A ‘Best of Arabic Literature (in English)’ 2011

There were more than three dozen Arabic books published in English translation this year, as well as dozens of books by authors of the Arab diaspora(s). The bulk of what I received in the mail was novels: There is no poetry category below because giving it to Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence (trans. Sinan Antoon) from such a slim field would seem silly. The same goes for memoir (which would pit Mourid Barghouti’s memories of Palestine v. Ahlem Mostaghnemi’s ruminations on love).

Please note these are my favorites — “a best” rather than “the best” — and not intended as authoritative. For an authority’s list, please see the Banipal Translation Prize; the 2011 winner and runner(s)-up will be announced early in January 2012.

Gift Book

Reflections on Islamic Art, ed. Ahdaf Soueif. This is not a coffee-table book to be tha-lunked onto a surface for the fleeting entertainment of guests. It has beautiful images, yes. But it also has twenty-seven essays, stories, and poems by leading contemporary authors that reflect on and play with pieces in Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, writing that reinvigorates our understanding of Islam, art, and history. Fluid translations by Soueif and Abla Sharnoubi.

Runner-up: A gift book should have broad appeal; An Iraqi in Paris, by Samuel Shimon, (re-trans. Piers Amodia and Christina Phillips) is certainly a fun one for uncles, aunts, nephews, and cousins. I would like to be able to recommend Hanan al-Shaykh’s One Thousand and One Nights, but I unfortunately didn’t get a copy.

Revolutionary Read

Vertigo, Ahmed Mourad, trans. Robin Moger. Even though it was published (in Arabic) in 2007, I chose Vertigo as my “book of 2011” for the Egypt Independent’s year-end issue.  The novel doesn’t “predict” revolution — unless you squint at it in a particular way — but what it does express is the revolutionary desire to speak truth about corruption, religion, and power in contemporary Egypt. And I think it’s funny, too. A strong, fluid translation by Robin Moger.

Runner-up: Messages from Tahrir, ed. Karima Khalil. This photo book offers Tahririan images and signs (in translation) from January and February of this year, capturing the hope and spirit of the initial surge to the streets. I also love a little cheap pocket-sized book called “الشعب يريد “ that lists slogans and jokes from the 18 days. It would be a challenge to translate.


Brooklyn Heights, Miral al-Tahawy, trans. Samah Selim. Brooklyn Heights, which won the 2010 Naguib Mahfouz Medal and was shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is a novel of global standing. What al-Tahawy does brilliantly and tenderly, with great psychological detail, is paint in radiating and overlapping portraits of the people of rural Egypt and urban Brooklyn. If there’s anything it loses in the English, perhaps it’s the dislocation of the English that appears within the Arabic text, but I’m not sure there’s anything Selim could’ve done with that. Otherwise a beautiful translation of a beautiful book: It doesn’t seem “translated” at all.

Runners-up: Starred reviews from this year are numerous and include Ali Bader’s The Tobacco Keeper, Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada and Adania Shibli’s We Are All Equally Far from Love

Literature of the Arab Diaspora

Khaled Mattawa’s “After 42 Years.” (Listen here.) This poem was broadcast on BBC Radio in October, shortly after long-time dictator Moammar Ghaddafi fled from insurgents. It’s remarkable for its ability to both capture and expand a moment, hold our emotions and complicate them, echo and create silence. Mattawa is most definitely a poet to follow.

Runners-up: Diana Abu-Jaber’s Birds of Paradise, which is beautifully written and heart-pinchingly insightful on relations between parents and teens, but a bit over-architected; Salma Dabbagh’s Out of It, which is a wonderful read that complicates Gaza and doesn’t shy from self-criticism, really bringing readers into the messiness of conflict, but is a bit too breezy; Lamia Ziade’s Bye-Bye Babylon, a crazy graphic novel vision of a young girl in Lebanon’s civil war (review here; Q&A with French-to-English translator Olivia Snaije here); and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s playful and self-conscious Montecore, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

Best Overall

Brooklyn Heights, by Miral al-Tahawy, trans. Samah Selim.

When I was in cold, cold Minnesota, USA in 2007(ish), celebrated Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah was visiting the state university. A group of us were gathered in some small, winter-sweat-smelling room when Prof. Charlie Sugnet announced that Farah had previously “discovered” a  literary talent of now-towering international standing. Who, Sugnet wanted to know, was the next great global phenom?

When I used this anecdote to embarrass al-Tahawy last December, I had Nuruddin Farah pull the name “Miral al-Tahawy” out with a flourish. However, to be honest, he wrinkled his forehead and said, “Hmm. She wrote Blue Aubergine, and I just read the manuscript of another novel of hers, um, Gazelle Tracks… What is her name again…? What is her name?”