Each December, ArabLit manages — by the skin of its collective teeth — to put together an “authors’ favorites of the year.” With appreciation to all of this year’s participating authors.
Yasser Abdellatif is an award-winning Egyptian poet, short-story writer, screenwriter, and novelist. You can read his Law of Inheritance in Robin Moger’s translation.
Mohamed Kheir’s second novel Letting the Fingers Go إفلات الأصابع (Kotob Khan, 2018) was the best Arabic fiction I read in 2018. Kheir is a prominent poet, songwriter, and columnist, but to me he’s at his best when writing fiction, both long and short. In this novel, he weaves a unique construction from bits and pieces of stories in a poetic dreamlike atmosphere. And with it, he attains a new phase in his career.
I’m not a big fan of Gilles Deleuze, and my philosophical test is a bit classical or pre-post-modernist, but I really enjoyed reading Ahmed Hassãn’s Arabic translation of L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze (Al-Mahroussa Press, Cairo), or Deleuze from A to Z in English, which in origin was a long televised interview held by his disciple and friend Claire Parnet. This interview covers a wide spectrum of the philosopher’s original concepts sorted from A to Z, in a playful journalistic way, but is still deep and gratifying. Ahmed Hassãn the translator, or El –Gentle, as we, his friends and disciples used to call him, always provides the Arabic library with precious texts from western thoughts and philosophy that he deals with in three European languages. No wonder it is he who introduced to us names like Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, and many others…apart from his translation of some literary classics from Latin America and Spain.
Hisham Bustani is a Jordanian short-story writer. You can read his The Perception of Meaning in Thoraya El Rayyes’s award-winning translation and 20 more stories online.
Mohamed Makhzangi, Fatima’s Piano; and In Search of a New National Animal for Our Country (بيانو فاطمة، والبحث عن حيوان رمزي جديد للبلاد), Dar al-Shorouk, 2018
In this new work, Mohamed Makhzangi continues to explore the boundaries of short-story writing. Known for his preference for shorter, more condensed texts, this book is a departure in that it moves toward the long short story and is comprised of two separate pieces. “Fatima’s Piano” is a novella — at least according to the cover — that traces the history of a piano in a secluded Egyptian village, thought by the locals to be inhabited by spirits, which enable it to warn them of earthquakes. The story from the narrator’s Kiev memories, when he decided to buy the piano and take it home to Egypt, to when it ended up as a curiosity for the local kids as its massive size prevented it from climbing the narrow stairs of the building, to when he later sold it on to an obscure destiny. “In Search of a New National Animal for Our Country” is designated as a takreesa (a collection of texts) but is actually a long serious of essays on literary non-fiction that crosses at times into the short-story format, producing a unique exploration of the political, social, and economic peculiarities as seen through the lens of animal ethology, mythology, and metaphors. Another excellent book from this excellent writer.
Various authors, Portfolio 67: Fifty Years after the 1967 War (2018)
ملف 67: خمسون عامًا على حرب حزيران 1967 ; 2018
This stylish, well-designed book is a collective Arab effort by eight independent media websites form Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon to bring out a collaborative portfolio, first published online, to mark the 50th anniversary of the 6-day war, into book format. In the process, contrary to the trend of the times, it transforms the virtual into a material object. Israel’s massive defeat of the Arab armies in June 1967 (formally dubbed: “al-Naksa,” or the setback), left an indelible scar and the rocked the Arab world for generations and generations to come, influencing all aspects of life, from politics to economics to arts and literature. The book also contains non-written elements: podcasts that the readers is urged to listen to through inserting printed links into their browsers. Aspects explored include: the experiences of families of soldiers who went missing in action, the fragmentation of love stories on both sides of the border after the Israeli occupation, the rise of military resistance in Palestine after the defeat, the participation of Gulf nationals in the war effort, and the effect of the ’67 defeat on Arab media, music, cinema, arts, and literature. It is the successful collaboration between 7iber, Mada Masr, Ma3azef, Sowt, Aljumhuriya, Ittijah, Doon Taraddod, and Manshoor, something I hope will continue in the future, transforming quality online-only material into material books.
Mansoura Ezz Eldin
Mansoura Ezz Eldin is an Egyptian novelist and journalist. You can read her Maryam’s Maze in Paul Starkey’s translation.
Mohamed Kheir’s second novel, Letting the Fingers Go, إفلات الأصابع(Kotob Khan, 2018). Mohamed Kheir succeeds in presenting a world full of realistic detail — or at least it can be of realities with full details of realism, or at least it is a response to reality. Sometimes we feel that the writer is keen to place a calculated distance between himself and the instinctual and fantasy, as the writing here is not merely a reflection of reality. In the end, we find ourselves in a dream space in which one part of what we have experienced is present, but after the hand of art has turned it into a new creation that involves the essence of its real origins along with large amounts of imagination and metaphor that always open to us a world beyond the limits of reality.
The House Was My Seventh Brother, by Muhairi Huwaidi (2018). A very unique book of poetry by Syrian poet who I read for the first time. The poems are mostly out of the crucible of the Syrian tragedy, and its vocabulary is of bullets, missing bodies, and abandoned houses. Yet the poet aspires, in a way, to destroy. In a poem “War Is Not Like War,” he writes: “”أريد أن تصبح الخوذة أصيص وردٍ/ وزناد البندقية مزلاجاً لباب جديد/ وصوت الرصاص ضحكاً متواصلاً مع الأصدقاء/ أو شجاراً لذيذاً في عشاء العائلة! (…..) أريد أن أكتب العشب،/ العشب الذي سينبت على حديد المدافع!”
Muhammad Abdelnabi is an Egyptian novelist. You can read his In the Spider’s Room in Jonathan Wright’s translation.
The Critical Condition for K, by Aziz Mohammed (2017)
In his first novel, the author managed to create a unique balance between his observations of the community and himself; between sweetness and pain; sadness and irony; the depth of experience and the flow of the narrative. This is a novel that touches the soul.
The Turquoise Carpet, by Ahmed Al Zanati (2017)
In a vortex of narratives that move through time and space, this first work shapes a question about the spirituality of humanity, somewhat burdened by religious and Sufi references.
God 99, by Hassan Blasim (2018)
I didn’t feel this was a novel so much as it is a group of stories connected by one storyteller, who gathers his characters and his stories from here and there. It has the same boldness the writer has employed in his other books, and the same view at the Arab situation, as though he were writing in fire and blood.
Mohamed Kheir’s second novel Letting the Fingers Go إفلات الأصابع (Kotob Khan, 2018)
Khair, in this novel, employs his particular style of crafting human paintings that cross over and intertwine as he paints in his usual pale pastels. What’s new this time is that he approaches the fantasy world without exaggeration, in a very controlled manner and with a precise tone.
Children of the Alley: Biography of a Forbidden Novel, by Mohamed Shoair (2018)
Through beautiful flowing language, the writer paints a wide, lively panorama around the circumstances that accompanied the publication of the novel and all the unpleasant events that followed, including the failed attempt on Mahfouz’s life. This work is created after studying the subject and presenting it in the right tone and right way.
Glamorous Wars: Stories, by Hassan Abdul Moojoud (2018)
A new step in Abdul Moujood’s story writing, a stronger approach in which he crafts his own writing style, which has both the human touch and some sarcasm.
Recipe No. 7, by Ahmed Magdi Hammam (2017)
In this novel, we can see a shift in Hammam’s writing style; here, he builds a parallel world with its history, landscapes, people, and their struggles. An illusionary, easy, and interesting novel that presents as a popular young adult fantasy novel yet in its own special way.
Ahmed al-Mahdi is an Egyptian YA and genre writer. You can read an excerpt from his Reem at ArabKidLitNow!
The Commandments, Adel Esmat (Jan 2018). Esmat has said that The Commandments is the work he’s dreamed of writing for 30 years, and that it’s his most important and the greatest work. The novel belongs to the literature of generations, of the eternal Arabic masterpieces such as those of Naguib Mahfouz and Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet and world masterpieces such as Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. The story of The Commandments is also the story of the October War, as if the “commandments” were not only reflective of the small part of the countryside in which the events revolve, but reflect the entire volatile modern history of Egypt.
Seller of Words, Rima Ra’i (2018). In Seller of Words, Rima Ra’i launches a noble call to accept the other, regardless of name, shape, or identity, and an invitation to spread tolerance rather than hate. Ra’i’s language is beautiful and smooth, and her words subtly draw us through the pages of the novel, as for instance she describes walking in the village streets at the sunset with “نزهة في قارب وردي اللون في نهر عذب غير مرئي إلا لمن ينظر بقلبه أو يتقن الزقزقة.” The story turns into a very fast-paced narrative, which the reader can only leave after they reach its conclusion.
Thunderbird, Sonia Nimr (2016). The novel Thunderbird by Palestinian writer Sonia Nimr is a new and important addition to Arab fantasy literature for young people, as well as an important addition to Palestinian literature. The novel was published in 2016 by the Tamer Institute for Community Education in Palestine and was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in the YA category.
Hammour Ziada is a Sudanese author and journalist. You can read his Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning The Longing of the Dervish in Jonathan Wright’s translation.
Children of the Alley: Biography of a Forbidden Novel, by Mohamed Shoair
The best book I read this year was Biography of a Forbidden Novel. The book is historical and cultural research on the circumstance at the time when Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley was published. It about the situation in Egypt, the literary community and the reactions the novel created at that time. I think it is the best critical study that I have read.
Golan Haji is a Syrian poet and translator with a postgraduate degree in pathology. You can read his A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know in translation by Haji and Stephen Watts.
Hoda Barakat, The Night Post
Inaam Kachachi, Al-Nabiza (The Excluded)
Al-Ma’arri, Chapters and Endings
Emmanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell (translated into Arabic by Habib Salmoni, Cairo 1896)
Nikolai Berdyaev, Solitude and Society (translated into Arabic by Fouad Kamel)
Azmi Islam, Ludwig Wittgenstein
Samir Naqqash, Tantal
Amal Nawwar, Jungle Woman
Mohammad Khdhayyer, The Graspable and The Ungraspable
I must confess, I am not a reader of novels. I seldom finish reading a novel. Perhaps because I don’t like following the plots. However, I constantly read Al-Ma’arri and Al-Niffari. They are essential readings for me. I am also fond of certain Russian writers and thinkers who lived in Europe and western Russia throughout the first half of the twentieth century. I cherish their company which I badly need every now and then. Writers like Andrey Bely and Nikolai Berdyaev warm my soul with their sharp but tender minds. Fortunately, we have some of Berdyaev’s books available in Fouad Kamel’s excellent translations.
I enjoyed James Wright’s biography. He’s one of the closest poets to my heart. I somehow feel that his Martins Ferry is my own hometown too, unlike The Town in Cavafy’s famous poem. I love what James Wright had written about little towns in Italy and France. Technical skills are nothing if devoid of compassion, and Wright’s obsessions are full of compassion. He had transformed his tormented memories and incessant keen observations into lucid and enduring landscapes. The book also contains excerpts from his journals and letters.
I feel some affinity with writers like Mercè Rodoreda or Marcela Delpastre who wrote in Catalan and Occitan respectively. I admire those who have insisted on writing in their own “minor” languages, a gift of which I was deprived, since I couldn’t practically write anything in Kurdish.
I was glad to come across the Lebanese poet Amal Nawwar’s new collection of poems in Beirut last month. I’m reading it slowly.
Hölderlin’s poem and his letters to his mother are moving. I wanted to visit Bordeaux in a different epoch, and see again the muddy estuary of the Garrone in the Atlantic, the orange lamplights over the Pont de Pierre in cold evenings. I missed those long autumn walks I once had there.
Inaam Kachachi is an Iraqi novelist. You can read her International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novel The American Granddaughter in Nariman Youssef’s translation.
The Mexican Wife, by Egyptian novelist Iman Yahya
A novel that combines love and the political movements in 1950s Cairo, unveiling the unknown marriage between the well-known author Yusuf Idris and the Mexican architect Ruth Rivera, daughter of the internationally renowned artist Diego Rivera.
The language and style are easy and clear and the novel moves us from one surprise to another.
Lemya Shammat is a Sudanese author and translator.
Abdel Moneim Ajab’s Overview of Modern Sudanese Literature was published in 2011 by Nineveh Press, Damascus. The book presents a close review of modern Sudanese literature, its major figures and currents and trends. It also provides an accurate monitoring of the early contributions of Muawya Mohamed Nour, as one of the most prominent figures of Sudanese culture and literary modernity and enlightenment, despite his relatively young age and short life. Important citations are provided which represent the central ideas in the process of Muawia’s short and eventful journey. The first chapter, “Muawya Mohamed Nour the Pioneer of Arab Critical Modernity,” retraces the biography of Nour and discusses his leading contributions in the history of modern Arabic literature since 1928, when he began to seriously participate in the literary circles and to publish successive valued critical articles, even before his graduation at the American University of Beirut.
Collector of Butterflies, by Bushra Khlfan, published by Al-Intishar Al-Arabi “Arab Diffusion”, via The Omani Society of Writers and Literati, is a magnificent collection of short stories, gracefully written in rich multi-layered narrative, with intimate portraiture, spirited tiny details and memorable characters. The dozen short stories present a piece of elegant prose. In stories such as “House on Top of the Dune,” “Small Passing Things,” and “Frame” the writer manifests his deeply and thoughtful unbounded imagination and technical brilliance. My particular favorite in this collection is “Falsehood” which roams in the realm of childhood with a profoundly moving language.
Book of Dreams, by Rahme Al-Mafayzawi, published by Omani Society of Writers and Literati, Al-Intishar Al-Arabi “Arab Diffusion”Publishing house is a captivating collection of short stories. In its 126 pages the stories delve into female-centric issues and societal stereotypes through a daring, thought-provoking language and boundary-pushing narrative.
Fadi Zaghmout is a Jordanian gender activist, author, and blogger. You can read his Bride of Amman in Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s translation, and his Heaven on Earth in Sawad Hussain’s translation.
One of the most important books released this year is Alaa Al Aswany’s Jomhoreyyat Kaan or Republic As If (2018). I’m a big fan of Alaa Al Aswany since the release of Yacoubian Building. In addition to his natural talent at weaving engaging storylines and gripping characters, in this book, he vividly documents the latest Egyptian revolution, creating a must-read modern classic. He takes us on a journey of hope and disappointment, albeit a dark one that follows the lives of several human rights activists fighting for human rights and freedoms, only to be faced by greater powers crushing whatever dreams that spread in the region during the Arab spring. Unfortunately, the book was banned in Egypt and Jordan and few other countries where it was perceived as a threat to the authoritarian regimes. It has also faced a backlash from the supporters of current regime in Egypt, proving what Alaa wrote in the book, that the revolution has failed and the regime has persisted.
Maha Hassan a Syrian/Kurdish novelist and short-story writer. You can read her work in translation in Banipal 57: Syria in the Heart.
Perhaps None Will Remain, by Haithem Hussein (2018)
Most of my readings now are the Syrian publications, which follows what is happening now. The best book I read this year is Perhaps None Will Remain, by Haithem Hussein. I choose this book because it discusses the exile’s experience in a new and different way, where the author is the main character who lives the experience of moving from one country in search of a safe haven.
The book an excellent document on the importance of the new Syrian literature, a literature that is far from any imagination. It is a document that one day can be used, as an introduction to Syrian Refugees’ literature, just as we have the prison literature, which became known war literature. The book can also be a reference to study the complexity of the refugee’s psychology.
Mahmoud Hosny is an Egyptian novelist and critic. You can read a short excerpt of his Maps of Yunus on ArabLit.
Hissat al-Gharib (حصة الغريب) by the Iraqi critic and poet Kadhim Gihad, Translated from French into Arabic by Mohammed Ait Hanna – published by Dar al-Jamal (2011). It’s built and elaborated on academic research Jihad had worked on for a decade before publishing the book in French. After discussing translation in western philosophy and the overall poetics of the act of translation, especially in poetry, the author reviews the main phases of the translation movement in classical Arab culture. It’s priceless how Jihad explains thoughts of Derrida and Walter Benjamin on translation as an act of making the impossible has the ability to be possible.
Shi’riyaat al-ta’aaqud al-‘asir (شعريّات التعاقد العسير) by the Syrian critic and translator Subhi Hadidi. Published by Dar al-Ahliyya (Autumn 2017). This is a book about a diverse range of Arab poets who write prose poetry. With Hadidi’s solid language and complex perspectives, we read poems of his choosing and touch on his ways of seeing the huge differences between these poetic voices.
From A to X by John Berger (من عايدة إلى كزافيه), translated into Arabic by Fatiha al-Saudi and Tania Tamari Nasr (2011). Here, John Berger uses his poetic narration to write a novel in the shape of letters from Ayda to a lover, Xavier, who is in prison. Through her letters, we touch on Berger’s sensitive way of feeling details and his ability to write poetically about the small details of daily life in harmony with the big questions of existence.
Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History by Eduardo Galeano (أبناء الأيام), translated from Spanish into Arabic by Salih Almani (2013). It’s a book in 365 segment, titled with the days of the year. Each piece is about something that’s happened on this day across the history of humanity, and it focuses on the forgotten stories, the people who were defeated wherever they were from. Galeano uses satire, research, and simple prose to let us know each other and the world we live in.
Maysaloon Hadi is an Iraqi novelist. Two of her books have been translated into English: Prophecy of Pharaoh was published in 2011, and The Throne and the Creek was recently brought out in English by Katara Publishing.
Kafka and the Kafkaesque and the Arabic Novel, Dr. Najem Abdullah Kathim.
The is an important book that talk about Franz Kafka, his work, and his literature, yet he book isn’t only about Kafka but about the main and important writers whom the author believes have profited from Kafka’s style: those who are influenced by his writing, directly or indirectly. Some of the the Arab authors are the Syrian writer George Salim, Iraqi Muhieddin Zankana, Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim, Palestinian Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Palestinian-Jordanian Ibrahim Nasrallah, and the Egyptian Yahya Taher Abdullah.
The author also provided list of around a hundred Arab authors who he thinks have been influenced by the personal and individual tendencies called Kafkaesque. In the second section of the book, he discusses these tendencies.
Mohamed Shoair is an Egyptian critic and journalist who wrote Children of the Alley: Biography of the Forbidden Novel. Hopefully, you will be able to read it in English soon.
My favorite book of the year is the new collection of short stories by Naguib Mahfouz, The Whisper of Stars.
Translations by Hind Saeed and M Lynx Qualey. All errors M Lynx Qualey.
Many thanks to Yassir Abdullatif and to Marcia for this useful and informative list.
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