Feminist and literary activist

The Moroccan author Malika Moustadraf (1969 - 2006) wrote about sexuality, patriarchy and women's rights in her texts. When she died from chronic kidney disease aged just 37, she left behind an exciting, little-known literary legacy. By Melanie Christina Mohr

By Melanie Christina Mohr

Before we shift focus to the work and life of the courageous writer Malika Moustadraf, it is important to highlight the fact that Alice Guthrie translated every single text of Moustadraf’s that she was able to track down and, in doing so, laid the foundations for those who do not speak Arabic to immerse themselves in her literary world.

Guthrie spent time in Moustadraf's home city, met with her friends, family and companions and sought out published interviews and articles on the writer herself. Guthrie first came into contact with Moustadraf's work in 2016 and translated her work over the years that followed.

This is also worth mentioning, because it is not a given for women writing in Arabic to have their work published, let alone translated, and it is therefore a blessing when interested and talented people like Alice Guthrie ensure that literature from female, feminist voices can be read across borders.

Beyond the mainstream

Those keen to read literature by Arab women writers can find inspiration – where else? – online. With the exception of a few select bookshops, such work does not tend to be part of the standard repertoire.

Add to that the fact that many titles are only translated into English and translations can present a challenge because various terms, sayings and culturally specific elements are unclear and have to be looked up before contexts can be understood. It is precisely for this reason that Alice Guthrie has provided her translation of Moustadraf's short story collection Something Strange, Like Hunger with a glossary.

British translator Alice Guthrie (image: www.wordswithoutborders.org
The translator Alice Guthrie came into contact with the work of the Moroccan author, feminist and literary activist Malika Moustadraf (1969 - 2006) back in 2016. She visited her hometown Casablanca, met friends, family and companions and searched for published interviews and contributions by the author, who died far too soon at the age of only 37

The glossary offers a more detailed explanation of words like 'afārīt'. In order to understand the text, it's important to understand that it deals with a supernatural demonic spirit from Islamic mythology which is capable of influencing human beings for either good or ill.

Notable personalities who might be unfamiliar to outside the Arab world are also explained in Guthrie's glossary. Some reader or other may be keen to know who Bouchaib El Bidaoui is, and will learn that he was a famous Moroccan singer who witnessed the peak of his career in the 50s and 60s and who, the glossary reveals, is perfectly suited to Moustadraf’s stories.

Not least because his dazzling personality always caused a stir and because Bouchaib, as an artist interpreted as male by society at large, sang a little too high for some conservatives and, despite all conventions, would make appearances in traditional women’s clothing.

In Moustadraf's short story 'Just Different', the friend of an intersex and/or trans person comments on a situation in which the teaching staff try to stultify visible difference by saying "Madonna, Elton John, and Bouchaib el Bidaoui will all be in hell to keep you company. Hell's going to be a blast. In heaven, the Islamic Education teacher'll be there and your dad and the religion students from the madrasa. Heaven'll be miserable".

The literary experience the book offers definitely balances out any looking-up that might be required on the reader's part and, in the case of Malika Moustadraf, this is partly down to the fact that even those characters who might otherwise only be playing minor parts still very obviously belong on stage.

Sex work, mental health, class-based society

Some stories read as if they were from another world and others could quite easily take place in the here and now. Moustadraf's characters are lively and stick in the mind, even if traces of them disappear after just a few pages, as is to be expected from this literary form.

The issues about which Moustadraf writes are – considering that she produced stories out of an Islamic society around the turn of the millennium – provoking, risk-taking and brave. In The List, a woman daringly saves her family's honour and her daughter's wedding by coordinating a medical procedure to reconstruct the young woman’s hymen.

In the pages that follow, the reader finds themselves next to a cigarette seller in the side streets of Casablanca, commenting on the rogue night-time dealings he's seen and how he's already spotted the imam casting glances at scantily clad women. The short stories tackle taboo topics such as the precarious circumstances of sex workers, psychiatric illness, and medical provision in a country dependent on wealth and class.

When young female writers die young, their avid readers often go wild scouring their literary work for autobiographical details. In the commentary accompanying her translation of Something Strange, Like Hunger, Guthrie states that the readership's intense analysis of and enquiries about which details and elements of Moustadraf's work might be autobiographical, and which might not, were already presenting a challenge for the writer during her lifetime.

In an interview on the topic, she said: "The thing that really bothers me is when other people consider what I've written to be autobiography. Why can't they acknowledge that women (like men) also have a broad imagination?!"


Guthrie writes that the question of autobiographical material comes up time and again, especially when it comes to Moustadraf's novel, Wounds of the Soul and the Body (Jirah al-ruh wa-l-jasad). The text, written in the first person and self-published by Moustadraf in 1999, deals with issues around sex work and sexual violence.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, these topics were associated with enormous shame and readers shifted this shame, and the malaise attached to it, from the text onto its author, Guthrie says. Moustadraf explained the problem in the following terms: "Women have always been, and still are, accused of being the true protagonists of what they write. Why are women prosecuted for what they write, unlike men? Quite simply, because we live in a patriarchal society".

Before she died, Moustadraf's literary work had only been published in Morocco and at the time of her death in 2006, her books were no longer being printed. It was only after she died that interest in this feminist writer was rekindled and three of her short stories, unpublished until that point, were released in Arabic.

Melanie Christina Mohr

© Qantara 2023

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu

"Something Strange, like Hunger" by Malika Moustadraf, translated from the Arabic by Alice Guthrie, Saqi Books 2022