Nine Arab authors and Arabic-English translators discuss their favorite reads from 2016.
Mansoura Ez Eldin
Ez Eldin’s latest novel, Shadowgraphs, has just been released from Dar al-Tanweer and the Egyptian author’s previous novel, Emerald Mountain, is being released in French in January 2017 from Actes Sud. Ez Eldin has one novel, Maryam’s Maze (trans. Paul Starkey) in English.
Jokes for the Gunmen, Mazen Maarouf, Dar al-Kawkab
These painful, funny stories deconstruct war through the eyes of a mischievous child, astounding the reader. The writer’s imagination has succeeded in producing fresh, new writing about a topic that has become cliché: the Lebanese civil war.
The Art of Abandonment, Abdullah Nasser, Dar al-Tanweer
Literature should drive the reader to see with new eyes, to push the curtain of normalcy away from his eyes, push him to discover what is breathtaking and to contemplate even the obvious and mundane. This is exactly what the Saudi writer Abdullah Nasser succeeds in doing in his exceptional short story collection The Art of Abdandonment.
Neglect and Error, Hasan Abed al-Mawjud, Kotob Khan
An excellent collection in which the writer creates strangeness from the essence of that which is ordinary and quotidian.
Printed in Beirut, Jabbour Douaihy, Dar al-Saqi
Douaihy’s penchant for mysterious heroes and memorable characters continues. A playful, satirical novel that narrates the history of printing in Beirut using a clever detective plot.
Tracking Remains, Fadi Toufaili, Ashkal Alwan
From the assassination of the English teacher, Jamil al-Safuri, during the Lebanese civil war, Toufaili launches into the story of a Beirut divided by cemeteries, checkpoints and the neighborhood of zuqaq al-balat. Al-Safuri’s corpse is the protagonist, watching over us throughout the novel. It is the hidden force driving the plot. More than a device used passingly by the author to track the remains of the city, the corpse is itself the city: it may crawl along with it, or – like the city – be scattered into limbs and fragments. The corpse becomes a metaphor for the city, and the city a metaphor for the corpse.
Picnicking with a Suicide Belt, Kathem Khanjar
A shocking and painful poetry collection that raises many questions. A poetic response to the absurdity and reality of violence in Iraq.
The Emigrants, W. G. Sebald, translated by Amani Lazar, Dar al-Tanweer
Sebald is one of my favorite writers, and this novel – like his others – is rich in allusions, intimations and hidden intertextuality that require probing and examination.
Ferdydurke, Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Agnieszka Piotrowska and Mu’tasim Baha’i, Dar al-Jamal.
Gombrowicz presents a dreamlike realism that would seem hyperreal if not for the absence of logic in it. He presents a nightmarish world whose absurdity diminishes the horror within, so much so that we can describe it as a satire of the nightmare.
Jerusalem, Gonçalo M. Tavares, translated by Ahmad Salah al-Din and Muhammad Amer, Dar Masr al-Arabia
A novel about the banality of evil and the ease of violence. It is not the events that make this novel, but rather its details, the small ornaments and thoughts that Tavares broadcasts and the terrifying/ terrified characters. If someone had described this story to me, I would not have been enthused to read the novel. I would have thought the tragedy exaggerated and the melodrama extreme. But its magic lies in the presentation of the story, and the way in which the author fashioned it into an exceptional work.
Inherited Disorders: Stories Parables and Problems, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Regan Arts
A hundred and seventeen short stories that revolve around parents and children, full of satire and absurdity. The author presents paradoxes without forfeiting the stories’ depth. Many of the stories are philosophical, but without necessarily being serious or complicated.
Bader is an Iraqi novelist, poet, and playwright whose Papa Sartre and The Tobacco Keeper have both been translated into English; two of his books have been longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and he has won several other literary prizes.
Al-Fitna, Printed in Beirut, and Iraq + 100 are the three best books I read this year.
Al-Fitna (2016), by Kanan Makiya, Aljamel House
Al-Fitna is by Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi thinker and a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University in the US. He is also the best-selling author of Republic of Fear (1989), which gained him an international
reputation before 1991, the first Gulf War, and after.
The title refers to a Quranic word for persecution which is worse than killing. All the events in this talented work are seen through the eyes of a Shi‘ite militiaman, a nameless narrator who finds himself in front of the tumultuous politics of the American occupation. It’s set in Iraq soon after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. A long journey with a powerful examination of the birth of the brutal sectarian wars, as well as the outset of the torture, violence, and loss. This novel is one of the best novels written about Iraq in the days after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Printed in Beirut (2016), Jabbour Douaihy, Dar al-Saqi
This novel is about thirty-year-old Fareed, who came from a village in the mountains and moved to Beirut during the Lebanese war to live with his mother. Fareed wrote a book and asked twenty publishing houses to print it, but not one accepted it. One of the publishers proposed that he work in his printing house as a copyeditor, and so Fareed worked and forgot his manuscript, which is lost, finally, and appears as a book by another name.
Printed in Beirut gives us wonderful insight into the printing and publishing industry, its history, and the place that it’s taken in the cultural life of Arabic world.
Iraq + 100 (2016), ed. Hassan Blasim, Comma Press
Iraq + 100 is a collection of fantasy stories, edited by Hasan Blasim and written by ten Iraqi writers and published in London. The book comes as a narrative answer to an ambitious question: What might your country look like in the year 2103 – a century after the disastrous American- and British-led invasion? The stories came in various forms, and different styles: there is fantasy, science fiction, magic realism, allegory, and future fiction.
Arrafai is a Moroccan short-story author known for his experimental works, shortlisted for this year’s inaugural Almultaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story.
In 2016, I encountered three works of prose that caught my attention and which I consider valuable additions to Arabic literature. The first was the novel Fellini’s Shoe by the Egyptian writer Wahid Tawileh, which injected new life into the question of how literary fantasy can relate to tyranny in the Arab world, offering an original, distinctive perspective. Fellini’s Shoe combines dialogue, cinema, psychoanalysis, political satire, literary realism and eroticism into a striking literary blend, and does so with skillful experimentalism in terms of structure, language and style. It is an exemplary instance of literary modernism that is conscious of its references and techniques, and can be counted among the literary works that can rival what is being produced internationally.
As for the second notable work, it is the novel Hot Maroc by the Moroccan writer Yasin Adnan. A narrative cathedral with multiple levels, layers and perspectives, it recalls and reconstructs an important social and political era in Morocco using dark comedy that mixes animal carnalism with the virtual worlds of the Internet. It is a polyphonic orchestral work, that revisits the neglected tradition of oral storytelling while doing away with its something traditions to create a strong, literary text capable of transforming the personal into the universal.
Finally, from the world of short fiction, comes the collection All My Pains by the Jordanian writer Basma Nsour, her first work in several years. This hiatus has been productive in generating grey plots overflowing with mockeries of existence, old age and of the physical deterioration of people confronting the withdrawal of beauty and desire from life. Basma Nsour’s stories are written in language that is bold, severe and terse, like flicks of a shaving blade across the world’s forehead. It strikes one that the writer is a woman who does not like Scheherazade or aspire to be her granddaughter. Basma Nsour writes with a convincing and dispassionate narrative voice that perceives everything around her with a deadly coldness, but condemns all the ugliness that surrounds her. An astonishing collection of tales by one of the doyennes of the Arabic short story.
Nariman Youssef has translated The American Granddaughter by the Iraqi writer Inaam Kachachi, among other works, and is the author of Summer of Unrest: Tahrir – 18 Days of Grace.
Both — In the Spider’s Room, by Mohamed Abdelnaby and All the Battles, by Ma’n Abu Taleb — were written with a lot of stylistic care, each dealing with different images of maculinity. I read one close after the other, so the contrast was rather beautiful to behold.
All that Man Is, David Szalay – a novel made of short stories each portraying a stage in the life of a different man, shortlisted for the Man Booker. I worked with the author for a translation workshop a few years ago and read an early extract, so had high hopes for this. It didn’t disappoint. It was particularly cool to read such a pan-European book post-Brexit.
And to counter all those male authors and masculine themes, Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels, in English translation – a big part of the brilliance of these for me lay in Ann Goldstein’s language, which slowly and naturally builds this very Neapolitan reality in wonderfully flowing but not too domesticated English.
Basma Abdel Aziz
Basma Abdel Aziz is an Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, and visual artist. Her novel The Queue has been brought into English by Elisabeth Jaquette.
Fellini’s Shoe, by Wahid Tawileh is a novel in which both the tormentor and his victim are there, in the same scene, playing a fantastic game. What I really loved about that novel was not only the psychological component, but also the short condensed phrases and the powerful words.
Anxiety Bank, by Tawfik El Hakeem, a very interesting smart play with many political and existential reflections; this is the 2nd time I read this play, and it’s never boring. El Hakeem is one of my favorite authors.
I have also reread Naguib Mahfouz again and again and gave his short-story collections special attention, mainly Taht Al Mezalla and Al Tanzeem Al Serry.
Elisabeth Jaquette is an acclaimed translator, best-known for bringing Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue into English.
* الخائفون (The Frightened) by Dima Wannous
* Confessions, by Rabee Jaber, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid
* The Solar Grid, by Ganzeer
Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani authors fiction and has four published collections of short fiction, including The Perception of Meaning (2012), available in English translation by Thoraya El Rayyes. The Perception of Meaning won author and translator the 2014 King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies Translation of Arabic Literature Award.
Carla Bruni is My Secret Mistress (2016), by Alaa Hlehel
This latest book proves that the seeker of the art of contemporary Arabic literature will discover what they desire in the short story more than anywhere else. This book of stories moves through a world of daily life full of the paradoxes of the ’48 Palestinians. “A Spirit of Black Irony” contrasts different aspects of human existence and the tragic conditions explored through a number of crises, ranging from personal freedom and the issue of identity in a colonized society to the ambiguous relationship with the colonial power, which has “full control.” While fleeing to Eilat in “Far South of Occupied Palestine” evereything is left behind. Here, the links between the “Palestinian territories” and the “outside Arabs” are clear and deep, with direct physical effect between Lebanon and Gaza, from the war rockets to demonstrations of solidarity, and is perhaps heartening for the reader to discover — how rockets coming from Lebanon, carrying death and destruction, represent another form of organic interdependence between the colonized societies, a natural extension that is kept apart by force.
All the Battles (2016) by Ma’n Abu Taleb
Ma’n Abu Taleb draws on the boxing world in this innovative novel, the fates of his characters coldly fitting for someone who writes with a scalpel. “Morality” and what is “right” and “wrong” are not the main concern in this busy, careful narrative. Although this novel is the sort that grabs the reader by the collar, letting go only after its finish, but I want to step away from the excitement and pay tribute to the book’s artistic value and not just its “thrill.” The writer makes use of dialect, and there are great curses in the text: expressive, and in all the right places. Yet this is not a novel of place, but a novel of human transformations. The fighter transforms. That the transformations are interior, where the external plays only a side role, is impressive. There is also the presence of class differentiation, smooth and rough, West and East, all of which make for an important backdrop. This is one of the few novels that combines innovative themes and a narrative that is without lengthy digressions, a work of high-energy artistic expression.
Extinction: A Radical History (2016), by Ashley Dawson
1- The Philosophy Shop, ed. Peter Worley
2- The Adventures of Jimmy Corrigan, by Chris Ware
3- The Soccer War, by Ryszard Kapuściński
4- 2011, by Khaled Al Khamissi
5 – America in Three Books, by Azar Nafisi
6- The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, by Lila Azam Zanganeh
1- I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, by Rabih Alemeddine
2- Charlotte, by David Foenkinos
3- The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
4- The Gun, by Fuminori Nakamura
5- The Rascal’s Mistresses (2015), by Kamel Riahi
6 Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli