Reviews of Arabic Novels Not (Yet) in English

Hayawanat Ayyamna (Animals in Our Days), Mohamed Al Makhzangi, 2007.

I believe this is the only book on the list of not-yets that has secured an English-language publisher—American University in Cairo Press. The piece about this book in Egypt Today is not so much a review as a profile of author Mohamed Al Makhzangi; the charm of the article is that the writer just lets Al Makhzangi talk:

I have not tried to humanize animals or animalize humans in my book, because it is not a book about animals. It is a book about humans. Animals comprise a dramatic axis around which stories revolve. We can see that animals are being crushed under the weight of the conflicts between humans, and between humans and nature. It is a book against domination and against the hegemony of American imperialism over weak peoples. It is against the dominance of man over the environment, and over animals, of men over women, like in the story “White Bears, Black Bears.” The animal is a mirror that reflects man’s image, and shows how foolish and fierce man has become. It screams that for us to retrieve our humanity, we must follow animal instincts, because an animal lives to secure its needs. Its conflicts are simple. It does not kill for fame, or power, or control. To become human, we need to become animal.

Chip Rossetti has received a very nice PEN grant to translate the book; this is a book to put on your “must-read” list. More about Al Makhzangi from Egypt Today.

Al-Sayyeda Min Tal Abib (The Lady from Tel Aviv), Rabai al-Madhoun, 2009.

There is a good chance that this book—on the 2010 Arabic Booker shortlist—will appear in English. However, being on the Arabic Booker shortlist has been no guarantee of translation.

However, I was certainly intrigued by the excerpt of it I read, and translator Elliott Colla has raved about the book, saying (in an email I hope he doesn’t mind I publish): “His novel is a gem. Here’s how much: we have a toddler at home and are in general sleep-deprived. In other words, I normally don’t find myself up reading all night because I’m so involved in a story. But that novel did that to me.”

Three short reviews: from Al Masry Al Youm, Time Out Abu Dhabi and Al Sharq al Awsat.

A Matter of Time (مسألة وقت) by Montasser El Qafash.

El Qafash’s book was the winner of the 2009 Sawiris Award for Best Work of Literature, but blogger Ahmed Khalifa says A Matter of Time “is a novel that is hard to review.” The protagonist of the novel, a tutor, has a one-night stand with one of his students, “only to discover a little while later that she had died three hours before coming to his apartment and sleeping with him.”

So the young man investigates. Khalifa was certainly not blown away: “It’s atmospheric, stylishly written, and has a fascinating premise. But one can’t help but feel that it would have made a great short story. As a novel, even a short one, it seems overlong and, ultimately, underwhelming.”

Azef Munfared ‘ala al-Piano (A Solo Performance on Piano), Fawwaz Haddad, 2009

Khalifa was much more enthusiastic about Fawwaz Haddad’s A Solo Performance on Piano. Haddad, who was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker in 2008 for this The Unfaithful Translator, is controversial in his native Syria. Syria Today notes that The Unfaithful Translator is officially banned, although easy to come by. Haddad told Syria Today:

I don’t take censorship into account when I’m writing my novels. My real problem is with inner censorship. I often have to face myself and wonder to what extent I, as a novelist, can overcome my own set of axioms and beliefs and if I have the courage to question them in the first place.

But back to his 2009 novel, A Solo Performance on Piano. According to Khalifa, “This masterful psychological thriller is like no other Arabic book I’ve ever come across.”  The plot, Khalifa says, revolves around a secular Syrian writer and government official “who, after getting attacked and beaten by a mysterious figure and becoming a sort of a celebrity, is entangled in a complex plot involving negotiations between the Syrian Government and Extremist Islamists.”

Khalifa highly recommends the novel; Max Weiss, history professor at Princeton and the translator of Iman Humaydan’s B as in Beirut, is apparently almost finished with a translation of the novel. I suggest you publishers contact him in a hurry if you’d like the rights to the book….

Ashaa Berefqat Aisha (A Dinner with Aisha), Mohamed el-Mansi Qandil, 2010.

The shortest review of all is of Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s new short story collection, A Dinner with Aisha. Al Masry Al Youm only gives my beloved Qandil four tiny paragraphs. Mansi Qandil fans (Moon Over Samarqand) are still waiting on word of whether his Arabic Booker-shortlisted Cloudy Day on the West Side will be translated into English. An excerpt of the book was engaging and intriguing, and the book has made the Kotob Khan bestseller list several times.

But as for A Dinner with Aisha, who knows. Perhaps some of the stories will make it into Banipal.