2017: The Arab World in Books
Each year, we publish a list of books of interest from and about the Arab world. These are books that I and others at Al-Fanar Media have enjoyed and written about, or that have been brought to our attention. While the list gives a sense of the breadth and diversity of literary and scholarly production in the region, it is by no means exhaustive. We welcome readers’ comments and suggestions.
Bad Girls of the Arab World, edited by Nadia Yaqub and Rula Quawas, University of Texas Press (English). This anthology of essays looks at the way women in the region have transgressed social norms and also, as the editors note, have “had transgression thrust upon them.” Scholars discuss activists and artists who in the course of the Arab uprisings used their bodies to make political statements and women whose public abuse by security forces and regime thugs became the center of national debates, within revolutions “that were from day one centred on the body.” Several contributors write sensitively about their own experiences, and the question of whether it is possible to be “good” girls anywhere.
Where the Line Is Drawn, by Raja Shehadeh, The New Press (English). In his latest book, Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer and author who lives in Ramallah, reflects on his relationships and encounters with Israelis, and particularly on one friendship that has survived the past 40 years. This is a sharply observed, unsentimental yet deeply moving study of the toll of the occupation.
Islam et Femmes: Les Questions Qui Fâchent (Women and Islam: The Difficult Questions), by Asma Lamrabet, En Toutes Lettres (French). In her latest book, Lamrabet, a prominent Moroccan feminist scholar of Islam, offers a progressive, contextual reading of the Qur’an, arguing that many discriminatory practices and sexist assumptions have no scriptural basis. Lamrabet aims to refute centuries of misogynist interpretations by male religious scholars which, she argues, have distorted Islam’s true ethical message.
Ghassan Kanafani: Complete Works, Rimal Books (Arabic). The works of the iconic and prolific Palestinian writer—novels, short stories, literary criticism and journalism—are available in a new boxed set of 17 volumes. The collection comes nearly half a century after Kanafani was killed in 1972, at the age of 32, by a car bomb in Beirut. “Kanafani’s life and work,” my colleague Edward Fox recently wrote, “represent the high-water mark of a political outlook that in 2017 seems impossibly idealistic.”
At Tunisia’s national book fair, two books that focused on evaluating the country’s uprising and political transition shared the Tahar Haddad Award for literary and social science research. Baccar Gherib’s Penser la Transition Avec Gramsci. Tunisie (2011-2014)—that is, Reflecting on the Transition With Gramsci: Tunisia (2011–2014)—from Éditions Diwen, applies some of the terms and concepts developed by Antonio Gramsci, the renowned Italian Communist dissident, to Tunisia’s political rupture. Tunisie, une Revolution en Pays d’Islam (A Revolution in an Islamic Country: Tunisia), by Yadh Ben Achour, from Éditions CERES, is a combination of historical memoir, advocacy and theoretical analysis. Ben Achour is a prominent legal scholar who led the special commission that created the transition’s legal framework. Not surprisingly, he answers the question, “Did Tunisia witness a real revolution?” in the affirmative.
The recently announced winner of the 2017 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature is the Palestinian author Huzama Habayeb for her novel Mukhmal (Velvet). The jury described the book, set in a refugee camp, as “a new kind of Palestinian novel” that focuses on ordinary Palestinians, “whose life goes on … unnoticed and unrecorded, in the background, while the high dramas of politics occupy center-stage.” The judges also commended the work as a poetic narration of “extraordinary beauty and lyricism.” The book, in Arabic, will be translated into English as part of the prize.
In the Spider’s Room, by Mohammed Abdel Nabi, Dar Ain Publisher (Arabic). This Egyptian novel was short-listed for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It is a powerful and empathetic account of being a gay man in Egypt—set about 15 years ago, at the time of an infamous crackdown on homosexuals. It is also a condemnation of a society in which bodies are imprisoned and violated in many different ways. An English translation by Jonathan Wright is forthcoming from Hoopoe Press.
We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices From Syria, by Wendy Pearlman, Custom House (English). There has been near-universal acclaim for this collection of testimonies gathered by Pearlman. An associate professor at Northwestern University who specializes in the politics of the Middle East, Pearlman spent years interviewing displaced Syrians of different ages and backgrounds, then whittling down these exchanges to specific, evocative stories. In a review of the book, my colleague Rasha Faek commended Pearlman’s “generosity in giving her entire book to the Syrians themselves. Readers can learn about their ideas, dreams, heartbreaks, and mistakes.”
The Autumn of Innocence, by Abbas Beydoun, Dar Al Saqi (Arabic). This novel was published in 2016 but didn’t make it onto my radar in time for last year’s list. It won the 2017 Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature. Beydoun is a renowned Lebanese poet, novelist and journalist. His story of a domineering father and his son, living in a small village and embroiled in a deadly conflict, struck a chord with Arab readers. According to the author, it tackles the nature of tyranny and the way violence can become “second nature,” defining personal and familial relationships.
The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy, by Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, Haymarket Books (English). This is the first book in English by Saleh, one of Syria’s pre-eminent intellectuals and dissidents. He spent 16 years as a political prisoner in Assad’s jails and now lives in exile in Turkey; both his wife and brother have been abducted by Islamist extremists and their whereabouts remain unknown. In essays written over the past five years, Saleh analyzes the nature of the sectarian Baathist regime and of the uprising itself; distinguishes between justified armed resistance and “militant nihilism”; and insists on an accurate history of the beginnings of the uprising, whose nature has been so distorted and perverted.
American War, by Omar El Akkad, Alfred A. Knopf (English). This is one of the best works of fiction I read this year. It vividly imagines a near future in which the world has been transformed by climate change. In the United States, the South has refused a ban on fossil fuels, igniting a civil war. An ascendant Arab world has unified—after a fifth, finally successful, revolution—and is interfering in the American conflict. The heroine grows up in a refugee camp and becomes a freedom fighter to one side of the war, and a terrorist to the other. The author, an Egyptian-Canadian journalist who has covered the war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and the Black Lives Matter movement, brings elements of the U.S. war on terror– wayward drones, the politics of rebel militias, torture – into an imagined American future, to revelatory and devastating effect.