Against the Odds, a Generation of Egyptian Readers

Over at Mada MasrAsmaa Abdallah reviews Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial OutlookOne of the chapters features commentary by translator and scholar Richard Jacquemond who discusses, in “The Yacoubian Building and Its Sisters,” popular literature and the “growing insertion” of a new, Westernized Arabic literature into a global literary market:

9780415509725Jacquemond, according to Asmaa Abdallah, gives the heartening assessment that:

Against the odds of an ailing education system, a mostly incompetent publishing industry and failed state cultural policies, a generation of avid readers has risen from the ashes following many years of drought in the reading scene. Jacquemond proceeds to examine a list of the bestselling titles, using the most downloaded books on the website as his basis, since it is otherwise difficult to obtain reliable statistics given the high rate of piracy and fluidity in the Arab book market.

Indeed, tallying best-sellers even within Cairo is a difficult matter; it’s a mountain at which I have thrown my grappling hook a few times. The three titles Jacquemond found were the best of the best-sellers are unsurprising, and tally with best-seller lists put out by Shorouk, Diwan, and Kotob Khan bookstores:

  1. Alaa al-Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building”
  2. Khaled al-Khamissi’s “Taxi”
  3. Youssef Ziedan’s “Azazeel”

None of these are critical darlings, although Azazeel did win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. However, neither are Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer’s (best-selling) books.

Jacquemond also apparently refers to humor-writers Ghada Abdel Aal and Omar Taher, as well as other genre writing, like Ahmed Mourad’s Vertigo and Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia. According to Abdallah, “Some of these new forms, Jacquemond suggests, are better suited to communicating with a Western or Westernized audience” — although, for instance, while Abdel-Aal’s I Want to Get Married! was a best-seller in Arabic, it had no similar reach or connection with English readers.

Abdallah writes:

The chapter concludes that although these works have successfully created a new niche in the reading world, this trend can have detrimental results for aesthetic value. He goes so far as to argue that these works add no aesthetic innovation and are follow a more “economic market oriented logic.”

I feel the need to disagree. While I always flinch at the notion that I should be happy if my child “reads anything” and that “all reading is equally good” — much as I would flinch at the idea that it’s fine to stuff any old food in one’s mouth — I believe there is a place for potboiler comic books, detective stories, satire, romance novels, thrillers, fantasy, MG books about underpants, and more. They shouldn’t supplant the literature that makes my heart breathe, but “junk” food is all right, sometimes. Even if the big novels listed above don’t themselves add aesthetic innovations, several of them are vividly enjoyable and create space for new and different literary fusions.

Others maybe not. But would literature really be better off without “trashy” popular novels? Would the world be better off without the crushing economic realities of “fast” and “convenient” food? Oh, maybe. Certainly, I need to meet Jacquemond’s essay in the flesh, but I do believe that it’s a good thing to foster a greater appetite for reading, even if the books on offer aren’t always Zaat or The Heron or Beer in the Snooker Club.