Arab Women and The Thousand and One Nights

30 May, 2021

Mid­dle East­ern Wom­en’s Cod­ed and Uncod­ed Writ­ing on Love & Sex

We Wrote in Sym­bols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writ­ers
Edit­ed by Sel­ma Dab­bagh
Saqi Books, Lon­don (April 2021)
ISBN 9780863563973

Malu Halasa 

“Does a tooth­less mouth real­ly need a tooth­pick?” That’s how Zad-Mihr mor­dant­ly described love­mak­ing with her fat-lipped slave mas­ter, Abu Ali ibn Jum­bar, who aban­doned her in the back­wa­ter of Bas­ra for debauch­ery in Bagh­dad. More than ten cen­turies after she came up with that time­less put-down, Zad-Mihr’s vit­ri­olic words still chime with women the world over. Slav­ery has been out­lawed but patri­archy is in full force. So is bad sex and male self-delu­sion. Some things, it seems, nev­er change.


We Wrote in Symbols  is available from  Saqi Books .

We Wrote in Sym­bols is avail­able from Saqi Books.

Encour­ag­ing­ly what also per­sists is the wit and insight of gen­er­a­tions of Arab women. For We Wrote in Sym­bols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writ­ers, the nov­el­ist and radio play­wright Sel­ma Dab­bagh has brought togeth­er 101 poems, short sto­ries, fic­tion, let­ters and word play by 73 con­trib­u­tors from the Mid­dle East, North Africa and the dias­po­ra. Zad-Mihr is one of them. Her life and let­ters were record­ed by a male author in Abbasid Iraq known for the only book of his to sur­vive from the 11th cen­tu­ry, about a gate-crash­er of par­ties in Baghdad. 

Along­side the medieval Islam­ic women poets, singers and slaves in We Wrote in Sym­bols are the lead­ing lights of mod­ern Arab fic­tion: Hanan al-Shaykh, Ahdaf Soueif, Leila Sli­mani and Ada­nia Shi­b­li — long list­ed for this year’s Inter­na­tion­al Book­er Prize. The anthol­o­gy also fea­tures a gen­er­a­tion of new writ­ers, which includes trans­la­tors, activists and performers. 

Life at Court

The book’s title comes from a line of love poet­ry writ­ten by Ulayya bint al-Mad­hi, an accom­plished poet and singer in the court of her half-broth­er, Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who reigned at the height of the Abbassid peri­od, scenes of which were recount­ed in The Thou­sand and One Nights.

Of the many poems and songs Ulayya com­posed dur­ing her life­time, only a hand­ful sur­vives. Lit­tle is known about the dis­sem­i­na­tion of these poems and oth­ers com­posed by women. Innu­en­do and scan­dal fueled the rumor mill of court­ly life. Haroun al-Rashid encour­aged his half-sis­ter to sing, but with reser­va­tions. He ordered her to not name her eunuch lover in her songs, so she called the man she loved by a wom­an’s name, instead. 

The writ­ing of love poems by women end­ed with the fall of Mus­lim Spain. The flow­er­ing of cul­ture, which pro­vid­ed a space for wom­en’s writ­ing, was replaced by a new entrench­ment and reli­gious aus­ter­i­ty that cur­tailed the lives and voic­es of women — and not just that of the Arabs’. The same rup­ture took place in Jew­ish wom­en’s writ­ing after 1492. 

Break­ing the Silence


Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer of fiction based in London. Her first novel was   Out of It  , set in Gaza.

Sel­ma Dab­bagh is a British Pales­tin­ian writer of fic­tion based in Lon­don. Her first nov­el was Out of It, set in Gaza.

The five hun­dred years of silence that fol­lowed was bro­ken by cod­ed writ­ing on courtship and arranged mar­riage in 19th cen­tu­ry nov­els from Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. By the 20th cen­tu­ry, migra­tion and exile, dis­place­ment and war had cre­at­ed more spaces in which women wrote in dif­fer­ent coun­tries and lan­guages. The mod­ern fic­tion in We Wrote in Sym­bols reveals a dizzy­ing array of mod­ern love, aspects of which would have been lost on the medieval women poets.

In Mali­ka Mous­tadraf’s short sto­ry “House­fly,” a wife engag­ing in inter­net sex returns to her hus­band in the liv­ing-room, who retreats behind a closed door to spend ‘me time’ on his com­put­er. In anoth­er short sto­ry, “Lovers Should Only Wear Moc­casins,” by Joumana Had­dad, despite prepa­ra­tions — no panties — a woman makes an unre­mark­able vis­it to a swingers’ club in Paris. The adult cir­cus in Rasha Abbas’s sto­ry “Simon the Mata­dor” is more of a mind than a body fuck, with an over-think­ing female pro­tag­o­nist talk­ing her­self into and out of S&M.

Some sto­ries cel­e­brate queasy sex like Samia Issa’s voyeuris­tic account of men watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to a woman mas­tur­bat­ing in a pub­lic latrine in a Pales­tin­ian refugee camp. Explic­it writ­ing about sex is not nec­es­sar­i­ly hero­ic, fem­i­nist or polit­i­cal­ly enlight­ened. In oth­er sto­ries women authors adopt the point of view of preda­to­ry men and cov­er the ugly faces of their female char­ac­ters with bags.

Hanan al-Shaykh’s short sto­ry in the col­lec­tion is “Cupid Com­plain­ing to Venus.” A woman and her lover watch films sug­gest­ed by the wom­an’s girl­friend. After uncom­fort­able sex in the fetal posi­tion, the char­ac­ter, a writer, goes and gives a lit­er­ary read­ing, dur­ing which she real­izes, “I had found some­one who would take my face in his hands and let me lie the way I want­ed to. I saw him even though my eyes had not left the page. But his eyes grazed my skin, and start­ed heat­ing up my blood.”

Sto­ries about sex­u­al encoun­ters at wed­dings; life-giv­ing orgasms after bereave­ment and mys­ti­cal cou­plings in the desert have been writ­ten by anony­mous writ­ers. The excerpt from the nov­el The Almond: The Sex­u­al Awak­en­ing of a Mus­lim Woman by Ned­j­ma, anoth­er pseu­do­nym, is too dan­ger­ous to pub­lish under a real name in the Maghreb, where Ned­j­ma is from, and where sex­u­al scan­dals in coun­tries like Moroc­co have been used by the state to cen­sor and silence journalists. 

The Liv­ing Past

For mod­ern writ­ers, the past his­to­ry of the region still inspires — like the illic­it swim before sex, from Ran­da Jar­rar’s Map of Home, “to those sunken sub­king­doms and cities of Her­a­cleion and Cano­pus where I touched the stat­ues’ eyes, watched their dead-awake faces. I saw pink gran­ite gods, and a sphinx of Cleopa­tra’s baba, Ptole­my XII …  a green stat­ue held … some­thing huge in its hand. I could­n’t tell what it was until I swam clos­er; it was a pen.” 

Yas­mine Seale trans­lat­ed “What is its Name” by anoth­er “Anony­mous,” tak­en from “The Porter and the Three Women of Bagh­dad” in The Thou­sand and One Nights. What do you call the vagi­na? “Mound,” “sting” or “Bridge of Basil”?  Seale reveals some­thing rebel­lious and mod­ern in text from the eighth century.

The Thou­sand and One Nights were folk­tales, which like moss picked up sto­ries and influ­ences from Ara­bia, Per­sia, Mesopotamia and India. The tales, filled with unre­li­able nar­ra­tors, were framed by a woman, who told sto­ries night after night to her groom-king-mur­der­er to stave off her own exe­cu­tion in the morn­ing. The ques­tion remains: who wrote them? If, for the pur­pos­es of We Write in Sym­bols, we believe that men did not write The Thou­sand and One Nights, does that mean women were its main intend­ed audi­ence? Or, more sub­ver­sive­ly, were men meant to hear them, enjoy them, and then under­stand a female per­spec­tive and the val­ue of wom­en’s intel­li­gence too?

The trans­lat­ed poems and sto­ries from the Gold­en Age of Islam by Seale and old­er, male trans­la­tors — Abdul­lah al-Udhari, Wes­sam Elmeli­gi and Geert Jan van Gelder — con­tribute a sig­nif­i­cant amount of mate­r­i­al to We Wrote in Sym­bols. The ear­li­est poem in the book comes from the pre-Islam­ic Jahiliyyah peri­od. Anoth­er slave Jariy­at Humam ibn Mur­ra yearned for the bald head and the urine of her lover. He killed her. On entries like these, dates would have use­ful, although some con­tri­bu­tions imme­di­ate­ly speak to con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ties of resis­tance and ingenuity. 

Mod­ern Sensibilities

Poet, per­former and activist lisa luxx’s poem, “to write the wrongs of cen­turies, we must brew our own tools,” includes the line: “they call this les­bian /I kiss your knee and call you com­rade …” Anoth­er poem “Arachno­pho­bia” is a reflec­tion on missed love. Hoda Barakat cov­ers ground in the pas­sage from her nov­el Stone of Laugh­ter, which cap­tures the sex­u­al ten­sions of rel­a­tives liv­ing on top of each oth­er, dur­ing the Lebanese civ­il war. It is this con­ver­sa­tion between the gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers that make the anthol­o­gy worthwhile. 

Unre­quit­ed love has always been the great­est theme of the Arabs. In Sab­ri­na Mah­fouz’s poem “TALI: one day when I worked at the bak­ery,” a young woman at the cash reg­is­ters imag­ines her­self as girl­friend-moth­er-lover of some guy pay­ing for his sand­wich. He’ll nev­er know her name or remem­ber that they’ve ever met; desire is all in the mind.

Just because Arab women write more forth­right­ly about sex, don’t be fooled into think­ing that lives inside and out­side the region are freer or more open. Dab­bagh leaves her read­ers with a final caveat: “To try to pre­tend that the Arab world has expe­ri­enced a sea change in its approach to wom­en’s sex­u­al­i­ty would be a misrepresentation.” 

For many of the con­trib­u­tors, how­ev­er, change has come and they’re done with tol­er­at­ing male chau­vin­ism and anti­quat­ed atti­tudes, which should have been ditched cen­turies ago. Zeina B. Ghan­dour’s poem “You Cunt” lances the notion of the male gaze, with all its con­tra­dic­tions, includ­ing female complicity. 

Writ­ing like this gives We Wrote in Sym­bols ten­sion, edge and humor.

Arab womenBaghdadlove and sexReviewThe Thousand and One Nights

Malu Halasa is a London-based writer and editor. Her six co-edited anthologies include—Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, with Zaher Omareen; The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design, with Rana Salam; and the short series: Transit Beirut, with Rosanne Khalaf, and Transit Tehran, with Maziar Bahari. She was managing editor of the Prince Claus Fund Library; a founding editor of Tank Magazine and Editor at Large for Portal 9. As a former freelance journalist in the London, she covered wide-ranging subjects, from water as occupation in Israel/Palestine to Syrian comics during the present-day conflict. Her books, exhibitions and lectures chart a changing Middle East. Malu Halasa’s debut novel, Mother of All Pigs was reviewed by the New York Times as “a microcosmic portrait of … a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline.”

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