Over at The Common last week, Jordanian short-story writer Hisham Bustani addressed “‘New’ Arabic Writing: Cataclysm in Fast-Forward“:
To list the names of the pioneers of “new writing” in the Arab world is to do an injustice to others, but I will take that risk in order to shed some light on a literature so unrepresented in the global literary scene and so neglected (rather than lost) in translation.
Part of what’s interesting about the list is that none of them are really “new,” in the sense that they’re not under 28 and didn’t start publishing last week. But Bustani isn’t talking about that. He’s talking about writers who “introduced new sensitivities, new styles, new techniques and — to an extent — a new language in literature.”
Of all on the list, Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer is the most well-known in English, with several collections of his work in prominent translation. One would expect the controversies surrounding Haidar Haidar to push him to a larger public in English, but it hasn’t happened. Moroccan novelist and short-story writer Mohamed Zafzaf — although a big figure in Arabic letters — was only translated for the first time into English last year.
As you might expect, Bustani — a short-story writer — is interested in those who innovated via the short form.
Tamer addressed his “newness” in a 2012 interview:
“When I started writing stories, I never tried to imitate or submit to the prevailing styles. I wrote what I aspired to say believing that what is thought to be unrealistic is in fact realistic. For example, when writing a story, I used to enjoy a freedom that is lacking in the world of daily life. Hence, my stories attempt to refuse to concede to any boundaries between different worlds; there are no boundaries between life and death, illusion and visualization, dreaming, imagination and the harsh reality. This eradication of such boundaries, in my opinion, is one of the most important things I have achieved in my stories, because it is the most sincere style to depict the hidden depths of the human beings that live upon the surface of this Arab land.”
Translator Mbarek Syrfi calls Zafzaf, “A disturbing, intriguing, shocking, innovative, challenging, amusing, and prominent pioneer of the Moroccan short story.”
The first collection of Zafzaf’s stories to appear in English, The Monarch in the Square, trans. Syrfi, came out in 2014. The works were pulled from across the decades that Zafzaf was an active practitioner of the short literary arts. From Syrfi:
Zafzaf’s slippery storytelling style — as-sahl al-mumtaniʿ — tempted me as I re-read him. You would think you’re listening to him in an old medina square and watching his gestures as he narrates his stories, confidently striding between words, sentences, expressions and meanings.
He teases, challenges and provokes the reader, and I decided to take him up on that challenge and get to know him as a writer.
I don’t believe any of Syrfi’s translations are available online (you can, and should, buy the collection), but there is one from Mohammed Albakry on The Missing Slate.
“A Night in Casablanca,” trans. Albakry
When the subject of Khodayyir is raised, it’s hard not to gush. His Basrayatha (trans. William Hutchins) re-builds a vision of Basra, and life in that city, such that it stands before you. His short stories also paint a world that cannot be found elsewhere.
Khodayyir born in Basra, Iraq, in 1942, and it seems he still lives there. A collection of his short stories has been published in French, but (shamefully) only a handful have appeared in English.
The Syrian writer Haidar Haidar is best known for his controversial novel A Banquet of Seaweed, because it sparked not just bannings, but protests and arrests in Egypt:
…in 2000, there was a major event in the life of Banquet for Seaweed, which Max Rodenbeck wrote about extensively in the NYRB: It was on the wrong journalist’s bookshelf at the wrong time; he misrepresented the book. Protests against the publication of the book ensued, and the government both arrested the protesters and charged the Ministry of Culture officials who’d been part of reprinting the book, yanked copies from shelves, and questioned novelist Ibrahim Aslan for eight hours for his role in recommending that the book be reprinted.
But Haidar is also a short-story writer, with a number of collections appearing from the 1960s through the 1990s. His “Pollen” was published in translation by Banipal, but it’s not available online. Indeed, I can find no Haidar Haidar short stories freely available in translation.
Makhzangi was born in Mansoura, Egypt. He studied medicine in Egypt and Kiev, where he was living during the Chernobyl disaster. That incident formed the basis for his gripping Memories of a Meltdown, trans. Samah Selim.
He also wrote pioneering short and short-short stories in the 1980s. A brief biography in The Daily Star has it that Makhzangi:
…made his break with the poetic miracles of narrative compression collected in Al-Aati (The Coming One), Rashq Al-Sekkin (Knife Throwing) and Safar (Journey), published in the 1980s. A non-practising psychiatrist, he has written journalism and travel writing as well as fiction.
“The Guard’s Chair,” trans. Denys Johnson-Davies