The 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction judges have had their say; now some of our favorite authors will have theirs. Over the next few days, as the year ends, ArabLit and Egypt Independent will be running through acclaimed Arab poets, novelists, and short-story writers’ favorite reads of 2012. I’m not sure of the sequencing over at EI, but over here, we’ll start with nonfiction (today), and then move to favorites in poetry and fiction.
These lists will be in alphabetical order (by Anglicized transliteration). All authors were able to choose nonfiction, poetry, novels or all of the above.
Omar Berrada, Moroccan poet
Marina Warner’s “Stranger Magic – Charmed States and the Arabian Nights” (Harvard UP) is a bewildering feast for the mind and for the eyes. Everything you ever wanted to know, and much more, about Alf Layla wa Layla’s discovery and afterlives in Europe after it was first translated in early 18th century France. This is imaginative erudition at its best, from a master scholar of myth and fairytale. The book at once re-inscribes the Nights within the development of the European fairy tale tradition, and thrillingly explores the continuing significance of “magical thinking” in a (Western) culture that fashions itself as rationalist and secular. Smart, fast-paced sentences make it a very pleasant read, too.
A figure little known outside of the Arabic language, Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Ben Abdelali has been very prolifically writing philosophy that manages to be at once radical and readable. Slim volumes of collected short pieces that have abandoned the lure of high rhetoric and totalizing systems and rely, rather, on anecdote, social observation, theoretical references of course (though hardly a footnote) and, above all, style. This is philosophy as a literary genre, as a rhythm of thought that you can inhabit. His latest volume, Harakat al-kitaba (Toubkal) is a case in point. The very movement of writing is its real subject, despite its many ostensible topics (untranslatability, wikileaks, cultural tourism, symbols and spectacle, homages to deceased friends and teachers – Mohamed Abed al-Jabri, Abdelkebir Khatibi–, etc.)
Ibrahim Farghali, Egyptian novelist
The second book I really enjoyed is Mustafa Zikri’s Diaries, which is a quite interesting book for how a writer insists to write about a negative literature. He is writing as an exercise, but those exercises became many good pieces about cinema, literature, great writers, great movie makers and actors, rewritings of some of Kafka’s stories, and more. The result is another very original text from Zikri.
Hamdy El Gazzar, Egyptian novelist
Revolution 2.0, by Wael Ghonim (2012), provides insight into the life of a new generation that has earned the right to lead Egypt to freedom, justice, and dignity. Forcefully barricaded from the political scene for years, they are a generation that has paid the price in blood and imprisonment. Now the future is all for them. The Arabs’ Revolutions and the Intellectuals’ Address, by Ali Mabrouk (2012), takes a step toward revising the way in which the public has been addressed for the past 200 years and adopting an address that supports the creation of a modern nation, a nation built on the ideas of democracy, the people’s right to rule, and a critical and intellectual dialogue.
May Telmissani, Egyptian novelist
My favorite book of the year is a book of graffiti titled Wall Talk (published by Zeitouna, Cairo). It is a bilingual Arabic and English book, organized as a diary day by day of the Egyptian revolution, from 25 January 2011 to 30 June 2012 (the date Morsi resumed power). The book offers a fantastic collection of graffiti some of which no longer exist, since they were wiped down by the Muslim Brothers’ government. This art flourished on the walls throughout the country and became one of the major tools of expression for many revolutionary groups, commenting on the events and calling for freedom and social justice.
Some submissions were translated from the Arabic; all errors are (probably) mine.