North Africa: Wrap-up!

Apologies for the delay, dear reader! Life did what it does best — got in the way. But here I am for yet another wrap-up of the Own Voices Global Reading Challenge!

Every month and region has presented its own set of difficulties as we’ve progressed through the year, but North Africa introduced me to a few more problems — some problems that I predict will also find their way into the reading of a few other regions this year. For one, much of North Africa is part of the Islamic world, meaning we’ve hit not only another language barrier, but because of rampant Islamophobia in the US, finding access to books written in Arabic is much harder than any of the other languages so far. In America, we are far less likely to find stories set in North Africa because perspectives from the Islamic world are feared, stereotyped, and deemed too alien for the average American reader. There are so many stereotypes as well about the nations in North Africa, about their instability, their violent patriarchies, basically their “incivility.” Dangerous stereotypes about Africa and the Muslim faith are still around today, long after we stopped referring to Africa as a “dark continent.”

The lack of access to North African stories due to language barriers, Islamophobia, and racism compounded the struggles that I had finding material to read for this month. On top of that, I started a new job, meaning I had a lot less time to read, and made a lot fewer trips to the library. Further, the lack of education that I had about writers from North Africa (can you name one off the top of your head? You might have been able to name at least one popular writer from the other regions so far, but I doubt it will be as easy for you to name a North African writer!) made it very hard to know where to start. I wanted to keep reading women and other marginalized voices, but my options were limited when it came to availability in my library system and in English.

Ultimately, I decided to spring for a collection of Arabic fiction, choosing to read only selections from writers in North Africa by female authors. Of course, this limited my range a little as well — not every writer in North Africa is writing in Arabic. Still, I had to work with what I had in the time frame available! Overall, I think this strategy worked for me, because I got exposure to more authors and perspectives, and reading excerpts helped me to figure out which authors I’d be the most interested in pursuing in the future. Because I covered quite a bit of ground here, I’ll keep my reflections short and sweet, and only comment on the ones that I found particularly interesting or enjoyable! All of these short stories and excerpts came from The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, edited by Denys Johnson-Davies.

What I Read

  • “The Discontented” by Leila Abouzeid (Morroco)
  • “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour (Egypt): I found this story particularly charming! It’s about a woman who finds solace and comfort in tending to her plants and seeing the seasons change in the date palms. It includes a lot of aspects of various traditions and beliefs in Egyptian and Islamic culture that I didn’t know much about but found moving, as well.
  • “A Certain Woman” by Hala El Badry (Egypt)
  • “Dotty Noona” and an excerpt from The Golden Chariot by Salwa Bakr (Egypt): The “Dotty Noona” story reminded me a lot of The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare. Both center on the experience of a young housemaid and the sacrifices they have to make to help their families and pursue their own dreams and ambitions.
  • An excerpt from Memory in the Flesh by Ahlam Mosteghanemi (Algeria): This one was not an easy read — a few of the stories in this collection deal with sensitive topics and this one, about a woman’s experience in prison, was incredibly sad and moving. It reminded me a lot of the end of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende where Alba recounts her experience in prison after being arrested for her part in the revolution. It also reminded me of The Inhabited Woman by Giaconda Belli when the narrator recounted the horrors that her fellow patriots faced as they waged a war for their freedom against a tyrannical government.
  • An excerpt from The Leaves of Narcissus by Somaya Ramadan (Egypt)
  • “An Incident in the Ghobashi Household” by Alita Rifaat (Egypt): This one really stood out to me. This short story tells about a mother and daughter dealing with the daughter’s pregnancy. It is short but vividly displays the love the mother has for her daughter, and the ways that women can lift each other up in times of hardship rather than turning against one another by falling in line with the patriarchy.
  • “She Has No Place in Paradise” and a excerpt from Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt): El Saadawi is probably the most well known woman writer on the list, beside perhaps Leila Abouzied. These two women were the only ones I was able to find works from in my library catalogue. El Saadawi is a leading feminist voice in North African and Arabic fiction and after reading these two pieces, I can see why! The short story reflects on the ways that black woman are edged out of conversations about religion, feminism, and race in the Arabic world.
  • An excerpt from The Tent by Miral al-Tahawy (Egypt)
  • An excerpt from Dunyazad by May Telmissany (Egypt)
  • An excerpt from The Open Door by Latifa al-Zayaat (Egypt): This excerpt was another that reminded me a lot of the reading I did for Central and South America. With themes of revolution, loss, and tyrannical government, this story also brought me back to The Inhabited Woman by Giaconda Belli.

Further Reading

  • The White-Washing of Egypt: This came up on my radar in June, following the explosion of resources and information about racism across my social media feeds following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Watch this short and informative video to jumpstart your work on un-white-washing history. I particularly enjoyed the point about ancient Egyptian culture clearly depicting themselves with dark skin in their art! The Caucasity, indeed!
  • Forbes Africa on North African Women: This round up of the four women named in Forbes Africa’s most powerful leading women is a great place to start learning about female voices in Africa.
  • Decolonized Feminism: As we wrap up Africa and effectively begin to shift farther away from the Western World (at least, once we finish Europe next month!), I think it’s important to begin to think more clearly about decolonizing feminism. This article is a great jumping off point, as it describes the movement of decolonized feminism and “feminism” is not one singular philosophy or movement. We’ve already seen a couple of different examples of feminism that is less Western in tone, but as we move farther East, I think it’s important to understand ahead of the game how Western feminism isn’t applicable to the rest of the world in a lot of instances, and thus we can’t judge the behaviors and beliefs of non-Western women against what we as Americans believe is feminism.

Well there you have it! Better late than never! After a hefty book slump in July, I’m finding August to be much more attuned to reading and I’m hopeful that I can get more content to you soon! Up next on the Own Voices Global Reading Challenge is Europe. Until next time, dear reader!

One thought on “North Africa: Wrap-up!

  1. Ah, I’ve been looking forward to your post! I think collections like the one you chose are nice because they allow you to explore works and narratives from different countries and perspectives. I wish I had chosen something written by a female writer for my North African read. I’m currently reading “The Yacoubian Building” by Alaa Al Aswany, and from the first chapter I could just tell that it was a man that wrote it because he took great care in describing a female character’s breasts. It was a little cringey.

    Good luck with the rest of your reading challenge!

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