AUB mourns the passing of acclaimed novelist Emily Nasrallah (BA ’58)

​Jennifer Muller, Office of Communications, jm26@aub.edu.lb 

The celebrated Lebanese writer and women’s rights activist Emily Nasrallah has passed away at the age of 86. Honored by her alma mater during AUB’s 150th anniversary as one of the university’s “history makers,” Nasrallah garnered regional and international renown with her novels, short stories, and books for children. 

Raised in the village of Kfeir, located on the slopes of Mt. Hermon in southern Lebanon, Emily Abi Rached was brought up in a traditional community and was not expected to continue on to higher education. In an oral history interview conducted by AUB in 2016, she talked about her early years in the village.

“I was a village girl, a fallaha, and I used to help my father and mother in the fields… It was hard work, and maybe this is what made me eager to learn, to get away from this harsh life,” said Nasrallah. “The women, we used to hear it always, byekfe tfikke l harf, you know, it is enough to undo the letters, to know one letter from the other. I was not accepting this at all.”

Following her ambition, Nasrallah convinced a family member to support her secondary school education at the International School of Choueifat. From there, she moved to Beirut and started writing for the women’s magazine Sawt al Mar’a, beginning her career as a writer and journalist. She also wrote for the political magazine Al Sayyad for many years.

Supporting herself by teaching part-time at the Ahliah School for Girls, Nasrallah decided to pursue a university degree and began her studies at the Beirut College for Women (now the Lebanese American University). After two years at BCW, she moved to the American University of Beirut, where she found exactly what she was looking for in this challenging coeducational environment.​

“I will never forget the effect it had on me,” said Nasrallah, “not only by what I was studying in the books, but by the atmosphere, by what AUB stood for… for freedom of thinking, freedom of movement, and the equality between women and men.”

After graduating from AUB in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in education, Nasrallah completed her first novel, The Birds of September (Touyour Ayloul), which won three literary awards and was named by the Arab Writers Union as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century. In this, as in her novel Flight Against Time (Al Iklaa Aks az Zaman), Nasrallah focuses on the hardships of migration and draws on her own experience of having family members who left their homeland.

In 1957, she married Philip Nasrallah, a chemist from Zahle, and they had four children. Three of her children later graduated from AUB: Maha (BAR ‘83) in architecture, Khalil (BS ‘86) in agriculture, and Mona (MD ‘95) in medicine. Her other son Ramzi moved to Canada to live with his uncle and pursue his education there.

Nasrallah herself refused to leave Lebanon and has written all of her books in Arabic, telling stories from her heart that explore traditional Lebanese village life, the fight for equality and self determination for women, the loneliness of emigration, and the turmoil and heartbreak of war. 

Her body of work includes seven novels, numerous collections of short stories, children’s books, and several multi-volume nonfiction works focused on pioneering women in the East and the West. Her work has been translated into several languages, although only Flight Against Time and the children’s book “What Happened to Zeeko” (Yawmiyyat Hirr) have been translated into English.

Nasrallah is the recipient of two Poet Said Akl Prizes (1962 and 2002), the Laureate Best Novel award (1962), Friends of the Book Prize (1962), LIBBY Children’s Book Prize (1998), Fairuz Magazine Prize, and the Khalil Jibran Prize from the Arab Heritage Union, Australia. 

In 2017 Nasrallah was awarded the prestigious Goethe Medal, along with two other international writers. They were honored as “individuals who each take a courageous stance on subjects tabooed in their societies – from violence against women to the politics of remembrance.”  The Goethe Institut said of Nasrallah: “In her works written for adults and children, she has found a poetic language to describe everyday life in war-torn Lebanon.”

Most recently, just a month before her death, Nasrallah was granted the National Order of the Cedar by President of the Republic of Lebanon General Michel Aoun in recognition of her literary contributions.