Five facts about Egyptian Novelist Radwa Ashour

Novelist, translator, academic and activist, here's what you need to know about Radwa Ashour and her work

Google Doodle of Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour by Google

by Shereen Hafidh

Culture 29 May 2018

While female presence in the literary world across the Middle East continues to grow, novelists like Radwa Ashour have certainly made their mark. The Egyptian author, translator and academic is well-known for her works including Siraaj, Granada and The Woman from Tantoura.

Much of Ashour’s work captures Egyptian history and issues surrounding identity in the Arab world. In an essay for the anthology The View from Within, Ashour stated, ‘I am an Arab woman and a citizen of the third world and my heritage in both cases is stifled…I write in self-defense and in defense of countless others with whom I identify or who are like me.’

Although Ashour lived during the postwar period, her words continue to resonate in the minds of many Arabs across the world. The author’s novels have contributed immensely to Arabic literature and she continues to be celebrated even today. Recently, Google created a Doodle to celebrate what would have been Ashour’s 72nd birthday on May 26. Ashour passed away in 2014.  Equally, we wanted to celebrate Ashour a woman who has come to represent what it means to be an unapologetic Arab woman in the modern world.

Writing Heritage

Radwa Ashour and husband Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti

Ashour’s family history reflects an inherited passion for the written word. Her mother, Mai Azzam, was a poet and an artist, while her father, Mustafa Ashour, was a lawyer known to have a strong literary interest. Her grandfather, Abdelwahab Azzam, famously translated the Persian poem Shahnameh or The Book of Kings’ written by Ferdowsi, into Arabic. Ashour has noted that her grandfather, a diplomat and professor, ensured that she could recite various collections of Arabic poetry. Ashour married Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who she met while studying at Cairo University, and raised their son, Tamim Barghouti, who is also a poet and writer.

Key Work

The Granada Trilogy one of Ashour’s most popular works, documents the Arab presence within Granada, Spain by following the family of a book printer, Abu Jafaar. The novel reflects a lost culture at the height of the colonial experience. In addition to her recognition by the Arabic Writers Union, Ashour was awarded with the Cairo International Book Fair’s Book of the Year Award for Granada in 1994, and won the Constantine Cavafy Prize for Literature in Greece in 2007. The Arabic Writers Union also voted Granada as one of the 105 best Arabic novels of the 20th century. Granada is available in English as translated by William Granara.

Academic Prowess

Ashour was the first to receive a doctorate specializing in African-American literature from the University of Massachusetts. Later, Ashour went to teach English and comparative literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo. She was then promoted to chair of the English Language and Literature department.

Political Activism

In addition to being a novelist, academic and translator, Ashour also took on the political domain. She didn’t allow her role as an academic to become a barrier to firmly express her political beliefs. Ashour’s passions for the Palestinian cause and academia exuded through her activism helped her found the National Committee Against Zionism in Egyptian Universities following former President Anwar Sadat’s willingness to normalize relations with Israel. Themes of resistance against oppression and conflict reoccur in her works, such as in The Woman from Tantoura, particularly in defense of the Palestinian cause. When former President Hosni Mubarak’s government developed an increasing influence within academic life, Ashour became a founding member of the March 9 Movement, which demanded for the independence of universities across Egypt. Fellow novelist and close friend to Ashour, Ahdaf Soueif, told The Independent that, ‘she was involved up to the very last moment…as long as she could walk she went out to protest.’

Documenting Cancer

In Ashour’s final autobiographical memoir Heavier than Radwa, she chronicled her struggles with fighting cancer at the time of the Arab Spring which overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. By setting the protagonist’s struggle for survival alongside a background of the nation’s struggle for freedom against a corrupt political system, the novel serves as a historic testimony of resistance against difficult circumstances. Ashour contrasts her own physical pain after undergoing 25 chemotherapy sessions to battle an aggressive disease, in comparison to the pain of her homeland in response to feelings of oppression and injustice. Ashour will forever be remembered for powerfully taking ownership over her voice, even under gruesome conditions.

Shereen Hafidh is a Canadian-Iraqi studying politics, philosophy and law in King’s College, London. She is interested in humanitarian issues within the Middle East and a passion for to bring attention to the culture and beauty of the Arab world.

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