We Wrote in Symbols: An anthology of female Arab exotica

We Wrote in Symbols: Ground-breaking anthology renews millennia-old tradition of female Arab erotic literature
7 min read
30 June, 2021
Book Club: The New Arab talked to author Selma Dabbagh and publishing house Saqi Books about how their latest anthology brings the writing of Arab women on love and desire back to the forefront.
We Wrote in Symbols celebrates the works of 75 female writers of Arab heritage who articulate love and lust with artistry and skill [Saqi Books]

Writing about love, lust, and sex is no contemporary trend in female Arab literature. Nor is it something that can be attributed to Western influence. The truth is, women in the Arab world have been writers of erotic literature as far back as the pre-Islamic era.

Curating the works of female Arab poets and writers past and present on love, lust, and erotica is Saqi’s latest anthology, We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers.

A collaborative project between the independent London-based publishing house and Palestinian British writer Selma Dabbagh, author of highly acclaimed novel Out of It, We Wrote in Symbols offers readers a rich and diverse selection of poetry and prose written by 75 female Arab writers, dating from the Classical periods to the 20th and 21st centuries.

"I wanted to create a collection that reflected on the heterogeneous nature of the Arab world"

Part of the inspiration for this ground-breaking anthology came from another collection, Classical Poems by Arab Women, edited by Abdullah al Udhari, also published by Saqi.

“I had quoted some of the poems in the anthology in my novel, Out of It,” Selma Dabbagh tells The New Arab. “The poem I quoted was about childbirth, but I was more struck by the poems on love, lust and the erotic from the Jahaliyya, Umayyad, Abbasid and Andalusian periods in the collection… There was something very self-assured about it; a couple of poems appeared to be deliberately provocative, but many were stating their desires matter-of-factly and articulately.

“I suggested to Saqi that we combine the Classical writings with contemporary voices to show a range of writing on subjects of the heart and the body; voices that were confident, distinctive, humorous, and beautiful to read. I wanted to create a collection that reflected on the heterogeneous nature of the Arab world, the capacity and audacity of some women as I found them personally inspiring and eye-opening, and I thought others would too.”

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As well as including the work of well-known female Arab authors like Hanan al Shaykh, Leila Slimani, Adania Shibli, and Ahdaf Soueif, We Wrote in Symbols celebrates new voices commissioned by Dabbagh, and this included an open call for female Arab writers who were yet to have their work published. “I was keen for the anthology to be surprising, rather than scandalous. Illuminating, rather than outrageous,” she adds.

Working alongside Dabbagh was Saqi’s Senior Editor Elizabeth Briggs, who says that there was a hunger from readers for literature written by Arab women exploring love and sexuality. An event hosted by Saqi on Valentine’s Day in 2018 called Arabic Poetry of Love and Lust: 7,000 Years of Female Desire sold out, and young women of Arabic heritage told the publishing house that they wanted more.

“The Events Manager, who is British-Bahraini, told me that she had not known before we’d started working together on the event that there were Arab women who wrote about love and lust like that; that reading these poems was a seismic shift in the way she could connect and relate to her heritage,” explains Briggs.

"From the orientalist writings of white men in the colonialist period to our cinema screens today, the West has constantly fetishized Arab women based on their conjured assumptions of what Arab women are like”

“We knew there was more work to be done. We knew there were tons of brilliant contemporary writers of prose and poetry whose work wasn’t shared or discussed in the way it should be, and that there were readers out there who wanted and needed to discover their work. We also had a bigger question – what had happened between the classical and contemporary times that meant female writing on love and lust had taken a back seat? Could we chat, and connect the bigger picture?”

There indeed appears to have been a hiatus in erotic poetry and literature written by Arab women between the end of the Andalusian period (1492 CE) and the 20th century, and history suggests that this can be attributed to the change in perceptions of women in society leading to the act of seclusion of women by men, and not long after that European colonialism in which the French and the British imposed their own ideals and restrictions surrounding sex on people in the countries they colonized.

“From my readings of the works of scholars on Islam and sexuality, from the periods where women’s sexuality was considered to be a strong force that needed to be 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,” Dabbagh clarifies.

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“One of the translators of classical poems, Abdullah al Udhari, cites the invasion of Damascus in 1400 CE 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… A lot of writing from the earlier periods was either destroyed, attributed to men, or curtailed, so it is difficult to get a clear picture. Many men, however, saved and recorded women’s writing and without their endeavours, it may never have survived.”   

From Abbasid, Umayyid and Andalusion verse in which poets like Khadija bint Al-Ma’mun and Umm al-Ward al-Ajlaniyya do not shy away from using figures of speech to praise and describe their lovers and humiliate those who fail to satisfy them, to modern prose that will take you on a trip around the world and hold you witness to an unexpected fling in a tent at a wedding in the English countryside, a flirtatious and risky encounter at a sky lounge in Dubai, and a sexual reawakening in the communal latrines of a Palestinian refugee camp, there is no typical sexual encounter in this anthology, and the dynamics between lovers vary from story to story.

"There is a disconnection between what Arab women are and how they are seen that needs to be bridged"

The common thread between the writers is that they do not hold back – they assertively and forthrightly write about lust, passion, sex, and desire in lyrical detail.

This goes against Western stereotypes held about Arab women that they know little about sex, or that they do not speak or write openly about it. From the orientalist writings of white men in the colonialist period to our cinema screens today, the West has constantly fetishized Arab women based on their conjured assumptions of “what Arab women are like.”

Not only does We Write in Symbols challenge this notion, but it also demonstrates the fact that Arab women have written about love and sexuality for millennia, and the tradition of women writing erotica in the Arab region may be the oldest in the world. Here you have a book in which Arab women write honestly and earnestly about how Arab women love and who they love.

“Challenging stereotypes sounds like a cliché, but the image is vital and impacts not just foreign policy, but people’s economy, physical and mental health,” says Dabbagh.

“There is a disconnection between what Arab women are and how they are seen that needs to be bridged. To show, as We Wrote in Symbols does, that people of Arab heritage can ‘love with a beating heart,’ as Nathalie Handal once put it, write with imagination, skill and craft, be daring, resilient, strong and creative and that the region has such a long history of female literacy I hope will go some way to challenging these assessments.”

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA