Edited by Palestinian British writer Selma Dabbagh, this groundbreaking compilation brings together 101 works — including poems, short stories and excerpts of novels — from more than 70 female writers of Arab heritage, slightly more than half of them living. The contemporary contributors range from an established older generation, including Hanan al-Shaykh and Ahdaf Soueif, to talented younger names, such as Leïla Slimani and Isabella Hammad, to those more up-and-coming. Many write in English; some are widely read in Arabic but have never previously been published in translation; others have been translated from French. Three living writers contributed under pseudonyms, while two classical writers are anonymous.
Some of the most compelling selections explore sexuality in unlikely settings or from rarely seen perspectives. Particularly sensual is an excerpt from Beirut-based Samia Issa’s novel “Fig Milk,” in which a 40-something widowed grandmother in a Palestinian refugee camp in the mid-20th century experiences a journey of sexual self-exploration during repeated visits to a squalid public latrine.
The memorable “A Wedding Night for Zen,” by the pseudonymous Salomé, recounts the weekend a sexually and emotionally mismatched young couple spend at a campground wedding in the English countryside, culminating in the wife’s searing carnal encounter in a yurt with another guest.
Egyptian British writer Yousra Samir Imran’s story “Catch No Feelings” is of-the-moment: An unmarried 30-something woman in Qatar meets a man on Twitter and starts seeing him for casual sex, but then he ghosts her, deleting his profile. What makes it distinct is its cultural specificity, from the details of the characters’ Gulf attire to the woman’s need to hide any traces of the relationship from her family, and the chosen locale for their liaisons: “a five-star hotel — they’re the only hotels that will turn a blind eye to an unmarried couple.”
LGBTQ voices and narratives are also well represented, such as in Palestinian Farah Barqawi’s story “Four Days to Fall In and Out of Love,” which tenderly portrays a first lesbian romance, in which the protagonist is unsure how to proceed with her female lover: “Men, she knows them well, she knows the sensation of their big lips on hers. . . . But how to kiss these two smooth riverbanks?”
Just as affirming is a poem by Kuwaiti artist and writer Shurooq Amin describing “the shallow depressions in/ your mattress made by not one,/ but two daughters of Muslims.”
The modern poetry ranges from the subtle mood-setting of acclaimed Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye (“Skin remembers how long the years grow/ when skin is not touched, a grey tunnel/ of singleness”) to the skill with language of the late Joyce Mansour. Yet it can be uneven, with some pieces coming across as half-baked or filled with sexual descriptions that convey no great profundity or even eroticism.
The collection intersperses recent works with several dozen poems and other texts from classical Arabic literature, allowing the writers’ voices to play off each other. (Additional context is provided by short biographies of each writer, a glossary and a suggested reading list.)
As Dabbagh notes in her introduction, some Arabic literary periods — including the Umayyad and Abbasid eras and the Arab rule of Andalusia — embraced a remarkable degree of openness around women’s desire and sexuality. Ulayya bint al-Mahdi, sister of the famed 8th-century Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, wrote love poetry to both men and women, as well as a court eunuch, for whom the poem that inspired the anthology’s title was apparently written (“We wrote in symbols amid those who were present,/ Insinuations implied with no lines”).
There is indeed plenty of coded imagery — lions and gazelles; falcons and pigeons; a ripe garden — in these pithy verses, a few of which date as far back as pre-Islamic times. Others are considerably more direct, whether through amusing innuendo (“his key wilted in my lock”) or unambiguously explicit language.
What “We Wrote in Symbols” captures most strongly is the richness and depth of erotic writing in the Arabic literary tradition, and the incredible diversity and range of its female voices. If this eye-opening collection also helps shatter some assumptions about gender and sexuality in the Arab world, it is all the more welcome.
Vanessa H. Larson is a multiplatform editor at The Washington Post. She writes about culture, art and film.
We Wrote in Symbols
Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers
Edited by Selma Dabbagh
Saqi Books. 320 pp. $21.95