This anthology of poetry and prose edited by British Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh collects erotic writings by women in the Arab world, celebrating those women's voices who dare to articulate their own desires for men or other women.
The anthology...could not be more refreshing ... [a] groundbreaking compilation ... Some of the most compelling selections explore sexuality in unlikely settings or from rarely seen perspectives ... LGBTQ voices and narratives are also well represented ... The modern poetry ranges from the subtle mood-setting of acclaimed Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye...to the skill with language of the late Joyce Mansour. Yet it can be uneven, with some pieces coming across as half-baked or filled with sexual descriptions that convey no great profundity or even eroticism ... What We Wrote in Symbols captures most strongly is the richness and depth of erotic writing in the Arabic literary tradition, and the incredible diversity and range of its female voices. If this eye-opening collection also helps shatter some assumptions about gender and sexuality in the Arab world, it is all the more welcome.
... Palestinian–English editor Selma Dabbagh draws readers into such secretive spaces. She does this not by politicizing the restrictions that have historically been imposed on Arab women, but by elevating self-assertive voices and banishing long-held silences on matters such as same-sex desire and masturbation. The pieces seem almost to whisper to each other ... Particularly gripping is 'Fig Milk', by the Palestinian journalist Samia Issa, about an older woman who experiments with her sexuality in the latrines of a refugee camp ... Lesbian love, which remains taboo across the region, is daringly explored ... Almost all the stories hinge on a precarious power dynamic, whether in the couple or between individuals and society, which results in female vulnerability. Sometimes, however, desire fleetingly finds fulfilment, emotionally or physically, and these moments are electrifying.
In the book’s introduction, Dabbagh explains that translating works about love and lust is difficult, though we do not learn about the ways in which the various translations could have impacted the anthology. This is especially pertinent in the cases of translations from Arabic to English, which represent the majority of the works in the text; Arabic can be seen as a unifying language, but the subtleties and differences between the dialects dictate different cultural specificities and reflect a stark diversity in both place and community. In other words, unless the place of origin is clear, the readers lose a sense of place with the absence of dialect, and different geographies and contexts start feeling neutral ...This anthology provides a glimpse into a world that has been constantly made invisible or policed within systems of domestication and abuse ... the writings in the anthology provide a language and a needed vocabulary for Arab women seeking to find solace and community. Whether they are experiencing love, sex, or a combination of both, the voices of the included writers provide a point of reference for the long forgotten tradition of erotic writings and the censorship of Arab women’s sex lives and experiences. Pain, shame, and guilt are challenges that persist in the anthology, but so is joy, and joy within pain is a revolutionary act of love that can pave the way to collective healing.