Seven Arab authors choose eighteen favorites of 2014.
Hisham Bustani, Jordanian short-story writer
Hisham Bustani, along with translator Thoraya El-Rayyes, won this year’s Arkansas Translation Prize for his The Perception of Meaning. Bustani is a young Jordanian author with four books out. The Perception of Meaning was his third. It is due out in English in 2016.
Anis Arafai – أريج البستان في تصاريف العميان – (Dar al-Ain, 2013)
Finding a writer dedicated to the short experimental form in the age where the fast-food novel has conquered all with its commodification, glitter, and market-sponsored fame can be similar to finding a needle in a haystack. Anis Arafai is one of those needles that prick deep and hard with uncompromising art. His fiction is innovative, relentless, and an agitation to the imagination. In this book, Anis takes us on the back of al-Buraq, the mythical creature that carried the prophet Muhammad to the heavens, to visit the seven heavens of his mind as it walks the streets the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, where fiction is intertwined with the real — or the opposite. Arafai employs characters like Jorge Luis Borges, George Orwell, Winston Churchill, Juan Goytisolo, and a wide array of Moroccan artists, musicians and animals to deliver a powerful book of short fiction.
Death and Texas, by Clive Sinclair (Halban, 2014)
Clive Sinclair is a devious storywriter. Cunning and ruthless, he plays his characters like juggling colored balls, twisting events like shaping clay on a rotating wheel. He is gifted with the art of deception: luring the reader with humor into the clasp of the spider’s web, and then surrounding the prey with the silky, deadly thread. It makes perfect sense, since that is a scene from one of his own stories. Or is it like light penetrating through a Venetian blind, whereby “some things are revealed and others hidden,” as he says in another. But hiding for the storywriter is a game of timing, and he knows how to inject the cards of camouflage slowly and stealthily to assure and make sure the “process” is complete and mature, the whole hand only revealed when it is too late to back out. For me, Death and Texas was a source of great literary joy. Some stories took more pages than necessary, especially the title story, but that does not subtract from their value. And since some stories are more equal than others, “Shylock Must Die” and “A Bad End” were the gems in an otherwise well crafted crown. At any rate, hats off to Clive for an excellent work; and I don’t just say that to anyone!
Merciless Gods, by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin, 2014)
A writer with such power — as well as the ability to shock — is a rare find in the 21st-century English speaking-world. While many of the short-story writers in the US and the UK cannot break away from the themes of boring childhood nostalgia and the mediocrity of broken personal relationships, with the surrounding bubble of relaxation and emptiness driving them more and more into their own small and confined private cocoons, Tsiolkas comes out like a punch in the face, with style, themes, and characters that are guaranteed to appear in your nightmares. Tsiolkas knows how to write a short story; he knows what a short story is, and how it aims towards a collision point, towards impact, and towards a revelation made by the reader’s delicate engagement. Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods is the surprise book of 2014.
Ibrahim Farghali, Egyptian novelist
Farghali was born in 1967 in Mansoura, Egypt and spent a good part of his childhood in the Gulf, where he now lives. He has worked as a journalist, and his novels have gathered both acclaim and controversy, including his Sawiris-winning Sons of Gabalawi. His The Smiles of Saints was published in English.
I didn’t read much, as I’m writing this year. But the novel I liked is Al Tagy’s Birds طيور التاجي, by Esmaeil Fahad Esmaeil. It’s a novel using quite modern techniques, including various voices from different times. It is about four Kuwaiti prisoners in Saddam’s prison after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait — a love story for an Iraqi intellectual lieutenant in the Iraqi army who is well disposed with the Kuwaiti prisoners. It ends with a full tragedy. I like the narrative styles a good deal.
Jabbour Douaihy, Lebanese novelist
Jabbour Douaihy, born in Zgharta, northern Lebanon, in 1949, is one of the most compelling contemporary Arab novelists. He holds a PhD degree in Comparative Literature from the Sorbonne and works as Professor of French Literature at the University of Lebanon. His novel June Rain was shortlisted for the inaugural IPAF in 2008, and was published in charming English translation by Paula Haydar this year.
As for my favorite reading in absolute terms, in the past year, I would say it’s 1914 by Jean Echenoz and Nue by Jean-Philippe Touissant. Both of these play on the edge of narrative, reordering events to foreground the free splendor of language.
In Arabic, I would say Mohammed al-Fakhrani’s Fasl al-Dahasha, maybe for the same reasons. I’d also add Mansoura Ezz Eldin’s The Emerald Mountain, published in 2014.
Mohamed Rabie, Egyptian novelist
Mohamed Rabie was born in 1978. He graduated from the faculty of engineering in 2002 and his first novel Kawkab Anbar (2010) won first prize in the emerging writers’ category of the Sawiris Cultural Award in 2012. His second novel Year of the Dragon was released in 2012, and his ground-breaking Otared at the end of 2014.
A Brief History of the Buttocks, by Jean-Luc Hennig
Eny Ataqadamo: Private Journeys through the Jungles of Cairo, by Hani Darwish
Amjad Nasser, Jordanian novelist and poet
Amjad Nasser is a major force in the contemporary Arabic poetry scene. Two collections of his poetry have appeared in English, and this year his debut novel, Land of No Rain, was published in translation by Jonathan Wright.
Although this novel has become one of the bestsellers, that does not mean it is one of the sort of books that you read in subway and forget there. On the contrary, it is an inspiring book in every sense, and its characters remain in your mind for a long time, and you feel that you don’t know the sort of difficulties they have lived. But this is not important, perhaps. What is important is that the writer was able to turn the biography into a novel, a work of art that touches the feelings and thoughts of all those who read the book.
Amir Tag Elsir, Sudanese novelist
Elsir is a Sudanese author born in northern Sudan in 1960. He has published more than a dozen novels, biographies, and poetry. His novel The Grub Hunter was shortlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, his charming French Perfume was out in translation this December, and his Ebola ’76 is coming out in translation next year. He lives in Doha, Qatar, and is a practicing doctor.
Winter in Lisbon, by Antonio Muñoz Molina. This Spanish novel tells the story of love and music, and the relationship between Santiago and Peralbo Okrithia. It’s a great novel in its choice of subject, its linguistic formulations, and the magic that draws the reader along — eagerly — and before he has a moment to feel bored, he’s drawn on some more.
Qamees al-Leyl, by Sawsan Hassan. This is a great novel about the current pain and tragedy in Syria. The young female narrator is writing in her diary about tragedy, terror, death, rape, and sectarianism that follow the Syrian uprising.
A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel. This important book talks about how reading began, how it evolved, and how it reached the current era. It’s written in a smooth and sophisticated manner that makes it easy to read.
Abna Soslof, by Habib Abd al-Rab. Here, Yemeni novelist Abd al-Rab tells part of the political history of Yemen and also the history of corruption, wherein the narrator follows the footsteps of a wealthy partisan family and also the changes that have occurred in the community.
Fadi Zaghmout, Jordanian writer
Fadi Zaghmout is a social-media specialist, blogger, and author. His first novel Amman Bride was published in January 2012, and will be out in English translation from Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp in 2015.
A Muslim on the Bridge: On Being an Iraqi-Arab Muslim in the Twenty-First Century, by Ali Shakir. A Muslim on the Bridge reflects on the political changes that happened in the Arab region in the past 30 years. It is a story of a moderate Iraqi Shi’a Ali Shaker, who tries to make sense of the fall of Arab societies in religious extremism. I could tell the same story, witnessing it from Jordan, as a Christian Jordanian.
Sex and The Citadel: Intimate Life in the Arab World, Shereen Al Feki. Al Feki explores the sexuality of the Arab word after the Arab Spring. She expects a sexual revolution that should follow the political revolution. She tells stories from Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and the Gulf Area and highlights young activists working for sexual freedoms and individual rights. It is a must-read.
Also, Ahram Online asks Egyptian authors for a “Top 10 of 2014.”
It includes Hammour Ziada’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning The Longings of a Dervish and Basma Abdel-Aziz’s Memory of Repression: A Study of the Matrix of Torture.