Documenting Arab Women's Literature

Issa J. Boullata

Masadir al-Adab al-Nisa'i Fi al-‘Alam al-‘Arabi al-Hadith,



By Joseph T. Zeidan. Beirut:

Al-Mu’assasa al-Arabiyya lil-Dirasat wal-Nashr, 1999. Hardcover, pp 783


Joseph Zeidan has distinguished himself by focusing on modern Arab women's literature in several of his recent publications, notably his “Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond” (1995) in English and his “Al-A‘mal al-Majhula li-Mayy Ziyada” (1996) in Arabic. The former is a historical and literary study of Arab women novelists, and the latter is an edition and a study of Mai Ziadeh's unpublished and unknown works.

In his most recent work, Zeidan offers in Arabic the most comprehensive bibliography yet, of Arab women's literature between 1800 and 1996. This useful book is very likely to become an indispensable reference work for all scholars interested in this field for many years to come.

There are 1271 alphabetically-arranged and consecutively-numbered entries in this bibliography, each representing an Arab woman writer whose works have been published sometime in the past two centuries. This is no mean figure for an Arab society which is often reproached as not offering sufficient opportunities to women. Most of these entries belong to the 20th century, especially the latter half of it, but a surprising large number belongs to the 19th century. All the Arab countries are represented, although North Africa seems to have lesser contributions than other regions, perhaps because of its long period of colonization by Europeans who discouraged the use of Arabic.

Each entry is divided into three sections: the first, giving a brief account of the woman's life; the second, a list of her writings; and the third, the sources where more information on her may be sought. In some cases, when information was not available to Zeidan, this tripartite division could not be consistently applied.

The woman's lives presented are mostly based on written sources but in some contemporary cases on correspondence between her and Zeidan. Their writings are identified as to their literary genres, unless impossible to ascertain, and their publication data is given, unless they are unknown. The sources given on each woman include books, chapters in books, and articles in encyclopedias, journals and sometimes newspapers.

The sources of Zeidan's book are listed alphabetically in the last 50 pages without separating articles from books. They include 534 in Arabic and 91 in Western languages. The Arabic periodicals he used amount to 132 and those in Western languages to 25. He literally scoured the largest number of reasonably available sources with rare diligence to document his book.

The value of a bibliographic reference book like this one is not only based on the comprehensiveness of its sources and coverage. It is also based on the accuracy of its information and the ease with which this information is made accessible to the reader. On both counts, Zeidan's book is commendable. However, despite his meticulous care, some minor errors have found their way into his large book. For example, the information in entry 737 on the Syrian poet and novelist Mu'mina Bashir al-‘Awf is given under her pen name, Sulafa al-‘Amiri, and is replicated in a truncated form in entry 904 under her real name. Yet in the latter entry, we are told she was born in Damascus in 1942 and obtained a doctorate in Islamic studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut, while this information is totally absent from entry 737 which, on the other hand, offers eight sources of further information on her when entry 904 offers none. Another example, on page 304, the titles of the English and French translations of the Arabic novel “ Hamlat Taftish: Awraq Shakhsiyya” (1992) by Egyptian scholar and fiction writer Latifa al-Zayyat (1923-1996) are given; but while the translator of the English version is mentioned, the translator of the French is not. There are also some typographical errors, especially in the Western languages used, such as in the title of Valerie J. Hoffman-Ladd's article, “Polemics on the Modesty and Segregation of Women” on page 468, printed as “Polemias...” instead of “Polemics...”, and there are a few others here and there. However, these minor errors do not detract from the overall value of the book and are astonishingly few in a volume of this size and complexity.

The entries on the women writers differ in length and range from 12 pages for Mai Ziadeh (1886-1941), 11 for Iraqi poet and critic Nazik al-Mala'ika (born 1923), 8 for Syrian fiction writer, poet, and columnist Ghada Samman (b. 1942), and 7 for Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan (b. 1917) to 6 pages for Egyptian feminist and fiction writer Nawal el-Saadawi (b. 1930), 4 for Lebanese fiction writer Emily Nasrallah (b. 1935), 3 1/2 for Kuwaiti poet Su‘ad al-Sabah (b. 1941), 3 for Egyptian scholar and fiction writer Suhair al-Qalamawi (1911-1997), 3 for Palestinian poet, scholar, and anthologist Salma Khadra Jayyusi (b. 1928), 1 1/2 for United Arab Emirates poet and short story writer Zabya Khamis (b. 1958), and 1 1/4 for Iraqi poet Lami‘a ‘Abbas ‘Amara (b. 1929). Many women writers also have less than one page, such as Moroccan novelist, journalist, and radio and TV program producer Layla Abu-Zayd; and some have only a line or two, such as Israeli-Arab poet Iman Abul-Shaar and Jordanian novelist Su‘ad Awda Abu-Arraf. The book could have been richer if it also included entries on Arab women who write in languages other than Arabic such as Etel Adnan and scores of prolific others.

As is, the impression that this book provides, is that there is a wide-ranging and very interesting literature written by modern Arab women in all genres that needs to be better recognized. With the rise of feminism and women studies, the importance of this literature grows every day, for it provides a portrayal of Arab intellectual and literary life that complements men's one-sided portrayals. Zeidan is to be congratulated on facilitating the study of this literature by providing a much needed reference and research tool in women studies.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, no. 32 (Summer 2000)

Copyright © by Al Jadid (2000)

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