That Other Me by Maha Gargash

book cover with eye watching, next to cat on lap

a nutshell: set in ’90s Dubai and Cairo, this gripping novel follows two young women as they try to lead their own lives – in the shadow of an extremely authoritarian patriarch

a line: “They call us weak, but how can that be when we are able to bear so much.”

an image: I particularly liked the image of thoughts clambering over one another in Majed’s head like tiny red ants scurrying, seeking to build something out of chaos – the pain inflicted by red ants felt like exactly the right image for this abusive man’s mindset

a thought: the characters’ Khaleeji identity was an ongoing focus, with the author noting it was evident in the way that Mariam’s shayla was styled, in the herbs used to stuff baby goats for a special meal, and so on

a fact: as a documentary maker, Gargash’s research & scriptwriting delved into traditional Arab societies which fed into into her novels

want to read That Other Me? visit here

Our Women on the Ground: Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World (ed. Zahra Hankir)

Our Women on the Ground - on the ground

a nutshell: an extraordinary, ground-breaking, and pulsingly intimate collection of essays by 19 Arab women journalists – rather than meeting my high expectations, it soared above & beyond them

a line“We don’t publish the picture. It’s too graphic, and people are too sensitive. Those of us who count as people, with sensibilities” – Natacha Yazbeck

an image: born in Iraq and raised in Hull, Hind Hassan recalls many beautiful scenes of hospitality in the unlikeliest circumstances during assignments in her homeland, as well as a memory from the Iraqi community in which she grew up: a friend secretly slipping in & out of an ajar window to clean and cook for the whole family while Hind’s mother was having birth complications

a thought: I was fascinated by Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah’s reflections on her journey towards activating a “belated lens on gender” in her work, particularly her thoughts on the duality of selves (in the family home and the “street home”) and on power both inside & outside the newsroom – its complexity and, at times, invisibility

a fact: many of the women’s stories include the trauma of losing family, friends and colleagues to conflict zones or political repression, and it’d be remiss not to mention the very real risks they face just for doing their job – I hope their voices resound worldwide

N.B. Amira Al-Sharif’s chapter Yemeni Women with Fighting Spirits is my recommendation for writing by a woman from Yemen; as its title suggests, it’s a unique insight into resilience and empowerment in even the most trying conditions

want to read Our Women on the Ground? visit here

Elsewhere Home by Leila Aboulela

a nutshell: folding back & forth between Sudan and Scotland (as well as the occasional glimpse of Egypt, England & the UAE) these 13 short stories unveil a little of how it feels to forge a new life far from one’s homeland

a line: “I breed a new fear of not knowing, never knowing who these enemies are. How would I recognise them while they can so easily recognise me?”

an image: in ‘The Museum’ a Scottish classmate invites Sudanese student Shadia along to an exhibition about Africa (alarmingly vague as that is), where she quickly realises nothing represented her or what she missed about home – it was all merely Europe’s version & clichés about Africa, old and cold

a thought: in several of her stories Aboulela presents relationships in which two people are at odds in approaching their cultural contexts; at one point in ‘The Ostrich’ Majdy tells his wife that if she covers her hair in London they will think he is forcing her to, while she recalls her past in Sudan as a “freer woman”

a fact: Aboulela, who grew up in Khartoum and now lives in Aberdeen, won the 2000 Caine Prize for African Writing for ‘The Museum’

 

want to read Elsewhere Home? visit here

The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal El Saadawi (tr./ed. Dr Sherif Hetata)

Nawal el Saadawi's The Hidden Face of Eve

a nutshell: published in 1977, this landmark discourse on women in the Arab world is as disturbing and compelling as ever – probing FGM, sexual violence/suppression, fertility, marriage, injustice, sex work, religion, history and literature

a line: an extract from Article 67 of Egypt’s Common Law on Marriage here typified the prevailing attitude to women – “No alimony is liable to a wife if she refuses to yield herself to her husband … is the victim of a rape … or if she is suffering from any condition which might prevent the husband from utilising her as a wife”

an image: though the opening scene of Nawal’s own circumcision made a profoundly indelible impression, another image that stayed with me was her depiction of Arab feminist writer May Ziade’s exceptional mind & tragic end – personal setbacks prompted relatives to force her into Asfouria Hospital for Mental Diseases where eventually a report proved she was of sound mind; she returned to Egypt and died alone, aged 55, in a small flat in Cairo 

a thought: Nawal often returns to an essential paradox in how girls are brought up in the Arab world – the insistence on the need to attract an eligible husband, but simultaneously to put her ‘dangerous seductiveness’ out of sight

a fact: scholars have uncovered many depictions of women as the same size as men from the preliminary stages of ancient Egyptian society, indicating gender equality; a subsequent decrease in their size in such drawings/engravings corresponds with the appearance of private property (2420-2140 BC) – Nawal also points out that among ancient Romans the word ‘familia’ constituted a man’s possessions i.e. land, houses, money, slaves, women, children

 

want to read The Hidden Face of Eve? visit here