Her academic publications started in 1977 and included (with Ferial Ghazouland others) the four-volume standard reference on Arab women writers (2004; published in English in an abridged, single volume, 2008). By the 80s, Ashour was moving into her own form of fiction and testimony. Her first book, The Journey: Memoirs of an Egyptian Student in America, came out in 1983; her first novel, Warm Stone, appeared two years later.
Then a stream of increasingly ambitious works followed: Siraaj (1992, translated in 2007) – a succinct, visionary fable – blended a Sinbadlike adventure with a compassionate allegory about tyranny – colonial and other – on an imaginary island in the Arabian Gulf; Granada (1994-95, first volume translated in 2003), a trilogy, returned to the period of convivencia in Spain – the era from the eighth century until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 during which Christians, Muslims and Jews lived alongside one another – and its destruction. Granada was voted one of the 105 best Arabic novels of the 20th century by the Arabic Writers’ Union.
Like so many writers in the region, Ashour did not use historical fiction only to retrace the past, but adopted the form as a lens by which to look more deeply, often under conditions of censorship, into current oppression. In Spectres (1998, translated 2010), she ingeniously intertwined a fictive alter ego with remembered scenes from her own youth, producing a moving and vivid drama set in the political unrest of the Nasser and Sadat years, and giving shivers of uncanny deja vu throughout. In more recent publications, such as Heavier Than Radwa (2013), Blue Lorries and The Woman from Tantoura (both translated in 2014), Ashour experimented with inbetween forms: “autobiografictions”, imaginative essay meditations and allegory.
She was also a very fine, perceptive translator from Arabic into English and her translation of the collection Midnight and Other Poems (2008) by her husband, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, demonstrates her finely tuned knowledge of the metre and imagery of English poetry. They met as students in Cairo, and married in 1970. Their son, Tamim, also a poet, was born in 1977. The same year, Barghouti, along with many other Palestinians, was deported from Egypt in the runup to Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem; he was unable to return for 17 years, and this forced the family to live apart. He eventually worked for the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s media operation in Budapest, Hungary, where Ashour and Tamim would visit him every summer holiday.
In Spectres, Ashour recalls scenes of exuberant family joy, as they quote strophes of al-Mutanabbi and other poets by heart in a friendly rivalrous counterpoint which resolves into a chorus of pleasure. One of Tamim’s poems, Ya Masr Hanet (Oh Egypt, It’s Close), was taken up during the Arab Spring to become a song of freedom for revolution all over the region. Another, in 2003, was a homage to his mother; to her thought, her courage and her writing.
As a witness as well as a creative force, Ashour never wavered. She will surely occupy an important place in the story to which she attended with such sensitivity and conscience.
She is survived by Mourid and Tamim.
• Radwa Ashour, writer, born 26 May 1946; died 30 November 2014