Things are a bit grim at the moment. But nonetheless, if you’re the holiday gift-buying sort, well, I’m sure your loved ones would appreciate a good book:
If you have a relative who is interested in history, but the Muslim queen of thirteenth-century Egypt is yet unknown to him or her, well! Jurji Zaidan’s Tree of Pearls is just now out, translated beautifully by Samah Selim. Fast-paced, action-driven, with a compelling historical backdrop: the crumbling of the Ayyubids and beginning of the Mamluk era. Also recommended: If your gift-ee prefers intensely beautiful, non-linear, literary historical fiction, then give As Though She Were Sleeping, Elias Khoury. Both the translation by Marilyn Booth (Archipelago) and the one by Humphrey Davies (Quercus) have their strengths. (Reviews and listen to Khoury read from the book.)
GRAPHIC NOVEL – Young Adult
What young person doesn’t like graphic novels? Zeina Abirached’s A Game for Swallows takes us, from a child’s perspective, through one day of waiting for parents to come home during the Lebanese civil war. The background of the war is unfortunately oversimplified to “Christian v. Muslim” (compare to the more complex framing of Lamia Ziade’s graphic novel Bye-Bye, Babylon) and the foreword is utterly unhelpful. But the drawings are lush and beautifully echo Islamic art; reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi but more beautiful than Satrapi. Although Satrapi’s narratives are richer, the tense moments of waiting in A Game for Swallows are compelling. And translator Edward Guavin, whose name is skillfully hidden with the copyright information so that you might never find it without a magnifying glass, does an excellent job. Browse an excerpt: On Words Without Borders.
GRAPHIC NOVEL – Adult
Walid Taher’s Bit of Air, trans. Anita Husen, is not really a novel. It’s more a “graphic poetry collection” (does this genre exist?). Bit of Air is a collection of drawings, aphorisms, and poem-fragments from the wonderfully visionary Egyptian cartoonist. One of the poemish fragments in here has been made into an iconic song by Youssra El Hawary with a must-watch video. This edition is appealingly bilingual, although I’m disappointed that the English is rendered in a plain typeface rather than stylized cursive to match Taher’s. Also recommend: For its lucid, fearless insight into Mubarak-era corruption, Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro.
Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, trans. Leri Price, is a beautiful, dense novel of a family during the early 1980s in Damascus, when Islamist Sunnis led an uprising against the primarily Alawi Syrian regime. But the novel is much larger than this: It ranges to the Soviet Union, to Afghanistan, to the U.S., and deep inside the human heart. (Full review.) Also recommended: If your friend or family member is particularly interested in epic Palestinian history, then Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Time of White Horses, ably translated by Nancy Roberts is engaging and wide-ranging. (Profile of Nasrallah and more thoughts on the novel.) And also Kamal Ruhayyim’s Days of the Diaspora, also ably translated by Saram Enany, a page-turning novel set among the Jewish-Egyptian community in Paris.
LITERARY CLASSICS REVISITED
Rasheed el-Enany has done an excellent job translating and assembling Yusuf Idris’s Tales of Encounter, three previously untranslated novellas by Egypt’s great playwright and genius of the short story. All three novellas take the “encounter” between Egyptians and the West as their theme, to both humorous and serious consequence. Enany does a wonderful job of capturing the mischief at work underneath the sentences, the author’s prickly sense of fun, of saying more than one thing at once, of being ready at any moment to turn on himself or the reader. (Review and more about Idris.)
If your gift-ee absolutely must have a non-book item, there is Mia Grondahl’s 2013 calendar: Street Art of the New Egypt. You can find more of Grondahl’s work here. Oh, and is a magazine a non-book item? You could give a subscription to Banipal and feel good about that.
AHDAF SOUEIF RECOMMENDS
Over at the Guardian, Soueif writes:
Diarist, nature-lover and lawyer, the Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh allows more of his anger to blaze through in the pages of Occupation Diaries (Profile) than he did in his award-winning Palestinian Walks. Shehadeh is always honest, elegant and a heart-wrenching pleasure to read.
I didn’t see any other Arab or Arabic fiction recommended, although Hilary Mantel and Edna O’Brien both gave a nod to The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, set in Iraq.