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.”