10 Books: Animal Tales in Arabic Literature

To celebrate the release of his translation of Mohamed Makhzangi’s Animals in Our Days, Chip Rossetti has brought together a list of ten Arabic works of fiction that focus on animals and animal life, from classics by al-Jahiz and Ibn al-Muqaffa’ to contemporary novels from the Maghreb to the Gulf.

By Chip Rossetti

Below is a very subjective list of ten Arabic works of fiction that prominently feature animals, and that highlight the range of roles that animals have played in Arabic literature—as individual characters in their own right, as metaphors, as speaking creatures, and as silent witnesses, in both pre-modern and contemporary texts.

Kitab al-hayawan, by al-Jahiz. The massive that is justifiably viewed as the original literary text on this subject: a highly readable compilation on animal lore and observation by the “father of Arabic prose.”

Kalilah and Dimnah, by Ibn al-Muqaffa’, tr. Michael Fishbein and James E. Montgomery. One of the most translated texts in world literature, Kalilah and Dimnah was adapted into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa’, who worked from a now-lost Middle Persian version, itself taken from the Sanskrit original. The book is a collection of animal fables aimed at instructing princes on how to rule wisely and justly. Although I’m admittedly biased, I loved this new English version published last year by the Library of Arabic Literature.

The Old Woman and the River (al-Sabiliyyat), by Isma’il Fahd Isma’il, tr. Sophia Vasalou. A delightful novel about renewal and the restoration of nature, even in wartime. The protagonists are an elderly widow—the stubbornly resourceful Umm Qasim—and her beloved donkey.

Gold Dust (al-Tibr), by Ibrahim al-Koni, tr. Elliott Colla. On the close bond between a Tuareg and his mehri camel, one that is stronger than the ties of family, tribe, and humanity.

‘Ushb al-layl (Night Grass), by Ibrahim al-Koni. You could make this list out of nothing but novels by Ibrahim al-Koni, but I’ll limit myself to two. Night Grass is one of his lesser-known novels: a dark tale of a man who insists on transgressing moral laws, with terrible consequences. One of the book’s central motifs is a gazelle taken captive and given to the protagonist’s daughter as a pet, which later comes back to haunt the daughter in ghostly form.

Al-Qunduz (The Beaver), by Mohammed Hasan Alwan. A Saudi ne’er-do-well escapes his disapproving family by moving to Portland, Oregon, where he befriends a local beaver. Only then does he realize that his family members—his arrogant father, his guilt-tripping mother, his newly religious sister—are in fact beavers themselves.

Homeless Rats (Fi’ran bila juhur), by Ahmed Fagih, tr. Soraya Allam and Christopher Tingley. Set in the desert in Libya after World War II, Fagih’s novel gives speaking parts to all the species fighting over a limited food supply: jerboas, ants, a wise lizard, and two desperate groups of humans.

Names of the Lion (Asma’ al-asad), by Ibn Khalawayh, tr. David Larsen. A short but fascinating text by a 10th-century poet and lexicographer that is exactly as advertised: Ibn Khalawayh runs through the colorful array of names and epithets for lions in medieval Arabic, from “al-‘Awwas (The Night Prowler)” to “al-Zu’af (Whose Touch is Fatal).”

Beirut Nightmares (Kawabis Bayrut), by Ghada Samman, tr. Nancy Roberts. A woman whose street is blockaded by snipers during the Lebanese civil war becomes obsessed with the animals in the abandoned pet store next door. Who is more of a prisoner: an animal in a cage or a human in wartime?

The Case of the Animals Against Man,” from the anonymous collection of texts known as The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. A fable in which animals argue their case against human dominance and cruelty before the King of the Jinn. The translator Denys Johnson-Davies retold the story in English as an illustrated children’s book, titled The Island of Animals.

Also read: Chip Rossetti on How Mohamed Makhzangi’s ‘Animals In Our Days’ Displaces our Anthropocentric View of the World

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