In the mid-1960s a young aspiring writer filed an explosive story on the crime of so-called honour killings in Jordan and Palestine. Long before the instant fame of social media, Laila Al-Atrash made a name for herself with her robust and challenging writing. Decades later, sitting in her Amman home, she smiles and says: “It seems I threw a stone in a pool.”
The ripples have been spreading ever since. Al-Atrash – a writer, journalist and free-speech advocate – occupies a peculiar space in international literature. Her 10 novels, three plays, short story collections and reporting are studied, quoted and analysed in universities worldwide. She appears in many PhD theses, and even the US military has recognised the value of her insights into Arab society, asking her to brief its troops.
'I am a ‘feminist writer’ but in my own way'
But much of Al-Atrash's work remains untranslated into English. One exception is her 1990 novel, A Woman of Five Seasons. The story of a young Palestinian wife struggling to maintain her personal independence while living in a fictional Gulf country, it was described as "sharp, amusing and memorable" by one critic.
Women in the Arab world are at the core of much of Al-Atrash's writing. Her new novel, A Woman Unlike Herself, follows the trials of an Afghan exile from a wealthy family, sick with cancer, who is married to a Palestinian in Amman. It is, Al-Atrash tells The National, "about fear of death, fear of leaving the country, fear of refugees, fear of sickness".
It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the women in Al-Atrash’s writing are refugees or exiles. Born in the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour, east of Bethlehem, Al-Atrash is a graduate of Beirut Arab University and holds degrees in literature and law as well as a diploma in French. Her journalism, writing and activism have taken her across the Middle East and now, from Amman (where she lives with the sociologist, critic and translator Fayiz Suyyagh, a 2007 Sheikh Zayed Book Award winner) – she continues to explore Arab society through her writing.
Her willingness to confront taboos has led to her being branded a feminist writer, a label she embraces – with a caveat. “I am a ‘feminist writer’ but in my own way – it’s a social feminism,” she says. “From the beginning, women were very important in my writing, but I don’t divide women from men. Men need liberating more than women. In the Arab world, we need it because our men, unfortunately, are not liberated enough.”
It is the struggle between men and women within their societies that colours much of Al-Atrash's writing. Many of her characters – male and female alike – seek liberation, whether it be from social restrictions, poverty, familial obligations or from the circumstances of their birth. In A Woman of Five Seasons, the female protagonist, Nadia, feels alienated from other Palestinian and Arab women in the Gulf. Her marriage to Ihsan, a Palestinian man who uses life in the Gulf to change his identity and climb the social ladder, founders and he eventually forbids Nadia from reading. Stifled, she flees to London and begins a new, independent life working in the property industry, finding freedom in this second exile.
'We don’t have critics'
In 2012's Sons of the Wind, Al-Atrash takes us into the world of orphans and abandoned children. Her young boys and girls are left on the edges of society, living in hard-knock care homes. One of them, Sufian, looking back on his life, recalls: "We, the dwellers of the houses, did not need any explanation or proof from anyone to realise we were different.
“We realised that what distinguishes us cannot be for our advantage. Rather, it overpowers and compels us to be satisfied with fates which we cannot change or resist.”
It is tempting to ask Al-Atrash if her own experiences are in there, speaking through her writing. In one short story, The Letter (2007), 13-year-old Saad is taking dictation from Maryam, a mysterious female neighbour. When she gives him a pound for taking the letter he "flew into ecstasy".
“A pound, Saad, for a letter? Your mother gets paid half as much working from dawn ’til dusk, embroidering cotton towels, handkerchiefs and bed covers from the factory …But you, Saad, you get a pound for writing down a couple of words. And the pounds may multiply, so write, Saad, write.”
Was that a reflection of the prejudice that intellectual work is not ‘real’ work? “Yes. it’s not,” Al-Atrash shoots back. “Writers are very poor in the Arab world because nobody gives you anything.”
Not that this has stopped a flood of Arabic-language writing and Al-Atrash is an enthusiastic advocate of social media. “I think our problem in the Arab world is that we don’t have critics because most of that newspapers don’t pay for their critics,” she says. “Now it is only friends who write about their friends’ books.”
'We are suffering from the same problems'
She also balks at pigeonholing Arab women’s work. “I can’t say ‘Arab women’s writing’ because we write on the same subjects that men are writing about. So I hate saying ‘women’s writing’ because we do it due to our circumstances.
“In the Arab world we are suffering from the same problems, men and women. So you will find that we are writing about the same things because our problem is a societal problem.
“Politics are affecting us. Fundamentalists are affecting us. The economic situation is affecting the whole Arab world.”
Politics is never far from the surface of Al-Atrash's writing and journalism. In 2010's Desires of That Autumn, set in Amman, Ahmed, a young Palestinian living in a refugee camp, dreams of going home, but creates a fantasy world of wealth and success to impress a girl he is talking to online. When his dreams crumble, and peace in Palestine seems impossible, he becomes depressed and easy prey for the siren song of extremists.
"I didn't live in Amman for a long time, so when I came back it took me some time to understand the city," says Al-Atrash. "So, I wrote this novel and the question was: 'Is poverty the reason for fundamentalism?' … The novel answered that: no, it is not poverty only because if it were poverty, then everybody would be a fundamentalist." She also accuses extremists of exploiting vulnerable people's circumstances.
Jordan’s predicament as a central part of the Middle East has often fuelled Al-Atrash’s journalism and writing. As president of PEN in Jordan – the global writers’ network – Al-Atrash is worried about freedom of expression if proposed changes to the country’s cybercrime law get through parliament.
But Al-Atrash remains committed to the written word. In 2007, she helped to establish the Library of the Family and Reading for All projects in Jordan and was a senior figure advising the country’s Culture Ministry. And she sees new trends developing in Middle Eastern writing.
Citing the success of British-Turkish author Elif Shafak, Al-Atrash says: “After her, the trend is towards Sufism, because it’s tolerant, it’s about humanity.
“We have to know each other from that side. Maybe because of this common humanity, we want to live in a better place.”