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As the Arab world grapples with unrest across many of its countries, the Arab novel, a form that has undergone something of a revival in recent years, has found inspiration in the region’s political cataclysms. A powerful style of fiction has emerged that probes subjects relating to freedom, violence, identity, religion and the failure of elites.
“Novels are trying to analyse their societies and present answers to why these things are happening,” says Sayed Mahmoud, editor of al-Qahira, an Egyptian literary newspaper. “The political crises of the past five years have left people with a hunger to understand, but they don’t trust politics, whereas literature is starting to offer up answers.”
He points out that the revival of the novel has been helped by new literary awards, such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), known more popularly as the Arabic Booker, introduced in 2007 by the Abu Dhabi tourism and cultural authority. Prizes, he says, have energised the literary scene, not only by providing recognition, both financial and critical, to authors, but also by drawing the attention of the media and readers across borders to the books selected for consideration by juries.
Recent critically acclaimed novels dealing with the woeful realities of their societies include Khaled Khalifa’s There Are No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, which traces the degrading and destructive impact of Syria’s dictatorship on the lives of a family from Aleppo.
Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi won the IPAF award in 2013 for The Bamboo Stalk, which explores identity in his home country through the prism of the large Asian immigrant community, focusing on the story of a mixed-race young man, son of a Kuwaiti father and Filipina mother.
Egyptian author Nael Eltoukhy’s Women of Karantina is an award-winning novel in its home country and is now available in English. Longlisted for the FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices award, it is an innovative fantasy set in the city of Alexandria in the future, and portrays the lives and adventures of three generations of a crime dynasty.
Peopled with believable characters doing unbelievable things, and written with a light, satirical touch with references to popular culture, it is a story of relentless casual violence, starting from the moment early on when the young protagonists, Injy and Ali, push a man under a train in Cairo. They are forced to flee to Alexandria where they start their inexorable rise as local crime bosses.
Eltoukhy’s eschews all the conventional references to Alexandria’s cosmopolitan past and its position by the sea, focusing instead on its underbelly and a thuggish cast of drug dealers, prostitutes and criminals. Men and women alike vie for control of the underworld and in the process become local heroes celebrated in an unofficial and subversive oral history of a city that venerates those who challenge authority.
Despite humour and even moments of slapstick, Eltoukhy presents a bleak vision of a doomed and dysfunctional society. The novel is an example of history written from the margins of society and an attempt to probe the shape of the future, argues al-Qahira’s Mahmoud. He considers its relentless casual violence and power-hungry heroes to echo the “nightmarish moment” that followed the dashing of grand hopes raised by the 2011 revolution in Egypt.
Hammour Ziada’s Longing of the Dervish, shortlisted for this year’s IPAF and set in 19th-century Sudan during the collapse of the theocratic state of the Mahdi, the Muslim messiah, also presents a poignant history from the eyes of marginalised people. In a complex series of flashbacks, it follows Bakheet Mandil, a slave, and his love for Theodora, a young Greek woman who comes to the country “to serve God” as a teacher with a group of religious missionaries, only to become enslaved by a follower of the Mahdi. When her master kills her for trying to escape, Bakheet sets out to avenge her by hunting down all those who took part in her murder.
Neither starry-eyed nor cynical, Ziada constructs, in exquisitely lyrical language, the story of Bakheet’s love for the white woman who finds solace in his company but cannot imagine marrying a slave. A rich and sensitive novel, Longing of the Dervish, reflects on tolerance, prejudice and freedom in ways that transcend its historic setting. In an Arab world where hatred and religious violence are everyday news, these remain relevant issues, not least in Sudan itself, a country that has witnessed much political violence in the name of religion.
Followers of the Mahdi kill, rape and enslave in the name of God, but they had come initially as saviours to free their people from injustices perpetrated by Turkish and British colonisers. Some of the most moving parts focus on Hassan al-Grifawi, whom we first meet as a young Sufi bristling at the mistreatment of his people by the Turks and abandoning a much-loved wife to follow the Mahdi in his holy war.
Years later as his doubts about the violence committed under the banner of religion overcome his faith, he asks: “Some day — the time has not yet come — those of us who survive will ask themselves how they escaped all this faith, and they will wonder how they did not die under the debris of all the shattered certainty which has crashed down on us.”
Another recent Lebanese novel, Jabbour Douaihy’s The American Neighbourhood, set in the Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli, traces the lives of three generations of the Azzams, a patrician family descended from a nationalist independence hero, and its servants. In the neglected, poor area where Intisar, the cleaner, lives with her family, local notables only appear at election time.
A religious association recruits the restless young hovering on the verge of criminality to join al-Qaeda in Iraq; Ismail, Intisar’s son, goes with them. Abdel Karim Azzam locks himself up in his home in the wealthy district listening to opera and longing for the ballerina he loved in Paris, but he becomes a refuge for Intisar and her son. The Tripoli portrayed in this compact, 160-page novel, with its alienated elite, desperate young looking for utopian solutions and rudderless society, is almost a microcosm for the entire Arab world.
A publisher’s perspective
A plethora of literary awards have transformed the landscape for Arab novels. They include the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, offered by Abu Dhabi; the Katara Prize, funded by Qatar; and in Egypt, the Sawiris Cultural Award, backed by the eponymous business family.
“The awards have led to a situation where authors are, you could say, jostling [for recognition],” says Fatma al-Boudi, who heads Al Ain, an Egyptian publishing house that has produced five novels shortlisted for the IPAF at various times.
Al-Boudi says, however, that competition for prizes is leading to an oversupply of novels that are of a low standard, even if the number of good books is also increasing. “As a reader, I still can’t find enough novels to satiate my hunger for books,” she says.
Her company publishes some 30 or more novels a year, alongside an almost equal number of non-fiction works. Print runs, however, are tiny. At 1,000 copies, they are a dismal sign of the incongruously small market for literature in an Arab world of some 400m people.
Al-Boudi says Hammour Ziada’s Longing of the Dervish, which Al Ain published, is on its eighth edition, meaning only about 8,000 copies of the much-praised book have been produced. It is difficult, she says, to garner accurate readership statistics, because novels are pirated and made freely available on the internet or in cheap editions sold on news stands in Arab capitals.
“We print 1,000 copies and when that runs out we print another 1,000,” she says. “We have no other way of gauging readership rates.”