By Fadi Zaghmout

A graphic representation of a flower
We Wrote in Symbols

Female sexuality is always considered as problematic, but there are points in history where it was accommodated for in ways that seem quite revolutionary even by modern standards.

Selma Dabbah

“For the human heart never grows up, nor have the body’s desires changed through the ages,” Selma Dabbagh writes as she introduces this priceless collection of 100 pieces of prose and poetry on love and lust written by Arab women writers over three millennia - We Wrote in Symbols, published by Saqi books in April 2021.

The human heart never grows up, and the body’s desires don’t change. That’s simply put, the human condition! Yet, for a long time, a silencing culture of shaming women’s sexual expression has prevailed. Today, we raise our hopes as we see a growing feminist movement in the Arab world. Contemporary feminist writers like Nawal Al Sadawi and Joumana Haddad have been rightfully perceived to be daring, bold and avant-garde. To the ignorant and shortsighted, it seems that Arab women were silent for ages and have just started to wake up. A narrative that fits the narrow view of the chauvinist mind which aims to dismiss women sexuality, when it is not heard or communicated, it doesn’t exist. And here lies the brilliance of this book.

This collection is a reminder to all of us that Arab Women have never been silent. They have always expressed their desires in different shapes and forms, in different places around the globe and over a long time, leaving us a valuable intangible heritage that we are celebrating today. Bold, daring, avant-garde Arab women have always been with us, from the poet Inan Jariyat an-Natafi during the Abbasid era to Wallada bint-Al Mustakdi in Cordoba, to Zaynab Fawwaz during the time of the Ottoman Empire, going through all the big names that appeared in the 20th century, until today. All these names and many more are covered in this book, which has a special launch event at Shubbak Festival this year on Thursday, 15th July. On the night, compere Jenna Al-Ansari will be in conversation with writers including Sabrina Mahfouz, Selma Dabbagh and Laura Hanna about their work, sharing how they convey the complexities and intrigues of desire. 

For this piece, I had the chance to interview Selma Dabbagh and ask her the following:

FZ: Let’s start with the title “We Wrote in Symbols” it is the same title of one of the pieces, a poem by the Abbasid princess Ulayya bint Al Mahdi. Why did you choose this one to reflect the whole collection?

SD: It is very difficult to decide on a title for a collection as wide ranging and eclectic as this one. It covers several millennia and over seventy female voices. We all loved this line from Ulayya bint Al Madhi’s poem as it conveyed a sense of eternal messages being conveyed in a coded way. Bint Al Mahdi herself is symbolic as a woman who loved an array of men, women and apparently also a eunuch of the court. The Abbasid period she comes from is also one of the most liberal and creative for women out of all of the periods covered in the book. 

FZ: I agree with you, it is important that a book like this should exist, and to the best of my knowledge too, there is not another one like it. It is a valuable example of intangible heritage that we ought to preserve. Was it your idea to compile this collection? What did you aim to achieve with it? And how long did it take you find these gems?

SD: Thank you. Yes, it was my idea, but I was surprised really to find that no one had thought of it before, although the project started with the idea of erotic poetry of different periods of Arab history, selecting women’s voices over the era, to the present day was my approach as to how it could be done. In terms of aims, these are multifold, from the obvious ones like getting the works of writers I love to wider audiences, challenging stereotypes of the region (in terms of how women are commonly portrayed) and providing an insight into the long history of female literacy and artistry in the Arab world. Female sexuality is always dealt with as a problematic, but there are points in history where it was accommodated for in ways that seem quite revolutionary even by modern standards. All of this interests me and there are many scholars who work on these subjects who are more well versed in them than I am, but my idea was to just put together a collection of fine writing, to present women’s fiction and poetry on these challenging subjects in their own voices. 

It took me just over a year to put the anthology together, but I was also working on other projects as well. I had also selected some of the pieces previously, so I guess you could say that the background reading has been over a longer period. 

FZ: The book is diverse in terms of authors, time and places. On what basis did you build on to choose the pieces to include? Were there other pieces that you wished to add but that don’t appear in the final publication?

Diversity was one of my key drivers; of religions, ethnicities, era, nationalities, hybridities, class backgrounds, professions, languages, sexualities, styles, forms, subject matter, and personalities. We wanted to underscore the heterogeneity of women writers of Arab heritage over the centuries. The overriding criteria were that the works had to be of a high quality and on topic. Then some had to be selected out, which was hard. We didn’t want too many works by the same authors. We wanted some that were by established authors and others by new voices. I also had some writers that were recommended to me, but did not have the capacity to select pieces from their works simply due to the fact that I don’t read French or Arabic well enough and we had a limited budget for translations; there is more work out there that I may have missed. Other cuts had to be made of writers when we loved their style of writing and wanted to highlight their work, but the tone of the pieces did not fit, or replicated other pieces we’d already selected. I am more familiar with writing from Palestine and was at risk of having too many Palestinian writers, so there were some writers I would have loved to include, but had to leave out, to avoid that bias. I was keen to include Francophone writers too, who are frequently absented from the canon. We also wanted to show the echoing of voices between the era, so some of the pieces were selected to tie in with their modern, or classical partners, so to speak. 

FZ: We have inherited a heavy cultural heritage, and women’s sexual expression has been shamed for a long time. Was it difficult to find the pieces you included in the book?

SD: Not really, I did encourage new writers to come forward, as I myself started writing through entering short story competitions in Ireland and the UK when I lived in Bahrain and I wanted to provide more opportunities for unpublished writers. Five out of the 110 pieces were included through an open call. It was also up to the author as to whether or not they wished to write under a pseudonym (again around five of the writers use pseudonyms). With some of the works I would like to have included, I couldn’t get hold of the authors, or I didn’t get a response in time. This could have been because they found the subject matter distasteful, or too risky, I am not sure. It could also have been because they were too busy or overwhelmed by the lockdown. Generally, the response was overwhelmingly positive. 

FZ: I like that this collection is comprehensive and is not limited to the heteronormative discourse. Was it harder finding pieces of prose and poetry that depict women’s polygamous desires and same sex lust? How did Arab women’s sexual expression change over historical periods of time?

SD: Over a century ago, Khalil Gibran wrote, ‘even if born free, we remain slaves of the laws enacted by our forefathers, which forever deny the most beautiful instinct inside of us all – to love who we love.’ Life would be much simpler, but also a lot more dull if we could choose who we love based on rational decisions, or the guidance of those around us. Throughout the course of history, people have fallen in love and in lust with people of the ‘wrong' class, religion, background, or marital status and being thwarted in this way has been the source of much desire and agony. The Arab world is not alone in being known for its prohibitions with regards to sexual behaviours, but challenges have always occurred, even if muted, or ineffectual in impact.  

In terms of your question on the changes in sexual expression over time, this requires several doctoral thesis to do it justice. But to put it in a rather over-simplistic way, from my readings of the works of scholars on Islam and sexuality, if you start from say the classical Abbasid periods where at times women’s sexuality was considered to be a strong force that needed to be celebrated and accommodated for in a way that provided harmony and balance in society, it came to be seen as something that needed to be hidden, protected and controlled. One of the translators of classical poems, Abdullah al Udhari, cites the invasion of Damascas in 1400 during Tamerlane’s sacking of the city where women were raped in the mosques, as being one of the historic tragedies that led to the greater curtailment of women’s freedoms, the expulsion from Andalusia; a ‘heaven on earth’ being another. British and French colonial legislation that policed sexual practices was a third. One account I read, put the translation of Freud’s works into Arabic in the mid-twentieth century as leading to new terminologies, that in turn altered perceptions and tolerances of them. I understand that the term for ‘bisexuality' was absent in Arabic during the Middle Ages as it was not considered unusual. Concepts of shame and honour are constantly being re-defined and re-interpreted, often on a very personal basis, between a couple. The fictive works in this collection explore these dynamics. In terms of finding it harder to find pieces with polygamous desires and same sex lust, I would say no it wasn’t. It may be too much of a generalisation, but my sense is that if you are in a situation where you (or your character) feel they are misunderstood and alone in their emotional or sexual experience, that they are keener to express it with clarity and style, to communicate the intensity and complexities of their reality. 

FZ: I know it must be hard for you to pick a favourite, but off the top of your head, which of these pieces would you highlight to the readers of this blog post?

SD: Very difficult. I obviously love them all and many others I couldn’t include, but just for today (and tomorrow I could come up with a different list) I would say Epigram by Ulayya bint al Mahdi, translated by Yasmine Seale, as it conveys the agony of yearning for love (the use of the term ‘dismemberment’, the sense of being in a limbo, ’stranded’). I also love the way that Adania Shibli switches between the female and male perspectives in her short piece Without Rhyme, Hanan al Shaykh’s humour in Cupid Complaining to Venus, is just great as is Malika Moustadraf’s in House Fly. The imagination and setting of Noor Mohanna’s Tangled Roots, set in the deserts of Eastern Arabia in the late 19th century, the tranquility and love in Hiba Moustafa’s Contemplation. The psychiatrist and Nobel Prize nominee Rita El Khayat (said to have been the first Arab woman to write an erotic novel) is completely frank, astute, playful and shameless, which I find liberating. I love the way her character carries a ‘music hall’ wardrobe with her around the Moroccan backstreets to meet her lover. I also love the feistiness and spirit of Emily Selove and Geert Jan Van Gelder translation of the 11th century concubine Zad-Mihr’s letter, which is the only non-fictive work in the collection. I could go on.

We Wrote in Symbols is available to purchase from Saqi Books. The live launch of the book, part of Shubbak Festival 2021, on 15th July at Rich Mix is now sold out.