It has been a big year for Arabic fiction in English translation. Two Arabic books were longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International, with the prize going to Omani writer Jokha al-Harthi’s brilliant Celestial Bodies in Marilyn Booth’s inspired translation.
Several other Arabic novels have been recognised by prizes and best-of lists, in a year that has seen more major reviews of translated Arabic literature than any other – save perhaps 1988, the year Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
1. Sentence to Hope – Sa’dallah Wannous, translated by Nada Saab and Robert Myers
The towering Syrian playwright finally gets the wide-ranging collection he deserves in a Sentence to Hope.
The book includes several of Wannous’s translated plays, essays and interviews that broaden our sense of the late writer’s relationship to his writing and his country, as well as his disappointments and depressions.
The collection includes celebrated early works such as An Evening’s Entertainment for the Fifth of June, as well as later pieces, including Rituals of Signs and Transformations – a powerful exploration of gender, identity, sexuality and power.
2. Palestine as Metaphor – Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Carolyn Forche and Amira al-Zein
This collection of interviews with Palestine’s most celebrated poet is a must-read for poetry lovers and anyone interested in the intersection of writing and politics.
It includes five discussions – four translated from Arabic and one from Hebrew – all of which illuminate Darwish’s life and family relationships, as well as his relationship to poetry, fellow poets, critics, translators, and audiences.
3. Jokes for the Gunmen – Mazen Maarouf, translated by Jonathan Wright
This surreal collection was the first winner of the Almultaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story in 2016, and, in Jonathan Wright’s translation, was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International.
It is the first short-story collection by Maarouf, a Palestinian who grew up in Beirut, Lebanon and now lives in Iceland.
The stories in Jokes for the Gunmen are set around civil war and family crisis, and they have the jittery, manic and surreal quality of trying to tell a joke to a gunman while fearing for one’s life.
4. The Book of Disappearance – Ibtisam Azem, translated Sinan Antoon
Azem’s Book of Disappearance is built around a tremendous vanishing act. One night, at the stroke of midnight, all the Palestinians in Israel and Occupied Palestine are suddenly gone, and the Israelis left behind struggle to understand what has happened. The novel, set in Haifa, weaves together the stories of this imagined mass disappearance with the historic exodus of 1948.
5. The Old Woman and the River – Ismail Fahd Ismail, translated Sophia Vasalou
This charming story about a woman and her donkey during the early years of the Iran-Iraq war has not received much attention in English, but is a delight to read.
Shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the story follows Um Qasem as she is evacuated from her Iraqi hometown along with her extended family but she sneaks back in with her trusty donkey, Good Omen.
This short novel manages to be uplifting without being cloying as an examination of the better aspects of being human.
Five Arabic books:
These five titles are a bit more idiosyncratic, reflecting a wider variety of inspired writing, yet to appear in English.
1. In Pursuit of Enayat al-Zayat – Iman Mersal
As novelist Hilal Chouman wrote, “Iman Mersal’s name on the cover is sufficient reason to buy a book the minute it’s released.”
This volume of Mersal’s prose is a follow-up to her acclaimed How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts.
This time, Mersal is pursuing the Egyptian author Enayat al-Zayat, who was stonewalled by the Egyptian critical apparatus and eventually took her own life.
Mersal first came onto the literary scene as a poet, and just as her poetry is full of storyteller’s humour, her prose works are enlivened by a poet’s sense of rhythm.
2. Souls of Edo – Stella Gaitano
This wide-ranging historical novel centres around motherhood in 1970s and 1980s Sudan and ends when Omar al-Bashir seizes power in 1989.
It begins in what is now South Sudan, where the titular Edo barricades herself inside her home. She refuses to believe another of her infants has died and forces milk into the dead baby’s mouth.
Edo’s souls and stories pass into the one child who lives, Lucy, who must flee north during civil conflict. The novel explores different types of motherhood, and it is embroidered with Gaitano’s gift for observing the small moments in people’s lives.
3. Room 304: Hiding from My Beloved Father for 35 Years – Amr Ezzat
Here, Amr Ezzat writes a lucid, compelling narrative that is not only about the relationship between a son and his father, but that between human beings and power.
It illuminates what is safe and loving in family relationships along with suffocating elements. The book particularly shows how we are both extremely present – and extremely invisible – to our parents.
Some of Ezzat’s book is specific to growing up as a clever middle-class boy in Imbaba, an Egyptian village, but much of the writing can speak to universal difficulties in the parent-child relationship.
4. No One Prayed Over Their Graves – Khaled Khalifa
Leri Price’s excellent translation of the Syrian novelist’s war-road-trip novel Death is Hard Work was shortlisted for the 2019 National Book Award.
While Khalifa’s 2019 book, No One Prayed Over Their Graves, has been longlisted for the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
This new novel turns the clock back to Aleppo in 1907, when a flood sweeps in to take the lives of most of the two protagonists’ loved ones.
It is told with Khalifa’a deep passion for his characters and their flaws, which are sometimes also their salvation.
5. Prizes for Heroes – Ahmed Awni
This is Awny’s popular and acclaimed first novel that has been shortlisted for a 2020 Sawiris prize.
It opens as the narrator, Rami, is turning 30 without yet knowing what he wants out of life. The novel approaches the events of January and February 2011 in Cairo, yet through a far less heroic lens than previous narratives.
Rami is from the upper classes, and this sarcastic protagonist has echoes of Ram in Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali’s cult classic Beer in the Snooker Club.