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4.0 out of 5 stars Recommended, 13 Oct 2007
Published in 2005, this book contains 60 short stories by 40 writers from most of the countries of the Arab world. The works date roughly from the 1930s to the 1990s, with the majority from the 1990s. As is common with anthologies for this region, for most of the stories information is lacking on the year of first publication.

Older writers include Mayy Ziyada, Suhayr al-Qalamawi and Ulfat al-Idilbi, born in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, while Nura Amin and Umayma al-Khamis, born in the 1950s/60s, are among the youngest. Others include Samira Azzam, Layla Baalabakki, Salwa Bakr, Ihsan Kamal, Buthayna al-Nasiri, Alifa Rifaat, Nawal al-Saadawi and Hanan al-Shaykh and more recent, less well-known authors. Many of the stories are quite short, averaging four pages.

The pieces are grouped by the categories of growing up female, love and sexuality, male/female relations, marriage, childbearing, self-fulfillment, customs and values, and "winds of change." The intention's to introduce the English-speaking reader to Arab women's ways of life, currents of thought, and creative expression.

The editor/translator selected the stories based on their artistic merit, the desire to include a variety of viewpoints and a wide range of subject matter reflecting "current interests and concerns of Arab women, from feminist issues to social and political problems to cultural and moral dilemmas," and her own personal preferences. The preferences reflect a feminist and apparently secular outlook. Most of the works present women struggling against traditional social values, restrictions or double standards, or show the effects on women of such values.

Stories enjoyed included the ironic "International Women's Day" by Salwa Bakr, in which a male teacher speaks to elementary schoolchildren about the need to appreciate women, but has trouble following his own advice, while the headmistress stands by listening idly and considering her own problems; "The Closely Guarded Secret" by Sahar al-Muji, in which a woman guards carefully an unnamed secret all her life from parents and husband, preserving a sense of self; "A Successful Woman" by Suhayr al-Qalamawi, in which a woman from the countryside seeks love and success in Cairo, gaining and losing something in the process; "Homecoming" by Fadila al-Faruq, which shows a woman who returns to an unnamed Arabic country after living in London and experiences severe culture shock; and "I Will Try Tomorrow," by Mona Ragab, in which a writer's attempts to work are interrupted continually by the demands of raising her children. And Samira Azzam's "Tears for Sale," which shows the mask a person wears, and how death can strip it away. This was among the most affecting stories in the book, though in this case an even more sensitive rendering in English exists in another collection.

If anything was missed in this anthology, it was more stories written from an explicitly positive and religious perspective. Or maybe, that explicitly involved distinctly religious values as opposed to social ones.

Something that came close to being positive was Alifa Rifaat's "My Wedding Night," in which a woman overcomes her distress on the first night, comforted by a Biblical story and the memory of a pure love from her childhood, and finds that she and her husband can talk to one another and move beyond their anxiety.

Any serious collection that presents literature from this part of the world in English merits applause and attention. I'd certainly recommend this book. Other books to be recommended are Salma Khadra Jayyusi's 1,056-page Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology, also published in 2005, and Denys Johnson-Davies' Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, published the following year.
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