Arab Authors’ Favorites of 2013

Just like last year, ArabLit asked a few acclaimed and award-winning authors for their favorite reads of 2013:

Magdy al-Shafee, acclaimed father of the Egyptian graphic novel, author of Metro:

Al-Shafee offered his short list on New Year’s Eve, just before the clanging of 2014:

Mahmoud Tawfik’s collection of short stories, Blue

The novel Women of Karantina, by Nael al-Toukhy

What Amin Knows, by Mustafa Zikri

The Automobile Club, by Alaa al-Aswany

Mohammad Abdelnaby, longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2013 for his Return of the Sheikh:

Abdelnaby, who also won a Sawiris award in 2010, opened with the caveat that he hasn’t read everything published in 2013. That said, his favorites were:

karantinaAmong novels, The Women of Karantina, by Nael al-Toukhy, published by Dar Merit (2013).

With an epic tone that laughs at everything, an unusual lightness of spirit, and a surprisingly fresh treatment of old motifs such as violence or succession, al-Toukhy creates something unprecedented in the history of the Arabic novel, and in a language that does a very special dance between simple Modern Standard Arabic and an Egyptian Arabic that is colorful and perhaps obscene.

In poetry, I haven’t read a lot, but the collection by Iman Mersal, Until I Give Up the Idea of Houses (2013), from Dar al-Tanween, was a happy and enriching reading experience.

Jana El Hassan, shortlised for the 2013 IPAF for I, She, and Other Women:

ItheundersignedI, the Undersigned (2013), by Ivana Marsheliaan (Saqi Books) is a dialogue between the author and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The book made me feel that I am face to face with the great poet, it is intimate and it is like a summary of Darwish’s view of various topics.

No Knives in this City’s Kitchens (2013), by Khaled Khalifa (Dar al-Ain and Dar al-Adab): This is what I would call an honest straightforward novel — it talks about the parallel life each and every one of us created, the duality we live in because of fear. The books tells how unheroic we are in a really heroic narrative.

Muhammad Aladdin, chosen as one of the most important Egyptian writers of the new millennium by Akhbar al-Adab:

Blue, a short-story collection by Mahmoud Tawfik.

It is such a powerful collection, with some stories that just strike you on the spot. With its illumunous narrative, powerful yet simple language, I think Blue deserves to be among the best short stories collections of the decade, not just for one year.
Until I Give Up the Idea of Houses, a collection of poetry by Iman Mersal
A new powerful collection of poems from the writer of Alternative Geography. Mersal has continued her uniqueness in the Egyptian and Arab poetry scene with such powerful collection.
The Women of Karantina, a novel by Nael El Toukhy
Powerful prose from a writer took his time to reach a different and fresh peak. A must-read book, with its wittiness and cleverness. Women of Karantina is a notable landmark in Toukhy’s work, and among the best in what is called “New Literature” in Egypt.
 Mandrola, a novel by Ahmad Al Fakharany
An exceptional novel from a writer who deserve to be among the notable of the  Egyptian writers with this first novel of his. The playfulness and eagerness of this novel leaves you to wonder and to think, which is, for sure, one great sign for real literature.

Ibrahim Farghali, winner of the 2013 Sawiris prize for his novel Sons of Gebelawi:

manazilI liked Duna Ghali’s novel  منازل الوحشة (Orbits of Loneliness, 2013).

It’s a very well-written novel about Iraq after the US’s invasion, through a woman’s diary about her daily life with her husband and her son, who is ill because of what was going on around them. The events of the novel are all occurring in a small family home, with some nostalgias about the past, but the language is perfect.

The other novel is Khaled Khalifa’s  No Knives in the Kitchens of This City (2013), another good novel about the the history of Halab in Syria, of whom more than one generation suffered from Al Ba’ath Party humiliation. The memory of the narrator is the memory of the city, and the language is pretty good, too.

Ines Abassi has published two prize-winning books of poetry, Secrets of the Wind (2004) and Archive of the Blind (2007).

nabbushunNabbashun (2012), by Sawsan Jamil Hassan. I was surprised by this novel, particularly as this is the first time I’d read a work by the Syrian novelist Sawsan Jamil Hassan. Hassan, who already published two novels, proves in al-Nabbashun her talent with a solid text, using a strong and simple language at the same time. She also chooses to feature a subject that I believe that Arab writers haven’t taken on for years. The world of “nabashin” — or trash picker. Al nabash is a profession passed from fathers to sons, and in this novel the father forces his child to quit school and learn this work.

It is not only the world of the marginalized people living in the dark background of the city, but is intertwined with the presentation of lives of their animals. There is, for instance, the tale of the donkey who is the companion of Joumaa, the main character.

And while the novel focuses on marginalized people, it also draws the rest of society. The novelist also shows women as exploited in society. Most women in this novel either fall ill and disappear mysteriously (Dalal) or are deprived of love in an unequal marriage (Sabourat). Interestingly, in this novel, animals are more fortunate than humans. The donkey Abu Tafesh and the mule Barhoum succeed in changing their destinies when they escape from humans to live freely without human control.

A must read novel! It is not surprising that Al Nabbashun is one of nominations by Dar Al Adab for the 2014 Arabic Booker prize.

gorillaThe Gorilla (2011), by Tunisian novelist Kamel Riahi. This novel makes the reader tense and nervous along the pages, wondering about the fate of “the gorilla” — or Saleh — this “illegitimate” son, oppressed socially and emotionally. The protagonist was named “gorilla” because he is a dark-skinned, hairy man.

While the protagonist thinks he is distinctive because he is a child of “the children of Bourguiba,” he discovers that this description was given to the illegitimate children who are living in Children’s Foundation of Bourguiba. Riahi makes us wonder about the fate of the gorilla, being absent as a voice to the last page, wondering if he he will fall from the clock tower at the Avenue Habib Bourguiba or no? But in this tale it is not just about Saleh, there are many other important characters. Characters tell us about themselves and about Saleh, and through them we learn about the night world of Tunisia. We follow the destiny of a girl of the night, who was forced to go this route because of her stepfather. We get an idea about the world of new jihadists, and we discover that they are just playing this role to satisfy the government’s goals. And we will read about “Aljat,” an illegal immigrant who takes a boat to Italy. He will end up in jail and he will describe a dark life of imprisonment, where men can abuse of the weakest between them and where the forest’s law dominate. What happens in the end of this strong novel? You will not leave the book before you know the characters’ fates!

frankensteinFrankenstein in Baghdad (2013), by Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi. This is my second discovery for this year. The new novel of Ahmed Saadawi attracted me by its title and its amazing and surprising idea.

The main character is Hadi Alatak, a saleman of old and used devices. He is watching what is happening around him in Baghdad in 2006, a black year in Iraq, the year of bombing. By assembling body parts that result from the deadly bombings, Hadi made a strange creature who will take revenge for the victims who have their parts. Hadi’s creation is a very new sort of Frankenstein.

Ali Bader, twice longlisted for the IPAF and acclaimed author of Papa Sartre:

41bHzgtp0mL._The Iraqi Christ (2013), by Hassan Blasim, published by Comma Press in London, is the most fascinating book I have read this year. Like in his first book, Madman of Freedom Square, also published by comma press, the Iraqi author uses gruesome and macabre images to develop and emphasize his very brave subjects. He clarifies the last Iraqi period by using extreme forms of violence. The difficulty of some aspects, the non-linear narratives, the double-meanings, and the strange images don’t prevent the reader from taking pleasure — never — instead they enrich the reading the book. In each of these stories, we find the irrational acts of violence, the horrible images, and the hunting of humans — all these tools of Hassan Blassim’s create something really worth reading.

The Wild (2013), by the Algerian writer Nina Bouraoui. This fascinating novel is built as long monologue of a young girl, Alya, who is 14 years old. She looks back over her past one year after the mysterious disappearance of her childhood friend, Sami. She writes, recalling the ties that united them, the tensions have arisen over the years, and especially the excruciating injury that he caused with his disappearance. It is ultimately like a portrait, drawn in a very fine way of a young girl who enters the turbulent period of adolescence, and is beginning to understand her body.

Hisham Bustani, chosen as one of the Arab world’s emerging and influential new writers by Inamo magazine:

Bustani noted that he seems to have mostly been reading 2012 novels in 2013:

It Befits a Drunk, Mohammed Abu il Dahab (Dar al-Nasher, 2012)

farkouhMohammed Abu il Dahab is possibly one of the best short story writers among the younger generation of Egyptian writers, and possibly the least fortunate in terms of the attention given to his work. In his latest work (which is a short story sequence), he skillfully utilizes the ravings of the protagonist/narrator in various states – drunkenness, the search for drunkenness, sobering up – using them to portray the protagonist’s frustration and personal crises at work and in love, politics and friendship. A small book that opens up a wide space for imagination and enjoyment.

Saharan Journey, Sven Lindqvist (Granta, 2012)

This newly published edition is a book made up of two of Lindquist’s works – Desert Divers and Exterminate All The Brutes – both of which have previously been published as separate books. Between its covers is a unique literary form combining travel writing, creative nonfiction, very short fictive pieces, reflections and literary criticism. In this literary journey emerging from actual journeys, Lindquist follows the paths of several western writers who were awed by the Sahara and wrote about it. Through this journey, Lindquist exposes the bloody colonial past of this continent and the complicity of many of these writers in effacing colonial history and ignoring its atrocities and tragic impact on people. This was despite the fact that they had witnessed these practices with their own eyes, and that they show up in some of their notes and drafts, yet do not make it into the final version of their texts.

Best European Fiction 2012, edited by Aleksandar Hemon (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)

Following in the footsteps of the well-established annual series Best American Short Stories, this series was launched in 2010. It is an intense, condensed introduction to contemporary European short fiction, featuring various writers who use diverse, innovative techniques – and most of whom would be unheard outside of their countries if it weren’t for this anthology, because of the lack of translations from their languages. On top of all that, this book points to the importance and necessity of literature in our contemporary world. In the words of the editor Aleksandar Hemon, “After I read “The Telescope” [one of the stories in the book by Danila Davydov (Russia)] I thought: “Tweet this, motherfuckers!” for Davydov’s masterpiece is ample evidence that there are vast spaces of human experience that could be covered and comprehended only by means of literature.”

Drowned in Mirrors, Elias Farkouh (Arab Scientific Publishers / Azminah, 2012)

Although the categorization printed on the bookcover is “novel”, Drowned in a Mirror – which was intended to be a short story collection when it was conceived – still has that condensed spirit that is unique to short fiction in each one of its eleven chapters, with the book ending in a chapter that is overtly short fiction called “Three Stories at the Boundary of the Tale”. Moreover, it approaches the realm of non-fiction by mixing reality with the imagined to the extent that the writer includes a list of references at the end of this book that sneaks in an account of the rich, diverse past of the city of Amman. It is through historical events (such as Black September, the assassination of the Jordanian Prime Minister Hazza’ Al-Majali, the execution of Anton Sa’adeh and others) that the book moulds its ambiguous characters, reflecting in them the variation in/ travails of the social and political transformations in the Levant during the first three quarters of the previous century.

Tareq Imam, winner of the Museum of Words contest, as well as honoree of the Sawiris Foundation and State Incentive awards:

Imam turned his in a bit late — just now — and since I still need to translate the descriptions, at least here are the titles:

The Sculptor’s Book (2013), by Ahmed Abdellatif 

In The Center of the Rooms (2013), by Ahmad Yamani

Until I Give Up the Idea of Houses (2013), by Iman Mersal

My Father’s Room (2013), by Abdo Wazen

Ghada Abdel Aal, IWP laureate and author of the wonderfully fun I Want to Get Married!:

Abdel Aal notes that she didn’t read much fiction and most of the books she read in 2013 turned out to be a disappointment. “I don’t think I’ve read anything I really liked. Maybe because of the year (because of politics), everything felt like a disappointment or because we were so drawn into political news.” She she re-read some of her favorites:

Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat

Mohammad Afifi’s Little Songs in the Shade of Tamaara

Radwa Ashour’s Granada Trilogy

Ibrahim Aslan’s Two-bedroom Apartment

Mahmoud Saeed, Pushcart-nominated author of the acclaimed Saddam City:

cover_good.310181923_stdDelights from the Garden of Eden (2013), by Nawal Nasrallah, about which I wrote an article for Azzaman newspaper in London.

This is not a normal cookbook, but also a record of civilization as it flourished and dominated the ancient world. The book also contains hundreds of a marvelous recipes from our Iraqi culinary heritage.

The second book is The Lodging House (2003), by Khairy Shalaby. This is a wonderful novel that examines that lives of poor students in the Teachers Institute and how they are subject to unjustified persecution. After one is dismissed, he begins a life of idling that pushes him to do many things. Those who read the novel realizes that the circumstances of this person and his ilk are what made the Muslim Brotherhood win; the novel is a unique one.

The Mosulian Manuscript is a collection of poems by Ma’ad  al-Jubouri, an authentic poet who hasn’t chased after fame or taken advantage of circumstances nor run behind material success. He raised poetry, and the poetry raised him, to the highest degree , but, unfortunately, he is not well known, except in his immediate vicinity…. If his rich poetry were translated, it would dominate the space of the whole world.

Inmate City, by Fadi Saad.  This is a book of beautiful poetry, a light, smooth, we see in it our daily lives in every movement, every look, we feel it in ever place, like we touch the reality of eternal.

Fadi is a tormented soul, from the situation that has developed in his homeland, and my homeland, everywhere suffering from oppression. He said: The poem is seeking to open our eyes to see another reality hidden behind dust, fatigue, breathlessness, and spiritual poverty. He wrote this whole book wrote in Chicago, and you smell the city’s scent in every poem.

Sheets Guard Time, by Kazem Allaiv. He is a poet,  smiling always…whose poetry is not descended towards false modernity, which infected most Arab poets now. He has remained faithful to the noble poetry, simplicity and melody.

Amir Tag El Sir, shortlisted for the IPAF for his The Grub Hunter:

nabbushunWild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991), by Jung Chang.

Despite the fact that this reads like a novel, it is the magnificent biography of three women who lived at different times in China, from the beginning of the twentieth century until the fall of Communism. The novel is rich with knowledge and describes traditions, politics, social live, and the changes that have happened in China, written in a seamless way, and I consider this one of a few stories that give knowledge as well as pleasure in the reading.

A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002), by Amos Oz.

This novel, or autobiographical tale, is not new, but has reached the Arabic only reacently, and where, as in most of Oz’s novels, you will find racist views held by Jewish Israelis toward Palestinians. Here Oz has sought to glorify the nation’s history, and the history of his family, but he succeeded very much in keeping but successes and failures, cleanliness and dirt, and I consider this a worthy biography.

Nabbashun (2012), by Syrian novelist Sawsan Jamil Hassan.

This novel is excellent, and its technique is close to magic, digging into the lives of the marginalized in Syria, into the lives of trash collectors, how they spend their days between hard work and hopes of finding within the trash some sort of treasure — and the collapse of these hopes. The novel is also filled with traditions and rituals, including visits to shrines, and the position of women within society. It’s a novel that focuses on ugliness, but with images of grace.

Nihad Sirees, winner of Germany’s Coberg Rückert Prize and author of The Silence and the Roar, one of PW’s Top 10 Books of 2013

bamboostalkThe Automobile Club (2013) by Alaa Al Aswani. The club was an entrance (like Yacoubian Building) to make a comprehensive image of Egypt in late forties. What I don’t like in the novel that the writer (Aswani) allows his political beliefs to intervene so clearly in the novel.

The Bamboo Stalk (2012), by Saud al-Sanousi. I like this novel, but it was difficult to accept how the writer presented the novel as a translation.