Since Robin Yassin-Kassab declared in the Guardian that Hassan Blasim is “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive,” it’s been needling me. Surely, Blasim is an excellent writer. Yes, I think there are more mature writers of Arabic fiction (alive). But never mind that. What’s been bothering me is that Blasim is not available (in print) in Arabic.
Madman of Freedom Square was longlisted for the Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize this year (it did not make the shortlist). It has also been longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award; the shortlist of six will be announced at the beginning of July. For a work of Arabic literature, these represent pretty high praise from English-reading critics.
No awards have been presented to Madman from the Arabic prize-giving world. But then again, the book has not been printed in Arabic.
While I was in the process of digging up information to review Madman, Ra Page of Comma Press had told me:
We approached and commissioned Joumana [Haddad] to go out and find stories – from 10 cities across the Middle East [for the collection Madinah]. Hassan had published some stories on a website and sent some stories to her in the past (as she edits the arts pages of a Lebanese newspaper). So Joumana asked Hassan to submit a new story, set in Baghdad, which he did. Comma then found all the translators and allocated stories to them. We found out about Jonathan through the Taxi book he did [Taxi, by Khaled al-Khamissi]. We initially commissioned Jonathan just to translate the one story for Madinah, then when we read it we knew we wanted more, and got Hassan to start writing more and more…. then commissioned Jonathan to translate the entire book.
We were very lucky to find Hassan, I know that much.
I also feel lucky to have found Blasim.
You can buy his short-story collection from Amazon, or from your local independent bookseller. If you’re still not sure about it, Blasim has posted reviews of his work on his English-language blog. (Mine, Yassin-Kassab’s, others.) On his Arabic blog, you can read some of his stories for free. Still, it’s not the same as having a collection in hand, or in bookshops, or widely reviewed.
But, as Blasim notes below, he is not willing to pay to be published in Arabic. I still find it terrible shame, even if his work is available online for free.
SO, PUBLISHERS, the need stands. Someone pick up Blasim’s Madman collection in Arabic.