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Censorship, literacy and cultural sensitivities: although Middle Eastern literature is flourishing, being able to buy books in the region is problematic.
“The lifetime of a book in the Middle East is longer than in England,” says Salwa Gaspard, owner and director of the Al Saqi bookshop in west London. “Here in the UK so many books are printed yearly, while in the Arab world it is far fewer because you have to deal with censorship and cater for the sensitivity of each country.”
The Middle East has a fledging publishing infrastructure compared with the more developed networks of agents, buyers and distributors in the US and Europe.
In 2013, Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for The Bamboo Stalk, an examination of identity and race told through the story of foreign workers and immigrants in Gulf countries.
According to Ms Gaspard, the novel has 19 editions because it has been reprinted so many times.
“Middle Eastern books published 20 years ago are still in print. You wouldn’t get the same in the UK,” she says.
The novel is due to be published in English translation by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing in April.
Contemporary Middle Eastern literature is closely bound up with recent history, and it is younger writers, witnesses of the Arab Spring, who are shaping the literary canon.
“There are a generation of writers, up to 30-years-old, who are completely different from what’s ever come before,” says Toby Eady, a London-based literary agent, who works with Middle Eastern writers.
“How they see their world and future is completely different . . . They have to resolve the problems in the Middle East through their work.”
This means novels that explore themes of war, justice and human rights tend to be those that resonate most with critics, such as the Nobel Prize for Literature-shortlisted Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, whose works contemplate the postcolonial state of his country.
“Arabic people can hardly write a book detached from their reality . . . either political or social,” says Ms Gaspard.
More than 60 per cent of Arabic novelists are female and works challenging their role in the Middle East’s strict religious and social structures have attracted international acclaim.
For example, Hanan al-Shaykh writes eloquently on woman’s sexuality and shame, influenced by a strict Shi’a upbringing in Lebanon, while Cairo-based journalist Shereen El Feki’s offers a more light-hearted approach in Sex and the Citadel.
Yet traditional themes continue to resonate. “Arabs do still love their poetry and their love stories,” says Ms Gaspard.
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