Monday, January 11, 2010

workshop on arab women diaspora writers

Arab Women Diaspora Writers under Study
Susannah Tarbush

The recent holding of a one-day interdisciplinary workshop at the University of Manchester on Arab women writers living in the West was a sure sign that the cohort of Arab women diaspora writers is now so significant that it is a meaty subject for theses and scholarly discussion.

The interdisciplinary workshop, ‘Arab Women Writers in Diaspora: Horizons of Dialogue’, was
sponsored by the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), Skills Awareness for Graduate Education (SAGE) and the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW).

Fiction by Arab women fiction writers has attracted interest in the West ever since translations of their work into English started to become widely available from the late 1970s. But these were mostly works by authors still living in the Arab world. Now the discussion has broadened, with substantial numbers of Arab women writers living in the West, some of whom are of mixed Arab-Western parentage. Their writing is informed by these experiences, and is permeated by questions of identity, displacement, exile, memory and the relationship with the homeland.

The workshop attracted some 50 participants from Europe and the Arab world. Its organizer Yousef Awad, who is preparing a PhD thesis at Manchester on ‘Cartographies of Arab women identities: Resistance, Diaspora and Transnational Feminism’, said: “This is an interdisciplinary event that benefitted from the different academic backgrounds of the participants. The approaches employed by the speakers and presenters have enriched the discussion and testified to the complexity of the works of Arab women in the diaspora.”

The workshop was introduced by the novelist Professor Patricia Duncker, head of Manchester University’s English and American Studies Department, who hailed the interdisciplinary spirit of the event. Professor Hoda Elsadda, co-director of CASAW stressed the need for further workshops on works by Arab women writers.

The workshop began with a video recording of Laila Halaby, who was born in Lebanon to a Jordanian father and American mother and grew up in Arizona, reading her poem “The Journey” . Next came a voice recording of New York-born Jordanian-American novelist Diana Abu-Jaber reading from her novel “Crescent”.

The first keynote speaker was Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir [pictured], who has lived in Britain for many years. In her presentation “Spinning a Self in the Language of the Other”, she recalled the contexts within which her three novels “Nisanit”, “Pillars of Salt” and “My Name is Salma” were written. Each novel is socio-political, but the tone, style and structure have evolved.

Her first novel was “a howl from the heart, raw, close to reality and unsophisticated perhaps.” In “Pillars of Salt” she moved on to explore imperialism and sexual politics, using the oral tradition and the tradition of travel writing. In “My Name is Salma”, on migration, racism and the constraints of the human condition, she began exploring “lyricism, pace, minute descriptions of daily life to construct a whole.”

Faqir is now at work on her fourth novel, “At the Midnight Kitchen”, set among a group of characters living in a block of flats in Hammersmith, West London. The novel’s prologue appeared in the fall 2008 issue of Weber Studies, the electronic cultural journal based at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. It won the Fiction Award for the best work published in the journal that year.

Weber Studies says of the novel: “There is violence, self-hate, guilt, pursuit of redemption, compassion, humor and forgiveness. But who stabbed to death the shady figure in flat number two?” The gripping prologue makes the reader anxious to read on.

In a session on issues of representation, Linda Maloul from the University of Manchester spoke on Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. Maloul argued that in her first book, the collection of stories “Aisha” centered around an Egyptian girl growing up in Egypt and Britain, Soueif may have assumed the “perspective of an Orientalist” in choosing to highlight controversial aspects of Egyptian life. This is in contrast to her second novel “The Map of Love” in which, according to some studies, Soueif deliberately uses Orientalist imagery in order to criticize Orientalism. This places the novel firmly within an anti-colonial political and cultural discourse.

Dr Claire Chambers of Leeds Metropolitan University is interested in representations of British Muslim identity in the fiction of Sudanese-Egyptian Leila Aboulela, particularly her second novel “Minaret” which is set in Sudan and diasporic Britain.

Drawing on an interview she recently conducted with Aboulela, Chambers suggested that the author “writes back” to damaging fictions created about Muslim communities by earlier Orientalist writers and scholars. Aboulela is sometimes dubbed a “halal novliest” but Chambers maintained that “the portrayal of Islam in Aboulela’s three fictional works to date is neither monolithic nor simplistically idealist.”

The debut novel of Iraqi writer Betool Khedairi, born in Baghdad to an Iraqi father and Scottish mother, was the subject of a presentation by Jenny Chandler of Manchester University headed “The Inconstant Lover: Images of Masculinity in war and Diaspora in Betool Khedairi’s ‘A Sky so Close’”.

Dr Sandya Mehta of Sultan Qaboos University, Oman, scrutinized Syrian-born Arab-American writer Mohja Kahf’s novel “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” in order to examine the projection of the homeland in the consciousness of the immigrant “other”.

Natasha Mansfield of the University of Essex analyzed the short story “Shakespeare in the Gaza Strip” by Arab-American Sahar Kayyal who lived in Palestine for five years during the first intifada and is now based in Chicago. The story is set in a girls’ school in Gaza and features an American teacher attempting in an arrogant fashion to teach her pupils literature.

The work of Diana Abu-Jaber and the Lebanese writer Hanan Al-Shaykh in relation to “Arab urban diasporas and transnational imaginaries” was discussed by Christiane Schlote of the University of Berne. She pointed to how their writing maps urban life in Los Angeles and London, representing “the possibilities and limits of various forms of cosmopolitanism with a particular focus on alliances across ethnic, class and religious barriers.”

A non-fiction writer, the Palestinian medical doctor and political activist, Ghada Karmi [pictured below], was the afternoon keynote speaker. She examined the question of writing in exile with reference to her memoir “In Search of Fatima” and her second book “Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine”.

The workshop was an excellent introduction to the creative output of the growing number of Arab women diaspora writers in the US and UK. It will be interesting to witness further developments in this young but fruitful field of study.

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