Ibrahim Farghali on Why You’re Reading the Wrong Arabic Books

Gifted Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Farghali (whose Smiles of Saints you can read in trans. by Andy Smart and Nadia Fouda-Smart*, but whose Sons of Gabalawi you can read only in Arabic, if you can find it) writes in Neue Zürcher Zeitung about why you’re reading all the wrong Arabic books (in translation): 

Allow me to vastly oversimplify.

In short, Farghali says on Twitter: “the main subject here is that the west is translating only” books that support “the traditional stereotypes about East”.

Should not read: Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea

If you want to read a book about sex and Saudi women, you should read: The Others, Seba al-Harz (pen name)

Should not (necessarily) read: Things that receive International Prize for Arabic Fiction awards or Naguib Mahfouz medals.

Should read (but you already knew that): Gamal al-Ghitani, Mohamed al-Bisatie, Abdelrahman Munif

Shouldn’t be so well-known in translation: Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi

Should be far better known in translation: Youssef Rakha (whose Sultan’s Seal is forthcoming Clockroot Books, trans. Paul Starkey), Ali Bader (one recently out from BQFP, another from AUC Press), Rabee Jaber (two books forthcoming New Directions, trans. Kareem James Abu Zaid), short stories by Muhammad Makhzangi (a memoir, Memories of a Meltdown, is available from AUC Press, trans. Samah Selim).

Young writers who haven’t been translated (except perhaps in Banipal or Beirut39),but should be: Nael al-Toukhy, Tariq ImamMaha HassanHussein al-Abri.

Older-generation writers who are oddly not in translation: Moroccan Mohammed Zafzaf, Algerian Tahar Watter (although his The Earthquake is available in English, reviewed here).

So, why are you reading all the wrong Arabic books? Publishers hype all the wrong stuff.

Another noted Egyptian novelist, Youssef Rakha, also wrote something similar recently for The Kenyon ReviewRakha named Farghali’s Sons of Gabalawi as a worthy book, but I don’t think there’s any conspiracy there.

Authors named by Rakha but not Farghali: Hamdi Abu Golayyel, Ahmed Yamani, Yasser Abdellatif, Mohammed Rabie.

Also very on topic, is Irvine Welsh, who asks today in the Guardian“So from an aspiring author’s point of view, if you’re from the so-called margins, do you play the current publishing game – eg shoehorn yourself into writing genre fiction, and ‘work within the system’, as the successful Scandinavian writers have done in crime fiction, effectively globally rebranding (at least in the eyes of outsiders) an entire genre – or do you exercise the freedom of the author and simply do what the fuck you feel like?”

Editor’s note: I do not read German and am basing my understanding of Farghali’s article on Google Translate. However, an ArabLit reader (who does know German) assures me that the Google Translate version is quite competent.

*Farghali quite liked the English translation of his Smiles of Saints, about which he told me: “[In the English translation] it was my voice in a way or another, the same tone. This feeling is not related to my knowledge of English; no because when I read it I found my own voice. I found the same tone with both the narrators and characters, a very Arabic tone, which is not easy to find.”


  1. A timely question!! what should be read and what shouldn’t be!!
    Unfortunately, most of Saudi women fiction that is available in the western market and gets translated into other languages lack literary value at the very least. Publishers look for works that confirm stereotypes of the suppressed and backward Saudi woman, good examples are The Others by Saba herz, and Girls of Riyadh which you have mentioned here.

    Surprisingly, the more serious works of omimah alkhamis and badrieh albisher do not get the attention they deserve internationally.

    1. Thankyee.

  2. hehe. guilty as charged. or something.

    1. 🙂

      As I’ve said before, I agree with Humphrey Davies, who said (somewhat defensively, on the nth time he was accused of translating Alaa al-Aswany) that “literature is a house of many rooms.” We shouldn’t neglect the serious rooms — I like the serious rooms, I’m most at home in the serious, beautiful rooms — but there are times to enjoy some light-hearted, less-literary, even cheesily decorated rooms, too.

      Anyhow, it seems to me that yucky memoir-type works “explaining” Arabs get much more attention than either Girls of Riyadh or Baba Sartre. If there’s a room I’d prefer to hear no more about, it’s not Rajaa’s or Alaa’s, it’s those hanging with Norma Khouri’s “Forbidden Love.”

      1. i had to look that one up … sometimes living in the boonies is a good thing. OUCH!

        i think you should start the “if you liked X … why don’t you try Y and Z” charts. everything looks more serious with charts 🙂
        for the last couple of months i’ve had the greatest fun telling people: “ooooh, so you enjoyed 50 shades of gray. you know what you might really like? myra breckinridge.” *evil laughter*

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