Arabic YA: Is It Possible to Intrigue Young Adults Without Upsetting Gatekeepers?

“Young adult” readers of Arabic literature, by demographic rights, should be the biggest and most voracious audience for new books.

downloadSome young adults are driving the success of books like Essam Youssef’s 1/4 Grama novel based on a true story of drug use, and Ahmed Mourad’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted thriller Blue ElephantOthers are buying adult comics like Pass By Tomorrow and TokTok, or “shallow romantic stories or books written by social-media celebrities.” Many others are reading YA in English or translated from the English.

What most aren’t reading is literature written in Arabic for young adults.

There are a group of authors working to jump-start an organic, fast-paced, compelling Arabic YA, but they face a difficult situation, as discussed in “YA fiction treads carefully in Arab world, which opens:

The boom in young adult fiction has left the Arab publishing world playing catch-up, as authors try to compete with Twilight and The Hunger Games without breaking cultural taboos.

“There are too many taboos on what to write and how to write it,” says Taghreed Najjar, who has twice been shortlisted for the YA category of the new Etisalat prize for Arabic children’s literature. “It’s easier to sell books for younger children under the guise of educating them or strengthening their moral fibre. People who bought these kind of books were parents and teachers. But YA has to appeal to young adults to sell well, hence the dilemma.” Keep reading on The Guardian.

Najjar talked more in-depth about her experience writing for teens, saying that she finds “Arab teen readers do not differ much from Western readers in their interests. Most young teens who can read English read the Harry Potter books and now read the vampire books and the Hunger Games books. It must be the social media and Hollywood which connects the dots between cultures.”

Yet many librarians and school book-buyers don’t see those books as appropriate for teens. “There is this big divide in people’s minds and it is the reality of what teens feel and need and are interested in and what adults in authority believe they should think, feel, and want.”

The new YA authors, Najjar says, aren’t just trying to re-write Twilight. They’re “trying to find our own voice and not echo trends in the West. My latest novel, The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye, is set in the West Bank and In Palestine. It doesn’t talk about thieves, criminals, and child detectives who manage to solve the problem and bring the bad guys to justice.” Instead, the story — which also has a good old-fashioned search for a missing treasure — deals with the Wall, the checkpoints, administrative jail, separation of families.

In all three of Najjar’s books for older readers, there is a “hint of romance,” expressed in “a look, a blush a quickening heart beat, a yearning — and no more. No touching and of course no kisses.” Still, Najjar said, she got comments even based on the blurb on the back of her middle-grade book Raghda’s Hat, which simply mentions that Raghda loves to spend time with Zeina and her brother Salem.

The teens, on the other hand, were looking for more romance. “One eighth grader who recently read The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye said she loved the book but she wanted me to write about the romance in detail — lots of details
And not just hint at it.”

The new Arabic YA movement, which began with books by Samah Idriss and Fatima Sharafeddine, is still just a few years old. And despite the Scylla of gatekeepers and the Charybdis of electronic gadgets and the other many-headed monsters around every corner (funding, distribution), it has great potential to synthesize different literary trends and create a new readership and new readers.