Radwa Ashour (1946-2014): A Literary, Cultural and Political Activist Icon, Echoing in Egypt's Valley

Nada Ramadan Elnahla
Radwa Ashour by Doris Bittar for Al Jadid

The valley was flooding with apparitions...Silence, followed by a crescendo. A sound that will echo in the valley years later. ("Apparitions")

Radwa Ashour — novelist, educator, human rights activist, politically committed intellectual figure, and critic — opened her 1998 autobiographical novel "Apparitions" (or “Specters”) with this powerful scene. Seventeen years later, on November 30, 2014, Ashour would join those apparitions, her gentle soul forever filling our valley with her inspiration, resistance and writings.

Born in Cairo in 1946 to a literary and scholarly family, her father Mustafa Ashour worked as a lawyer with strong interests in literature while her mother, Mai Azzam, worked as a poet and an artist. Ashour first studied English literature at Cairo University, receiving her MA in comparative literature in 1972 from the same university. Afterwards, she earned her PhD degree from the University of Massachusetts, writing her thesis on African-American literature, an experience she would later document in her 1983 "The Journey: Memoirs of an Egyptian Student in America."

During the 1960s, Ashour met the Palestinian Mouried Barghouti while both students at Cairo University. Their friendship soon transformed into a love story and marriage in 1970. Yet, for many years to come, their life together offered a constant series of hardships. In 1977, Egyptian authorities deported Barghouti, along with other Palestinians, on the eve of Anwar Sadat’s controversial visit to Israel, and for 17 long years, with the exception of short, intermittent periods, Ashour parented their only child, a son named Tamim, alone.

Ashour’s marriage to the Palestinian poet Mouried Barghouti, and her role as the mother of poet Tamim al-Barghouti, has no doubt influenced her involvement with the Palestinian cause. Signs of these affiliations appeared in her 1998 "Apparitions" (where the massacres in the Lebanese Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps are recounted) and in her 2010 "Al-Tantoureya," a straight-forward work denouncing Israeli violence and the expulsion of the Palestinians from their own land. As an activist, Ashour opposed President Anwar Sadat’s policy of normalizing relations with Israel, which led her to contribute to founding the National Committee against Zionism in Egyptian Universities. Under the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, Ashour also became an active member of the March 9 movement, which consisted of university professors calling for the independence of Egypt’s universities. Though hospitalized during most of the events of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, she recounted her unforgettable experiences in Tahrir Square, along with personal struggles against cancer, and the ramifications of her illness, in her last and autobiographical "Heavier than Radwa" (in Arabic).

Ashour’s journey to literary success was far from a smooth ride; it was paved with self-doubt, struggles, and suffering. In 1969, the young Ashour, with only one short story under her belt, attended a young writers’ conference in Zagazig. Overwhelmed by the participation of so many accomplished writers, she so feared what she judged to be her lack of talent, that she abandoned the idea of writing. This question of whether or not she truly possessed talent haunted her until 1980, when she wrote "The Journey." Severe health problems that led to a serious operation finally triggered her literary awakening. From that day on, Ashour discovered that nothing teaches one to write better than writing itself. She followed her first published novel, "Warm Stone" (1983), with several other works, including: "Khadija and Sawsan" (1989), a two-part novel narrated respectively by a mother and daughter; the collection of short stories titled "I Saw the Date Palms" (1989); "Siraj" (1992), a novel set on an imaginary island off the coast of east Africa during the last decades of the 19th century; "A Part of Europe" (2003); and "Farag" (2008) with both novels concerning political detention. She also wrote, “Blue Lorries” (2014) with Barbara Romaine and “Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, 1873-1999” (2008), co-edited with Ferial Ghazoul and Hasna Reda-Mekdashi.

Ashour’s most famous work, "The Granada Trilogy" (1994-95) — triggered by the aftermath of the Gulf War and voted one of the top 100 literary works by the Arab Writers Union — won  First Prize at the first Arab Women’s Book Fair in 1995, and was translated into different languages, including English and Spanish. The three-part novel chronicles the rise and fall of Arab civilization in Spain and recounts the history of three generations of a Spanish Arab family, covering the period from 1491 to 1609. Ashour was honoured with a number of literary prizes, chief among them are the 2007 Constantine Cavafy Prize for Literature and the 2011 Al Owais Award. Believing messages of pessimism to be immoral, Ashour used her novels to resist and deal with defeat. Her husband mourned her on Twitter, saying: “42 years in the company of Radwa Ashour. Yes. Life can be that generous.”

Perhaps, her own words best express her political views: “I am an Arab woman and a citizen of the Third World,” she declared, in an essay for the anthology “The View from Within” (edited by Ferial Ghazoul and Barbra Harlow, 1994). The Guardian cited her as adding, “My heritage in both cases is stifled... I write in self-defence and in defence of countless others with whom I identify or who are like me.”

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 68, 2015. 

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