What Did I Learn from The Top 100 (+5) List of the ‘Best Arabic Fiction’?

First off, I’ve certainly become convinced that lists are odd artifacts, and that lists voted on by a group of nervous, self-interested humans are probably the oddest of all. For those who have not yet experienced the Arab Writers Union’s “top 100 novels in Arabic,” which is actually a list of 105, here it is:

1-10 , 11-20, 21-30, 31-40, 41-50, 51-60, 61-70, 71-80, 81-90, 91-100, 100-105.

For bean-counters, the list—selected by a method unknown to me, so use your imagination—is about 10 percent female and about 40 percent Egyptian.

If it were just 105 great-ish books, that would be one thing. But it is also a (curious) ranking. For instance, Ahlam Mosteghanmi’s Memory in the Flesh was ranked 25, far ahead of Tawfiq al-Hakim and Taha Hussein, and just after Yusuf Idris and Tayeb Salih, both contenders for the “Arab Nobel” of 1988. About Mosteghanmi’s Naguib Mahfouz prize, which she won for Memory in the Flesh in 1998, critic Youssef Rakha says:

The uproar surrounding its award to the Algerian writer Ahlam Mostaghanmi in 1998 has less to do with Mostaghanmi being a stranger to the writer’s alley – her position as an Algerian or a woman or a newcomer to the literary field – than it does with the patently poor quality of Mostaghanmi’s writing – almost universally regarded as some of the worst ever produced in the language….

But, since we’re not ready to come out with our own top 100 list, let’s never mind that. Also, I’ve never read Ahlam Mostaghanmi.

Anyhow, back to the beans. Seven of the top 10 are available in English, as well as about a third of the total titles. A number more have been excerpted in Banipal. (One of the morals of this story is: If you want to keep up with Arabic literature in English translation, get a subscription to Banipal. Speaking of which, where’s my copy of Banipal 37?)

There are a number of these titles I’d love to see in English—or in new editions and better translations. Taha Hussein’s Call of the Curlew, Yusuf Idris’s The Forbidden, Fathi Ghanem’s The Elephants, Sonallah Ibrahim’s Honor.

How do these books rank in lists of great world lit? In 2002, the Norwegian Book Clubs asked 100 noted writers from 54 countries to vote on the best 100 books of all times. (They did managed to keep it to 100.) Seasons of Migration to the North (#24) and Children of Gebelawi (not here; the union instead chose Mahfouz’s Trilogy) made the list. In Daniel Burt’s The Novel 100, only Abd al-Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt (#105) made the cut.

Of course, I presume that—as with the Nobel—only novels that have made it into English or French were considered.

A few publishers’ names kept appearing as I did this search:

AUC Press – 13, with another on the way.

Interlink – 4, and many other titles by the “winning” authors.

Syracuse University Press – 3

Quartet – 3

Lynne Rienner Publishers – 1, with other titles by the “winning” authors, and 1 reprint of Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North to keep it from going out of print in English in the 1980s.

Archipelago – 1 (and publishing several titles from the listed Elias Khoury)

Telegram Books – 1

Three Continents Press – 1

Palm Press – 1

Heinemann – 1 (ah, Heinemann)

Northwestern University Press – 1

(Egyptian) State Publishing House – 1

And, of course, there were a few big publishers, like Peguin and Anchor, who got in on the big names: al-Shaykh, Mahfouz, Al-Munif, Salih.

So what did I learn? I’m not cut out to be a librarian….