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Reader in Tokyo
- Published on Amazon.com
This book was published in 2008. The main text comprised 150 pages or so; the first 40 pages dealt with background considerations like characteristics of spoken and written Arabic, the emergence from colonization, and contemporary publishing conditions, and the rest with individual authors. The survey regarded modern Arabic literature as beginning from 1945, and didn't examine earlier writing except for a few of the pioneer authors from Egypt.
The six short chapters covered mainly prose writers, with poetry and drama examined in less detail. In prose, the focus rarely strayed from Egypt. Many major authors in the Arab world were at least mentioned, but major authors like Zakaria Tamer of Syria and Fuad al-Takarli of Iraq, for example, were omitted even in passing. Few writers related to the Arabian peninsula were described either, other than Abdelrahman Munif.
Besides realism and experimentation in the earlier decades, the author surveyed recent decades, which have seen a turning away from European models toward elements from the premodern literary heritage, oral traditions and popular culture. Recent trends examined included narrative fragmentation/postmodernist collage (Miral al-Tahawy's Blue Aubergine, Ahmed Alaidy's Being Abbas el Abd), an increasing number of female writers (Egypt's Nawal el-Saadawi, Alifa Rifaat and Salwa Bakr, Lebanon's Hanan al-Shaykh and Hoda Barakat, Syria's Ghada al-Samman) and attention to the previously marginalized (the Egyptians Idris Ali and Haggag Hassan Oddoul on the Nubians, and the Libyan Ibrahim al-Koni on the Tuaregs).
Despite its brevity, the survey enables interested readers to compile a list of major or otherwise interesting prose works from the region to be read in English. For this reader, the list included Taha Hussein's multi-volume autobiography, collectively titled The Days (1929-67), Tawfiq al-Hakim's Diary of a Country Prosecutor/Maze of Justice (1937), Yahya Hakki's The Lamp of Umm Hashim and Other Stories (1944-55), Yusuf Idris's The Cheapest Nights (1954), Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy (1956-57), Ghassan Kanafani's Men in the Sun (1962), Waguih Ghali's Beer in the Snooker Club (1964), Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North (1966), Gamal al-Ghitani's Zayni Barakat (1973), Mohammed Choukri's For Bread Alone (1973), Nawal el-Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero (1973), Emile Habiby's The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (1974), Hanan al-Shaykh's The Story of Zahra (1980), Sonallah Ibrahim's The Committee (1981), Alifa Rifaat's Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories (1983), Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt (1984), Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah (1997), Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun (1998) and Alaa al-Aswany's popular The Yacoubian Building (2002). To this list could be added a short-story collection by Tamer such as Tigers on the Tenth Day (1978) and al-Takarli's novel The Long Way Back (1980).
For plays, the list included al-Hakim's The People of the Cave (1933), The Sultan's Dilemma (1960), The Tree Climber (1966), The Fate of a Cockroach (1966) and Anxiety Bank (1967); Idris's The Underlings (1964); and Saadallah Wannous's The King Is the King (1977).
Statements made by the author in passing:
---the awarding of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature to Mahfouz gave an enormous boost to translation from Arabic into other languages; from 1947 to 1967, one scholar identified only 16 literary titles translated into English, and only 84 from 1967 to 1988.
---much of Mahfouz's best work -- in the 1950s, in the style of realism -- can't be considered representative of the work of Arab writers from the 1960s to the present, which is comparatively more experimental.
---although some in the West view Mahfouz as merely a skilled assimilator of European realist styles or an Arab equivalent of Dickens, his later works are often read by Arab readers as experimental or subversive.
---in drama, European dramatists looked naturally to classical models, but there's no comparable tradition in Arabic literature enabling Arabic writers to do the same.
---the conditions faced by authors -- fragmented publishing and distribution, weak promotion and copyright protection, few literary agents, the threat of censorship or worse -- are such that very few in the Arab world can make a living from their writing.
---many Arab writers see themselves as cultural and social guides for their compatriots, but their guidance -- as happens elsewhere -- is often shunned by those with a more traditional outlook.
---the emergence of political Islam as the most important social and political trend in the region has so far been almost entirely ignored in the literature of the "elite."
A lengthier, inexpensive recent survey is Paul Starkey's Modern Arabic Literature (2006, 221 pp). Recent anthologies include Denys Johnson-Davies' Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction (2006) and Under the Naked Sky: Short Stories from the Arab World (2000), Salma Khadra Jayyusi's 1,056-page Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology (2005), and Dalya Cohen-Mor's Arab Women Writers: An Anthology of Short Stories (2005). A magazine devoted exclusively to the publication in English several times a year of translations from modern Arabic poetry and prose is BANIPAL, based in London.