Where Do I Start with Arabic Literature?

ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey gets asked this question a lot:

Often I stand there, blinking, my brow furrowed and lips askew, as though I’d just been asked: “Where do I start with life?”

So, as one does with the world’s insoluble mysteries, I took it to Twitter. Unfortunately, the site’s polling software allows the creation of only four possible responses. I tossed out three possibilities and my usual ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I followed this up with several caveats: yes, if an individual asks me, I take that individual’s tastes into account; yes,  I recognize this question, by its very nature, posits Arabic literature as a single “thing,” among which like apples-to-apples objects can be judged; yes, I recognize it’s a 1500-year tradition. And herein my conundrum. Do I give some twisty-mouthed answer to people who are, at least potentially, interested in immersing themselves in a new literature? Or do I give my best devil-may-care grin and suggest a few titles?

The poll numbers lean, slightly, to a “Mahfouz-era classic,” although with a healthy showing for “It’s an impossible Q.” Answers in the comments range from the absurdist (“I say tharthara fawq an-Nīl and let them guess” or “Maybe they shouldn’t start at all if they’re still wondering 😂 “) to the tentative (“A couple of each? A mix of modern and classic?”) to those who had a clear opinion on the matter: (“A classical intro to Arabic literature is done through the works of early 20th century Egyptian writers : Ahmed Amin, tawfik al hakim, Taha Hussein…etc.” or Diviani Chaudhuri’s “New stuff in good translation.”)

As to that last suggestion: Iman Mersal’s How to Heal: Motherhood and Its Ghosts (tr. Robin Moger) for nonfiction in December, Mazen Maarouf’s Jokes for the Gunmen (tr. Jonathan Wright) for a short-story collection out in January, and Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work (tr. Leri Price) for a novel out in February. Beautiful works, all.

Several commenters urged a start from classic poetry. And indeed, if a reader is going to understand the context in which any literature swims, they should (at some point) read that language’s classics. Yet many of the Arabic classics, however defined, are unavailable in English translation. Worse, many are in translations that are clunky, sing-songy, or altogether patchy. I could certainly give a nod toward Antarah’s War Songs, translated by James Montgomery; Michael Sells’ work in Desert TracingsDavid Larsen’s translations of Ibn Khalawayh in Names of the Lion. And, I believe, Montgomery’s forthcoming Mutanabbi collection and Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s forthcoming version of al-Muʻallaqat.

The critic Susannah Tarbush suggested a contemporary multi-author short-story anthology. This is an appealing answer for a number of reasons, and I do enjoy the buffet-style short-story collection. Yet I can’t think of a well-translated, around-the-region short-story anthology that fits the bill. Certainly, our alleged Arabic-literature-in-translation newcomer could take out a subscription to Banipal or ArabLit Quarterly.

Some suggested I recommend work that’s freely available online, and indeed I’ve already compiled any number of listicles: Selected: 10 Arabic Short Stories by Women, in Translation, Online and 10 Iraqi Short Stories for the Shortest Day of the Year and 10 Great Arab Short Stories for Rabih Alameddine to Teach. There’s also the old “5 Books to Read Before You Die” list, useful in a pinch.

Madonna Kalousian today added another option: tell people to learn Arabic.

Either in Arabic or in translation, the best way entry point is probably a course with a knowledgeable, joy-sparking, bibliophilic professor. Or you could read ArabLit’s series on “Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation” and DIY your own course.

In the end, though, the question is probably both impossible and extremely easy to answer: Nowhere. Everywhere. Anywhere you like.