BEIRUT: Ain al-Mreisseh’s Artisans du Liban et d’Orient was crowded Friday night as people strained their necks to get a better look at the speaker. Sima Qunsol, barely in her twenties, read a passage from the story she had contributed to the anthology "Arab Women Voice New Realities.” Her voice and intonation weren’t compelling; she wasn't trained to be a public speaker. Instead, it was her words that captivated the audience.
Qunsol, like the dozen other women who contributed to the anthology, is a writer, though not all of the contributors are experienced authors. Some are still novices, publishing their stories for the first time. Others aren't even writers by trade, and put pen to paper simply as a hobby. But they all write, and they're all Arab women.
The anthology launched Friday – co-edited by American University of Beirut Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Dr. Roseanne Khalaf and Dima Nasser, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University – aims to bridge the gaps between women writers, whether seasoned and novice.
"We wanted women who wrote real stories, stories with a pulse," Nasser told The Daily Star. She had been toying with the idea of an anthology for women writers, hoping to use it as a vehicle to bring different voices to the same stage.
"Arab women are usually portrayed in one of two ways: the stereotypical conservative or the liberated rebel," Nasser said. "This is problematic because it's a dichotomy – women are more complex, and [this view’s] monochromatic. These women are represented by men, instead of being represented by themselves."
The stories published in the anthology vary widely – skipping from fiction to non-fiction. The writers seldom even adhere to the traditional structure of the short story.
The collection is loosely bound together by certain themes that are taken up by the contributors: home, family, the body, marriage in the contemporary world, ambition and starting over all crop up across multiple stories. But the similarities end there.
Nevertheless, the women writers – unbeknownst to themselves – share certain commonalities, though most of them didn't meet until the book launch. Growing up, most of them weren’t exposed to Arab female writers.
For Nadia Tabbara, "language was a barrier." Tabbara grew up in the United States and is unable to read Arabic.
Shahd Alshammari, meanwhile, did not experience that particular barrier but is unable to recall reading books by Arab female writers until her undergraduate years as a literature major. "They need more exposure. I started doing my own research and hunted for more Arab women writers," she said.
Yasmina Hatem didn't have a great grasp of the Arabic language, but was able to encounter Arab male writers such as Amin Maalouf and Khalil Gibran in English. "Women have not been published in the same way, or given an international platform," Hatem said.
While the contributors may not have been introduced to many Arab female writers as they grew up, they are moving towards filling the gap now. Despite being written in English, their stories reflect the heterogeneous experiences of Arab women in the contemporary world – combatting flattening portrayals of this demographic that might otherwise appear in the media or popular culture.
"As Arabs, as women, storytelling is our strongest weapon against a narrative that is written for us rather than by us. We can do something about that," Tabbara said.
Youmna Bou Hadir, a creative writing instructor and a contributor to the anthology, believes the number of Arab female writers is slowly increasing. "I don't think women have really been encouraged to express [themselves]. Writers are raised and trained to embrace being outspoken and well heard. Arab women were raised to internalize, and that is terrifying, but we are slowly stepping out of that upbringing."
The Arab literary scene is changing, and women slowly seem to be making their voices heard.
Co-editor Dima Nasser revealed that "Arab Women Voice New Realities" may be the first in a series of books.
Zeina Abi Assy, a contributor living in New York who is the manager of Interactive Programs at Tribeca Film Institute and a cofounder and editor of art organization and publication The Seventh Wave, told The Daily Star via email that she was optimistic about the future.
"The Arab world will never change unless we unpack our realities and try to understand them,” she wrote. “And though we have had many revolutions in the past, our biggest one is yet to come.”