Radwa Ashour obituary
Radwa Ashour was a powerful voice among Egyptian writers of the postwar generation and a writer of exceptional integrity and courage. Her work consistently engages with her country’s history and reflects passionately upon it. “I am an Arab woman and a citizen of the third world,” she declared, in an essay for the anthology The View from Within (1994), “and my heritage in both cases is stifled … I write in self-defence and in defence of countless others with whom I identify or who are like me.”
Through a series of novels, memoirs, and literary studies, Ashour, who has died aged 68 after suffering from cancer, recorded the unending turbulence of her times, as she and her contemporaries struggled for freedoms, from the end of British influence to the recent Arab uprising and its aftermath.
Born in Cairo, Radwa came from a literary and scholarly family: her father, Mustafa Ashour, was a lawyer but had strong literary interests, while her mother, Mai Azzam, was a poet and artist. Radwa evoked in her writing how she was raised to recite the poetic corpus of Arabic literature by her grandfather Abdelwahab Azzam, a diplomat and professor of oriental studies and literature at Cairo University, who first translated the classic Persian Book of Kings (Shahnama) into Arabic, as well as other Oriental classics.
A student of comparative literature, she attended Cairo University during the ferment of the late 1960s and early 70s, attaining her MA in 1972. She then went on to do a PhD at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; in accordance with her concern for human rights and independence, she worked on African-American literature, receiving her doctorate in 1975. She then returned to Cairo, to Ain Shams University, where she taught – in conditions that were often difficult internally and externally – with immense dedication throughout her career, becoming professor of English and comparative literature in 1986, and serving as head of the department of English language and literature from 1990 to 1993.
Political activism was embedded in her academic career; as President Anwar Sadat argued for normalisation with Israel, Ashour helped found the National Committee Against Zionism in Egyptian Universities. Later, as Hosni Mubarak’s police state pushed into academic life, she helped found the March 9 Group for the independence of universities.
Then a stream of increasingly ambitious works followed: Siraaj (1992, translated in 2007) – a succinct, visionary fable – blended a Sinbadlike adventure with a compassionate allegory about tyranny – colonial and other – on an imaginary island in the Arabian Gulf; Granada (1994-95, first volume translated in 2003), a trilogy, returned to the period of convivencia in Spain – the era from the eighth century until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 during which Christians, Muslims and Jews lived alongside one another – and its destruction. Granada was voted one of the 105 best Arabic novels of the 20th century by the Arabic Writers’ Union.
Like so many writers in the region, Ashour did not use historical fiction only to retrace the past, but adopted the form as a lens by which to look more deeply, often under conditions of censorship, into current oppression. In Spectres (1998, translated 2010), she ingeniously intertwined a fictive alter ego with remembered scenes from her own youth, producing a moving and vivid drama set in the political unrest of the Nasser and Sadat years, and giving shivers of uncanny deja vu throughout. In more recent publications, such as Heavier Than Radwa (2013), Blue Lorries and The Woman from Tantoura (both translated in 2014), Ashour experimented with in between forms: “autobiografictions”, imaginative essay meditations and allegory.
She was also a very fine, perceptive translator from Arabic into English and her translation of the collection Midnight and Other Poems (2008) by her husband, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, demonstrates her finely tuned knowledge of the metre and imagery of English poetry. They met as students in Cairo, and married in 1970. Their son, Tamim, also a poet, was born in 1977. The same year, Barghouti, along with many other Palestinians, was deported from Egypt in the runup to Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem; he was unable to return for 17 years, and this forced the family to live apart. He eventually worked for the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s media operation in Budapest, Hungary, where Ashour and Tamim would visit him every summer holiday.
In Spectres, Ashour recalls scenes of exuberant family joy, as they quote strophes of al-Mutanabbi and other poets by heart in a friendly rivalrous counterpoint which resolves into a chorus of pleasure. One of Tamim’s poems, Ya Masr Hanet (Oh Egypt, It’s Close), was taken up during the Arab Spring to become a song of freedom for revolution all over the region. Another, in 2003, was a homage to his mother; to her thought, her courage and her writing.
As a witness as well as a creative force, Ashour never wavered. She will surely occupy an important place in the story to which she attended with such sensitivity and conscience.
She is survived by Mourid and Tamim.
Radwa Ashour, writer, born 26 May 1946; died 30 November 2014