And finally, acclaimed Arab writers’ favorite novels of 2012. Some can be found on the “Arabic Booker” longlist, but certainly not all. (For instance, we can wonder why Diary of an Iraqi Dog didn’t make the list.) Previous days, we posted favorites in nonfiction and poetry.
Inas Abbassi, Tunisian poet
Jabbour Douaihy’s The Vagrant (2011) is a great novel, with a language that has the rejuvenating effects of spring water. In this novel, Douaihy describes the Lebanese civil war from the perspective of a young character: The hero is a young man full of passion for life who is divided between two identities (Muslim and Christian). It is a novel about passion for life, hopes, love, and the tragedy of war which overtook everything in one wave. I enjoyed every single word. It is a novel which we read it like we eat “un croissant au chocolate” — delicious in the beginning, but in the end we just keep the taste of bitterness.
Again, with Land of Sudan: Sweet and Sour (2011) the Sudanese novelist Amir Tag al-Sir surprises us with his magical style of drawing us gently into the world of Sudan. This is the story of a traveler, an Englishman who is looking to discover the charm of “Orient.” After a bet between him and one of his friends who refused to go to Sudan, he studies Arabic and attempts to learn some cultural and social information to make his trip there easy. In this novel, Tag al-Sir destroys the classic Western vision of the “Orient” by providing us a hero who exposes the arrogance and colonial practices toward the land’s rightful owners. The writer attains this objective without falling in the trap of a direct speech and, as usual, he wrote this masterpiece with graceful language.
Kif Kif by Youssef Albahri, is a distinctive and powerful Tunisian novel. The writer used the ancient Arabic language (reminiscent of the language of the Qur’an) and embroidered it with modern words. The novel weaves together many internal voices directed by the protagonist-narrator. The whole idea turns about this narrator, who decides one day to write his first novel. “Kif Kif,” which means “same same” in Tunisian, was also turned into a successful play two years ago.
Yasser Abdellatif, Egyptian novelist
It’s clear that literary production in post-revolutionary Egypt has slowed, which is normal. This is particularly the case with the novel, where the world around is still transforming. It’s also natural that some are trying to ride the wave of rapidly produced writing about revolution, and these books are for the most part wretched and cheap. Among the works that drew my eye this year was the second novel by Mohammed Rabie, Year of the Dragon (2012). It’s a promising novel, at the turning point of what was written before the “spring” and what will be written later.
And from the older generation, I liked the novel House of Fire(2012) by Mahmoud Wardani, and consider it the high point of his literary career; here, he has achieved what he has not in his earlier novels.
Ali Bader, Iraqi novelist
I have recently finished reading three ambitious Iraqi novels, The President’s Gardens (2012) by Muhsin al-Ramli, Diary of an Iraqi Dog by Abdul Hadi Sadoun, and Mr. Asgher Akbar By Murtadha Gzar. The three novels all examine the relationships between the power and culture. Moreover, they represent an allegory for the role of the novel in Iraqi cultural life.
The President’s Gardens is a novel about three friends living in northern Iraqi village. Al-Ramli’s novel has strong political themes drawn from Iraqi social history, and gives a hard critical examination of the power held by the Saddam Hussein regime, and after, during the epoch of American occupation: the civil strife, unlawful killing, torture and ill treatment, kidnapping and hostages. It sheds some specific reflection, albeit in fictional guise, on the nature of the authoritism, and also analyzes the economics, politics, and rule of the régime as a history book might.
Alternatively, Murtadha Gzar in his novel Mr. Azger Akbar creates a fictional story about three sisters living near the shrine of Imam Ali, granddaughters of a genealogist who have been living in Najaf city since the end of ninetieth century. By means of lyrical prose and surrealist events, Gzar reviews the different historical stages of this Iraqi city up until the time of the American occupation. The novel achieves the same narrative end of Muhsin al-Ramli’s novel, in which the power is a composite genre assembled from political and theocratic factors.
The Diary of Iraqi Dog, by Abdul Hadi Sadoun offers the reader a more intimate view of Iraqi life. The dog becomes the protagonist, and the world is often seen from his point of view. The work reminds us of Kafka’ short story (“Investigations of a Dog”), with a focus on Iraqi political and social life. As with many Iraqi novels, this novel is centered on the rule of dictatorship in Iraq. Abdul Hadi Sadoun examines the abstract nature of authority in general.
Hassan Blasim, Iraqi short-story writer
I would choose the novel by Muhsin al-Ramli Fingers of Dates (2008).This novel is free from the exaggerated poetic language sometimes found in Arab narratives. And it’s an Iraqi novel that doesn’t use the language of melancholy and melodrama, as happens in Iraqi novels. It’s a clever novel — it explores with a sense of fun the depths of tragicomedy in Iraq during the dictatorship.
Mansoura Ezz Eldin, Egyptian novelist
The Qasr el-Nil Cinema, by Mohamed Farouk (Dar Merit 2012) is a collection of short stories that mark the birth of a new writer with an amazing imagination and a playful mood, who has a tendency to humanize inanimate objects. Farouk blends realism and fantasy, comedy and tragedy, and provides the reader with stories that experiment while still putting things simply and without claim to profound questions.
The Phoenix, by Louis Awad (Family Library 2012) is a novel written, according to Awad, in the 1940s, but reprinted this year for the Family Library project. The reprint has made this novel, important in the history of Egyptian literature, available to a broad cross-section of readers who have never known it. It’s a novel about which Tawfiq al-Hakim said when he read it in 1965: If this novel had been published when I wrote, it would have changed the course of the Arabic novel”! Blending realism and fantasy, Awad constructs the atmosphere in Cairo after the Second World War, focusing on the problem of violence in human society.
Ibrahim Farghali, Egyptian novelist
Regarding the books I read this year, I can mention a very good novel by a young Kuwaiti writer So’od Al Sanousi’s Bamboo Stalk (2012). It is a very well-written novel about a young half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino guy who spent his early years in the Philippines then went back to his father’s country, Kuwait, to face his destiny in a very racially conscious society. The novel draws a very good and detailed picture of both cultures and of the contradictions in both of them. I liked it a lot.
Ghazi Gheblawi, Libyan poet and short-story writer
Ali al-Muqri’s novel Sanctity deals with another sensitive subject not only in Yemen but also in many Arab countries, namely the status of women on society especially will the rise of political Islam and extremism, I liked basically because the novelist succeeded in describing the life of a young women in a first person style convincingly dealing with the issue without losing the plot.
On Building Stories by Chris Ware its the experimentalism when presenting a graphic novel in different forms of reading, books, leaflets, newspapers, booklets, pamphlets, posters…etc all in one box and with unique artistic style, it pushes the reader to take an initiative in planning and designing how to read and understand the narrative.
Amira Hanafi, Egyptian poet
I must admit a preference for reading writing that constitutes an experience rather than texts that narrate one. This year, Nightboat Books also published the first-ever English translation of acclaimed Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst, The Obscene Life of Madame D. Translated by Rachel Gonitjo Araujo in collaboration with Nathanaël, the book was simultaneously launched by A Bolha Editora in Brazil. I am thrilled to be introduced to Hilst’s melange of the obscene and holy in a first-rate translation. The reader of this novel is spared nothing; Hilst takes language on a drag through the dismal and vulgar in order to make it new again.
Noura Noman, Emirati novelist
Ashraf Fagih’s The Impaler is my first adult horror book in Arabic, and I liked his style of writing. It’s also a mix of horror, fantasy and history, so another first. I was catapulted into a different ancient world from page one. Gone were modern amenities and civilization as a whole. This is gritty stuff and it doesn’t apologize for it. I loved the unlikely hero Orhan and the conflicting sides of him. He’s supposed to be educated and as close to a scientist as one would find in that day and age, yet he also harbored superstitions and misgivings about new ideas. I was also quite grateful to Fagih for trying to get the reader to see things from different perspective; too long have we allowed our young generation to think there is only one faith and one way of living. Yes, the book contains a lot of violence, but then that’s why it’s called horror.
Mohamed Rabie, Egyptian novelist
Crocodiles, by Youssef Rakha (2012) is Youssef Rakha’s second novel. Here Rakha tells of 90s generation poets, and the American beat generation, and translates a poem by Allen Ginsberg several times throughout the course of the novel. Rakha returns here to his favorite themes, which are repeated from his first novel, The Sultan’s Seal. “Crocodiles” is simply the best work of fiction I read this year.
The Vagrant, by Jabbour Douaihey (2011) made the shortlist for last year’s “Arabic Booker,” and it chronicles quietly, and without ideology, the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war. The hero is faced with the problem of religious identity, although he does not care about war or the identities which spur on the fighting.
Kamel Riahi, Tunisian novelist
The novel Ebola 76, by Sudanese author Amir Tag al-Sir, has been occupying my mind. This short novel takes disease as its hero. It is one of the most important recent works released by Dar al Saqi, and while it explores the atmosphere of Sudan, and is a purely African work, it can be read by any reader anywhere in the world to the same effect.
Nihad Sirees, Syrian novelist
I’ve loved reading Mohamed Mansi Qandil ever since his previous novel, “A Rainy Day on the West Side,” and since I have settled in Cairo I read Egyptian novelists heavily. So it was good luck when the new novel I Fell in Love (2012) was released this year from Dar el Shorouk. I quickly picked it up, as I knew in advance that I would spend a wonderful time with another novel by Mohamed Mansi. It has an intuitive honesty, and draws the reader in from the first pages with a love story about a young girl — the intensity of her passion hardens in a train station, and she loses consciousness, causing a crisis when people see a girl standing as a statue on the station platform. The hero, Ali, in the final year of his medical studies, decides to save the girl and goes out to search for her beloved. Through his trip, Egypt unfolds with all her colors and depths.
I also would choose Rabee Jaber’s novel Druze of Belgrade, published by Al-Markez al-Thaqafi al-Arabi (2011) and winner of this year’s “Arabic Booker.” It delves deeply into the history of Lebanon’s sectarian problems in its own particular way. … Rabee Jaber did not write this novel merely on the surface of events, but dove deeply into the Balkans, and into the world of Serbians, and the reader is hooked into both enjoyment and a hearty meal of information.
Generally, 2012 saw a decrease in terms of production for Arab novelists and also a decrease in the number of readers, because of the circumstances of the Arab spring, but between following news of Arab revolutions, one can take a short break to read these two beautiful works.
Ahmad Yamani, Egyptian poet
Three novels: Crocodiles, The President’s Gardens, and Diaries of an Iraqi Dog. Crocodiles comes after Rakha’s marvelous Sultan’s Seal, and here Rakha continues to innovate on the levels of structure, language, and fictional thinking in general. This novel narrates in its special way a side of literary life in the 90s. I liked this novel very much. With the novel Fingers of Dates,Muhsin al-Ramli achieved a big success and reached the longlist of the Arabic Booker prize two years ago.
Al-Ramli now (with The President’s Gardens) returns with this new novel on war and dictatorship in Iraq. In spite of the brutality, in certain scenes, and the naked language, this novel presents Iraq’s pain in beautiful art.
And Diaries of an Iraqi Dog, by poet and novelist Abdul Hadi Sadoun is an adventure. This excellent story is narrated by an Iraqi dog whose owner has been killed right before his eyes by Iraqi tyrants. Hence the dog begins his journey in life alone after witnessing this destruction. Through mostly light incidents, we watch the layers of Iraqi pain during the dictator’s ruling days and afterwards.
Thanks again to all the authors who participated. To those who forgot/didn’t have time — next year. Thanks to Eman for nipping up some of the translations; all errors are still (probably) mine.