Unveiling the Middle East

Underrepresented writers reclaim the language of their homelands, even if some of them no longer live on their home soil.

THE WESTERN IMAGE of Middle Eastern women is usually associated with burkas, veils, chadors, and ululation amid the rubble of Baghdad and Kabul. But with the Syrians leaving Lebanon, "elections" in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of Al-Jazeera and other uncensored satellite news outlets, and even Dubya's precious freedom on the march, much is changing in the Arab world. So does that mean women are now free to speak, and write, as they please? You can learn firsthand from a half-dozen Arab writers visiting Seattle for several events; about half, no surprise, are still living in exile, while the others remain in their countries of birth.

Among them is Brooklyn-based Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad, who appeared in Broadway's Def Jam Poetry stage show. Expatriate Iraqi writer Alia Mamdouh (Mothballs) today lives in Paris, after editing literary journals in Beirut and London. Novelist (The Narcissus) and critic Somaya Ramadan lives in her native Egypt after earning a Ph.D. in Ireland; there, some will recall, the Mubarak government is supposedly liberalizing speech and electoral laws. All three women will read from their recent work, then discuss the effects of language, nationality, and exile upon their writing at their May 10 Benaroya Hall appearance.

At following events arranged by the Whidbey Island women writers' organization Hedgebrook, they'll be joined by Saudi Arabian Raja Alem (whose novel Fatma is newly translated into English), Kurdish poet Choman Hardi, and Egypt's Ibtihal Salem (her story collection Children of the Waters is also in translation).

All these events should provide an illuminating perspective through the veil of our own cultural misperceptions.


Seattle Arts & Lectures and Hedgebrook present "Women Writers of the Arab World: Art & Identity," at Benaroya Hall (200 University St., 206-621-2230; $12–$25), 7:30 p.m. Tues., May 10. Authors will also appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Fri. May 20; at UW Kane Hall (Room 110), 7 p.m. Sat., May 21; and at Seattle Central Library, 7 p.m. Mon., May 23.

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