Syrian-Kurdian writer and journalist Maha Hassan lived for a year at the invitiation of Amsterdam Vluchtstad (till August 2008) in the former, renovated apartment of Anne Frank and her family at the Amsterdam Merwedeplein. According to Maha Hassan the female author in the Arabic world is still caught in stereotypes.
There are those who believe that the controversy surrounding female writing is over, that it has disappeared. But in the context of modern Arabic literature this is not the case. During two major Arabic literary events in 2008, the central question was that of female writing.Last February, during the Arabic Book Fair at Cairo, a conference on 'new female writing in the Arab world' touched a raw nerve for female writers: the symbolic image of Scheherazade, and the thoughts of female writers about this symbol.
Some female writers believe that so long as we consider the female narrator as Scheherazade - the symbol of the manipulative, treacherous and untruthful woman -we shall continue to live in the patriarchal age; Shehrayar will remain the male prison guard. Syrian novelist Sammar Yazbek, for example, refuses to recognize herself in this 'traditional' character. In her article entitled Scheherazade is not my grandmother she insists that for her there is no filiation.
Other female writers add that those who liken them to the character in One Thousand and One Nights confuse the narrator herself, the writer and Scheherazade, who used manipulation to achieve her ends. To them female Arabic literature is 'Scheherazadian'. For these women this comparison is a reflection of the male chauvinism which exists in Arabic culture, and which tends to limit the creativity of female Arabic authors.
More recently, in August 2008, in Damascus (the 2008 Capital of Arabic culture), during a debate about female writing, Moroccan novelist Said Benkrad asserted his belief that the female Arab novel carried within itself only the body and temptation and that female writers put their desires above their words. He thus made a very clear distinction between novels written by men and those that are written by women.
The Lebanese writer Yessra El Maqadam considers the views of Benkrad as chauvinist and typically male. She believes that opinions like these are responsible for the destruction of the Arab world. For his part, author Alwia Saleh finds the expression 'mannish writing' very accurate: he believes women imitate men when they write and see themselves as men would see them. This is a way of arguing that writing is a male act. Personally, I am outraged by such opinions which try to divide the creative world in a male and a female one, and which consider female writing as 'second class'.
When I published my first novel Infinity I was criticised by men for the fact that my narrator, Adham, was male and that he was my main and almost only character. This annoyed me so much that when I wrote the introduction to my second novel The Cover Painting – the walls of deception are higher I used a male voice again, that of Karim Al Hawi, as if he was the novelist who had written the novel or as if we had both become a single narrator.
In the world of Arabic culture, the male still is omnipresent; it is his view which takes centre stage, despite the struggle of female writers to assert their views. The main question therefore is: can the female Arabic writer continue to exist in the world of writing, a world which has historically been governed by men, without falling into the trap of being either feminist or mannish?