countries, who knew each other's work but had never met in person, were introduced and spontaneously embraced.
Practical sessions on the problems of writing, editing, publishing and distribution were also included. Having difficulty getting your work published because mainstream houses insist there is no market for women's writing? Start your own press, advised Mai Ghoussoub of Al-Saqi, Laila Chaouni of Dar el Fennec and Hesna Makdashi, whose publishing house produces the magazine Nour as well as specialized books on women. All agreed that the route is not an easy one, but, said Chaouni, "We're still in business and making ends meet, at least."
Mai Ghoussoub concurred, but pointed out, "I don't just publish books by women. I bring out books about the Arab world in general as well as books by Arab writers, often in translation." The award of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature to Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, Ghoussoub said, and the increasing availability of his work in other languages, has stimulated the market for good translations of other works of Arabic literature.
El Nour hopes to sponsor a women's book fair every two years as part of a broader marketing strategy of highlighting women's work and making it generally available to the public, Makdashi said. "We want to reach into the schools, too," she added, "so that children growing up in the Arab world today can understand women's growing contribution to their literary heritage." To this end, the book fair committee budgeted funds to distribute copies of the prizewinning books to high schools and high-school libraries.
The fair also dramatized the continuing need for translation of new Arabic work for the world's reading public. Is translation a part of El Nour's long-range program? "Oh, yes," said Makdashi. "We've already begun, but as you know from Dr. Jayyusi's example, it is not easy. Dedication is needed, and funds, and literary judgment. We continue to work, one step at a time."
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea is professor of English and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She recently editedChildren in the Muslim Middle East, published by the University of Texas Press.
Thomas Hartwell has covered the Middle East forTime and other publications for more than a decade from Cairo. He recently photographed Nile: Passage to Egypt, a CD-ROM for children published by Discovery Channel Multimedia