Arabic Summer Reading Challenge at Arabic Literature (in English)

Arabic Literature (in English) is having a summer Arabic reading challenge. There are prizes too!

To participate: Simply post at the bottom which ONE of these Arabic books (in translation or not) you will read this summer.* I will select a reading-challenge winner on August 20, 2010** and ship her (or him) a bundle of Arabic fiction new to English in 2010.***

It is a nice list of books and I know several are classics and worth the read. I’ve read these and if you have any doubts, they are all great booksa dn it would be a good addition to any summer reading list.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayib Saleh

Elias Khoury, Yalo

Naguib Mahfouz, Cairo Trilogy

Zayni Barakat,

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature – A Review

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature truly is a brief introduction, but for anyone who is unacquainted with modern Arabic Literature, this book is a good introduction. The book covers literature from the 20th century and primarily from the eastern part of the Arabic speaking world. The book focuses heavily on Egypt followed by Lebanon and Palestine, while other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria rate an occasional mention.

The book traces the development of modern Arabic literature from the early 20th century, finding its first exemplar in Taha Hussein in Egypt. What makes the literature modern is its break from Arabic poetry, which was the primary form of literature, towards prose based, in part, on western models. The early works, especially in Egypt, were concerned with defining what the new Arab states would be like and what is the role of tradition and western influence. Usually these works were written in a realistic manner. Illustrating that point, the book focuses on the works of Mahfouz and shows how his earlier works fit that model.

Latter as disappointment and dissolution came to the Arab world, it too was reflected in the literature. Authors like Al-ghitani began to use more post modern (although in his case he goes to much earlier times for source material) approaches to describe the problems besetting the countries of the authors, such as the the power of the west, the despotism of Arab regimes, and an uncertainty about the future.

Each author he covers, with the exception of Mahfouz, receives about a page or two of coverage. A Brief Introduction sticks to works, primarily novels and short fiction, available in English and originally written in Arabic. This approach leaves out authors such as Assia Djebar, who writes in French, and doesn’t examine the breath of a writers work which would be useful to non Arabic speakers. However, in reading the book a reader will find a great list of books to read, if the reader can find them.

While A Brief Introduction is a useful introduction its brevity makes for some choppy sections and the inclusion of poetry, a subject in itself, seems forced and might have been left for a different book. That said, his descriptions of the books he does write about make for a good guide and should arouse one’s curiosity.

Review of Modern Arabic Fiction in Al-Ahram

There is a good review of the Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthologyin Al-Ahram Weekly. Of particular interest is the process the editor used in having the stories translated. Instead of translating them all herself she uses a team.

Likewise, in her anthologies, she argues that only poets can render poetry and only fiction writers can render fiction from another language. Thus she is adamant about having two translators for each work: a scholar and a native speaker from the original to English, revised by a writer in the target language, with her editing the final version to make sure that no stylistic or semantic errors have crept in.

Jayyusi acquainted herself with the literary scene in the US and UK and got to know personally many English-speaking creative writers and convinced them to partake in her many projects of translation.

The article also comments on the selection of the authors and the quality of the translations. Since Gamal Al-Ghitani has just won the Zayed prize the reviewer’s descrption sounds even more intriguing.

Jayyusi’s approach to Arabic fiction is marked by an analysis of its content and technique. In content, she sees fiction as a reflection of the turbulent history of modern Arabs, with hopes and dreams followed by disappointments and breakdowns — what she calls a sense of the apocalyptic. She points to a few names that stand out as models of certain trends in Arabic fiction: the Saudi ‘Abd al-Rahman Munif for his petrofiction depicting how oil has changed the ecology and the culture of the Gulf; the Egyptian Gamal al-Ghitani for his sophisticated use of time — mythical time in Kitab al-Tajalliyat (Book of Revelations) and historical time in Zayni Barakat ; the Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani for his sense of space and loss of place; the Egyptian Edward al-Kharrat as a modernist and an experimentalist; the Palestinian Ibrahim Nasralla as venturing into postmodernism; and the Iraqis Gha’ib Tu’ma Farman and Fu’ad al-Takarli for depicting the individual struggling against prevailing moeurs. As for the short story, Jayyusi concentrates in her introduction on two figures, the Egyptian Yusuf Idris and the Syrian Zakaria Tamir. Needless to say dozens of others are mentioned, including Ibrahim al-Koni and Radwa Ashour.

Gamal al-Ghitani Wins Zayed Book Award in Literature

Gamal al-Ghitani won the Zayed Book Award for Literature recently. I don’t know how important the award is (are any awards important?) but there is a nice list of his works. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know what the Arabic names are, not that I can speak Arabic, but it makes it a little easier to compare different lists of his books. It also makes it easier for to figure out which books of his I have read. I only see three listed that I have read:  Zayni Barakat; Pyramid texts; Naguib Mahfooz Remembers. I have also read the collection of stories A Distress Call and the novel Incidents in Zanfrani Alley, or as it is known in German, Der safranische Fluch oder Wie Impotenz die Welt verbessert, which, if you can believe Google, means Saffron curse or how the world improves impotence, certainly a more fun sounding title and one that gives you a better sense of the book. As far as I know there is also one story in the collection Sardines and Oranges and one in the Columbia Modern Arabic Fiction, both of which I’ll be reading this year. A Distress Call and Incidents in Zanfrani Alley are almost impossible to find. I’ve never found them on the Internet. Fortunately, there is a large university near by if I were to want to read them again.

For someone who is one has been called one of the great Arabic fiction writers, it is too bad more isn’t translated. But then again since so little is translated it is a wonder this many of his works have been translated. I have posted a review of  Naguib Mahfooz Remembers (published as The Mahfouz Dialogs).


  • Chronicles of a Young Man Who Lived a Thousand Years Ago
  • Al Zayni Barakat
  • Pyramid texts
  • Siege from Three Directions
  • Stranger’s Tales
  • Book of Revelations (3 vols.)
  • Midnight of Exile
  • Jungles of the Town


  • Watchmen of Eastern Gate
  • Naguib Mahfooz Remembers
  • Mustafa Ameen Remembers
  • Views of Cairo a Thousand Years Ago
  • Endowments in Cairo
  • Pigeon Fever

The Mahfouz Dialogs

The Mahfouz Dialogs
Gamal Al-ghitani

Sometime ago I made it my mission to read everything in English written by Gamal Al-ghitani who some commentators have suggested is Naguib Mahfouz’s literary heir. Why I seized on this I don’t quite know, but it has led me to this interesting book, which gives a few insights into Al-ghitani as it examines the life of Mahfouz.

Structurally, it is the compendium of conversations and sayings Mahfouz had given over the last 30 years of his life, roughly from the early 70s when Al-ghitani met him to when he died in 2006. The short first and third sections read like compendiums of fragmentary texts, as if we were reading the remaining 50 pages of dozens of lost works from centuries past. Often phrased “then master said…”, they provide some insights into his views, often more liberal than those of his friends. The second section, though, is a collection of interviews between Mahfouz and Al-ghitani that Al-ghitani shaped into an autobiography, one that relived Mahfouz of the task of writing. The richness of the interviews produced an interesting work, not only an examination of the life and works of Mahfouz, but a examination of how Al-ghitani fits within the Egyptian literary world.

The interviews cover three general subjects: his life, his writing, and the Cairo Trilogy. Reading about his life, I was struck just how dedicated to writing. He never made much money from writing until he won the Nobel, but he continued on. It was something he had to do, made even more impressive since he stopped writing every summer because of an eye allergy. He typically plotted out his ideas before writing and only wrote when he had a story worked out. He was, though, influenced by European writers and read as many novels as he could. For years he was a poor civil servant and did his daily work in obscurity. His literary world, though, was quite rich and the book is filled with descriptions of the weekly meetings he had with his friends, many who were famous Egyptian thinkers and writers. Honestly, I was a little envious of the café culture that existed. When he grew older he became the sage of conversations and would often make the final pronouncement on a topic. The book makes quite clear how much Mahfouz was respected by all those he met with, even if he didn’t share the same political views.

For someone like myself who is not familiar with Cairo and Egyptian writing, The dialogs provide invaluable insight into the Cairo Trilogy and his other works. His descriptions of the alleys and streets in his novels are taken directly from the real places. Over time the alleys have changed (something Mahfouz was quite saddened by), but they still look the way he described in the books. For Mahfouz the parts of Cairo were more than just settings, but his home, the manifestation of everything he was.

As you get older, you both feel and comprehend that the place where your life started will also be your final refuge. As though recapitulating the cycle of life, your encounter a new world that seems, at first blush, not to be your world. It is not enough to understand any given word for it to become your won private world. Feeling truly at home in that world demands something deeper then that. We are heading toward a new world, but that world is assuredly not one in which I shall feel completely at home. I am at the end of a stage, of a life, let me say. What is the total life experience that I have undergone? You will find it incarnated in the old, by which I do not mean a return to the latter’s values, or a rejection of the new. I mean it in the sense of its being your own private refuge, because you have been at home in it and have understood it.

Finally, Al-ghitani reveals details about himself quite freely but often en contrast to Mahfouz. Al-ghitani, one gathers, is more conservative, or at least less western that Mahfouz. When talking about the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Mahfouz looked negatively at them, but Al-ghitani, one suspects, is in the camp of those say the US deserved it. I’m not 100% sure of this, but it is obvious from reading the book, and Al-ghitani’s comments, that they disagreed about the Egypt and its relations to the west. To his credit, Al-ghitani’s love for Mahfouz prevents him from trying rewrite those ideas.

The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz

The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz
Gamal Al-ghitani

If your are going to read the Cairo Trilogy, you should have this book in your lap as you read it. The pictures provide a beautiful look at the streets and alleys Mahfouz writes about. What makes the book so invaluable, is each photo is linked to a quote from a specific book and gives you a chance to see the world that so inspired Mahfouz. Unfortunately, the book is out of print. The last time I looked it was $68 on Amazon.