New Arabic Releases: 3 Recommendations from the RAYA Agency

Yasmina Jraissati at the RAYA Agency is recommending three very different titles for the fall. Two are new releases: a debut novel by Palestinian author Asma al-Atawna and a historical novel by award-winning Sudanese writer Hammour Ziada. The third is a fictionalized biography of Saddam Hussain (1937-2006):

The least surprising recommendation is الغرق: حكايات القهر والونس (Drowning), by Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning novelist Hammour Ziada. This historical novel takes place around the 1968 military coup in Khartoum although the story unfolds in the rural town of Hajer Narti, where the body of a young girl is found in the Nile.

RAYA writes:

The novel unfolds within the narrow time window of a few months, as we watch how the fate of Abeer is sealed: The 13 year old nymphet, daughter of Fayit Niddo, an old slave, will ultimately throw herself in the Nile. This suicide leaving little doubt as to the nature of the first drowning that opened the book.

Though slavery has been abolished, freedom is not truly granted to slaves, and the traditional social structure of Hajer Narti remains, making of the place the theater of an old struggle for power and land between two clans. As the reader picks out the thread of the complex relations of kinship, the trap in which Abeer finds herself gets more clearly defined.

As Sherif Abdel Samad notes in an interview with Ziada for the Asia Timesthe protagonists are generally detached from events in Khartoum; Abdel Samad quotes one character who says: If the army provides us with fuel, we will opt for them. Ziada answers:

Authoritarian regimes in the Third World made civilians believe that they should not become involved with politics.

Drowning is Ziada’s third novel; his Longing of the Dervish won the 2014 Naguib Mahfouz Medal, was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and was translated by Jonathan Wright. Ziada was also named the 2019 Banipal Visiting Writer Fellow, although the UK refused to grant him a visa to take up his fellowship, and the award-winning film You Will Die at Twenty was based on one of Ziada’s short stories.

RAYA adds: “With scarce descriptions, and just the minimal amount of words, Ziada creates very convincing characters, and poignantly captures the violence of social relations in a strictly codified society.”

Palestinian debut

The second novel recommended is a debut work, صورة مفقودة (Missing Picture) by Palestinian author Asma al-Atawna, who was born in a refugee camp in Gaza and now lives in France. According to al-Atawna, “Life in Gaza is like being in a big prison with an open sky. My life was full of surprises and periods of transformation, where I used determination and hope as magical sticks to transform misery into a nice and beautiful dream.”

Of the novel, Raya writes:

Asma, the narrator, has escaped Gaza with her Spanish  boyfriend. The first part of the novel goes over the story of this escape and describes the beginnings of her new life in France, in the second, longer part of the book, Asma recounts her childhood in Gaza.

Enlightened by a successful escape, childhood dreams and sweet friendships, the book is also saddened by poverty, despair and the background violence of the Israeli occupation. Al Atawna’s book is a surprising read, a bitter-sweet unusual coming of age novel; honest, lucid, perspicuous. The author captures details of daily life that flesh out the people and the life in Gaza extremely vividly.

The World of Saddam

The third novel is عالم صدام حسين (The World of Saddam Hussein), a 2003 novel by Mahdi Haydar (a nom de plume), a fictionalized biography of the Iraqi dictator that begins when Hussein was a boy bullied outside Baghdad.

RAYA writes:

The reader follows the steps of Saddam, as he adheres the Baath party, fails his first mission at assassinating the president, goes to jail, and gets out of jail more powerful and determined than ever before. This is how the captivating, thrilling and brutal tale of his ruthless ascend to power begins. The ambitious man is however gradually gained by paranoia. Hundreds of political opponents are one day summoned to the party’s head quarter: The public radio called up the initials of their names and date of birth all day long. None of them has ever returned. Once his allies and closest friends, oldest party members will also be eliminated with no hesitation.

Since its first publication in 2003, the book has been a success and is currently in its fifth edition. Despite several attempts by the Arab press to reach the author, the latter’s identify remains a mystery. The only point of contact is his editor. This is an experienced writer no doubt, as the book is skillfully crafted, featuring a multitude of interconnected characters, the individual fates of which we follow, and introducing an impressive amount of details pertaining to Iraq’s recent political history. A dizzying read.

Back in 2003, Mona Haggar wrote: “Like an exciting mystery story, with many killings along the way, it tells the story of the boy from the poor village of Al-Odja, near Tikrit, who was often humiliated by other kids in the streets around his home. They threw rocks at the 5-year-old, and jeered at him, because he had no father. Haidar seeks to bring the facts of Saddam Hussein’s biography to life[.]”

This novel was also excerpted in Banipal 24.