10 Great Arab Short Stories for Rabih Alameddine to Teach

Yesterday, novelist Rabih Alameddine asked, on Twitter, for short-story suggestions for a course he’ll be teaching:

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They must be “by writers from Middle East/North Africa region? Or maybe about the area?” And Alameddine must want to teach them.

1) Yusuf Idris, “All on a Summer’s Night.” (In The Essential Yusuf Idris, ed. and trans. Denys Johnson-Davies.)

Justification: Idris, for all his shortcomings, was a literary giant, and short stories were a place he did some of his best work. This particular story isn’t one of his most anthologized, but it always catches me up at the end, when the future of these boys — who’d gone walking into the city in search of illusions — comes crashing down on them. It has a coming-of-age aspect that should particularly catch on young readers, and Johnson-Davies does a fine job with the shifting registers.

2) Mohamed Mustagab, “The Battle of the Rabbits.”

Justification: Mustajab often depicts the viscera of Upper Egypt, and many of his finest works are in Tales from Dayrut, trans. Humphrey Davies. But “The Battle of the Rabbits,” trans. Robin Moger, is fun — one of those short stories that can’t help pile absurdity on absurdity. Also: Freely available online.

3) Muhammad Zafzaf, “The Baby Carriage” (In Monarch of the Square, trans. Mbarek Sryfi and Roger Allen)

Justification: Zafzaf is not just the “Godfather of Moroccan literature”; he is one of the five authors that short-story practitioner and aficionado Hisham Bustani says you should read. Translator Mbarek Syrfi calls Zafzaf, “A disturbing, intriguing, shocking, innovative, challenging, amusing, and prominent pioneer of the Moroccan short story.” This story in particular — “The Baby Carriage” — is one of his brilliant portraits of impoverishment and survival; Zafzaf also has a gift for ending without epiphany.

4) Zakaria Tamer, “The Day that Genghis Khan Got Angry,” trans. Barbara Harlow (in Flights of Fantasy: Arabic Short Stories)

Justification: Tamer needs no justification from me. Choosing a single story was difficult; perhaps you can suggest a “best” Zakariya Tamer story.

5) Muhammad Khodayyir, “Yusuf’s Tales” (from Contemporary Iraqi Fiction, trans. Shakir Mustafa)

Justification: Khodayyir is another writer on Hisham Bustani’s list of pioneering writers (as was Zakaria Tamer). His short stories are magnificent fantastical tapestries that make and re-make a parallel Iraq. Beautifully translated by Mustafa.

6) Ibrahim Aslan, “The Performer,” (from Egyptian Short Stories, ed. Denys Johnson Davies, trans. Davies)

Justification: Aslan had a champion in the literary critic Baheyya, who wrote that, “Mixing fiction with autobiography, short story conventions with novelistic forms, poetic economy with dramaturgical composition, Aslan’s art is a precious, wondrous creation. He has the poet’s ear for language, the painter’s feel for texture, the composer’s sense of movement, the layperson’s love of humour, and the photographer’s knack for finding the magic in the mundane.” Most of Aslan’s short work hasn’t been translated; this bleak and lovely short story shows some of what Aslan can do.

8) “Bread of Sacrifice,” Samira ‘Azzam, trans. Kathie Piselli and Dick Davies, (from Modern Palestinian Literature)

Justification: Pioneering Palestinian short-story writer, noted by Adania Shibli in “Arab women writers recommend Arab women writers.” Also: “No, not because of you. Yes, I love you, it’s true. Still, you’re not everything!”

9) “The Savage Night,” Mohammed Dib, trans. from the French by C. Dickson, (from The Savage Night)

Justification: This savage story from the celebrated Algerian poet-writer takes us into the night of a brother-sister relationship at the edge of violence. It is also a coming-of-age of sorts, or an un-coming-of-age, and up-ends many tropes of the suicide bomber even before they were written.

10) “Echo Twins,” Mai al-Nakib, (from The Hidden Light of Objects).

Justification: Al-Nakib’s finely wrought, glass-blown prose takes us through Kuwait’s struggles with looking in, looking out. Or the story “Amerika’s Box” might be a more discussable read for US-based students.

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There is no corresponding justification for work left off the list. Where are the stories by Luay Hamza Abbas, Hisham Bustani, Mohamed Makhzangi, Youssef Rakha (I would’ve if I’d remembered the title “The Boy Jihadi” yesterday), Yahya Taher Abdullah, Randa Jarrar, Rasha Abbas, Rachida el-Charni, and, and? How could I possibly have neglected to include a Lebanese writer?! Why not Youssef Habchi El-Achkar’s “Four Seasons and a Summer,” trans. Rawi Hage? Or a piece by Hanan al-Shaykh?

Other choices seem too obvious: Surely Alameddine’s already toyed with the idea of teaching Ghassan Kanafani, or a short from Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, trans. Jonathan Wright, or Tayeb Salih’s “A Handful of Dates.” Certainly, someone other than me will raise the idea of a story from Phil Klay’s Redeployment.

Please add your own suggestions in the comments, or on Twitter, tagging @rabihalameddine.

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Categories: short stories

7 replies

  1. I’d add a story by Alifa Rifaat–a handful to choose from the collection Distant View of a Minaret, and definitely a story by Kanafani–several to choose from trans by DJD.

  2. Reblogged this on pakcelebmania.

  3. I think a ” better Tamer story ( or maybe do both he’s such a superior short story writer) is :A Summary of What Happened to Mohammed AlMotamedi”. This is one of the truly great comedies about bureaucracy with a mundane yet unearthly tinge (that makes it all the more hilalrious).
    I think Kanafani’s story “The Slope” is one of the great stories about storytelling itself. My students loved it; both the high school students I taught for twenty years, and those I taught in college English and Creative Writing classes. I think Madman of Freedom Square” by the Iraqui writer Hassan Bassani is one of the best stories in recent years to come out of the Middle East along with The Iraqui Christ.
    Another terrific story is Tayeb Salih’s The Boum Tree of Wadad” leading off his collection “The Weddingof Zein and Other Stories”. It is one of the few stories anywhere about a community action that triumphs and it is not written in an overly severely socialistic manner.
    Another fine and SLY story is the great Mahfouz’s “The Norwegian Rat”. Almost any of the stories by Hanan Al Shaykh i Swept Off the Rooftops or the short stories in A Distant Minaret are of high quality.
    and all of these stories are battled tested in classrooms with great sucess particuarly Tamer’s stories, The Slope, and the Bouom Tree of Waddad by Salih.

  4. Do they need to be available in English translation? Mahmoud Shukair’s collection “Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats, and other stories” is whimsical, underrated (or unheard-of), and simultaneously hilarious and politically incisive.

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