Why Raja Alem is Publishing ‘Sarab’ in Translation Before She Publishes in Arabic

On April 16, award-winning Saudi novelist Raja Alem’s Sarab appeared in German translation by Hartmut Fähndrich. According to Publishers WeeklyHoopoe Fiction has signed English rights, and an English translation by Leri Price is scheduled for October 2018. But the novel hasn’t yet appeared in Arabic:

The novel, by International Prize for Arabic Fiction co-winner Raja Alem, is set around the 1979 siege of Mecca’s Grand Mosque. From the German publisher Unionsverlag:

On a morning in 1979, the world is holding its breath. A troop of terrorist fanatics occupy the Great Mosque in Mecca and take thousands of believers hostage. Among the insurgents, hidden in men’s clothes, is the girl Sarab.

When the counterattack starts, and paratroopers rain from the sky, she flees into the catacombs, where she encounters an unconscious French soldier. Through a sewer, she drags him outside and hides with him in an empty apartment. These two, who at first violently hate each other, tell a story that transcends all boundaries in Mecca, then in Paris.

In an interview with PW, Alem said she started writing Sarab 10 years ago. She had a few chapters but then stopped, until she met a man who had been at the siege.

In PW, translator Leri Price said of the book: “It is so interesting and unusual. Sarab’s emotional journey feels so real, so truthful. And Arabic is such an incredibly expressive language that communicating the ideas into English is like putting together a puzzle.”

And yet it might be some time before Arabic readers have access to the book. According to Alem’s agent, Charlotte Seymour, “It is possible that the novel will eventually be published in Arabic; it has simply not been the author’s priority given the difficulties that would likely be entailed” for Alem in Saudi Arabia.

Certainly, it is a sensitive topic in the Saudi kingdom, although there are other recent books that deal with the 1979 siege, an important marker in Saudi consciousness, such as Badriah al-Bishr’s Love Stories on al-Asha Street, Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s Where Pigeons Don’t Fly, and Alem’s own The Dove’s Necklace. 

Interestingly, Alem also suggested she wasn’t publishing in Arabic because she wasn’t yet happy with the text:

“Arabic is my center. I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound. I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.”

Alem’s dense, recursive The Dove’s Necklace was beautifully translated by the heroic Katherine Hall and Adam Talib. Previous to that, Alem also adapted some of her novels to English along with Tom McDonough.