What Brings You to Arabic Literature?

For the next week, I’ll be traveling in Luxor and Aswan. Posting again March 19, insha’allah.

Me and Arabic literature. Sort of.

I was speaking to a PhD student after the Jonathan Wright talk at the AUC, and—as we talked about translation, and our love of words—I had to ask myself: Why do I read (so much) Arabic literature? Why do I allow a translator to come between me and a text? Why not read in Russian, or English, languages where I can be perfectly alone with the author and her words?

Sometimes, I don’t mind, or even appreciate, the translator’s presence. Hosam Aboul-ela’s Stealth and Humphrey Davies’ voicing of Yalo are two such examples. But I can come up with a number of others—and, sometimes, they do incense me—where I felt the translator jumbled up the experience, translating with expertise, sure, but little or no love of words.

The first Arabic fiction I read was perhaps something of Nawal el-Saadawi’s, at university, and then Naguib Mahfouz and Hanan al-Shaykh, while in my early twenties. I loved al-Shaykh’s books unreasoningly: Women of Sand and Myrrh, The Story of Zahra, Beirut Blues. But I didn’t connect them with Mahfouz, who I also loved, or think of them as “Arabic fiction.” They were just…Hanan al-Shaykh.

Then, in the spring of 2001, I visited my (former) college roommate in Cairo, where she was working as a kindergarten teacher. I must’ve had Cairo Trilogy alive in my memory: While the pyramids didn’t much strike me, the Khan al-Khalili made me dizzy with joy. I remember looking up at a minaret against the sky and telling my friend, I want to move here.

A few months later, I did.

Even then, as I began to learn Arabic, I didn’t think of “Arabic fiction.” At some point, I visited the U.S. and got my M.F.A. And came back. I read more and more Arab authors, but it was only as a response to a response to 9/11 that it all collected together, in a category, in my head.

Now, I read Arabic fiction in part from love, in part from habit, and in part from an insufferable sort of hometown pride.

And you? What brings you to Arabic lit?


  1. I am an Afrikaans South African who recently visited Bahrain. It was not the Bahrain Trade Centre, which leaves most Westerners in awe, but my visit (and lecture on Islam) to the Al Fateh Grand Mosque, Bahrain Fort and museum, Isa House, A’ali Arab Stud and most of all the friendly, ever helpful and gracious people that made me fall head over heals in love with most things Arabic. I now want to read as much as I can to become more informed, including Arabic Literature. Thank you so very much for this informative site!!

  2. Good question. I think I first found Arabic literature when I got a copy of a three in one edition Nagib Mafouz novels from the Quality Paperback Book Club. As is my habit I didn’t read it right away, but my parents did and they told me he was great and bought a bunch more of his books. It took me until 2007 to finally read the Cairo Trilogy.

    In the interim I found Hanan al-Shaykh’s books and read all of them. And In 1998 or so the journal Review:Latin American Literature and the Arts had an essay on writers from the old world which, among others, suggested one should read Gamal al-Ghitani. I read all of his books, too.

    Now that the Internet makes so much easier to find out about these books I can go farther afield.

  3. Hi there..
    I prefer to read Arabic literature in Arabic and try as much as possible not to let the translator come between the text and myself. It’s not always easy because I read much faster and smoothly in English. Unfortunately, so far I have only read Mahfouz in English – and it was a pitiful experience – but probably because I read the books at university. I’m looking forward to reading the trilogy soon and in Arabic. Hanan ElSheikh, I bought a long time ago (in English) because I was intrigued by the titles and the book covers. I started reading Women of Sand and Myrrh and was disgusted. I’ve been told I should give her a second chance, but I just mooched the books I had of her, so no more. I have resolved ever since, to stick to reading books in their original language. you get so much more out of them.
    And though Ahdaf Soueif translated I saw Ramallah and went through great pains to do so extremely well, I think i still prefer to stick to the Arabic edition which is so beautifully written.
    As for Arabic lit. in general it is so vast and the language so rich, it would be a pity not to read in Arabic if you can help it.

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