November 27, 2008
by Suzan Abrams
Since my glorious month in East Africa last June, I have been completely smitten by Middle-Eastern literature as never before. Of course, I have travelled to Africa several times in the last 9 years so I don't understand the reason for this.
This passion has also led me to secure a favourite bookseller in a popular independent bookshop, close to where I live in the city and next door to Trinity College. The staff are wonderful and I will talk about this aspect some other time because I think that for any serious reader of literature, to be unexpectedly blessed with a friendly bookseller who treats you like he would a friend and discusses important aspects of classical and contemporary stories with you... well, that's priceless.
I can turn to this bookshop for earnest recommendations or even knowledge of a specific work of specialist Arabic fiction I'm keen to indulge a happy pursuit with and the staff will readily oblige. Of course, this is a bookshop that serves Trinity College students all day long and are often called upon when renowned writers drop by to give talks and readings. Located at the end of a busy thoroughfare, you'll also find a number of professional executives teeming in at any one time. The bookshop currently holds a vast amount of thoroughly fascinating European classics and modern fiction besides the usual commercial fare.
Having said this, I purchased 6 new books on Arabic fiction and poetry recently, but will probably snuggle a good two in my suitcase for my flight abroad late next week. I have decided on just two as I'll be picking up literature from the country I'm at and also visiting the newly-opened bookHaus showroom in London that specialises in translated Arabic literature.
So here are 4 out of the 6 that I'm very excited about:Egypt
The first is called The Lamp of Umm Hashim and other Stories.
I'm almost finished with this spruced-up and almost dimunitive decorative book and will probably write a review tomorrow. First of all, the picture's a lot brighter really, than what it looks over here. Frankly, I was seduced by the title which reminds me of an exotic, sensuous beauty that could have slipped straight out of the Arabian Nights. I was bowled over by a beauty regarded by my imagination as to what such an intriguing header could possibly convey. The collection was penned by lawyer/diplomat and later award-winning writer, Yahya Hakki, (1905-92) who was recognised as one of Egypt's important modern writers of the 20th century. This for experimenting with different forms of story-telling from otherwise, predictable classical styles.
Hakki was also one of the first writers to introduce the art of humour in its wider context - a far cry from the usual bleak but stirring prose that often greets Arabic fiction. He was also one of the first new wave of modern writers to explore the clash of eastern and western cultures through his stories' characters.
Mostly, Hakiki wrote folklore for the peasantry in Upper Egypt whom he was said to be terribly affectionate about. Well, at the moment I find Hakki to be a gentle, writer, tender and caressing with his words as well as kind in his teachings of life as he saw it. His stories besides offering deep insights also suggest a ribald humour.
I can well see myself slipping The Long Way Back
by Fuad al-Takarli into my luggage for a hotel room or sidewalk read. One of my key interests in having selected titles from a catalogue was to have been drawn to stories of the rural middle-eastern heartlands, stories of families and communities, gossipy ladies outside their verandahs or lively talks at colourful bazaars.
I was drawn to this chunky paperback for two reasons. One was definitely the cover. It's elegant, stylish and depicts an art form. I could have stayed enraptured for an age over that intriguing portrait. And what a splash of vibrant ginger red!
The second had to be the setting. How many Baghdad writers do you know? The award-winning Fuad al-Takarli who now lives in Tunis, was once a judge and the head of the Court of Appeal in Baghdad. I am so looking forward to this especially with the tragic Iraq war. The plot spells an almost magical, elusive time as it revolves around 4 generations of an Iraqi family, living in the same house in Bagdad in the 1950s and 60s. How tantalising a moment is that! I think this book has to be one of my favourite coups so far.
**********The Palestinian Territories
The third book is a Palestinian work of non-fiction. My second Palestinian reading of prose so far. Titled I Saw Ramallah
and written by Mourid Barghouti, it talks of how the poet on his way back to his homeland after graduating from the University of Cairo, finds himself unexpectedly caught up in tensions and war. Barghouti is forced into exile and would only return to Palestine 30 years later. Glancing through the pages, I intituitively pick up an array of sad and beautiful emotions.
This book which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, has been described by the Times Literary Supplement as owning nothing short of an eloquent prose. It's a light hardback and with its serene cover featuring an abstract photography is definitely a collector's item.
I Saw Ramallah was recommended to me by my bookseller who on receiving new stock of the translated version had kept it aside, suspecting that I would fall in love with it and yes, I did.
The fourth one is Morocco's famous The Final Bet,
the first translated Arabic detective novel in the world to have been recently brought out by Arabia Books London and originally written by the handsome Moroccan screenwriter and novelist Abdelilah Hamdouchi. The story has also been reproduced as a series for Moroccan television. If you scroll further down, you would see that I had talked about this novel in much greater detail earlier.
What a truly smoky-looking atmospheric cover for a start! I still can't get over it. It's the perfect sleuth tale, with the promise of a good bedside read. An elderly french lady is murdered in Casablanca and her young playboy husband who is tangled in a secret love affair, gets the blame. The famous but eccentric and grumpy sleuth Alwaar must work round the clock to prove the young philanderer's innocence.