There are books that tear its readers open and leave us bleeding, such as Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell (القوقعة), translated by Paul Starkey. But there are also books that find the holes and — at least sometimes, for some readers — patch us up:
By M Lynx Qualey
These eleven books are recommendations from ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey, translator and ArabLit Quarterly contributing editor Nariman Youssef, ArabLit Quarterly contributor Hoda Marmar, novelist Mansoura Ezz Eldin, and author-scholar Amira Taher.
The Old Woman and The River (السبيليات), Ismail Fahd Ismail, translated by Sophia Vasalou
This gentle novel recently made the prose longlist of the 2020 National Translation Awards. It follows the wonderful, heroic Um Qasem and her donkey sidekick, Good Omen. The author said, in an interview in 2017, that the genesis of the novel was when he heard from a journalist at the close of the Iran-Iraq war: “We got into a helicopter which circled over an area covering nearly two hundred kilometres, above the decrepit date palm farms, a sad and painful sight. Suddenly we saw a strip of mature green. I asked my companions how this was possible, and his answer was that this was the village of Al-Sabiliat.”
How did this patch of green survive amidst the destruction? The Old Woman and the River is Ismail Fahd Ismail’s answer to that question.
There is also a German translation by Christine Battermann.
Room 304 or How I Hid from My Dear Father for 35 Years (غرفة 304: كيف اختبأت من أبي العزيز 35 عاماً), by Amr Ezzat, tr. Nora Amin and Yasmine Zohdi
When this short novella of a memoir opens, Amr Ezzat’s mother is weeping, since she thinks he has been born with a grave wound. “A patch of deep, dark red occupied the skin on the right half of my forehead, from the roots of my hair to the lid of my right eye.”
In 2019, Egyptian novelist Donia Kamal said “I finished this book twice in the past several months, and, every time I come across it, I instantly remember the sound of Amr Ezzat’s father climbing the stairs, with the squeaking of his shoes on the marble floor that he describes more than once. All the mixture of love and hate, fear, the desire to connect, the confusion and the silent rebellion against a parent who you aren’t sure whether to be fascinated by or scared of is what makes this book — to me — a must-read of 2019.”
Although we walk through difficult moments with the author-narrator, we end in one of acceptance.
In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat (في أثر عنايات الزيات ) by Iman Mersal
This work of poetic nonfiction comes multiply recommended. The subject of a recent episode of Bulaq (“Cold Trail“), this is a literary detective story of great empathy and imagination.
In 1993, the Egyptian poet and writer Iman Mersal picked up an unknown novel by a forgotten writer from the 60s. And so began her long wanderings in search of Enayat al-Zayyat. The young author killed herself in 1963, four years before her book Love and Silence was finally published. Mersal’s portrait of al-Zayyat’s is remarkable both in its reconstruction and portraiture of Egypt during al-Zayyat’s lifetime, but also for how she connects with this author across space and time and many attempts at erasure.
Another book that rests on connecting to a writer about whom we know little — even if her work is remembered — is James Montgomery’s slender chapbook Loss Sings, a conversation between Montgomery, grief, and a poet who lived in the sixth and seventh century Najd, on the Arabian peninsula.
The chapbook was discussed on an earlier episode of Bulaq, “Poems that Cross Language and Time.”
For a long time, Montgomery tells us in the chapbook, he taught al-Khansa’s poetry without having any emotional connection to her work. But as he excavates his own grief, he finds a way to re-see and re-organize it alongside and through these poems, which he translates afresh for a contemporary reader. On grief, the nature of translation, the nature of literature, time, healing, and memory.
Book of Sleep (كتاب النوم), by Haytham al-Wardani, translation forthcoming by Robin Moger.
This is a recommendation from Nariman Youssef, and it’s also one of Bulaq’s recommended reads for the fall, as the book is forthcoming this November in Robin Moger’s translation.
This book written in the spring of 2013 and is part poetry, part philosophical reflection, part political analysis, and part fiction. As William Repass wrote in a review for Full Stop: “The Book of Sleep leaves us with the triad of sleep, revolution, and poetry, each inseparable from the other. When we separate life from its utility, we come closer to free play, to liberation as an ever-ongoing struggle. El Wardany invites us to consider poetry in its broadest possible sense, as an enervation armed with the logic of metaphor rather than cause-and-effect, which manifests not only in lines, in the streets. Lived universally, sleep and dream have the potential to open us to the collective unconscious and dissolve the limitations of the self under capitalism. When we wake up tomorrow, let’s build whatever we can dream.”
Confessions (الاعترافات), by Rabee Jaber, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
This is a recommendation from Hoda Marmar, who also recommends Jaber’s Black Tea.
Confessions, which won a 2017 PEN Center USA translation award in Abu-Zeid’s translation, opens with the confession that “My father used to kidnap people and kill them.” This fictionalized memoir has echoes of St. Augustine’s 4th-century autobiography. This, too, is about memory and pain, and how one can come to terms with it all.
As I wrote back in 2016: “In the end, there is no great scaffolding of meaning, like St. Augustine offers. Instead, there is cake. ‘I sat there, enjoying the calm — a strange calm that spread through me as I looked at the piece of cake on the plate and then turned and looked outside.'”
Cracked Mirrors (كسور المرايا), by Ahmed Gharib
This short novel was recommended as a healing read by Mansoura Ez Eldin.
Each chapter in this semi-autobiographical novel is a fragment of the mirror in the story of migration from Egypt to Canada.
Shifting the Silence, by Etel Adnan
The size of the future is not any longer than this alley’s. And questions are falling, and failing. But to go by a narrow gully, find the tide at its lowest, watch ducklings follow their mother in search of evening food, is a sure way to some kind of an illumination.
I am wearing the rose color of Syria’s mountains and I wonder why it makes me restless. Often my body feels close to sea creatures, sticky, slimy, unpredictable, more ephemeral than need be. From there I have to proceed, as an avalanche of snow falls. That’s what the radio has just said: that entire villages have been made invisible. But they are faraway: the news never covers my immediate environment.
And having more memories than yearnings, searching in unnameable spaces, Sicily’s orchards or Lebanon’s thinning waters, I reach a land between borders, unclaimed, and stand there, as if I were alone, but the rhythm is missing.
What is not missing is fear. It’s a matter of arteries clogged, of long hours of sleeplessness, of the lack of resolution for any outstanding problem. My feet are sliding on a wet floor, but I have to thank my good luck: I leave the horizon deal with my terror.
This is a young adult novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Etisalat Award for Children’s Literature in the YA category, and follows the story of one Palestinian-Syrian teen’s transformation from an ebullient but naïve Damascene girl to a young woman making her way alone as she deals with outrageous loss, xenophobia, and the struggle to define herself. This epic bildungsroman is set during the first year of the uprising in Syria that became a civil war. One Day the Sun Will Shine follows sixteen-year-old Shaden as her brother joins the conflict, her father dies of heart failure, their building is destroyed, her brother is jailed, her mother is killed by a stray bullet, and her aunt suggests marrying her off to an older man in the Gulf.
Shaden goes from being a spirited girl who relies on others, to one paralyzed with grief, and finally to a girl who takes control of her own new life.
For readers 14+.
Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, by Sonia Nimr, translation forthcoming by M Lynx Qualey
The winner of an Etisalat Award for Children’s Literature in the YA category, this book is for all ages, for both the ease and delight that come after hardship.
This novel is a thrilling historical fantasy for adults and children twelve and up. It follows the adventures of the medieval Palestinian girl, Qamr, who sets off from her small village life in Palestine and finds herself kidnapped, enslaved, escaped, joining pirates, opening a bookshop, finding love, and having a hundred other adventures before finally, in the end, finding (we hope) what she was searching for.
A healing and joyful novel.
This is a wonderful, healing picture book that was recently published in Elisabet Risberg’s Swedish translation (as Min katt Koozy). It was shortlisted for the 2018 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in three categories (best book, best illustrations, best production) and won the “best production” prize.
A meditation on relationships and loss through the lens of a boy’s deep friendship with his cat, who disappears. A review from two child fans on ArabKidLitNow!