Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Radwa Ashour, one of the Arab world’s most prominent novelists and academics, passed away on Sunday at the age of 68, after a long battle with cancer, leaving behind an imposing body of work encompassing novels, short story collections, academic writing, literary criticism, and translated works.
Best known for her Granada Trilogy, Ashour, born in 1946 in Egypt, graduated with a BA in English literature from Cairo University in 1967, gaining her master’s degree in comparative literature from the same university five years later, and a PhD in African–American literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1975.
She won the Cairo International Book Fair’s Book of the Year Award in 1994 for the first part of the Granada Trilogy, with the whole work winning the top prize at the Arab Women’s Book Fair a year later. She also won several awards outside Egypt, including one of Greece’s highest literary honors, the Constantine Cavafy Prize for Literature, in 2007, and the Tarquinia Cardarelli International Criticism Prize from Italy in 2009.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday, Egyptian novelist and critic Salwa Bakr said: “Today, we have lost a remarkable and highly respected writer whom we all loved a great deal. She was among those Egyptian writers who followed a school of thought in literature that was concerned with communicating the troubles of ordinary people in their works, thereby preserving Egyptian and also Arab identity.”
Ashour’s fictional works deal with conflicts between individuals and their everyday concerns, as well as displaying passion for history and the parallels between different historical periods. In her works the interplay between fantasy and realism is always close to the surface, as are more metafictional aspects such as the role of symbolism in literature, and even the nature of narrative art itself.
All of this is crystallized in her most famous work, the Granada Trilogy, voted as one of the all-time top 100 Arabic-language novels by members of the Arab Writers’ Syndicate. The book recounts life in the Andalusian capital of Granada during the final days of Muslim Spain and the capitulation of the city’s ruler, Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII, to the Spanish Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.
Bakr says that in writing the book Ashour sought to hold a mirror to Arabs “through her constant passion for treating the issues of her immediate world” in literature, by showing them glimpses of its more illustrious past. As the late literary critic Ali Al-Rai said, the book “allows the truths of history to flow again before us, warm and gushing.”
As well as having a concern for the Arab world in general, Ashour was especially passionate about the Palestinian cause. “She was one of those writers who sought to remind the Arab world of Palestinian identity, which is made very clear in her novel, Al-Tantouria,” says Bakr.
The book tells the story of a Palestinian woman forced to leave her homeland, shedding light on the experience of the Palestinian diaspora, of which Ashour had first-hand experience after marrying the Palestinian poet, Murid Al-Barghouti. The pair’s only son, Tamim Al-Barghouti, followed in both his parents’ footsteps, becoming a poet like his father and an academic like his mother. Ashour loved being a mother, and recounts, in her book, Specters, how she transformed her son’s name, “Tamim,” into the affectionate nickname, “Tamatim” (“Tomato” in Arabic).
In her final work, the autobiographical memoir, Heavier than Radwa, Ashour bravely confronts her illness on the pages, writing at a time when throngs of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 18-day uprising in 2011 that toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak. The book treats Ashour’s own struggle with illness alongside the struggle gripping the people of the country at the time. “Even while she was ill, she was able to record her personal sufferings, and to blend and splice them with those of others and, indeed, the whole country,” Bakr says, who adds that Ashour “had a rich life that deserved to be recorded.”
Critic Dr. Medhat El-Gayar says the author’s body of creative work had a great effect on younger generations, some of whom were leading the protests in Tahrir. It was that common theme in her work, of examining the Arab world’s past, he says, that “reminded those who are living today of that past’s significance for the present, and attempted to effect change in our contemporary circumstances, and in Arab literature.”