Book of the month: Sonia Nimr

Full disclosure: I had quite a different title lined up as my final book of the month of 2020. I was going to write a glowing response to the startling and compelling It Would Be Night in Caracas by Venezuelan author-journalist Karina Sainz Borgo, brought into English by Elizabeth Bryer. That book, with its chilling depiction of a society in freefall from a country with relatively little literature available in the world’s most published language, would have been an extremely worthy addition to my list.

But with so much darkness and uncertainty threatening so many at the moment, I found my appetite for writing about this disturbing novel waning. Absorbing though it is, I felt I needed something more hopeful to close out the year.

A few days before Christmas, I put a call out on Twitter for uplifting novels in translation. A number of familiar recommendations rolled in – among them the The Elegance of the Hedgehog and The Good Soldier Švejk – along with several newer YA works, which reinforced my sense that the anglophone market tends to favour more lightness in titles aimed at younger readers than it might often accept in translations for adults.

Then I received a tip-off that intrigued me: a link to details of a novel that Marcia Lynx Qualey, the writer, editor and founder of ArabLit, had recently translated. A few messages later and an e-version of Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Palestinian author Sonia Nimr was in my inbox.

Presented as the contents of a manuscript entrusted to a Palestinian academic at a conference, the novel follows the adventures of intrepid bibliophile Qamar. Despite being born a girl hundreds of years ago and orphaned young, this courageous and quick-witted protagonist manages to give free reign to her desire to see the world, spurred on by a book from her parents’ collection. Joining caravans and ships, and sometimes posing as a man and living as a pirate, she travels to destinations including Abyssinia, Andalusia, India and the Yemen, using her skills as a narrator and the herbal medicine she learnt from her mother to get her out of many a tight corner.

Few books beat this one for pure storytelling delight. Packed with fantastical encounters and the uncovering of secrets, this novel is deliciously absorbing. The settings are alluring – ranging from a maharaja’s sumptuous palace to a remote mountain village cut off by flood waters for most of the year – yet presented without the cloying exoticism that often accompanies such depictions in Western literature. Similarly, the balance of the magic and the human is finely struck so that, although the narrative often feels fable-like, we never lose sight of the rounded, multifaceted Qamar at its heart.

Making your protagonist a booklover is a trick employed by novelists the world over – what better way, after all, to invite your reader’s empathy than by providing instant common ground between them and the main character? Here, though, Nimr adds extra layers to the familiar device. With reading proscribed for women and all book purchases having to be approved by the elders in the village where Qamar grows up, her reading is a subversive, daring act. It marks her (and by association, the reader) out as a rebel – one unlikely to accept the limits the world places on her.

The same goes for storytelling: frequently asked to account for herself by those she encounters on her travels, Qamar is in the habit of offering false histories because, as she repeatedly explains, she doesn’t expect those she meets to believe the strange truth. This, coupled with the fact that the book that inspires her wanderlust is also called Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, sets up interesting questions about fact and fiction. Truth, it seems, can operate on multiple levels: like good novels, fabrications can feel real and can answer human needs. Something doesn’t necessarily have to have happened in order to contain emotional veracity.

Perhaps partly because of its positioning as a YA crossover novel, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands presents an unusually sunny world. Qamar’s universe is much more benign than, say, Sainz Borgo’s Caracas. Although she frequently faces danger, Nimr’s protagonist almost always lands on her feet. She is rarely without a friend or protector, and at most of the points where many writers would be tempted to twist the knife and ramp up the tension, a lucky coincidence or happy twist of fate saves her. It’s testament to the power of the storytelling and the appeal of Qamar that what might feel like missed opportunities in another novel generally feel acceptable here.

It’s also testament to the power of the central story that the lack of a return to the framing narrative at the end doesn’t jar. Had this novel been written and edited in English, it’s likely that a publisher would have insisted on a final section bringing us back to the Palestinian academic to reveal some transformation wrought by the reading of the manuscript. Instead, the academic disappears without comment, having provided a lens through which adult (and possibly male) readers can peruse Qamar’s story without feeling that it isn’t for them.

The anglophone publishing world is full of labels that can often exclude as much as they invite. I’m not sure that YA crossover is helpful here. This is, first and foremost, a great story – one that has the power to draw in readers of any age. It is one of those that reaches across time, space and cultural barriers to take us to the heart of the human experience. By enabling us to escape, it brings us to the source of what we are. Pure magic.

Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Sonia Nimr, translated from the Arabic by Marcia Lynx Qualey (Interlink Books, 2020).

Picture:  al-Idrisi world map in Arabic from ‘Alî ibn Hasan al-Hûfî al-Qâsimî’s 1456 copy, made at Cairo and now preserved at Oxford’s Bodleian Library (Public Domain).

Book of the month: Deepak Unnikrishnan

A few years ago, when I was in UAE for a conference, I took a taxi to check out one of the city’s bookshops. The driver on my return journey was an Indian national who had been in Dubai for more than three decades, having started out on the city’s building sites. As we swept through the sun-bleached streets, past numerous skyscrapers under construction, he painted a picture that jarred sharply with the luxurious surroundings of the hotel to which I was returning.

‘No money, no honey,’ he told me, before explaining the way the average construction worker sweltering on one of the building sites we passed would survive. After rent had eaten up the majority of their income, the worker would have enough to afford to cook some rice and gravy for an evening meal, which they would eke out over several days, taking portions to the building site for lunch. During a 12- or 13-hour shift in temperatures that reach as high as 50 degrees C in the summer, the worker would probably only have one drink, the cost ruling out any more. Any excess money would be sent to family overseas. ‘Life is nothing,’ the driver said. ‘What kind of life can you have like that?’ 

This is one of the questions at the heart of Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People. Stemming from the UAE-born and raised writer’s awareness that the experience of temporary workers (who make up around 80 per cent of the UAE’s population) has rarely been depicted in fiction, the book explores what it means to live at the margins of a society you never have the right to call your home. The many characters who throng the work’s pages vary enormously, from young girls caught up in abuse scandals to would-be dictators, yet they all share the quality of being sidelined, overlooked and denied the space to express themselves and answer their needs.

Language and word play are central. Although writing in English, Unnikrishnan folds terms from tongues including Arabic and Malayalam, as well as a wide array of references (everything from Fawlty Towers to the Ramayana), into the text. In so doing, he creates a series of idiolects informed by the experiences of the characters they depict. Meanwhile, the pointed misspelling of terms such as ‘Amreekun’ and ‘moonseepalty’ in certain mouths, implies a reader fluent in Global English, making many of the speakers outsiders even in their own stories.

The book itself does not fit the form prescribed for it. Although it is set out as a novel and divided into ‘chabter’s, each section presents a new situation and register. Poemlike lists jostle with gritty accounts of police harassment; Kafkaesque depictions of cockroaches becoming increasingly human sit alongside sharp, satirical (and extremely brave) attacks on the regime. There is a hallucinatory quality to much of the writing and yet certain episodes feel startlingly real. The bizarre and the bathetic rub shoulders with the poignant and powerful. There is beauty and humour too.

Inevitably, in such a varied work, some pieces come over more successfully than others. In the case of this book, the resonance and power of many of the ‘chabter’s will depend as much on the knowledge of the reader as on the quality of the writing. With so many references and linguistic games at work, it is nigh-on impossible for anyone to understand everything on a first pass – like the characters on the page, we are excluded from some things too.

The writing is also, at times, disturbingly brutal and graphic. The force of the frustration of so many lives eroded by the perpetual absence of the people and places that define them bursts out in violence and cruelty. From the misogynistic, racist taxi driver whose monologue fills an entire section to the annual purge in the desert (carrying echoes of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’), the text is awash with long-suppressed desires breaking loose with often devastating consequences. For some readers, this will be too much.

But the humanity that flows through the text is ultimately this book’s most powerful force. From the celebration of the ingenuity that allows those denied the space to build a meaningful existence nevertheless to find humour and connection to the possibility of recognition between those coming from entirely different worlds.

Angry and damning though it is, this book is ultimately hopeful. These stories are worth telling, it insists. They are worth recognising and learning from. They deserve to be part of our imaginary universe. They are far from nothing, after all.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (Restless Books, 2017)

Picture: ‘Dubai Marina Construction’ by Anton Bawab on flickr.com

Book of the month: Fariba Hachtroudi

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A few weeks ago, I had a rather dramatic flying experience. Travelling from New York to a mystery destination (which will be revealed in the next World bookshopper post), I ended up having to take three flights in place of one when my plane was unable to land because of high winds. We were sent back to JFK and flew back for a second (successful) landing attempt later the same day.

Spending seven hours doing a journey that you had expected to take less than two is rarely fun. Luckily for me, the silver lining in this – rather turbulent – cloud was that I had an excellent novel with me that managed to keep me enthralled for much of the journey. The book was The Man Who Snapped His Fingers, the English-language debut from French-Iranian author Fariba Hachtroudi – and it impressed me so much that when I finally got off that third flight, not only shaken by the journey but very much stirred by what I’d read, I knew that I wanted to tell you about it.

Premises don’t come much more gripping than this one: years after a brief encounter in a torture chamber, a former senior official of a tyrannical Theological Republic and a woman who was one of the regime’s myriad victims come face to face. This time, the power balance is reversed. The former colonel is in the final stages of a last-ditch attempt to secure asylum in a northern European state; the erstwhile victim is his translator, and his only hope of winning the visa that will save his life.

As the translation angle might suggest, this is a book about words and storytelling, and the power they have to free, enslave and condemn. As the narrative alternates between the perspectives of the asylum seeker and the translator, gradually revealing their troubled and intertwined histories, we witness the way that human beings construct accounts in an attempt to establish and preserve their identities. With the drip, drip, drip of what happened comes the erosion of the concept of objective truth.

The writing, translated by Alison Anderson, ably reflects and develops this theme. The descriptions are sharp, vivid and brutal. Calling to mind some of the best passages of works such as Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left my Soul and Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop, they stretch language on the rack of human experience, testing its limits to contain and express suffering and trauma.

As a result, this is not a book for the fainthearted. It is also not a book for readers who prioritise plot over substance.

When I started it shortly after take-off, I half expected the narrative to pursue a sensationalist line, with the translator exploiting her power to twist and shape the asylum seeker’s story as a means of exacting revenge. In fact, Hachtroudi’s choices are much more interesting than that and the novel is much richer and more thought-provoking as a result. Instead of events, ideas take centre stage – from the ways we construct ourselves, to conflicting notions of love.

This may mean that the The Man Who Snapped His Fingers is too diffuse and slow-moving for some tastes. Indeed, Europa Editions has done well not to jump on the thriller marketing bandwagon with this one. (The grabby premise is only loosely described in the jacket copy, with the emphasis placed instead on the sifting of the past that the character’s encounter provokes – a much more accurate reflection of the book than a campaign focusing on the opening hook would probably achieve.)

All the same, from where I was sitting (in seat 17C or thereabouts), the slower pace and looser-than-anticipated plot only heightened the novel’s appeal. I was gripped, through three rather bumpy attempted landings, a return flight, an hour’s wait and yet another take-off. I’m not sure many books would stand up to such a test.

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers (Le Colonel et l’appât) by Fariba Hactroudi, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2016)

Book of the month: Abdulaziz Al Farsi

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About 18 months ago, fellow literary explorer Camila Navarro from Brazil (who is recording her own literary odyssey on her Portuguese-language website) got in touch. ‘Ann, I have good news!’ she wrote. ‘There’s a great Omani novel translated recently. It’s “Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs”, by Abdulaziz Al Farsi. I’ve just read it and I loved it!’

This was good news indeed, as, when I tried to find a book to read from Oman back in 2012, there was precious little available. Apart from the collection of fairy stories I eventually got my hands on, there was almost nothing in English.

This month, I at last made it to Camila’s recommendation on my teetering to-read pile. And I was very glad I did.

Starting with the return of government employee Khalid Bakhit to the remote village of his birth, the novel reveals the tensions and historical ties that bind and warp human society. It brings together the accounts of everyone from Ayda – the only woman in the place ever to have gone to university – to dark-skinned servant Khadim, and depicts the build up to a coup that threatens to break the community apart, spilling secrets with the power to kill.

Neatly plotted and containing some genuinely surprising revelations, much of the book makes for engrossing reading. Al Farsi certainly seems to enjoy playing with suspense: he deftly foreshadows disasters and, in the case of one passage towards the end of the book, even describes a funeral while withholding the identity of the corpse until almost the very last line of the chapter.

Stories nest within stories. There are funny anecdotes, such as the description of how the village mosque’s call to prayer came to be shared unorthodoxly between two muezzins, and the tale of Imam Rashid’s insistence on keeping time using his rooster. And there are much more poignant and sometimes shocking accounts that, collectively, work to round and ground the characters in the story.

The novel’s multiple voices and perspectives afford Al Farsi great scope to move between registers, from earthy, humorous observations about vanity, misconceptions and back-biting, to lyrical portrayals of loss and love. Several times, I found myself surprised into delight by succinct encapsulations of experience – the claim that ‘it was as though he had drawn in the reins of the scene and placed them in my hand’, for example, or the observation that ‘Our problem when it comes to love is that we always want those we love to match the image we’ve drawn of them in our mind’s eye’.

Translator Nancy Roberts, who has also translated Mahfouz and Nasrallah, deserves credit for the beauty that often shimmers in the prose, as well as her skill in making the story’s sometimes unfamiliar mores and references comprehensible for anglophone readers.

In addition, many of Al Farsi’s observations have universal resonance precisely because they are so touchingly human. I couldn’t help but wonder whether something of the author’s medical experience (he is a senior specialist in oncology in Muscat) had informed his description of the way people often pledge and fail to reform bad habits:

It’s like what happens when a man walks all night long, then falls asleep from sheer exhaustion. The next morning he wakes up and finds himself lying on a railroad track. He hears a train approaching in the distance, but he doesn’t feel like moving his body. He says, ‘I’m all tired out from my long trip, and the train’s still a long way off. When it gets closer I’ll do something.’ […] Then, just when the time comes for him to act, he’s overcome by drowsiness, and the train runs over him.

For all its strengths, however, the book is not without flaws. Some of the metaphors miss the mark – I was rather wrongfooted by the imagery of someone being chased by a wound at one point. In addition, the myriad voices and sometimes cacophonous presentation of scraps of dialogue within a single paragraph can be confusing (although it’s testament to the strength of Al Farsi’s characterisation that the key figures in the story almost always remain clear and distinct). Finally, a few readers may find the whimsical figure of the Saturnine poet a bit hard to take.

On the whole, though, this is an enjoyable and intriguing novel. It reveals the duality of the ties that at once link us to communities and ground our identity, yet may also throttle our individuality and limit our freedom to be ourselves. A welcome addition to the tiny library of Omani literature in English translation.

Thanks for the tip, Camila.

Earth Weeps, Saturn Sleeps (Tabki al-Ard yadhak Zuhal) by Abdulaziz Al Farsi, translated from the Arabic by Nancy Roberts (The American University in Cairo Press, 2013)

Jordan: winds of change

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Hearing that my friend Andrew was off to the Middle East for a choir tour in October, I decided to recruit him to find my Jordanian book. The schedule for the tour was tight, but a brief window in Amman (not to be confused with Oman as I originally wrote) gave him the opportunity to slip off in search of a translation of a story.

Andrew had heard from members of a local choir, with whom his group Ishirini was collaborating, about a bookshop with a good English-language offering that stayed open late into the night. Complete with a built-in coffee shop, it was something of a hang-out for bibliophiles and so he made his way there.

However, on arriving, Andrew discovered there was a hitch: it being Eid, deliveries to the normally well-stocked shop were running late and pickings were slim. Nevertheless, there was one possibility in the shape of Jordanian-born Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. At more than 600 pages long, the book would certainly keep me busy, but, in the absence of many other options, it seemed wise to nab it. Handing over his dinars, Andrew bagged a copy and hurried off to his next rehearsal.

Set in a fictional Gulf state in the 1930s, the novel, which is banned in several Arab countries, explores the impact of the discovery of oil on a small oasis town. When American prospectors arrive in the region, bringing with them a host of machines, practices and mores unknown to the local Arab population, the residents find the centuries-old rhythms of their lives disrupted. Faced with technological change that is set to alter their mental, emotional and physical landscape forever, the people are left with two options: adapt or die.

On the surface, this is a novel about culture clashes. In the Arabs’ fear and wonderment at the Americans’ mechanised horses and brazen attitudes to nudity, and the prospectors’ obsession with photographing and documenting every mundane local activity they can gain access to – not to mention the stark contrast between Arab Harran and American Harran (the seaside town built to house the oil workers) – we see the sparks that fly as East and West, ancient and modern, and spiritual and secular collide head on.

This collision gives rise to moments of great humour. The terrified Emir’s first boat trip, for example, and his amazement at the voices coming out of the radio are hilarious, while the Americans’ simplistic pronouncements on the Arabs, to whom they intend to give employment rights ‘as if they were regular people’, raise many a wry smile.

Frequently, however, there is a great deal of pain mixed in with this. From the employee questionnaire – which mortifies Ibrahim with its impertinent queries about female relatives – to the sad demise of the Desert Travel Office under the wheels of shiny, new Western trucks, there is much lost in this exchange and many personal tragedies unfold along the way. Perhaps most painful of all is the death of Mizban in a diving accident while on company business, an event that points up the difference of priorities between the two groups obliged to live and work together on the same patch of land.

What episodes like this demonstrate is that the gulf between the characters is not so much one of culture as one of valuing things differently. What to the Americans is a harsh, hostile environment that they must master and subdue with their air-con and swimming pools for the sake of harvesting oil is home to the Arabs – a place ingrained in their psyches, the desert winds of which blow through the images they use to express themselves and the sun of which has hardened their very sense of identity. While the Americans can uproot trees and demolish houses ‘without pausing and without reflection’ because they see them only as worthless objects standing in the way of their prize, the Arabs suffer the transformation as a sort of physical violence that the new arrivals cannot begin to comprehend. As Dabbasi puts it: ‘To someone not of this land and this town, all land is the same – it’s just land’. And that is the fundamental difference.

At once expansive and deeply personal, this novel is a masterful presentation of the way misunderstandings and resentment spring up and fruit into bitterness and enmity. At times reading like a vast collection of interlinked short stories, it weaves together the triumphs and sadness of many individual lives to make a compelling and poignant whole. A marvel.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Vintage International, 1989)

Kuwait: the icing on the cake

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Hearing that I was struggling to find a Kuwaiti book that I could read in English, Fleur Montanaro, administrator of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, asked a contact for advice. Word came back that no prominent Kuwaiti authors had had anything more than the odd short story translated into English. However, there was one young writer called Haitham Boodai whose novels were available in translation. In fact, there was a picture of them on sale in the Avenues branch of Kuwait’s That Al Salasil bookshop on the iLSuL6ana blog.

Delighted with this news, I set about trying to get hold of a copy… and drew a blank. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not find a Boodai novel that I could purchase. I even called up That Al Salasil, only to be told that they did not have the books in stock. Queries to other big English-language booksellers in the Gulf region produced similar results. It seemed as though the books had never existed.

Beginning to wonder if I was going mad, I emailed iLSuL6ana and another local blogger Mark. Perhaps whoever took the picture might be able to shed some light on the mystery? But time went by and no response came back. It seemed to be a lost cause.

It was time for plan B. This came in the shape of three less-than-ideal options. Exhibit A was Pearling in the Arabian Gulf by Saif Marzooq al-Shamlan. Though it was by a Kuwaiti writer and billed itself as a ‘memoir’ in its subtitle, the 1970s book was really more of a social history and – judging by its sober cover – a dreary one at that. Next up was Women in Kuwait by Kuwaiti sociologist Haya al-Mughni. This sounded more interesting, but it was a bit of a leap to call it a story given that it was really a series of essays.

Last in the line-up of dubious contenders was Invasion Kuwait by Jehan S Rajab. This first-person account of the 1990 Iraqi invasion sounded like the front-runner, but there was a problem: although Rajab had lived and worked in the country for more than 30 years when she wrote the book (more than qualifying it to be considered as Kuwaiti literature under the terms of this project) the subtitle of the memoir was ‘An English Woman’s Tale’. Could I really justify reading a book described in such a way for Kuwait?

Unconvinced, I put off reading any of the three for as long as I could. But at last, the desperate day arrived and so, with a heavy heart, I picked up the ‘English Woman’s Tale’ and started making my way to the sofa to begin reading it. En route, however, I decided to check my email. And there, in my inbox, was a message from Mark.

It turned out Mark had been away in Japan, hence the slow reply. He didn’t have anything to say on the subject of the mysterious Haitham Boodai books, but he recommended contacting Kuwaiti writer and blogger Danderma, who he was sure would be able to help.

I fired off an email and Danderma replied swiftly: she had two self-published novels titled The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait, volumes I and II. If I gave her my address, she would send them to me.

And so it was that, with a handful of weeks left in the year, two colourful books bearing cover illustrations by Fatima F Al-Othman dropped through my letterbox. I picked up volume I and got stuck in.

The novel presents the tribulations of Dathra, an obese 32-year-old misfit in the midst of Kuwaiti high society. Scorned by her svelte relatives and obliged to watch the man she loves marry her cousin, Dathra (a word that means ‘dowdy’) vows to change her life for the better. But as her enormous appetite and relentless desire for junk food lead her into more and more extreme fixes, it seems as though her biggest enemy may be herself.

When it comes to writing about food, Danderma is in a league of her own. From obsessing over tastes and textures, through to the deceptions used to cover up each binge, the writer captures the mindset and emotions of an addict perfectly. Her depictions of Dathra’s cravings are so convincing, in fact, that she even made me hanker after a Big Mac at one point – something I never thought I’d feel!

The insights she provides into Kuwaiti society are equally compelling. Expressed in an arch, witty tone, her evocation of the rich Avenues shopping district where you can stand for hours watching people in the Pinkberry queue and the lavish parties that fill the social calendar make for enjoyable and revealing reading. I was particularly intrigued by the explanation of Arabish – a way to chat online using English letters and numbers with Arabic spelling – which features heavily in the book.

Having self-published her novels because of the difficulty of finding an English-language publisher in Kuwait, Danderma warned me that the first volume contained quite a few errors (these made her decide to hire an editor to help her prepare the second volume). While this is true, these rarely get in the way of the sense and flow of the text.

In fact the development of the plot and Dathra’s character are likely to be bigger issues for many readers. Although her vulnerability and self-deprecation make her likeable throughout much of the book, Dathra has moments of extreme selfishness and greed that can make her hard to sympathise with. In addition, while Danderma’s desire to make her heroine triumph over the superficial standards of the world around her and maintain her individuality is understandable, there is a problem with the fact that Dathra doesn’t change or learn much over the course of the narrative (the final scene introduces a slight shift in perspective, but it feels rather hasty and incidental). Despite nearly eating herself to death at one point, the heroine never really addresses her unsustainable addiction to food.

This does not stop the book being enjoyable, however. Witty, surprising and daring, the novel flies the flag for underdogs everywhere, with plenty of laughs along the way. Bridget Jones fans looking for a change of scene might find a new friend here.

The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait (volume I), by Danderma, illustrated by Fatima F Al-Othman (2011)

Egypt: breaking boundaries

This was another recommendation from Roger Allen, Professor Emeritus of Arabic & Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. His number-one tip for Egypt was Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz – and he should know as he met the great man several times and translated several of his books. However if I were looking for something other than work by the nation’s leading literary giant, he had several more suggestions up his sleeve from among the thousands of excellent Egyptian writers on the market today. Ain Shams University professor Radwa Ashour was one of these.

I thought about it for a while. On one hand, I was very tempted by Mahfouz: several visitors to this blog had written highly of his work and I was sure I’d be in for a treat with practically any of his books. On the other hand, though, I couldn’t help feeling that Mahfouz was a safe choice. This journey was about discovery, after all, and I was eager to see what else was out there by writers I hadn’t heard of before – so I went for Ashour and chose her book Spectres.

Interlacing the lives of two Cairo academics, history lecturer Shagar and literature expert Radwa Ashour, this part-novel, part-autobiography and part-documentary explores the frontiers of storytelling. The two women are born on the same day and grow up during the mid-20th century, witnessing the Suez Crisis and the protests that shook the capital in the decades after it. As each runs up against the limitations of her gender, political sphere and the medium within which the author allows her to exist, the women seek to shape their own narratives out of the shards and fragments that litter their lives.

This is a courageous and often angry book. Whether it deals with the prejudice against women that causes Shagar’s great-grandmother to be viewed with suspicion because she refuses to marry again and Radwa’s children to be held up at passport control, or the political manoeuvres at the university that see one of Shagar’s colleagues hounded out, Ashour’s writing is indignant and powerful.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the central issue that runs through the book and, to a certain extent, shapes the women’s lives: Palestine. Marshalling sources ranging from Mahatma Gandhi’s 1938 claim that ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs’ through to testimonials from villagers and Israeli officers about the Deir Yassin massacre, Ashour compiles a compelling  array of evidence to support her character’s forthright attacks on Zionist writers such as Elie Wiesel, ‘who wrote volumes against silence and described in detail the ordeal of the Jews in the Holocaust, of which he himself was a survivor, [but] did not see the contradiction in his own total silence in the face of what was happening to the Palestinians’.

However, as Shagar discovers when she attempts to present a paper at a conference organised on the 25th anniversary of Zionist Martin Buber’s death, the Palestinian perspective is one that struggles to find a platform. Vulnerable to accusations of bias and partiality – and the indifference of a West so far removed from Arab concerns that in 1991 an announcer on CNN is able to compare Baghdad under fire to ‘a huge Christmas tree […] “It’s a magical, thrilling sight!”‘ – the issue remains caught in the perennial paradox that in order for Palestinians to debate on equal terms with their opponents they must already have won the argument and proved their sovereignty to those who refuse to accept it.

Faced with the difficulty of constructing a narrative in the face of such powerful counter-narratives, the novel challenges and interrogates itself, oscillating between fact and fiction in search of a middle path that can carry the truth of both. Ashwour’s voice breaks into the text repeatedly, questioning the decisions she has made about characters, discussing her work in relation to her other books, and revealing the dizzying possibilities open to her as a weaver of stories – a sentiment she finds echoed in a translation of Aristotle cited in the text:

‘The work of the poet is not to narrate that which has happened, but rather that which might happen or is possible in accordance with probability or necessity’.

Seen in this light, this novel, first published in 1998, is in the extraordinary position of being able to enter into dialogue not only with the past but also with the future. With its telescoping of time, that sees, for example, Shagar simultaneously engaged with the events of 1946 and 1972 in Tahrir Square – and its swoops into and out of the future tense – the book seems to extend a line forward to the momentous events that shook the country only last year and takes on an eerily prophetic quality.

Entwining these themes, Ashwour delivers a challenging and complex read that tests the boundaries of communication. Bursting with references and the sheer volume of the ideas it explores and conveys, the novel strains at its seams, spilling out into the world beyond its pages and compelling the reader to engage with what it has to say. The result is passionate, rigorous and shaming.

Spectres by Radwa Ashour, translated from the Arabic by Barbara Romaine (Arabia Books, 2010)

United Arab Emirates: on the money

One thing this quest has taught me is that there’s no harm in trying. You can never predict whether someone will help you from reading their biography or studying their tweets. The worst that can happen when you fire off an email asking for suggestions of books from far-flung corners of the planet is that you receive a grumpy message in reply (rare) or you hear nothing back (more common and completely understandable). But every so often, if you type really nicely and wish double hard, you strike gold.

With this in mind, I sent an email to University of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus of Arabic & Comparative Literature and leading translator Roger Allen back in June this year, asking for advice on some of the Middle Eastern countries I had yet to source books for. As I discovered when I came across an interview with him on the blog Fascinated by the Arab World,  Allen was uniquely placed to help me. Not only does he hold the US’s oldest professorial post for Arabic as a separate language, but he has also translated books by some of Arabic literature’s finest writers, among them Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, whom he met many times.

In spite of his busy schedule, Allen replied with several thoughts. All in all, he confirmed, there was very little available in translation from the Gulf states. However, when it came to the UAE, there was one writer he could recommend with some short story collections in translation: his name was Mohammad Al Murr. I lost no time in looking Al Murr up and within minutes his intriguingly titled The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf was winging its way to me.

Al Murr’s collection spans a cross-section of UAE society. From the businessman flying first-class to the thief rustling camels to please his prostitute girlfriend, Al Murr’s characters are eclectic and often surprising. There is the driving instructor who charms her way into a family circle, the trumpet player with impractical plans for starting a string of businesses, and the middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with owning a talking parrot.

Quirky and intriguing, the stories often deal with the minutiae of existence, showing how a look, a word or even an apparent wink – as in the case of the title work – can change the course of a life. Often these changes centre on small tragedies or victories, as in ‘The Night’s Catch’, in which three boys steal and sell some pigeons from a violent collector in order to pay for a trip to the cinema, but they frequently point to more fundamental shifts. The outstanding ‘Road Accidents’, for example, in which a husband and wife undertake a treacherous drive through fog, testing and exposing the cracks in their relationship along the way, is a masterclass in using small details as chess pieces to play out psychological battles.

In this world where much is left unsaid and people are often at cross purposes to one another – conducting affairs, gossiping about irrelevancies around a sick-bed and, in the case of the children in the collection, bemused by the oddness of the things others take for granted – it is often left to the non-human participants in the stories to act out hidden tensions and desires. While the naughty pet ape Umm Kamil leads her owners a merry dance in ‘Just Standing There, Smiling’, crashing a wedding and at one point even disrupting worship in a mosque, Adoul the monkey becomes the agent of his mistress’s cruel revenge on a servant in ‘The Awesome Lady’.

One or two of the more enigmatic stories, such as ‘The Secret’, in which a boy becomes a mute because of something he witnesses, have an unfinished quality. In addition, the play with dialogue and one-sided conversations, which works brilliantly in stories such as ‘Words, Words, Words’, overwhelms the drive of a few pieces so that occasionally it seems as though Al Murr is more interested in exploring the technical possibilities than developing the action.

Overall, though, this is a fascinating collection. Packed with rich perceptions, it is an intense evocation of people’s lives and concerns. It is also testament to Al Murr’s skill that our faith in the situations he creates does not falter, no matter how bizarre they may be. It will be a long time before I forget the image of Umm Kamil appropriating the bride’s veil during a wedding feast.

The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf by Mohammad Al Murr, translated from the Arabic by Jack Briggs (Motivate Publishing, 1998)

Oman: a rare treat

Last December, when Cairo-based blogger mlynxqualey wrote a post on her excellent Arabic Literature (in English) blog giving me her recommendations for books in translation, Oman proved to be a stumbling block:

‘Someone help me so Morgan doesn’t end up reading something dreadful like Behind the Veil in Oman. I am not saying there are no Omani writers; I’m just saying that, outside of stories published in Banipal, I don’t know of anything in English,’ she wrote.

In fact, it wasn’t until nearly nine months later that an alternative presented itself in the shape of a recommendation from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington. It had recently published a translation of a collection of Omani fairy tales and was happy to send me a copy if I was interested. I needed no second invitation to take a look.

Much like Camara Laye’s The Guardian of the Word (see the Guinea post below), My Grandmother’s Stories: folk tales from Dhofar is a work with big ambitions. As set out in a variety of introductions and prefatory materials, author Khadija bint Alawi Al-Dhahab intends the collection, which is dedicated to ‘His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said and the people of Oman’, not only to preserve the tales that she has gathered and transcribed but also to convey the different lifestyles that were traditional across the Dhofar region. In addition, translator W Scott Chahanovich, who undertook the project as a Fullbright Scholar, regards the recording of such stories as essential to ‘cultivating a sense of Omani nationhood’ and hopes the book will help challenge the fact that ‘the contemporary Arab world is, by and large, still represented by mass media almost exclusively as a monolithic idea’.

If that wasn’t enough to take on in 90 pages, there is also the issue of explaining certain cultural traits that bear on the tales, such as the Omani aversion to bragging and the national admiration for astuteness, and the challenges the author faced transcribing stories told in dialects for which no written form exists. This is further complicated when it comes to translation, with even small metaphors proving challenging to convey, as Chahanovich found when he came to the phrase ‘a cut of your hand’:

‘Confused by the phrase, I consulted the Omani student translators [with whom I was working]. “A cut of the hand,” they explained, is a local colloquial adynaton – a figure of speech expressed in hyperbole that conveys an impossibility. At first, “when pigs fly” seemed most suitable for an English children’s fable; but this is both religiously inappropriate and culturally irrelevant. Islam, like Judaism, prohibits the consumption of pork. Also, there are no pigs in Oman. Choosing “when pigs fly” would be insulting to Omanis and would disregard the cultural particularity of this region, the setting represented in the tales.

‘Instead, I chose another popular adynaton in Arabic, the image of which is shared in other Western versions of the English “when pigs fly”: the cow. In Arabic, the expression is, “when cows go to Mecca to perform Hajj [the religious pilgrimage]”. This is too long and culturally dense to include in an English children’s story. […] Therefore I chose the phrase “when cows fly”.’

With so much going on behind the scenes, you might expect the stories to show signs of strain and awkwardness. Not a bit of it. Lively, witty and original, the tales flow as though they are being told as you read by a seasoned storyteller who combines a sound knowledge of Omani traditions with a gift for creative embellishments when the occasion demands. This is a world where foxes make deals with camel traders, wells produce magical rams, and genies transform puppets into living brides for princes.

The stories often have a dark side too. There is Princess Salma, who has her limbs amputated by a jealous genie ‘insistent that he would not leave her alone until she was in the worst pain imaginable’, and the foolish old couple Shaq and Shurambaq, who kill their grandchild because of their ignorance. Even suicidal thoughts make an appearance in ‘The Poor Woodcutter’.

The advantage of this is that the stakes are nearly always high, making for some gripping stories. It also gives rise to some intrepid women characters, who, while they might need to use disguise or ingenuity to overcome the limitations placed on them by society, nearly always carry the day. Hearteningly there is repeated emphasis on the value of women being clever and shrewd and the importance of marriage being a meeting of minds. Even the unfortunate Salma triumphs in the end, though she pays dearly and disturbingly for the privilege of keeping her chastity intact along the way.

Now and again the moral message seems a bit like an afterthought. You can almost feel the adult narrator reaching the end of a graphic tale of derring-do and adding on a neat little observation out of a sense of duty. In addition, some of the tales finish a little abruptly. The book is also not helped by a formatting glitch that means the contents list page numbers do not match up with the stories.

All in all, though, this is a strong, intriguing and welcome taste of a literature that has until now been off-limits to English-language readers. Let’s hope it’s the first of many to come.

My Grandmother’s Stories: folk tales from Dhofar collected and transcribed by Khadija bint Alawi al-Dhahab, translated by W Scott Chahanovich, Munira Al-Ojaili, Fatima Al-Mashani, Muna Al-Mashani, Muna Saffrar, illustrated by Fatima bint Alawi Muqaybil (Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, 2012)

Palestine: shifting boundaries

When I started this project, I wasn’t expecting to read a book from Palestine. The list of 196 sovereign states I was working from did not include the Middle Eastern nation, which has received only partial international recognition since the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948.

However, in June I decided to change from my original Western-influenced list to a list of countries that have received some degree of acknowledgement from the United Nations as a more global measure of statehood. In practice, this simply meant swapping Kosovo for Palestine – although it is not a UN member, Palestine is recognised as a non-member entity by the UN and has permanent observer status at all UN meetings.

To this end, I got in touch with Naela Khalil, a leading Palestinian journalist and winner of the prestigious Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press whom I was lucky enough to interview earlier this year. She very kindly contacted many writers on my behalf to find out who had work in translation. A lot of the people she wrote to did not have books available in English, but in July she emailed to tell me that she had had a reply from Mahmoud Shukair, whom she describes as ‘one of the best writers living in Jerusalem’, with information about his first major publication in English: a collection of short fiction entitled Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats.

Bustling with eccentrics, Shukair’s short stories – and the ‘Vignettes’, ‘And Vignettes’, ‘And More Vignettes’ that make up most of the second half of the book – reveal a world where joy and tragedy hinge on tiny details and casual remarks. There is the chancer who tries to exploit a distant family connection with the pop star Shakira to win special treatment at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, the football-fanatic taxi driver whose tall stories about his friendship with Ronaldo get him beaten up for harbouring spies, and the Israeli border guard of the title who makes a line of people wait for hours because he is paranoid they are laughing at his moustache.

Politics and partition are everywhere, even in the words and images people use in conversation, yet Shukair puts the individuality and humanity of his characters first. He does this by filling his narratives with quirks, tics and details that bring home the personality of those he describes. Often the effect of this is very funny and even surreal, but it can be devastating too, as in ‘The Room’, where the mention of a child’s toys makes the actions of the killer brutally real:

‘He could have been a well-mannered murderer so that we could have found some excuse for him. He could have been a murderer with a good argument, so that we could have had a little admiration for him. But he was pathetic and ugly. Testimony to this was the child’s bedroom, which was ripped apart, his bed, which was burnt, the rabbit, the elephant, the giraffe, the duck and spatters everywhere of his blood. They posed a risk to that ugly murderer who did not have a good argument so that we could have had a little admiration for him.’

There is so much to say about the content of the stories and the window they provide on a world where everything, from getting an education to getting to work, is fraught with difficulty and danger that it is easy to forget the quality of the writing itself. Ranging from bald and stark statements, as in the extract above, to the absurdist and occasionally cryptic tropes of some of the vignettes, many of which read more as extended metaphors than as literal descriptions, Shukair’s prose is urgent and engrossing. He writes interestingly about the influence of Hemingway on his work in the final section, ‘Talking About Writing’, and it is possible to recognise something of that stripped-back style in this translation, although Shukair has many other techniques up his sleeve, not least a masterful sense of the role of humour in heightening poignancy.

He certainly had me enthralled. I hope it isn’t long before we see more of works coming out in English – I want to read on.

Mordechai’s Moustache and his Wife’s Cats by Mahmoud Shukair, translated from the Arabic by Issa J Boullata, Elizabeth Whitehouse, Elizabeth Winslow and Christina Phillips (Banipal Books, 2007)