First Arab novelist was a woman: Syrian minister

June 17th, 2008 - 8:38 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, June 16 (IANS) The first Arab novelist was a woman, and not a man as has been believed so far, says a Syrian minister and scholar on the basis of her new research. “This is the result of my research,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian minister of expatriates.

“It was so far believed that Hussein Heikal, an Egyptian, who wrote ‘Zaynab’ in 1914 was the first novelist in the Arab world. This is what school children are taught year after year,” Shaaban told IANS here Monday.

“But the first writer of a novel (in the Arab world) was Zaina Zaynab Fawwaz, a woman. Her book ‘Hussan al Awaqib’, which if translated in English would mean ‘Good consequences’, was the first novel of the Arab world,” she added.

Shaaban pointed out that Fawwaz wrote her book in 1898, much before Heikal’s 1914 work and this fact should now be acknowledged by all.

This research is part of her book on Arab women novelists from 1898 to 2000, to be published by a leading New York-based publishing company next year.

At the time, Jordan, Palestine and Syria were all part of one country, “but she was a Syrian,” she added.

Shaaban is not a feminist, but a strong activist for equal opportunities for both men and women. “I don’t stress on equality but I argue in favour of equal opportunities,” she said.

She said the condition of Syrian women had improved in recent years and many of them were now in important positions including one as vice president.

She, however, added: “The percentages of these women are much lower than what we aspire for. There is much scope for improvement.”

Shaaban has served in the Syrian government for 15 years and is also known in her country and elsewhere as a writer and scholar.

The 55-year-old professor who has been teaching English at Damascus University since 1985 had also been the director of the foreign media department at the foreign affairs ministry.

Shaaban’s career “has been dedicated to changing the social injustices that befell women in the Arab world,” according to her official bio-data. Once Late Syrian president Hafez Assad’s interpreter, she has won a number of prestigious scholarships from distinguished universities and institutions in the US and elsewhere.

She was also nominated for the Noble Peace Prize in 2005 for her efforts in “serving the cause of peace in the world”.

“I came to India five years back, in 2003 when I was accompanying our foreign minister,” she said. “But I spent most of my time in the hotel and on official engagements.”

She arrived here early Monday morning, a day ahead of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s five-day state visit.

“I hope I will be able to see and enjoy some parts of India during this trip,” she said.

The Syrian president and his delegation will visit Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Bangalore after the discussions and meetings of the Delhi-leg of his tour get over on Thursday.

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