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Erotic Writing by Arab Women

recommended by Selma Dabbagh

We Wrote In Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers edited by Selma Dabbagh


We Wrote In Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers
edited by Selma Dabbagh


Arab women have been writing erotic literature for millennia and have become more creative and daring in recent years in the wake of the Arab Spring and the spread of social media, says novelist Selma Dabbagh, editor of a new anthology, We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers. Here, she picks five key examples of erotic writing by women of the region.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

We Wrote In Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers edited by Selma Dabbagh


We Wrote In Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers
edited by Selma Dabbagh

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Could you tell us about the significance of Arab women writing erotic literature?

The concept of Arab women writing erotic literature subverts presumptions. Arab women are rarely seen as being writers, yet they were some of the first women to write. The Arab world is no longer associated with positive erotic forces, yet it has a tradition of erotological writing. Women are not assumed to have agency when it comes to sexual desires, but are associated with sexual repression. The literature from the region is rich and yet unexplored. Islam, the dominant religion of the region, is always associated with hate, not love and so on. My new anthology We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women is a collection published in English, so in a way it speaks back to these presumptions, but it is also a celebration of audacity, craft, daring by a group of remarkable women over a period of up to 5,000 years. It’s also fun and sexy, which is again something rarely connected with the region.

We Wrote in Symbols is published by Saqi who specialise in anthologies; one of their earlier anthologies, Classical Poems by Arab Women, edited by Abdullah Al-Udhari—one of my choices—was a revelation to me. I had no idea that Arab women were writing so early on. I was also shocked by the way that these early poets (up to 4,000 BCE onwards according to Al-Udhari) talked about their own sexuality, which was very assertive, confident. Some pieces were not overtly provocative. They weren’t speaking back to be put down, it was stating, sometimes playfully: this is what we are, this is what we want.

Recently, I realised that I identified more with how contemporary Arab women writers dealt with issues of sexuality and love, lust, and the erotic. For long periods of time there have been strict prohibitions on Arab women talking about these aspects of their lives—taboos universally fixate on women’s sexuality and the Arab world is no exception, but I noticed that the voices had become more creative and daring. Something changed with the Arab Spring and the introduction of social media. Discussions of female sexuality were becoming more open and that was reflected in the literature and new writing.

“Arab women are rarely seen as being writers, yet they were some of the first women to write”

I suggested to Saqi that we tried to chart this movement in our writing. For me, it’s important to think about Arab writers and writers of Arab heritage, rather than connecting it to any religion. There were quite a lot of minefields, in terms of where I could go wrong. But I was curious how the Arab world was a region that was so associated with sensuality; in the 19th century and earlier, the Orientalist outlook was that the East was an area of sexual liberality. A rich realm of the senses: spices, silks, you know. Vibrant exoticism—and relished as such. Now it’s just viewed as a colourless, dulled, politically destroyed place.

There’s come to be weird stereotypes about that part of the world. What one poet, Nathalie Handal, said: that there’s an assumption that ‘Arabs don’t love with a beating heart.’ I wanted to put together a collection that showed up that part of the world in a more positive way. I’m not denying that there are a lot of serious issues that need to be addressed, but I wanted to celebrate what women of Arab heritage were doing in their writing and the way they live—skills and strategies they have to develop in order to deal with censorship, prohibitions—and the long poetic tradition as a point of inspiration.

The anthology that you produced includes work from the first writer that you want to recommend today. This is Salwa Al Neimi, and her book The Proof of the Honey, translated by Carol Perkins.

Salwa Al Neimi is a Syrian writer who lives in Paris. She studied Islamic philosophy and theatre at the Sorbonne and has published five volumes of poetry and a collection of short stories. The narrator in her novel, The Proof of the Honey, works in an archive and has an interest in the ancient tradition of Arab erotological writings.

You described this book as a ‘novel of sorts’ earlier.

That’s right. If you pick it up expecting a novel in that more Anglo-Saxon tradition of steady progress through the plot, then that doesn’t really happen in this book. It’s more of a series of encounters with different men which overlap, and they tie backwards and in and out of discourses and debates on the role of the erotic in Arab history. I suppose you could generalise and say it’s talking back to Western perceptions; she quotes a French writer who said that there’s no sex in Islamic society. She’s responding to that, in a way.

I think what I like about it is that her voice is very loving, tender and honest. This is the sort of book that stays with you. It works on different levels within your consciousness. It’s kind of dreamlike in the way that the men in it blur together. They become indistinguishable, or the encounter folds out, and makes you feel like you’ve lived these encounters, or you are reliving all the encounters you’ve had in your life. There are also scenes of meeting up with other Arab writers and artists and filmmakers in European capitals, which is not something you see much of in literature.

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It’s divided into 11 sections, which are called ‘The Gates’. She goes back to her childhood in Damascus, and her early ideas about sexuality and friendships and romantic encounters. It’s a softer way of seeing a country like Syria—seeing the beauty and romance of it through girls talking together about love and sex.

She’s a very intelligent woman. Very brave. The book was banned in most Arab countries. In the countries where it was published, it was popular. But leaving the whole banning issue aside, it’s a book I’ve gone back to a number of times, because each time I read it I get a different level of appreciation for it.

That’s lovely. Your second book recommendation is Ahdaf Soueif’s In The Eye of the Sun. First published in 1992, this is a tragic story of a marriage. Perhaps you can tell us what it’s about, and why you recommend it.

Of all the books on the list, this is probably the most personally important to me. I read it when I was living and working in Cairo in the mid-nineties, and it was one of the first novels I read by an Arab woman writing in English. There’s a sense of movement between the Arab world and Britain, to this dull, cold, north of England university town—and I’d been to Durham University, so I could get all of that, and I could get the Cairo scenes too. It’s a large book, at almost 800 pages. But I remember living with it, walking around with it, and rushing back from work to continue reading it.

The title is the name of a song by The Doors, and there are contemporary music tracks running along in the background. It has been compared to George Eliot’s Middlemarch by Edward Said, probably because of its breadth, and how it covers the whole of the Arab world at a particular period in time. You’ve got the background of the 1967 war, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalism, you’ve got famous Arab musicians like Umm Kulthum, all against the story of a girl growing up and marrying the man she loves.

It seems like a wonderful love story. He seems the perfect choice for her. There’s a great sense of love, but somehow the sexual element of that love just never manifests itself. I thought it was important to include a section from this novel in my anthology, because it shows how a relationship can really go wrong like that—if love and lust don’t collide. Also because of concepts of shame, you don’t have the ability to vocalise those difficulties. They’re glamorous, good-looking, but there’s a tragic flaw in this marriage, and they just can’t get past it. It wrenches them apart to the extent that she ends up taking an English lover, who she doesn’t have the same connection with. There’s a cruelty in how sexual desire can sometimes land on a completely inappropriate person. I think that’s universal.

“Something changed with the Arab Spring and the introduction of social media”

What I really respect about a lot of these women writers, and Soueif is a key example of that, is how they often have two or three things going on in their lives; they often have a demanding day job—they’re doctors, psychiatrists, lecturers or whatever—and they have a writing career, and then on top of that they’ve got their role as political activists. Souief is particularly skilled at that, she wrote clear, incisive commentary during the uprising in Egypt in 2011 for the Guardian, which she then turned into a book about Cairo (Cairo: My City, Our Revolution). She is somebody very personally impacted by the changes of the regime. Her nephew, Alaa Abdel-Fatteh is currently in prison in Egypt. She went to protest to have him released at the beginning of lockdown, and the authorities arrested her. She’s the founder of PalFest, the Palestinian festival of literature. I travelled with her to Gaza, and I just find her such an incredibly impressive woman, political thinker, mother and writer.

I should also say that she writes about sex very well, in terms of being able to get all the little calibrations of thought which go alongside the act. She’s not schmaltzy. It’s very difficult to write about sex well. The pornographic, the titillating, can be easy—but she instead gets the mood swings that go with it. She can convey not just how beautiful it can be but also how complex and problematic.

I imagine sexual humiliation must also be particularly difficult to approach. We don’t have so many examples. I suppose there’s On Chesil Beach, and maybe some bits of Philip Roth.

That’s true. On Chesil Beach… I hadn’t caught that connection, but there’s a definite connection. This is from a female perspective. It’s more nuanced, closer and yet more political and descriptive of the societal landscape than Chesil Beach.

Let’s talk about your third book recommendation: Ghita El Khayat’s The Affair, translated from the French by Peter Thompson. It was first published in 1994 under a pseudonym.

The plot essentially charts an affair that goes on for several years between a young woman and an older man who is a bit of an intellectual. They meet mainly in what she calls ‘the slum’, even though they’re both—by the description of the circles they move in—more affluent. Like the Salwa Al Neimi book, there is not a consistent chronological development, it’s quite choppy. But it’s a series of meetings and strong emotions and scenes that she places together. So: not too heavy on plot, I’d say, but there is some.

El Khayat sounds extremely interesting.

She is quite a phenomenon. Her CV is extraordinary, she’s the one Nobel Prize nominee in the collection among many prize-adorned writers. Her work aside, I was keen to include her  because she is a Francophone writer from the Arab world, which leads to a double prejudice (it being written by an Arab writer in another European tongue). Not enough Francophone writing comes through, partly because there’s a lack of translation into English. It used to be around 3% of the total for fiction publications, but this has thankfully increased. I’ve been very keen to read as many Francophone North African and Lebanese writers as possible. El Khayat also falls into another ‘minority’ bracket as she, like Samira Negrouche, an Algerian poet I included in We Wrote In Symbols, is of Amazigh/Berber origin.

El Khayat’s a psychiatrist, writer and poet. She was very much influenced by Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. The Affair has been described as the first book by an Arab woman to chart an affair like this, the first erotic novel. She published it initially under a pseudonym, Lyne Tywa, in the 90s. What I loved about it is that she describes these quite ludicrous situations she gets into because of this man. On one level she holds him in contempt, because when she talks to him she finds him really boring. But she gets drawn back into this slum and to him bossing her around in bed. Because of her psychiatric background she loves to analyse and stand outside the characters, asking ‘what’s going on at this point in time? What is the logic? Or is there nothing logical about this situation at all?’

That early choice to write under a pseudonym: I suppose it’s not uncommon in those writing explicitly about sex, and must offer an extra layer of freedom to the Arab woman. But to have written under a false name, and then later accepted the book as her own—I guess the recognition of it as a work of literature must have helped in that decision?

I asked her about this; she said: “I was married, had a daughter. It seemed just impossible to face the society and family under my name.” And in that period, Morocco was experiencing what she called les Années de plomb—literally ‘years of lead’—harsh political times. It was written in 1985 and not published until the mid 1990s.

I do think it’s a real problem with all writing, and particularly erotic writing, that the general mode of critique now is to constantly ask people if this is something that happened to them. Is this autobiographical? The expectation that fiction writers are creating fiction seems to be reduced. For some writers it can be freeing to dissociate yourself from the work. There’s one writer in my anthology, Nedjma, who has never revealed her name and where she is. So some people will keep the cover even after success. Maybe Ghita El Khayat felt she’d grown enough in prestige to weather the storm—or she was a bit older, and I think that’s sometimes freeing. Older women are less likely to be under attack for writing works like this. Personally I would have found it more difficult when I was younger.

I heard Dolly Alderton, the relationship columnist, speaking about this recently. She’s in her early thirties, and she said that however liberal she is herself, sometimes she has moments when she brushes against public opinion—or at least, members of the public and their opinions of her work—and she wonders whether it really matters how empowered she feels and what her intentions are, if this is how she is being perceived.

Yes. The erotic activities of fictive characters stick on female writers in a way that other activities of their characters wouldn’t, crime writers being a key example. Unlike carrying out or solving murders, most people have sex, but female writers are shamed for writing about this most basic of human activities. Given that we are being globally inundated with extreme male visions of sex through the porn industry, it is a bit much that women can’t put their desires across.

Initially, we were thinking of the subtitle of ‘Lust and Erotica’ for the collection, but erotica is really quite distinctive; the idea of titillation/turning on the reader is central to it. I also found that there was a tradition of Arab erotica by men, for example The Old Man’s Rejuvenation, by the 13th century Egyptian writer Al-Tifashi. Although there is a big Arab tradition of male erotology—partly connected to the idea of sexuality needing to be embraced for the harmony of society and the balance of wellbeing—female narrators were used by these men. So that, as a body of work, could give rise to the label, but the modern stuff doesn’t. For us, it’s more about the erotic as it arises. It’s more general.

Next let’s discuss an anthology that we’ve already mentioned; Abdullah Al-Udhari’s Classical Poems by Arab Women.

It’s published by Saqi, it’s bilingual, and it has a very nice little introduction which leads you through the different periods from 4000 BCE and the pre-Islamic or Jāhiliyyah—which is a term that means ‘the Age of Ignorance’—and then the Islamic period, the different dynasties or era: Umayyad, Abbasid, Andalusia.

The poems are arranged chronologically, so it’s a good introduction to women’s writing and history. Al-Udhari was one of the first to put women’s poetry at the forefront. There had been women’s writings in anthologies, the occasional woman poet, but normally they were incidental to the male narratives; lamenting at the funeral of a man, or otherwise supporting men in some way. Udhari grounded these more personal writings by women, and put them in the context of the different societal and sexual freedoms during this period. Some of them are so moving and fresh. Some of the very old poems have a similar style as the contemporary ones, for example Silvia el Helo’s Cure.

After 1492 when the Arabs, Muslims and Jews were expelled from Andalusia, you get a silencing of women’s writing on the subject. There was a moratorium of almost 500 years when women stopped writing on love and lust. Some poems exist, which are quite religious, but they are muted, subdued.

One of the star poets in Udhari’s collection is Ulayya bint al-Mahdi, the sister of Harun al-Rashid, of One Thousand and One Nights fame. She wrote poems to men, to women, and even apparently a court eunuch. According to scholars, there was greater fluidity regarding sexuality at the time, modern categorisations came in force much later.

That’s interesting. Your final book collection is I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops, which is a short story collection by Hanan al-Shaykh.

Hanan al-Shaykh has written several novels and several short story collections. She’s well established. And she broke a lot of taboos. She was the first Arab woman writer that I read in my teens, translated from Arabic. Many of her books are set in Beirut, and some of which are quite harsh— with politically severe backgrounds. But the characters have this ‘deep life force,’ to use Audre Lorde’s terminology about how she defines the erotic. Al Shaykh has an incredible spirit and is funny. Her female characters are inventive, creative, tender, absurd. She can dwell on a moment and extrapolate out into quite obscure thoughts… she’s not afraid to be a little bit ludicrous on occasion, which I appreciate.

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This collection is set between Beirut, Africa, Cairo. In the story I included in We Wrote In Symbols, a woman tries to excite her husband by making him watch Japanese erotic films, after being encouraged by her friend who is much wilder than she is. Another one of the stories is a love story about a woman whose husband left her for another woman just before he died. During a memorial to the woman’s mother, all these crazy theatrical friends of her mother pile into her flat and start trying to raise the dead with an ouiji board, and she manages, kind of negligently, to contact her dead husband, and she asks him: did you love me? She wants to keep him in the cup, but the others are like ‘no, you’ve got to let him go back to the spirit world.’ There’s such energy in her writing. She’s daring without trying to be overtly provocative. Her brand of feminism is a sort of charm offensive that you can’t resist.

We touched on this split in writing, between the Francophone and Anglophone worlds. And of course, Arab writing is often originally written in the Arabic. I wonder: do these languages lend themselves to different styles? Are there different personalities to the linguistic outputs?

The language writers of Arab origin I chose are based on a number of factors—where the writer was educated, where they live, what country they come from, but none of this is clear-cut anymore.  It’s ironic that if you compare Salwa al Neimi and Rita al Khayat, the former is based in Paris and writes in Arabic, the latter is based in Morocco and writes in French. It is a terrible generalisation, but in terms of prose, I would say the Francophone and Arabic language writers are more playful when it comes to chronology and less concerned with having a taut plot. The reader is encouraged to float and dive into the test.

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There’s also a different question that’s to do with positioning. When you have an Arab writer working in English, there’s a an expectation that you are explaining your country, your culture, the politics. English language writers are often expected to carry the narrative of justification, or an explanation. In Ahdaf Soueif’s novel, you have these large sections which are to do with the politics of the time: what happened in the ’67 and ’73 wars. It’s a breakdown full of interesting details, like miscommunications between the generals, that develop an overall picture for the outside reader. Edward Said talked about the importance for writers to reclaim their history, to bear witness, not just for outsider (non-Arab) readerships, but also for the Arab readers. It is a question of bringing history to life, in the way that it was lived, rather than in the way the media of that country or outside countries tell you that it was lived.

Arabic does not always translate well into English. I am very proud of the quality of the translations in our anthology. I couldn’t have got better translators: Prof. Marilyn Booth, Prof. Wen-chin Ouyang, Alice Guthrie, Claire Cobham, Yasmine Seale, Robin Moger, Sophie Lewis. They are responsible for translating not just the words, but the sensibilities, the atmosphere, the era. Translators have always been our gateways to other cultures and they provide an invaluable role as such. I think that English language readers with puritanical sensibilities can be put off when there’s an indulgence in sentimentality. It’s seen as indulgent. Another cultural gap in women’s writing is that it’s seen to be off-putting to have a narrator who is really happy about being beautiful, but why should it be? Some of the writers, going back hundreds of years, have this approach that it’s what God gave you, so enjoy it. But that too can alienate an English-speaking reader. They’re like: get over yourself, stop being vain. So sometimes it’s cultural, sometimes it’s linguistic. In We Wrote In Symbols, we sought to find texts that bridged that gap while encouraging the reader to feel these primitive yearnings through the hearts, bodies and words of another region of the world.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

July 8, 2021

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Selma Dabbagh

Selma Dabbagh

Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer. Born in Scotland, she has lived in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, France, Egypt and the West Bank. Her first novel, Out of It,’ (Bloomsbury, 2011) set between London, Gaza and the Gulf, was listed as a Guardian Book of the Year. Her fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in numerous anthologies. She has also written radio plays for BBC Radio 4 and WDR in Germany, short stories for outlets such as Granta and International PEN and written for film and stage. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Guardian, London Review of Books and other publications. She lives in London.

Selma Dabbagh

Selma Dabbagh

Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer. Born in Scotland, she has lived in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, France, Egypt and the West Bank. Her first novel, Out of It,’ (Bloomsbury, 2011) set between London, Gaza and the Gulf, was listed as a Guardian Book of the Year. Her fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in numerous anthologies. She has also written radio plays for BBC Radio 4 and WDR in Germany, short stories for outlets such as Granta and International PEN and written for film and stage. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Guardian, London Review of Books and other publications. She lives in London.