New Insights On the Arab World: 2016 Books

Once again, I am sharing a year-end list of books from and about the Arab world. Some I have read or reviewed myself over the past year. Some have been recommended by Al-Fanar Media readers. The list is not meant to be comprehensive or definitive but rather to suggest the breadth and diversity of literature, publishing and scholarship in the region. I have looked for books that will be available to readers in either English or Arabic (and in a few cases French). We welcome comments and additional suggestions.

The Moroccan cinematographer and writer Ahmed Bouanani’s oeuvre is in the process of being re-discovered. His short novel L’Hopital, which recounts a surreal stay in a sanatorium, is that difficult achievement: a beautifully written book about a painfully ugly reality—an impressive combination of lyricism, hopelessness, and sharp, dark humor. The cult novel, which had disappeared from circulation, was republished in the original French in 2012 by Dar El Kitab, an imprint curated by Moroccan scholar Omar Barrada and associated with Dar al-Ma’Mun, a library and residency program for writers, artists, scholars and translators in Marrakech. A translation into Arabic by Mohamed El Khadiri also came out in 2016 from Dar El Kitab. The work will be available in English from New Directions Books in 2017.

Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics, edited by Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio (Stanford University Press, 2016). This edited anthology makes available for the first time in English, on the magazine’s 50-year-anniversary, “an incandescent corpus of experimental leftist writing from North Africa.” Founded in 1966 by avant-garde Moroccan poets and artists and banned in 1972, Souffles-Anfas was “one of the most influential literary, cultural, and political reviews to emerge in postcolonial North Africa.” Its influence continues to resonate today. Reproductions of the original issues (in Arabic and French) are also available from Moroccan publisher La Croisée des Chemins.

Libyan novelist Hisham Matar’s memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between (Knopf Canada, 2016) has been universally acclaimed. In 1979, Matar’s father, a Libyan dissident in exile, was kidnapped from the family’s Cairo apartment. In 2012, after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi, Matar traveled to Libya to try to discover what became of his father. He reflects on his emotions and his relationship with his family and his country during “a precious window when justice, democracy and the rule of law were within reach.” Matar now teaches at Barnard College in New York City.

Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa’s novel No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, translated by Leri Price, is available in English from Hoopoe, a new imprint of the American University in Cairo Press dedicated to Arabic literature in translation. The book, which begins in the 1960s, is an indictment of the Assad regime and the tale of the ruin of one Aleppo family. Khalifa’s most recent book in Arabic is  الموت عمل شاق  and chronicles a family’s difficult crossing the war-torn country to bury their father in his hometown.

Death is Hard Work, by: Khaled Khalifa.

The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria (Thames and Hudson, 2016). For several years, Marwa Al-Sabouni, a young Syrian architect and mother, was trapped in her family apartment by the constant bombardments and other violence in her city, Homs. Al-Sabouni argues that architecture “has played a vital role in creating, directing and heightening conflicts” in her country. As evidence, she offers up a thought-provoking study of her own devastated hometown, whose modern development has been plagued by ineptitude, corruption and social segregation.

Published in March by French publisher Albin-Michel, Les Derniers Jours de Mohamed: Enquete sur la mort mysterieuse du Prophete (”Mohamed’s Last Days: An Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of the Prophet”) is the work of Hela Ouardi, a literature professor at the University of Tunis-Al Manar. The book uses traditional Islamic sources to reconstruct a dramatic and very human narrative of the Prophet’s last days. The book created a buzz in Tunisia. An Arabic translation is reportedly in the works.

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated into English from Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette (Melville House, 2016). A memorably dystopian novel about a parallel—but disturbingly recognizable—Egypt, in which citizens queue endlessly before a closed Gate to have their appeals answered. Abdel Aziz, a young novelist who works with a renowned Egyptian nonprofit organization that assists the victims of torture, knows how to depict the double-speak of power and the cruelties of repression.

Iraqi academic Sinan Antoon’s latest novel فهرس (“Index”) tells the story of an Iraqi exile who returns to Baghdad to make a documentary about the U.S. occupation. He encounters a bookseller in the famous Mutanabbi street, often viewed as the cultural heart of Baghdad, who is obsessed with an encyclopedic project to document everything that has been destroyed by the war. Nameer, the protagonist, comes to share this obsession. The book is “a panoramic novel about the disintegration of Iraq. It explores timely questions for our era of eternal wars; can one ever measure or comprehend the scale of death and destruction brought about by war? Can the defeated write their own history?” wonders Jonathan Wright, who will translate the book for Yale University Press. It will be published under the title The Book of Collateral Damage.

The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World, by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri, edited and translated by Elias Mohanna, and published by Penguin Random House. A scholar and scribe in Mamluk Egypt spent 15 years collecting this anthology, encyclopedia and miscellany of knowledge, which in the original ran to 33 volumes. Mohanna’s radically abridged version still gives a sense of the charming breadth and curiosity of the work. It includes poetry, jokes, Islamic law, information about the cosmos and the habits of animals, the preparation of aphrodisiacs and perfumes and illustrates “the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.”

Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded Volume One and Two, by Yusuf al-Shirbini, edited and translated by Humphrey Davies. This bilingual edition published by New York University Abu Dhabi’s Library of Arabic Literature sheds light on a largely ignored genre of Arabic literature. The work mocks rural society in seventeenth-century Egypt and is also a parody of the verse-and-commentary genre practiced by the scholars of the day. As the publisher explains, “In Volume One, Al-Shirbini describes the three rural ‘types’—peasant cultivator, village man-of-religion and rural dervish—offering numerous anecdotes testifying to the ignorance, dirtiness, illiteracy, lack of proper religious understanding, and criminality of each. Witty, bawdy, and vicious, Brains Confounded …is a work of outstanding importance for the study of pre-modern colloquial Egyptian Arabic, pitting the ‘coarse’ rural masses against the ‘refined’ and urbane in a contest for cultural and religious primacy….”

Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded.

Having seen it for the first time last year, I can testify that Algiers is one of the most beautiful cities of the Arab world and the Mediterranean. Unfortunately it is not easy to visit, given visa restrictions. Alger, ville & architecture 1830-1940, (published Honoré Claire and Editions Barzakh, 2016) is the work of a collaboration between French and Algerian urbanists. In nine imaginary walks, it documents the city’s stunning architecture.

Ghassan Zaqtan’s Describing the Pasttranslated by Samuel Wilder. Marcia Lynx Qualey, who writes the blog Arabic Literature in English, calls the novella, the author’s first prose work to appear in English, “an absolutely gorgeous mapping of memory-logic,” as Zaqtan returns to his boyhood Palestine, and “a great feat of translation.” The book is published by Seagull Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press as part of a new series for Arabic literature edited by a scholar and translator Hosam Aboul-Ela.

John Chalcraft’s Popular Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East has led the London School of Economics professor to be called “The Howard Zinn of Middle East Studies.” Spanning the two last centuries, he chronicles “how commoners, subjects and citizens have long mobilised in defiance of authorities” in the Arab world. The book “masterfully captures how ordinary people have made history in the region, and seems particularly relevant as debate rages about the impact of the Arab uprisings,” says Paul Sedra, a professor at Simon Fraser University. He also recommends Industrial Sexuality: Gender, Urbanization, and Social Transformation in Egypt (University of Texas Press) by Hanan Hammad. “This is, far and away, the best social history written about Egypt in years, particularly insofar as it focuses on a context other than Cairo (in this case, Mahalla al-Kubra) and puts women at the center of the narrative.”

I look forward to hearing from readers about other books they think should be on this list.


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