The Premodern and Contemporary Arabic Texts That Influenced Amitav Ghosh

Last Thursday at New York City’s Center for Fiction, four novelist-scholars were on hand to launch the Library of Arabic Literature‘s new paperback series. Amitav Ghosh took a brief detour to discuss how Arabic literature has influenced his work: 

season“Arabic literature played a very, very important part in my own literary coming-of-age,” Ghosh said early in the evening. “So many Arabic books have played a very important part in my life. For example, Tayeb Salih’s Mawsim al-hijra ila’l-shamal (Season of Migration to the North), which is one of the very few Arabic novels that I actually read in Arabic. It had a powerful influence over me when I was sitting down to write my first novel [The Circle of Reason (1986)], because what resonated so powerfully with me was its vision of the world. It was a transnational vision, it was a vision of connections that come into being—of cross cultures, between cultures, across these vast disparities of space.”

“It really profoundly influenced my first book, but even more my second book, which is called The Shadow Lines (1988).”

But it wasn’t only twentieth-century Arabic literature that influenced his writing, Ghosh said. “When I was writing my third book, which is called In an Antique Land…it was the great Arabic geographies that really played a very important part in my thinking, al-Idrisi most of all.”

zayniHe also spoke about how Gamal al-Ghitani’s acclaimed Zayni Barakat came to his aid when writing the Ibis trilogy:

I was actually in Cairo in 2006 and I was struggling then with the second book in the Ibis trilogy, which is called River of Smoke, when somehow Zayni Barakat, Gamal al-Ghitani’s book, found its way into my hands. Sometimes it happens when you pick up a book — it just opens possibilities to you.

And what was so powerful to me about what Gamal al-Ghitani was doing in Zayni Barakat is the ways in which he deployed official language. He found a poetry in proclamations, in all sorts of official statements, and that again had a very powerful influence on me when I started writing River of Smoke.

The Center for Fiction also asked Ghosh to list “some favorite works of modern Arabic literature.” The list includes Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs from a Women’s Prison, Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, and Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.