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Colloquial Arabic storytelling is most commonly associated with the Arabian Nights. But few people are aware of a much larger corpus of narrative texts known as popular epic. These heroic romantic tales, originating in the Middle Ages, form vast cycles of adventure stories whose most remarkable feature is their portrayal of powerful and memorable women. Wildly appreciated Colloquial Arabic storytelling is most commonly associated with the Arabian Nights. But few people are aware of a much larger corpus of narrative texts known as popular epic. These heroic romantic tales, originating in the Middle Ages, form vast cycles of adventure stories whose most remarkable feature is their portrayal of powerful and memorable women. Wildly appreciated by medieval audiences, and spread by professional storytellers throughout the cities of the Muslim world, this material was printed and reprinted over the centuries and remains a vital part of Arab culture. Yet virtually none is available in translation, and so remains almost unknown to a non-Arab public. Remke Kruk at last makes these neglected romances available to a Western audience. She recounts the story of Princess Dhat al-Himma, brave and undefeated leader of the Muslim army in its wars against the Byzantines; of Ghamra, brought up as a boy to become a fearless leader of men; and of Qannasa, an infidel, raiding from her mountain fortress to capture and seduce her enemies before putting them pitilessly to the sword. The Warrior Women of Islam puts a bold new complexion on gender roles and the wider perception of women in the Middle East.


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Colloquial Arabic storytelling is most commonly associated with the Arabian Nights. But few people are aware of a much larger corpus of narrative texts known as popular epic. These heroic romantic tales, originating in the Middle Ages, form vast cycles of adventure stories whose most remarkable feature is their portrayal of powerful and memorable women. Wildly appreciated Colloquial Arabic storytelling is most commonly associated with the Arabian Nights. But few people are aware of a much larger corpus of narrative texts known as popular epic. These heroic romantic tales, originating in the Middle Ages, form vast cycles of adventure stories whose most remarkable feature is their portrayal of powerful and memorable women. Wildly appreciated by medieval audiences, and spread by professional storytellers throughout the cities of the Muslim world, this material was printed and reprinted over the centuries and remains a vital part of Arab culture. Yet virtually none is available in translation, and so remains almost unknown to a non-Arab public. Remke Kruk at last makes these neglected romances available to a Western audience. She recounts the story of Princess Dhat al-Himma, brave and undefeated leader of the Muslim army in its wars against the Byzantines; of Ghamra, brought up as a boy to become a fearless leader of men; and of Qannasa, an infidel, raiding from her mountain fortress to capture and seduce her enemies before putting them pitilessly to the sword. The Warrior Women of Islam puts a bold new complexion on gender roles and the wider perception of women in the Middle East.

35 review for The Warrior Women of Islam: Female Empowerment in Arabic Popular Literature

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bryn Hammond

    Wanted: translator to turn 6000 pages of The Adventures of Dhat al-Himma (She of High Resolve) into English. My The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature has this to say of the genre treated in this book: Even without taking account of the Thousand and One Nights, the Mamluk period was a golden age for popular fiction. In particular there was a vogue for lengthy poetic epics featuring Arab paladins who battled against Byzantines, Crusaders and Zoroastrians not to mention sorcerers, Wanted: translator to turn 6000 pages of The Adventures of Dhat al-Himma (‘She of High Resolve’) into English. My The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature has this to say of the genre treated in this book: Even without taking account of the Thousand and One Nights, the Mamluk period was a golden age for popular fiction. In particular there was a vogue for lengthy poetic epics featuring Arab paladins who battled against Byzantines, Crusaders and Zoroastrians – not to mention sorcerers, dragons and seductresses. Such enthusiasm for pseudo-historical fiction aroused disapproval in pious circles. A 14th-century Syrian religious scholar advised copyists not to copy deceptive books ‘by which Allah does not offer any useful thing, such as Sirat Antar and other fabricated things’. It echoes the famous injunction against Northern European epic, in an Anglo-Saxon monastery where popular fiction, if it were to survive, had to be copied out: ‘What has Ingeld to do with Christ?’ The monks, chastened, suppressed their love of Ingeld epic, and thus, we are lucky to have Beowulf, single survivor of a greater tradition. One monk wrote out Beowulf, probably under his desk. Ah, genre. Either a victim of pieties, or if not, of snobbishness. I am a devotee of medieval European chivalric romances and am conscious that class, in written arts, is not easily shaken off: these, the fantasy fiction of their day, were despised in more literary circles, and are still fighting for standing – scholarship on them had to struggle out of what we in Australia used to call the cultural cringe, and I see medievalists despise them still. Their equivalents in the Arabic-writing world suffered a similar fate. The sira(t) (adventures, popular epic, romances – translation up to you) were very like those endless adventures of Lancelot or Orlando. They were cheaply printed, not preserved with care as were more ‘literary’ productions, which makes the textual study of them difficult today; they still can go unmentioned, this book complains, in surveys of Arabic literature, due to unavailability in other languages and lack of serious attention in their own. Translator wanted, because I love them. An exception to their unavailability is The Adventures of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan: An Arab Folk Epic, in, as you see, a much shortened version. These romances run to four or six thousand pages, and took a year for the storytellers to recount to their audience (another commonality with our fantasy fiction – which issues from this stuff, you know). The book before us is a great step forward in our English-language knowledge of these epics. There is also the more expensive The Arabian Epic: Heroic And Oral Storytelling in 3 vols, the 3rd vol being Texts, with extensive summary of the main epics. Remke Kruk’s book is also plot summary and description, nothing fancy like analysis, just getting the information to us about what is in these epics, what they are like. It focuses, as you see by the title, on one characteristic of the knightly romance in its Arabic rendition: A remarkable aspect of the Arabic epic is that a number of the heroes are people of low social status, handicapped in their career by their birth and physical appearance. Many of them are black, and some even start out as slaves. Some of the heroes are female, in some cases black women. Now, fighting women are a feature of knightly romance wherever you travel: Boiardo’s Italian, Spenser’s English, the Karakalpak Qirq Qiz (Forty Girls – who fight), the Byzantine Digenes Akrites, this last of which proves you have to put fighting women in even if you are driven to trash them. Whenever I see – and that’s frequently – reviews of contemporary fantasy or historical say, ‘here we go, have to have a butt-kicking woman these days, how anachronistic’, I itch to point out that women in arms and armour have been wildly popular from the get-go. After reading this book, I have the niggling suspicion that the Turkic epics may be outperformed in this area by their Arabic-language peers. But since neither are extensively translated into English, alas, I am unequipped to adjudicate in this challenge. They’ve certainly laid the gauntlet down. Dhat al-Himma, as the plot progresses, becomes more and more ‘bold’, rather like Xena the television series, which in its ripe episodes might be populated by a vast majority of women, from the weekly villain who wants to take over the world, to her army, to Xena and her army and her allies’ armies. I cite Xena because, of course, she’s genre fiction, in fact she’s very very similar to these romances, and having just devoured this book, I am in no mood to hide my box-set in the cupboard. In these Arabic renditions, women marry and go on with their careers in arms just as before. Perhaps it’s a function of polygamy and plot; Abd al-Wahhab collects three warrior-women wives, one of whom remains centred in her independent castle, another of whom, after a lot of plot, goes bad and defects to the Byzantines. Dhat al-Himma, main hero of perhaps the second-most popular of the epics, dedicates herself to arms to the exclusion of love and (spoiler) dies of old age without a love affair in her six thousand pages. The above Abd al-Wahhab is her son, but by rape; she married only at orders of the caliph, wouldn’t consummate for months, and her husband drugged her (she is with difficulty restrained from killing him; in the end, the son does). The sexual politics are only one aspect of these popular epics worth study. I think the book is titled to catch interest, slightly clumsily; inside, the author doesn’t use such words as ‘empowerment’, but describes the contents of the epics, with a brief discussion at the end: My aim in this book was, in the first place, to tell the stories and to emphasize how much popular epic has to offer. She observes that it is those epics with Bedouin settings which allow for women, whether Arab or foreign, to fight from childhood and to go on fighting after marriage; with the more ‘civilized’ settings (isn’t this familiar?), things become less free and easy: warrior women exist, but their position is contested.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Amirah Mohiddin

    Remke Kruks The Warrior Women of Islam opens up a corpus of Arabic literature otherwise erased from the eyes of the non-Arab public. Yes, we know about the very popular One Thousand and One Nights (rolls eyes), but how about a text focusing purely on gender issues? The Warrior Women of Islam explores the poignant question of women in Islamic history, a question which in our quest for womens rights is becoming increasingly important. Kruk probes the depiction of the heroic woman in their own Remke Kruk’s The Warrior Women of Islam opens up a corpus of Arabic literature otherwise erased from the eyes of the non-Arab public. Yes, we know about the very popular One Thousand and One Nights (rolls eyes), but how about a text focusing purely on gender issues? The Warrior Women of Islam explores the poignant question of women in Islamic history, a question which in our quest for women’s rights is becoming increasingly important. Kruk probes the depiction of the heroic woman in their own epics Sirat Dhat al-himma, as well as side characters for the male heroes, for example in Sirat ‘Antara. She questions how women’s tales differ – or more controversially, the tropes that remain the same – from their male counterparts. The stories that Kruk recounts describe women who are brave and respected leaders. The writing gives us an image of how current societal expectations of gender roles have severely turned back the clock, beyond even these medieval warriors. Not only are the heroines Dhat al-himma, Qannasa and Ghamra born to be warriors, but they also earn it through their various military conquests, frequently beating male heroes on the battlefield. Kruk’s concise and engaging style of writing shows a truly passionate and inquisitive vision of the past. She explores the stories in their natural framework in the oral traditional of storytelling which took place in public settings in Cairo and Marrakech until very recently. Kruk enquires and analyses the origins of these stories and open up their more problematic aspects to the reader. For example, these stories were told and written for males; how can this be seen through the narrative of the Arabian epic? Also, why if Dhat al Himma and Ghamra were so proud of their femininity did they dress as men on the battlefield? Lastly, how are these epics reflective of reality? Together, Kruk’s team of warrior women give a wide range of representation of the strong, independent female character. The Warrior Women of Islam unites these diverse women highlighting a controversial argument against the demure, passive and emasculated woman, turning them into an emancipated and empowered vision of the future. Now, I can’t say when Muslim women started to be seen as submissive and why it’s so engrained into our societal culture, but what I can say is that Kruk’s The Warrior Women of Islam is a fantastic eye-opener for the non-Arab public, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to work past the distorted representations given to us by the media.

  3. 5 out of 5

    World Literature Today

    "We have all heard of The Thousand and One Nights, but stories outside this collection are a different matter, even for specialists, the genre of popular epic narrated by professional storytellers having been rather looked down upon by scholars and hence making only brief appearances in literary histories.... Kruk deserves our thanks for making available to a general and even scholarly audience what is effectively a new literary territory for the West." - M. D. Allen, University of Wisconsin, "We have all heard of The Thousand and One Nights, but stories outside this collection are a different matter, even for specialists, the genre of popular epic narrated by professional storytellers having been rather looked down upon by scholars and hence making only brief appearances in literary histories.... Kruk deserves our thanks for making available to a general and even scholarly audience what is effectively a new literary territory for the West." - M. D. Allen, University of Wisconsin, Fox Valley This book was reviewed in the May 2014 issue of World Literature Today. Read the full review by visiting our website: http://bit.ly/1zkiUCo

  4. 4 out of 5

    Dennie

    interesting in theory but I couldn't finish it

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sana

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mahnoor Zahid

  7. 4 out of 5

    Danielle Macisaac

  8. 4 out of 5

    Stine

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lady Niniane

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ghmra

  11. 4 out of 5

    Luisa نور

  12. 4 out of 5

    Gabriela Flores

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jolie Hernandez

  14. 5 out of 5

    Melanie

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tia

  16. 5 out of 5

    Awni

  17. 4 out of 5

    Xanat

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mona

  19. 4 out of 5

    Alaa

  20. 5 out of 5

    Dinaz

  21. 4 out of 5

    Catrine Emilie

  22. 4 out of 5

    Zainab A

  23. 4 out of 5

    Yusuf Köşeli

  24. 5 out of 5

    Salma Nazeem

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jessie K.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Asma Mabrouk

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tauheed

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sajid Jadoon

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mahoshy Carter

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tamer Al helaly

  31. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Springs

  32. 5 out of 5

    Fiona Bunworth

  33. 5 out of 5

    Fiona

  34. 4 out of 5

    Quentin Crisp

  35. 4 out of 5

    Hamza

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