“This Is Not Chick Lit: Stories by Ordinary Women In and Beyond Turmoil” is the title Hala Salah Eldin chose for the latest series on Albawtaka.
The 36-year-old translator and editor of the online Arabic literary platform is celebrating its eighth anniversary with a selection of 12 short stories written by or centered around women. The focus of this series, which Salah Eldin is translating into Arabic herself, is not, however, specifically feminist. These are stories about corruption, about homelessness, about music. Many are personal, captivating and relatable. Twelve Arab novelists will also record their narrations of the translated stories to be compiled in an audio book for the blind in Egypt and Libya, as well as anyone who checks Albawtaka’s website.
“This Is Not Chick Lit” is dedicated to the late British author Doris Lessing, explains Salah Eldin.
Lessing’s 1972 “An Old Woman and Her Cat” is the first story she published in the series in February. It is a colorful portrait of Hetty Pennefather, an old woman who has grown into a social outcast. She is a “hippie,” if one were to describe her using a contemporary term. She spends her days collecting discarded clothes, mixing and matching them to make new ones that she either wears or pretends to sell on the street. Family and friends have shunned her and eventually she was left with no one but an old street cat.
Salah Eldin was fascinated by how Lessing built up this character. This story was written at the height of the feminist movement in the 1970s, she explains. Yet it does away with any direct claim to the cause. Instead, it offers a poignant critique of civil society, which claims to look after the elderly, the poor and the homeless. This motivated Salah Eldin to study every word and sentence structure to offer an equally captivating Arabic equivalent.
Since founding Albawtaka eight years ago, Salah Eldin has been working closely with short fiction. She has translated 117 short stories by 103 English-speaking writers and posted them online for free, for Arabic readers to enjoy. She describes her work on Albawtaka, which means the crucible, as an “act of love.”
“I’m sharing with others literature which I think is beautiful,” says Salah Eldin.
This has not been the easiest endeavor though, especially because Salah Eldin self-financed the project entirely for the first four years, and has been single-handedly negotiating with publishers for the rights to translation and re-publishing. To make things more manageable, she changed the literary review from a monthly publication to a quarterly one in July 2007. In 2011, she decided to found Albawtaka Publishing House to print some of the online collections she had been working on. But she was soon disenchanted by the printing process.
“The idea of printing is dead,” she says. “It takes one click and some posts on social media [to reach readers], whereas it might take three whole months just to make sure that copies of a printed book reach Alexandria.”
Now Salah Eldin is changing the focus of her imprint again. Going forward, it will only print books for the blind and physically impaired, she says. “This Is Not Chick Lit” is the first in the series. Before the end of the year, 10,000 copies of the audio book will be distributed in Egypt through the Egyptian Blind Association and Taha Hussein Hall at Cairo University, and in Libya via the Association for the Blind – Benghazi (ABB) and the Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture.
The project first occurred to Salah Eldin in 2011 after mass protests broke out in Egypt and Libya.
“Like everyone else, I was searching for new meaning at these times of change,” she says. The revolution inspired her to do something on the ground. Producing literary work for the blind seemed like the answer, especially since many of the contracts she signed with publishers allowed her to automatically reprint for the blind. Salah Eldin spent two years mapping the scene. She found almost nothing literary offered to the blind, with most NGOs working on formal educational texts rather than creative writing. She also learnt that printing books in Braille was very costly.
The average 500-page book might cost LE4 to print. A similar book printed in Braille would cost LE35, she explains. That’s why she decided to start the project with an audio book. “This Is Not Chick Lit” is the first Arabic literary audio book for the visually impaired.
Many Arab authors immediately expressed interest in supporting the project. Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin will narrate Lessing’s “An Old Woman and Her Cat” in Arabic. Other acclaimed narrators include Egyptian-Lebanese novelist and journalist Sahar Mandour, Lebanese author and translator Iman Humaydan, Iraqi author Alia Mamdouh, and Egyptian writer Miral al-Tahawy. With each of the women based in a different country, the recording process has been challenging, but the results are highly rewarding.
In addition to translating all the stories by herself, Salah Eldin will also read one of them.
Next year, she would like to work on a different series that will also be turned into a 15-hour audio book and distributed in the West Bank, Tunisia and Libya, in addition to Egypt. And in 10 years, she hopes to cover most of North Africa. She will continue to update the online platform in parallel to publishing audio books.
Albawtaka has been the only consistent long-term project she has initiated throughout the past eight years, she says with a laugh. And maybe, she will soon be able to translate her dream series, a collection of short stories with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender protagonists.
“This Is Not Chick Lit: Stories by Ordinary Women In and Beyond Turmoil” is supported by The International Fund for the Promotion of Culture and The British Council in Cairo.