Despite the many obstacles it faces - censorship, a lack of translations, exile - Arabic literature has never been more vital. As the London Book Fair celebrates publishing from Arab countries, we asked authors and critics about the challenges of writing today and which works they think the world should have the chance to read.
The counterpoint to the ongoing wars of aggression and the drumbeat heralding a "clash of civilisations" is the desire of ordinary people in the west and in the Arab world to engage with each other. The London Book Fair's concentration on the Arab world this year represents an attempt to facilitate such an engagement. It is the result of three years' work by the British Council and can be read - and praised - as an effort to check the slippage back into the bad old days when the Arab world served merely as a locus for western imaginings, self-invention and ambition. Over 100 representatives from publishers, cultural organisations, prizes for literature and translation schemes will be there. One thing you can see right away from the contributions below is that Arabic literature today often reflects societies in crisis.
But Arabic literature itself is not in crisis; in fact, it has never been more energetic and more varied than today. Some of the authors who came to maturity in the 60s are now writing the swan song of that decade, others turn to different episodes of history, either to look for parallels or for the lines that connect the "then" to the "now". Younger writers are making their mark. Many are writing politically engaged works, others depict an alienation that is itself a comment on the "now". Several deal with issues of the Arabs' relationship to the west. From the epic works of Ibrahim al-Koni to the contemplative narratives of Bahaa Taher to the "puzzle" novels published by Malamih, the bestselling Alaa al-Aswany and the runaway success of the "blogs" brought out by Dar al Shorouk Publishing House, Arabic literature today grapples with and comments on the ills experienced by Arab societies.
And those ills are manifold. In the Arab world you can see the effects of untrammelled global capitalism and so-called "structural reform" creating a boom economy - and its underbelly of destitute masses. You can see the degradation of once-great national institutions of industry and learning systematically and deliberately undermined by corruption and greed. You can see a fearful disconnection between civil society and governing regimes hammered into place by western interests, and the absence of hope that drives the young of old and rooted nations to trust their lives to leaking boats in search of a future. These are, of course, ills shared by a large part of the world. For Arabs today there is also the overwhelming sense of being the targets of a new western imperialism. And then there is Israel, a stone thrown into the heart of the Arab world, the ripples from which, far from fading away, are building into a tidal wave.
And yet the Arab world is not overwhelmed. There are protests, conferences, strikes, study groups, campaigning societies - and an upsurge of artistic activity. Politics, economics, religion, tradition, modernity and post-modernity are - in various forms - under discussion everywhere. Nowhere more than in literature.
Despite all the political and economic problems Egypt is going through, independent publishing houses are experiencing a real awakening, which began six years ago with the publication of The Yacoubian Building. The success of Alaa al-Aswany's novel started a new era which can't be ignored, either by those who loved the novel or by those who hated it, as it disproved claims that Arabs aren't great readers and that young people are attracted by media other than books.
The success of publishing houses such as Sharqiat, and subsequently Merit, in reaching these readers has encouraged a lot of young investors. Al Dar, Al Ain, Malamih and others are betting on the authors who are now such celebrities that you regularly see their pictures on Facebook. This has led to unorthodox methods (for Egypt) of promoting books, such as individual publishers creating Facebook groups, possibly without them fully understanding that word-of-mouth marketing really depends on readers spreading the word themselves.
New bookshops such as Diwan in Cairo, which recently opened its second branch in Cairo, using modern ways of displaying books and leaving enough space for readers to browse and have a cup of tea, are a real change from the old bookshops which demanded that customers either buy the book immediately or put it back on the shelves. Diwan's success has also encouraged other young businesses, such as Kotob Khan in Maadi and Al Balad in Downtown, to enter this field, holding events for big names and new authors alike.
Old conventions also changed when Dar al Shorouk, the biggest Egyptian publishing house, created a new series based on the blogs of young writers, which was an immediate hit. First editions sold like hotcakes and reprinting began almost straight away. Publishing books from blogs was done first by Malamih, which has been taken in many different directions by owner Mohamed Sharkawy, who used his anti-government reputation (he served time in prison for taking part in "Kefaya" political demonstrations) to enter the publishing field. He has delivered interesting titles such as Rogers by Ahmed Nagi and Metro by Magdy al-Shafei, which is the first graphic novel for adults published in Egypt and discusses corruption, stealing and getting out of the "big government" trap.
Professor of Arabic language and literature, University of Pennsylvania
The career of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, 1988 Nobel laureate, reflects many of the issues confronting the modern Arab litterateur. First he trained himself in the techniques of western fiction, culminating in the now renowned Cairo Trilogy. Later, especially after 1967, Mahfouz joined younger writers in a re-examination of narrative genres from the pre-modern period, with a view to using them as a means of criticising current political and social trends. More contemporary writers such as Huda Barakat, Ilyas Khuri, Hanan al-Shaykh and Salwa Bakr have produced novels that attempt to combine the goals and techniques of indigenous narrative genres with those of the spectrum of world fiction. Most remarkable and "different" of all are probably the books of Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni, a few of whose desert-located works are available in English (The Bleeding of the Stone, for example, and Anubis: A Desert Novel
Poetry in the Arabic-speaking world has a much more reduced role than it did during the many centuries of the pre-modern period, although the more popular modes of poetic expression continue to thrive - as in the Lebanese tradition of improvised zajal, for example, which is regularly televised. That said, poetry remains the first resort of Arabs in times of crisis; it is no accident that the odes of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish continue to resonate among his fellow countrymen and women and beyond, while the Syro-Lebanese poet and critic Adonis (pen name of Ali Ahmad Sa'id) retains his appeal for those who prefer poetry of greater linguistic and aesthetic complexity.
And what of drama, the most public of literary genres and thus one that has an extremely long performance history in the Arabic-speaking regions? Here again, the predominance of other media (particularly television) makes the fostering of traditions of drama difficult, except in those central regions (Egypt, Lebanon and Syria) where theatre companies have histories stretching back into the 19th century and great dramatists such as Tawfiq al-Hakim (Egypt) and Sa'dallah Wannus (Syria) have composed memorable plays. That is not to say theatre does not exist today; rather, that its survival - except for domestic farce - depends heavily on the support of cultural foundations and particularly ministries of culture. Such support often comes with "strings" attached, a feature that reflects a yet broader reality, namely that censorship (whether official or self-imposed) and the opportunities for publication combine to make "freedom of expression" frequently compromised, if not dismissed outright.
Founder and manager of arabworldbooks.com
Arab writers are facing numerous difficulties. Locally, there are publishing and distribution issues. Even within the broader Arab world, censorship, bureaucracy and a lack of professional channels for distribution are major challenges. At the international level, the main challenge is translation. While translations sponsored by Arab publishers - mostly government-controlled - are not up to standard, translations outside the Arab world are usually selective, concentrate on folklore and generally cater to orientalists' expectations. It is only with a collaboration between governments, institutions and associations representing civil society that we can best address these problems.
This is what we at arabworldbooks.com have been involved in for the past 10 years. Our active members number over 14,500. Our site enables writers, publishers and readers to exploit the potential of the internet as a window through which the world can learn about Arab thinkers, artists and intellectuals. We are tapping into the energy of authors who, in earlier days, would have remained unpublished. It is also interesting how text messaging, email jargon and even graphics have found their way into contemporary writing.
We have a lot of work to do today. Like any other writers, we have our literary challenges, but being Arab novelists, especially ones living in Arab countries, we have a duty to fight for democracy. Dictatorships are the main problem in the Arab world and I can't think of any novelist who doesn't care about what is happening in his or her own country. Having been translated into 21 non-Arab languages and having readers all over the world, I feel a great sense of responsibility. Generally speaking, I do not think that Arab literature - classical and modern - has been presented to western readers in the proper way. So much has not been translated, such as all the medieval classics from the Abassia era. Abu Nuwas, a gay poet who lived 1,000 years ago, is one of our greatest poets, yet he hasn't been translated, which adds to the assumption that Arab culture is homophobic. From the same era, there's al-Jahiz, considered the most important prose writer in our culture, who has also been neglected.
Translation is a very complicated issue. There are mistakes on both sides: we Arabs - especially the ministries of culture - haven't made enough effort to present our literature to the world; when it has been translated, it has often been done by orientalists. I have known some very good ones, but there are others who don't care as much about literature as about the subject, the issue, which can be very dangerous. So you can write a very bad novel with an interesting subject for orientalists and it will be translated - not because of its literary merit, but because of its issues, especially when they conform to stereotypes of Arab society.
Of the writers I would most like to see translated, from Egypt there is Yusuf Idris, the prince of the Arab short story, our Anton Chekhov: who was not properly translated in the west. The Sudanese novelist Al-Tayeb Saleh, author of Season of Migration to the North, has been translated, but only in very small publications. And Amal Donkol has not been translated and he's one of the most important modern poets.
Palestinian poet and writer
Arabic literature, both classical and modern, is almost absent from the world stage. The dominant culture of our times, western culture, has not seen other languages, discourses and civilisations as equally worthy approaches to the world. We'll reach nowhere if the concept of "universality" is not re-examined. No western writer questions his or her universality; it is the Arabs, the Africans and the Asians who should aspire to reach it, through translation. Translation being a chance, a favour, a medal, a stamp of recognition and a password to open the space for the lucky newcomers.
The current European trend for publishing Arabic modern novels is a good thing, but the scene will never be complete without paying attention to 1,500 years of Arabic poetry. As a start, I would really love to read in English an anthology of the beautiful Arabic poetry from the pre-Islamic period to modern times. It would be a tremendously valuable addition to world literature.
Kuwaiti playwright and director
One of the major challenges facing any Arab writer today is how to engage an increasingly distracted, impoverished public in a process of renewal, self-evaluation and change. No modern Arab writer was more committed to this task than the late Syrian dramatist Sa'adallah al-Wannous (1941-97). His work represents one of the deepest and most pertinent dramatic explorations of the hopes, movements and defeats of the Arab world in the late 20th century. He is often compared to Brecht and Weiss. In his later works his characters - in particular the women - find their distinctive voices and are led into full-blown confrontations with taboo, Arab history, identity and religion. These late plays, partially available in French, remain unknown in English and are dramatic masterpieces waiting to be played on western stages.
Palestinian writer and critic
The first major obstacle facing Arab culture is strict religious censorship. The second is the censorship practised by patriarchal authorities, which punishes all thought that does not reproduce dictatorial ideology. The third is a population prey to illiteracy and narrow thinking as a result of systematic oppression.
Fiction documents the history to which historians turn a blind eye, uncovers a reality veiled by the media and religious fatwas, and provides an analysis of the Arab society that sociologists fail to present. The Egyptian writer Yousef al-Aqeed sheds light on sectarianism in The Rivals' Divide; the Lebanese novelist Elias Khouri unveils hidden oppression in Yalo; the Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher contemplates the defeat of the renaissance in Sunset Oasis; and the Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa documents the battle between authorities and society in his novel In Praise of Hate, which laments a deteriorating society.
Research professor of modern Arabic and comparative literature at SOAS, University of London
In the past three decades, with the rise of militant fundamentalism, rampant corruption and kleptocracy, the task of modern Arabic literature, which remained faithful to its secular, rational and liberal outlook, has become increasingly difficult. This is glaringly evident in the work of the generation of writers who appeared in the 1980s and 90s, amid the acute urban crisis, economic stagnation, youth unemployment and lack of political legitimacy that characterised Arab regimes. It was evident in their writing, in the loss of faith in any epistemological quest and a mistrust of all previous discourses and "grand narratives".
The search for a new beginning has provided modern Arabic literature with a fresh vocabulary, original themes, innovative techniques and, above all, a new literary discourse. The writing of this new generation, which remains largely untranslated into English, has given voice to the voiceless, articulated the unsaid in previous literature, and expressed the views of the minorities and subcultures of the Arab world in a manner that demonstrates the rich variety in Arab society. It is the fresh breeze of rationalism, sanity and noble values in a world rife with corruption, conformity, violence and despotism.
My wish list for translation would include the poetry of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Hasab al-Shaikh Ja'far in Iraq; Salah 'Abd al-Sabur, Muhammad Afifi Matar and Amal Donkol in Egypt; and Muhammad al-Maghut in Syria.
I would also like to see more novels and short stories translated from the major writers of this new generation: among them Ali Badr from Iraq, Muntasir al-Qaffash, Atif Sulayman, Husni Hasan and Adil 'Ismat from Egypt; Miludi Shaghmum, Yusuf Fadil and Muhammad Tazi from Morocco; Mamduh 'Azzam and Rosa Yaseen from Syria; and Raja' Alim and Laila al-Juhni from Saudi Arabia.
Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, New York University
One noteworthy trend in recent Arabic fiction is the emulation of new media and electronic literature - the boom in blogging in the Arab world, satellite TV channels, and text messaging - which has had a curiously rejuvenating effect on both the form and content of novels. Two examples come to mind: Egyptian Ahmed Alaidy's 2003 An Takun 'Abbas al-'Abd (Being Abbas El Abd, translated by Humphrey Davies) and Saudi Rajaa Alsanea's 2005 Banat al-Riyad (Girls of Riyadh, translated by the author with Marilyn Booth) Both novels espouse post-modern experimentation and help to effect a salutary desacralisation of the language.
If Arabic is no longer an "embargoed literature", as Edward Said described it in 1990, an important question is how texts to be translated are selected. I would strongly advocate the translation of Arabic literary criticism. Its persistent neglect suggests that Arabic literature is not part of a dynamic cultural field. Otherwise, there is much to recommend and little space. Let me single out two works that thoroughly merit translation. Lebanese novelist Rashid al-Daif's 2006 Awdat al-Almani ila Rushdihi (The German Comes to His Senses) is a fictionalised memoir about the author's collaboration with a gay German writer, Joachim Helfer, through the East-West Divan exchange programme. Setting aside the controversy over the strategy adopted by the German writer in his published response, Al-Daif's memoir is to be lauded for the candour with which it reflects critically on homophobia in the Arab world. Husam Fakhr's 2006 Ya 'Aziz 'Ayni (O, Apple of My Eye) is a novel about exile and the conflicting tendencies of ethnocentrism and cosmopolitanism.
Arabic-to-English translator and short story writer
The publishing of modern Arabic literature in the west has come a long way in a short time. I remember, in the mid-60s, producing a volume called Modern Arabic Short Stories, which included writers from various parts of the Arab world. I contacted several publishers in London about the volume, but most didn't even want to see it - the idea that the Arab world was suddenly producing short stories just didn't strike the right chord. Fortunately, somebody I knew knew somebody who knew somebody at Oxford University Press. But there was an obstacle to be overcome: OUP, while acknowledging that the volume contained stories of real literary worth - writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Salih, Yusuf Idris, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Ghassan Kanafani and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra - insisted that they could publish the book only if a well-known orientalist wrote a foreword. Professor Arthur Arberry, at that time professor of Arabic at Cambridge University, agreed to write such a foreword, though he pointed out to me that modern Arabic literature was not one of his subjects. Who, at that time, was interested in the so-called renaissance in Arabic literature?
But after Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1988, the situation gradually began to change. The world woke up to the fact that here was an author who could be read with enjoyment, and his work was translated into no fewer than 40 languages. The same is now happening to a number of other Arab authors, and Arabic is no longer sitting alongside Latin and Sanskrit in the academic cupboard.
That after decades of occupation, dictatorship and exile - to say nothing of dire publishing standards - Arabic literature should still persist is a testament to the human spirit. I would like to bring attention to all the books that have been eliminated: the books that have been burnt, or whose authors were silenced or broken or killed before they could write them. But I would like to praise in particular two poets who sing of and beyond the dark: the Egyptian Iman Mersal and the Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali. Mersal's "These Are Not Oranges, My Love", translated by Khaled Mattawa, himself an acclaimed poet, is due out this year in the US by Sheep Meadow. Someone should publish it in the UK. And Muhammed Ali's So What: New and Selected Poems 1971-2005 is published in the UK by Bloodaxe in an excellent translation. Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti's memoir I Saw Ramallah is an eloquent and moving account of displacement.
Jordanian poet and writer
If you were to ask any Arab writer today about the main problem facing Arab culture, he or she would say without a second thought: "Censorship." This, of course, is not a new problem. It is one of the oldest difficulties that has confronted freedom of expression in the Arab world in general and cultural freedom in particular, and this continues to be the case.
What is new, however, is that censorship is no longer the exclusive preserve of the state. Society has taken to supporting the state in muzzling creative voices. Today, culture in the Arab world struggles under the burden placed on it by two authorities: the authority of the ruling, mostly unelected political elites, and the authority of the religious movement and its supporters on the street. This undeclared alliance has pushed Arab culture and intellectuals towards one of two choices: to agree to a long list of political, religious and sexual taboos, or to rebel against them and see their writings or artistic works banned from publication or exhibition in the Arab world.
It is no coincidence that Arab emigration, unlike the migratory movement of other peoples, has not been prompted by economics. It has been a migration of the qualified, and of political, cultural, artistic and financial intellectuals who have been pushed abroad by repressive regimes, civil wars and, most recently, foreign occupation (as in Iraq).
It is feared that, if this alliance between the ruling authorities and the hardline Islamic movements continues (although it is a strange and rare point of agreement between them), Arab culture in all its written and visual forms will either be devoid of its meaning and function or will take refuge abroad. The refuge, however, is the west, which often no longer welcomes "the other" coming from "the Islamic world", fearing that such migration will bring "the enemy" into the house.
Lebanese novelist, short story writer, journalist and playwright
Arab writers, like any other writers, try to tackle the great questions of life and disturbing issues of personal conscience. Their subjects vary according to the geographical and social conditions of the different Arab countries they come from, and reflect the diverse cultural realities they face. For example, the question of freedom: does freedom exist at all in the lives of the characters in these novels? In the case of the female characters, in particular, it is often out of reach. Sexual frustration, despair, personal success and failure all figure prominently. The writers portray their characters' attempts to live with the sounds of bombs and explosions, in the midst of civil wars and foreign occupation, or at the other extreme in rural peace and isolation, where only a shooting star can disturb the serenity.
Religious fanaticism, oppressive regimes, poverty, unemployment, decadence, corruption and affluence all figure, and - nowadays especially - one pressing issue is mass migration, whether from rural areas to the cities, or from poorer countries to oil-rich ones. Those who are desperate for a total change flee to the west. This feeling of alienation, as characters struggle to adopt a new culture, is a great subject for novels and plays - in my case, at least.
Arab writers go back to history, either to seek a former splendour or to hide behind it in order to attack and satirise present regimes without fear of repercussions.
I would like to see Hunger and Firdaus, two contemporary novels by the Egyptian writer Muhammad al-Bisati, translated into English. Also the medieval Arab classic The Book of Misers by al-Jahiz should be translated to show the west that Arabs can be funny, and laugh at themselves and the establishment.
I remember a story from four years ago in Ramallah. One night the Israeli army stormed a building in which somebody I knew lived. Everyone was told to get out. After a few hours, the army announced it wanted to blow up the building and gave the inhabitants 20 minutes to go up to their rooms and retrieve what they could. When my friend went up he didn't know what to take; he had all of his life there, he was totally lost. He finally went to the washing machine, emptied it and went out with the washing, leaving everything else behind to be blown up a few minutes later.
In the same way, I could never say which text to have translated from Arabic into English; if I did, it might be the least important.
Egyptian novelist and this year's winner of the "Arabic Booker"
Reading Arabic literature in the west is mostly confined to a small circle of Arabists and scholars. This, at least, was my experience when I lived in Europe for almost two decades. So my first wish would be to see some great pioneers of modern Arabic literature well translated and printed by important publishing houses.
Great names such as Taha Hussein, Yehia Hakki and Yusuf Idris are unknown to foreign readers, and even when their works are translated, they are not available in bookshops. The same thing may be said about subsequent generations of writers, with rare exceptions. How can a foreign public judge a literature of which they know so little?
There is what I always call the Egyptian dream, by which I mean the Egyptian struggle for almost two centuries to establish an independent modern state. This dream includes living in a democratic society, with equal rights for all - men and women alike - having a freely elected government and a fair distribution of national wealth. While trying to realise this dream, wars were fought against foreign invasions or occupation and revolutions erupted against despotic and corrupt rulers. So I believe that this dream, and especially the obstacles in its way, constitute the main theme in modern Egyptian fiction. It is reflected even in love stories.
Egyptian novelist and co-owner of Diwan Bookshop in Cairo
The Arab world and Arabic language are suffering from low readership levels, at least in fiction. There is now more of a widespread concern with religious and political issues, and fiction is struggling to keep up. Having said that, literature is going through a renaissance, especially among young fiction writers. Readership is also increasing because writers are speaking to the public; they are not removed from their readers, they no longer have a reputation for being an elite which some writers have had in the past, but share the same concerns. Writers such as Alaa al-Aswany (a practising dentist) and Ezz al-Din Shoukry (a diplomat in the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs) write alongside their main jobs and do it very successfully.
That there are now more literary prizes supporting Arab writers goes a long way to encourage them. They are becoming much more experimental. Being Abbas El-Abd by Ahmed Alaidy (translated by Humphrey Davies), which is written in short SMS style. Metro by Magdi al-Shafei is one of our first graphic novels. Humorous political satire such as works by Omar Taher and Bilal Fadl and Khaled al-Khamisy are very popular. There is also more interest in ethnic cultures within nations - for example, the Bedouins of the desert or the Nubians of Upper Egypt - exemplified by writers such as Ibrahim al-Koni (from Libya), Hagag Adwal and Ahmed Abu Kheneigar. Politics always has infiltrated our novels, and continues to do so; there is somehow a sense that it is more serious when a work has a political message behind it, when it has an activist edge.
There may be a paper crisis in Iraq, but the bigger catastrophe is the lack of thought and ideas. Before Saddam, Iraq was the only Middle Eastern country that had a harmonious cultural scene. Iraqi writers now are absorbed in the collapse of values, and this exploration is taking novelists and poets into the past, to the destruction of Ur, the collapse of Babylon and Baghdad's fall to Mongols in the 13th century.
Immediately after the fall of Saddam's regime, thousands of titles flooded the markets. This was a moment of optimism. Since the death of some of its great poets - al-Jawahiry, the most revered of Arab classical poets, Boland al-Hayderi, al-Byati and Nazik al-Malaaika, three of best-known modern poets - there are no real living icons from whom the new generation can learn about principles and freedom. When I was young, I was lucky enough to have al-Jawahiry as a personal mentor. Today, with many writing in hiding, abroad or "in retirement", dog-eared copies of modern classics are as close as many aspiring writers will get to mentor-like support.
To date, neither the Americans nor any other Allied group have developed policies that encourage cultural frameworks and activities to help people face the problems that characterise Iraqi society. However, there is some institutional support. The Union of Iraqi Writers is still active, although it depends on government aid (and artistic input) to survive. And the minister of culture, the former mosque Imam, backs writers through the office of cultural affairs, which now publishes around 200 books a year, mainly poetry and short story anthologies. A proportion of the books are international translations. But the lists are flawed: most of the volumes published are old, and have outdated theories and ideas. And as things stand, this is unlikely to change. The authority for what is selected falls into the hands of a nepotistic (and generally unqualified) few.
All around Iraq there are statues that pay homage to its poets: from al-Rusafi, the liberal secular poet of the 20th century, to al-Sayyab, the pioneer influenced by Eliot and the Abbasid legend Abu Nuwas. The statue of Kuhromane and Ali Baba stands, though there is no water pouring from Kuhromane's jar. And not far from the once glorious Abu Nuwas cinema is Scheherazade, an isolated figure nestling among trees, whispering the Arabian nights on the east bank of the Tigris. Reviving this rich literary tradition must surely be the way to restore the people's broken spirit.
The Guardian, April 12, 2008