Book of the month: Najwa Barakat


Since my visit to Dubai at the start of December, I’ve been reading a fair bit of Arabic fiction. The last few weeks have seen me venturing into stories by writers from several of the 22 Arab nations, but particularly from Egypt. These have included popular contemporary titles such as Alaa al-Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt, as well as revered classics like Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley. (Incidentally, Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel laureate, is one of the writers people contact me about most frequently and after this, my first foray into his acclaimed body of work, I can see why: the man was a consummate storyteller and I have no doubt that I’ll be working my through many of his books in the years to come.)

However, much as I enjoyed these well-known works, I was keen to find something less widely covered to tell you about. And so it was that I picked up Oh Salaam! by the Lebanese writer Najwa Barakat, a title I heard about first through M Lynx Qualey, who runs the Arabic Literature (in English) blog and has just released a tempting list of 15 notable titles appearing in English translation next year.

Set in an unnamed, war-torn city (which many readers will inevitably identify as Beirut), Oh Salaam! follows the fortunes of former bombmaker Luqman and his surviving associates as they try to make the best of an uneasy peace. The game-plan is to capitalise on their killer instincts by setting up shop as rat exterminators – a much-needed service in a city where the destruction of basic infrastructure has created serious vermin problems. But as Luqman, Najeeb and the female title character Salaam attempt to build new lives for themselves, it becomes clear that the devastation surrounding them is only a mild reflection of the ruination of their own minds.

This is a book of wildly contrasting registers. Writer Eyad Houssami has called it ‘pulp fiction’ and it’s easy to see why: there is a rough, picaresque, graphic caste to much of the storytelling. Violence is unflinchingly and copiously described, sex scenes are unapologetically vivid, and there is much greater explicitness around bodily functions than many readers of Anglophone literary fiction will be used to.

However, the novel is much more than the sum of these parts. It is funny, insightful and challenging. Some passages of interior monologue recall the paranoid, self-questioning of the creations of writers such as Salinger, Orwell and, yes, Mahfouz. And amid the narrative’s cacophony and at times almost breathless recounting of incident, there are odd flashes of beauty in the writing.

In many ways, this collision of styles is an entirely fitting way to portray life in this ‘end-times city’. In a place where public executions become the setting for casual sexual encounters and doormen turn blackmailers, where once-grand buildings lie broken and important archaeological sites are threatened by bulldozers, violent juxtaposition is the only constant.

This plays out particularly interestingly in Barakat’s treatment of gender dynamics. Seeing the world at first largely through Luqman’s eyes readers are exposed to a cold, calculating and deeply misogynistic perspective, which is redeemed only by the protagonist’s awareness of his own limitations. However, when the camera shifts, we see something of Salaam’s views on men and discover a much more nuanced and layered reality than the opening chapters might suggest.

Inevitably, however, the hotchpotch nature of the narrative carries risk. At times the plotting feels loose to the point of ragged. There are odd repetitions and overuses of certain phrases that may have been present in the original or may have crept in at the translation stage. Though some of Barakat’s similes spear ideas precisely, others clatter wide of the mark. The swinging between perspectives and registers can also make for a disorientating reading experience, in which it can be hard to know where to pin our sympathies.

Some of this is no doubt deliberate, however. Because Barakat clearly does not intend her book to be a comfortable read; it is too full of urgency, anger and despair at humankind’s inadequacy in the face of great disaster for that. Instead, those who give themselves over to her narrative will be swept into a powerful simulation of the mental havoc that physical violence wreaks and the blinkers that people often have to assume in order to survive. A difficult but vital insight, particularly for those of us sitting in comfort half a world away.

Oh Salaam! by Najwa Barakat, translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren (Interlink Books, 2015)

Picture: Bombed commercial centre by M Asser on

Lebanon: the greatest story ever told?

I will always be grateful to Cairo-based book blogger M Lynx Qualey. Shortly after I launched this project to try to read a book from every country in the world, she wrote a post giving me her tips on the top Arab books available in English from the last five years. It was the first of many instances of kindness from people all over the world whose support and interest are making it possible for me to access literature from every sovereign state.

It will probably take me several years to try everything on Qualey’s list. However when I revisited the post recently and saw Hanan al-Shaykh’s retelling of the classic One Thousand and One Nights among the suggestions for Lebanon, I knew I would have to give it a go. After all, its heroine Shahrazad (or Scheherazade as she is more commonly known) is the most referenced figure in all the world literature I’ve read so far this year.

The premise is audacious: when cuckolded King Shahrayar vows to marry a different virgin every night and have her killed the following morning, the vizier’s daughter Shahrazad takes it upon herself to protect her countrywomen by wedding the king and then distracting him from his murderous plans by telling stories so engrossing that he is forced to keep her alive to hear the next instalments.

Facing a level of pressure to perform that not even JK Rowling can have experienced in the run up to the publication of the last Harry Potter novel, Shahrazad has no option but to deliver. Ingenious and playful, she weaves a web of tales bristling with intrigue, erotica and inventiveness. Lovers turn into birds, decapitated heads talk, people are buried alive, and curses and sorcery abound. And as each story draws to a close, it spawns another calculated to keep the King and the reader hooked.

As in Ajit Baral’s The Lazy Conman and Other Stories and Rafik Schami’s Damascus Nights, cunning is prized above honesty, with many of the characters rewarded for using their guile to achieve their ambitions, often at great cost to their slower counterparts.

Shahrazad seems to enjoy sailing close to the wind herself, with many of her stories featuring people who need to save their lives by spinning yarns. ‘I must use my cunning to defeat his demonic wiles and barbarism,’ she has the fisherman say of the jinni in her very first story, as though winking at the reader over the listening king’s head.

The tales become a platform for Shahrazad to air other themes close to her heart too, chief among them the role of women. Her stories feature many strong female characters, among them Zumurrud who cross-dresses to become the wisest king her nation has ever seen, and five sisters who ‘regard men as a deadly disease’ and present a compelling defence of their lives as single women.

Not being familiar with other versions, I can’t tell how much of this comes from the original work and how much Al-Shaykh has reimagined (any insights from other readers would be much appreciated). There’s no doubt however that her narrative (written in English) is lively and approachable, as well as brimming with descriptive delights. The poet Abu Nuwas’s description of women as being ‘capable of sewing knickers for a flea’, for example, is just one of a myriad of memorable images that leap off the page. The only sticking point is the repeated misuse of ‘mortified’ to mean ‘horrified’ – a small niggle, but an irritating one in a novel in which the choice of words has the power to kill or cure.

All in all, though, this book is a delight. Featuring criticism at its most raw, it lays bare the mechanics of great storytelling and throws down the gauntlet for all would-be wordsmiths in the millennia to come. No wonder everyone’s still writing about it.

One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh (Bloomsbury, 2011)