For anyone whose exposure to Arabic literature begins and ends with a child-friendly edition of Alf Layla wa Layla, in English 1000 Nights and a Night or The Arabian Nights, it will come as a surprise to hear that there is an ancient, honourable and celebrated – and just as often decried – tradition of erotic writing in Arabic. Further, while the existence of erotica in Arabic sinks in, we might add at this point the additional fact that many exponents of the art form are women. Surprised?
Tell anyone you are reading an anthology of erotic or other love and lust-based writings by Arab women and, without fail, the response is along the lines of “I bet that’s a short book!”
We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers is not a short book (320 pages), but is instead a fascinating collection of poetry and prose writings by 75 women of Arab heritage, brought together in a collection that spans three-thousand years, and the globe, and which is eye-opening in its scope and styles, and rewarding in its daring and novelty.
My own association with the Middle East and North Africa spans almost three decades, and although I have read a lot of Arabic literature over the years, there was an enormous amount in these pages that was new to me. For anyone approaching Arabic literature for the first time this will be nothing short of a revelation, and is as such a blessing for all English-speaking readers.
There are numerous entries dating back to the so-called jahaliyya, the “time of ignorance” or pre-Islamic era, which is to say pre-622 CE. When one bears in mind that the earliest work of literature by a woman writing in England was Julian of Norwich’s early 15th century Revelations of Divine Love, a devotional work with erotic undertones of its own, this should lead to a more general reassessment of Arabic literature by women writers.
The introduction by Selma Dabbagh, an award-winning British Palestinian novelist, is an ideal guide to what follows, and is written with authority and clarity but also a light touch that will leave no one behind.
To my knowledge, this is the first ever English-language anthology of writings on love and lust by Arab women, which alone makes it an important work. If describing it as ‘important’ puts the kiss of death on a book, making it sound terribly worthy, this should not be applied to We Wrote in Symbols, which is as fun and accessible as it is successful in challenging preconceived notions of sexuality in the literary output of Arab women authors.