Visualizing Arab Women’s Writings in the Mahjar: A Digital Humanities Project

By Elizabeth Saylor
Submitted to Session P4815 (Gendering Migration & Transnationalizing Gender in the Middle East & North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
At the end of the 19th century, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants living in North and South America formed vibrant Arabic-speaking communities, established the very first Arabic literary societies, and published scores of Arabic-language newspapers, periodicals, and literary works. Women writers in the diaspora were significant contributors to the development of Arabic literature and culture during a pivotal period of Arabic literary and cultural history known as the nahda, or the Arabic cultural awakening. Despite the numerous literary and journalistic accomplishments of Arab women writers scattered throughout the diaspora (or the mahjar), their works have fallen through the disciplinary cracks and all but vanished from historical memory. To address this scholarly lacuna, this paper presents a digital humanities project undertaken in collaboration with the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies. This project brings together, for the first time, research on Arab women writers in the mahjar from myriad sources into a singular comparative focus. Through the compilation of a comprehensive database of Arab women writers in the diaspora – including biographical information and an inventory of published works by writers such as Salma Sa’igh (1889-1953), Salwa Salama Atlas (1883-1945), Habbuba Haddad (1897-1957), Anjal ‘Awn (?-1989), and ‘Afifa Karam (1883-1924) – I piece together the unfinished tapestry of a transnational genealogy of Arab women writers during the nahda. Unearthing the as-yet-unexamined writings of Arab women in the diaspora will illuminate the contributions of deterritorialized Arab women writers to cultural, literary, and socio-political discourse during the nahda. It reveals a dynamic constellation of connections – both literal and textual – linking women writers and intellectuals throughout the mahjar and beyond. Ultimately, by reconceptualizing the nahda as a distinctly transnational phenomenon – and highlighting the vital role played by women and mahjar writers in ushering in the modern age in Arabic letters – this research presents a conceptual model that radically transforms our understanding of early Arabic fiction and the Arabic cultural enlightenment more generally.