It’s seeming less and less like a world where English-language publishers can sit around for decades, dangling their toes in the water, knowing that the best in Arabic fiction will be available whenever their feet might get used to the temperature below.
Finally, it seems to be a world where publishers need to show a little spit.
English-language rights to contemporary Arabic novels are being bought up by older ventures (AUC Press, Interlink, Saqi) and new ones (BQFP, Swallow), as well as a number of others. A two-day event in Sharjah promises to put together Arab and foreign publishers. And now Sonallah Ibrahim, scandalously under-translated in English, will see another title in translation thanks to Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.
BQFP has signed a contract for English rights to Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1984 novel Beirut, Beirut, which they estimate will come out in September 2013. Beirut, Beirut is the first in a series of Ibrahim’s novels written in his mash-up documentary style. The novels that followed were Zaat (1992), translated by Anthony Calderbank and published by AUC Press; Sharaf or Honor (1997), listed as one of the “top 105” novels by the Arab Writers Union, yet untranslated; and Warda (2002), yet untranslated.
Sonallah Ibrahim novels available in translation are his pioneering The Smell of It (1966), trans. Denys Johnson-Davies, although this book is available only in theory, as it’s out of print. A translation of The Committee (1981), by Charlene Constable and Mary St Germain, can be bought on the open market. These are two of Ibrahim’s earliest works; his gorgeous 2007 novel Stealth is also available, more or less, in beautiful translation from Hosam Aboul-ela, although the publisher is out of business. You can read my review in The Believer. If you can still buy a copy, you’d better hurry and do it now!
From BQFP, on Beirut, Beirut:
Beirut, Beirut tells the story of Lebanon’s devastating civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1979 Sonallah Ibrahim travelled to Beirut to find a publisher for his novel but found himself in the middle of the conflict. In an attempt to understand what was happening, Ibrahim began to research and document events, which formed the basis for Beirut, Beirut.
Originally published in Arabic in 1984 Beirut, Beirut received great critical acclaim and went on to be reprinted several times. Beirut, Beirut is one of a trilogy of documentary novels by Sonallah Ibrahim that employ a literary style unique in Arabic writing.
Dr. Samia Mehrez on the reaction to Sonallah Ibrahim’s rejection of the State Novel award: “The value of freedom.”
By Youssef Rakha: Sonalla Ibrahim: Imagining stasis