‘A Hundred Steps from the Revolution’ and the State of Arabic Nonfiction

Youssef Rakha writes this week on Arabophile about Ahmad al-Shaiti’s recently released A Hundred Steps from the Revolution.

Al-Shaiti’s memoir, which provides straightforward documentation of the author’s experiences in Midan Tahrir, received a more straightforward summary-review in Ahram Online. Mahmoud al-Wardani writes there:

…[this is] what gives the book its believability and spontaneity as he communicates his personal experience in Tahrir in an autobiographical way, and one that avoids empty words and exaggerated patriotism. The book successfully avoids many pitfalls and has a lot to offer us readers.

Some faint-ish praise from al-Wardani.

But Rakha wants to explore more than just the merits and demerits of al-Shaiti’s 51-page memoir, but also the state (and possibilities) of Arabic nonfiction. He writes:

It is almost a platitude of contemporary Arabic letters to state that, since the Sixties at least, non-fiction has occupied the lowest tier of the genre pyramid. Not only is non-fiction paid attention based solely on what it is about. … Non-fiction is also something writers of fiction and poetry seem to think they can do with their eyes shut.

Rakha clearly wishes that the talented al-Shaiti’s memoir could’ve been more—much more—than a hurried 18-day journal. The work of nonfiction, Rakha says, is “so different from the meticulously crafted prose of [al-Shaiti’s] poem-like very short stories.”

Rakha finds little craft or reflection in A Hundred Steps, and a large number of printer’s errors. “Not that it would improve the book to know, but it is against a backdrop of disrespect for non-fiction that A Hundred Steps was produced.”

His assessment of the state of Arabic nonfiction:

The result – and I am no longer talking about Elshiti – tends to be a muddled amalgam of old-fashioned journalism and quasi-academic pontificating; literary non-fiction, where it truly exists, is presented as fiction, freed from the factual constraints of travel writing or biography even as it continues to rely on (insufficiently researched) fact.

Now, there is plenty that’s good in Arabic fictional-nonfiction: for instance Sonallah Ibrahim’s thoroughly researched Stealth and Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief.

There is also quality Arabic memoir-qua-memoir—Taha Hussein’s The Days, Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone, Mohamed Makhzangi’s Memories of a Meltdown, Mourid Barghouti’s two memoirs, Safinaz Kazem’s Writing: Visions and Self —but, as Rakha says, authors have generally shied from putting serious effort into book-length works of Arabic nonfiction.

In the Anglo-writing world, there is a strong trend of nonfiction (and reality TV, and “Reality Hunger”). I could give some half-baked sociological analysis of why there’s a relative dearth of Arabic nonfiction (censorship and self-censorship, institutional fear, etc.). But instead I’ll just say that the new era would be a good time to see an explosion of genres: sci fi, futurism, literary journalism, memoir, thrillers, detective stories, romance, YA, biographies, graphic novels, and anything else creative writers can dream up.