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This review is taken from PN Review 164, Volume 31 Number 6, July - August 2005.

BITTER CHERRIES
MARAM AL-MASSRI, A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor: Selected Poems. Translated by Khaled Mattawa. Bilingual Arabic-English edition (Bloodaxe) £8.95

For all its jostling exuberance and full-throated polyphony, a conspicuous silence reigns over the vast domain of poetry in Classical Arabic. With few exceptions, women poets seem absent. We know from passing references that they existed; the great anthologies occasionally mention a slave-girl clever at improvisation or commend a skilled singer of popular lyrics, but the names that we are given are often only pet-names, the sobriquets of courtesans. Those whose names survive, such as the pre-Islamic poet al-Khansa', do so almost by accident. Women were restricted to the genre of elegy, usually for a fallen brother. Here, for example, is how al-Khansa' opens her lament for her brother Sakhr:

Remembrance makes me sleepless at evening
But by dawn I am worn raw by my brimming disaster
Because of Sakhr - O what young man is like Sakhr
On a day of war when the fighting turns to the cunning spears?

After a millennium and a half of silence, Arab women have again begun to write and publish poetry and their accents are often sly and subversive, especially about love. Su'ad al-Sabah, a contemporary poet from Kuwait, writes mockingly (in Roger Allen's translation):

I am tired of traditional words
 About love,
I'm fed up with the ghazal of the dead,
Flowers ...


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