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Let’s all pledge to read at least one Arabic novel this year!

March 3, 2010

Abdo Khai

Sometimes it seems the older I get, the less cynical I become, a thought occasioned by the announcement that a Saudi Arabian writer named Abdo Khai has won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles, said to be a satire on the corruptions of wealth and power.

Called “the Arab Booker” (the British Man Booker is a sponsor), the prize carries a $60,000 award, and elevates Khai to the top ranks of Arab literature. As far as I can tell, you won’t be able to read the novel in English translation any time soon. But then, it’s not available in Saudi Arabia, either.

The novel is also known as She Throws Sparks, with both titles referring to a verse in the Koran in which infidels are warned of the torments of Hell (Sura 77, Aya 31), according to The National, an English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The novel is a rapid-fire “account of sex, repression, love and despair” about “the destructive impact that power and limitless wealth has on society.”

Wait — you mean Muslims have these moral quandaries, too? That’s what makes me all dewy-eyed and idealistic when I read about something like this. Maybe, after all, the pen is mightier than the sword — nah, no chance of that. But perhaps story, storytelling, and the exchange of culture can help us find our common humanity.

And not only by highlighting what we have in common, but also by communicating, via story, some of the ways we are different. Different is good, don’t you know, as long as we agree not to kill one another over it. As an example of some the most readily observable differences, consider the terms in which one of the judges praised Khai and his novel:

“The winning novel is a brilliant exploration of the relationship between the individual and the state,” said Kuwaiti writer Taleb Alrefai who chaired the judging panel, as reported by Reuters. “Through the eyes of its two-dimensional protagonist, the book gives the reader a taste of the horrifying reality of the excessive world of the palace.”

Can you imagine any American or British judge praising an English-language novel for its “two-dimensional protagonist”? Me, neither. There’s something very interesting going on here, some cultural discontinuity, and aren’t you thrilled to discover it, and the possibility of bridging it? I know I am.

The more I learn about Khai, the more fascinated I become. The Arts Fuse reports on an interview between Jonatan Levi, co-founder of Granta magazine, and Khai that took place at an unspecified time in the past. Khai, it turns out, grew up poor in southern Saudi Arabia. After his father died, his mother moved to Jeddah.

Troubled by his fixation on girls, Khai’s mother sent him to Riyadh, which Khai says was “like Siberia–if you wanted to punish someone you sent them to Riyadh.” The man he lived with had a large library, with Dickens, Hugo, Mahfouz, but at 14 Khai found religion and became an Islamic fundamentalist street preacher.

Some friends from the south came to visit, and took Khai to see a movie called The Cow, which he describes as “pure porn!” The next day, the friends climbed a tree outside the U.S. Consulate to spy on the women in bikinis around the swimming pool. “So I stopped preaching and started writing.”

Is that a charming story, or what? You may call me a dreamer, but I fervently believe much of the tension between the West and the Islamic world could be lessened if we merely took the time to read their novels and get to know their writers.

In that spirit, the other writers short-listed for the Arab Booker: Rabai Al-Madhoun, The Lady from Tel Aviv (Palestinian); Mansoura Ez Eldin, Beyond Paradise (Egyptian);  Rabee Jaber, America (Lebanese); Mohamed Mansi Qandil, A Cloudy Day on the West Side (Egyptian); Jamal Naji, When the Wolves Grow Old (Jordanian).

Don’t you think it’s a good idea to read more books in translation? Time was, we could only encounter alien cultures as mediated through Western writers, like Joseph Conrad or Sir Richard Burton or Freya Stark, all of whom produced outstanding books still worth reading.

But now we can go directly to the source. So let’s pledge to read at least one Arabic novel this year — who is with me? Oh, and report back here, please.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    March 3, 2010 2:15 pm

    Count me in. Which title will you read?

    I hope Mr. Lababidi (sorry, just Yahia) chimes in with some recommendations. The little I have been able to read from his “Signposts to Elsewhere” which includes provoking and true thoughts like – “With enigmatic clarity, Life gives us a different answer each time we ask her the same question.” I have been impressed.

    Love the story about The Cow and the bikinis giving life to a new writer.

    I am not as convinced as you that reading works by authors from the Islamic world will ease tensions noticeably, but it is a great beginning for deeper understanding.

    Is it physical age or maturity of mind that has made you less cynical?

    There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.
    – Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902-1903

    What the hell does he know.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 3, 2010 2:27 pm

    Some great mid-20th century philosopher, can’t remember his name, said it best: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” The young, with their fresh synapses and untrammeled sensibilities, are better at everything: No older person can be as jaded as your average 13-year-old, nor as cynical as your average undergrad English major, nor as pessimistic as your average masters candidate. Experience brings not only diminished capacity, but also a deepening appreciation for nuance, complexity and humanity. I realize how outrageously self-flattering this all is, if you look at it closely, but there’s at least some truth to it, too. Besides, I like it a lot better than the cliche that we all become more conservative as we get older. Not me, pal. Not me.

    I like the Twain quote. I also like George Bernard Shaw’s remark: “Youth is wasted on the young.”

    As for Arabic novels: The easiest thing would be to start with Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner. He’ll be easiest to find, I’m sure. But I hope some brave souls will seek out the less-well-known novelists of the present day. By the way, Orhan Pamuk, another Nobel Prize winner, doesn’t count in this pledge. Read him, by all means, but keep in mind, he’s a Turk, not an Arab, and he does not write in Arabic.

    • Tommy permalink
      March 3, 2010 3:12 pm

      Well being young(ish) the complexity of your comment is lost on me. Cause I am young, young, young, young, just ask this mirror here. I have too agree with you though about being a jaded thirteen year old. How stupid and useless everything under the sun was back then.

      I am also better at being indecisive than older folks, I think, well… maybe, sort of.

      Back to Arabic writers I will take your pledge and report back once I have found a tasty novel. Thanks.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 3, 2010 3:16 pm

        Don’t worry, Tommy. Stick around, you’ll find youth is a self-correcting condition.

      • Tommy permalink
        March 3, 2010 3:33 pm


  3. Candice permalink
    March 3, 2010 2:31 pm

    Reading may help. But I learned to appreciate the similarities and differences between the Islamic world on ours by visiting Morocco. Talking to the actual man on the street–helps immensley in understanding why maybe some of them don’t like us much. And why more of them love us.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 3, 2010 2:42 pm

      Mark Twain agrees with you, Candice: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

      But travel alone is not sufficient — some people, in experiencing new peoples and cultures, find their prejudices confirmed rather than smashed. “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass.” (Yes, there is a Twain quote for all occasions and most sides of any discussion).

      In addition, many of us may never have the chance to visit Morocco, or Egypt, or Jordan, or Abu Dhabi, and speak to the man on the street in those places. In books we will meet our Arab fellows.

  4. Marzi Kaplan permalink
    March 3, 2010 2:48 pm

    Chauncey writes: “[B]y ‘travel books’ I mean books you read while in transit, not books about, you know, travel.”

    Marzi responds: “Aw, Chauncey, you’ve erected a lectern from which Doug, my beloved spouse, will sermonize about the Kindle’s easing of travel weight and woe. Yet I–a sometime-Luddite and fulltime loyalist–remain heartened by the heft of the bound book. ‘A book in the hand is worth two for the kindling.’ Hugs. Marzi”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 3, 2010 2:59 pm

      Marzi, always a pleasure to hear from one of my favorite and most erudite book-loving correspondents. So Doug as progressed from audio books to the Kindle? I’d call that change I can believe in.

  5. rachel permalink
    March 3, 2010 3:17 pm

    I agree Chauncey Mabe. I very much do think that an exchange of reading would lessen the tension. I think that it’s all about familiarity. For the same reason that Mark Twain says that travel kills prejudice and bigotry. This brings me to mind the movie “Milk” which I just watched for a class I am taking. In the movie they make special care to point out how Harvey Milk encourages all of his friends and supporters to “come out” to their friends and families and co-workers, because: “They’ll vote for us 2 to 1,” Milk said, “if they know one of us.”

    This all makes sense. It’s fear of the unknown that makes us, human beings, so hateful. I fully support this reading campaign Chauncey Mabe. What’s first?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 3, 2010 4:48 pm

      Well, as I said above, but it bears repeating in case you haven’t read all the comments, the easiest place to start is with the Egyptian Nobelist, Naguib Mahfouz. Many of his novels are easily available in translation, and they’ve also been widely reviewed, so it’s easy to find out if what he does is to your taste. I’d love to get hold of some of these year’s Arab Book nominees, especially Abdo Khai, but I’ll have to investigate whether any of them are available in English. America is a country notorious for not reading in translation, and I can only imagine Arab novels are in even less demand than Italian, German, Swedish, Portuguese or Spanish ones.

  6. Candice permalink
    March 3, 2010 3:24 pm

    You’re right once again, Chauncey Mabe. Remember that little metaphor?

    Six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body.

    The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

    A wise man explains to them:

    “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.”

    Now back to the books….

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 3, 2010 4:52 pm

      Yes, that’s a great metaphor, handy-dandy for almost any situation, and especially appropriate for this one.

      I want to say, though, that what we are looking for is not only the universal humanity common to all cultures, but also precisely what is most alien and different. Alien and different are good things, spices that liven up the cultural cuisine….How sad it will be if the entire world becomes Americanized. I should say, how sadly boring. And that’s no slam on America or American culture. I love American culture. But I like to have my thoughts, feelings and expectations shaken up a bit, too.

      • Candice permalink
        March 3, 2010 5:05 pm

        It’s perception v. reality.

        But certainly I agree about the differences.

  7. March 3, 2010 4:54 pm

    I was so much younger then, I am older than that now. Did Neil Young put that in a song? The Yard Birds sing it? Read. Read, Read, I was at a book reading the other day and told the children. I explained so very much, in many different ways, ” That reading is a gate way to all your dreams. Reading will give you a chance in your whole life. “Reading will travel with you through out time”

    You want to write. You have to know how to read. You want to teach math. You have to know how to read. You want to be a chief, you have to know how to read. You want to be Mayor of PurpleUmpkin. You have to know how to read. Read from authors from around the world and you travel with them and understand .

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 3, 2010 5:21 pm

      Candice: Everything in human existence is perception, I do believe.

      Mike: It’s Dylan — how can a Boomer like you not know that? “My Back Pages,” for Pete’s sake!

  8. Connie permalink
    March 3, 2010 5:02 pm

    Well, all right, I’ll pledge to read one. ONE!

  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 3, 2010 5:21 pm

    Which one you pledging yourself to, Connie?

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 3, 2010 5:29 pm

    A few suggestions:

    Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (“violence and corruption in Cairo”) sounds like fun.

    So does Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (“sexual obsession in Britain and Sudan”).

    Okay. Two. More to come, I’m sure.

  11. John Karwacki permalink
    March 3, 2010 10:45 pm

    There you go challenging my apathy again. Thanks, Chauncey. Close as I’ve come is reading Crichton’s “Eaters Of the Dead” back in the 80’s after someone left it on a boat I drove. The story was somehow based on a muslim writer in the 10th century who traveled north and ran into a crazy bunch of Vikings. Alright, I’m in. I do agree that ignorance breeds fear while familiarity tends to ease it. I’m all about letting go of my fears. Another though provoking blog, thanks again.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 4, 2010 2:09 am

      Hey! I loved Eaters of the Dead. What a great hunk of pulp that book is. Yes, based on the writings of an actual 10th century Muslim ambassador, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan — but also based heavily on Beowulf, and on the notion that Neanderthals still lived in the Nordic regions in historic times and came in conflict with the Vikings. I’m not saying it’s a great book, or even a very good one, but it is great, cheesy fun. Also made in a not-very-good but terrifically entertaining movie, The 13th Warrior, with Antonio Banderas as ibn Fadlan.

      John, let us know what Arab novel you decide to take up, and what your reaction to it is.

  12. Tommy permalink
    March 4, 2010 12:28 am

    This is not about a novel or about Arabic authors:

    Monday, March 8th at 7:45 a screening of
    Xiaolu Guo’s (of “Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth” notoriety) film
    “Once Upon a Time Proletarian” will be held in Miami as part of the Miami International Film Festival.

    Film description:
    Novelist-director Xiaolu Guo’s wonderfully spontaneous, revealing look at clashing realities in contemporary China consists of interviews with individuals drawn from across post-Marxist Chinese society. Stories of yearning, loss and dreams unfold as the film presents twelve distinct sections, each exploring an individual aspect of modern China’s sociopolitical landscape: an old peasant who has lost his land; a rich Beijing businessman chatting with his mate in a stock exchange office; a young migrant who came to the big city to wash cars; an aging weapons factory worker longing for the days of Mao; a successful hotel owner praising his government’s liberal economic policies; and frustrated small-town teenagers whose dream is to become famous Western artists. Contemplating a vast and complex society whose citizens are searching for new beliefs and identities after the country’s great revolutionary days, this film demonstrates how the modern individual stands in conflict with his time and history.

  13. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 4, 2010 2:11 am

    Thanks for the tip. As you know I am a keen admirer of Xiaolu Guo’s novel, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, but alas I will be otherwise engaged and unable to attend this screening. If any of you fine people go, lease let us know how it is.

  14. mlynxqualey permalink
    March 4, 2010 5:41 am

    No (it won’t likely be in English soon). However, you can read an excerpt from it. But the excerpt doesn’t really render that well (poor choice of excerpt? poor translation?). I was rooting for America or A Cloudy Day on the West Side or The Lady from Tel Aviv to win.

    Suggested recent Arabic-language novels (publication dates are the English-language ones):

    *Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun (2005), Yalo (2009), White Masks (2010). For Yalo, I suggest the Humphrey Davies translation. So: Archipelago, Quercus, Archipelago.
    *Sonallah Ibrahim’s Stealth (2010). Aflame Books.

    For the most fun, not the most literary:
    *Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi (2008). Aflame.

    For those with particular interest in the Arabic-booker list, Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s earlier novel, Moon Over Samarqand (2009). AUC Press.

    What else is new and fun? The memoir Life is More Beautiful than Paradise, Khaled al-Berry (2009). AUC Press.

    More here:

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 4, 2010 12:21 pm

      We are all indebted here to you — finally! Someone who knows something about contemporary Arabic fiction and its availability in English. I must say, I find the titles Moon Over Samarqand and, especially, Life is More Beautiful than Paradise to be extemely appealing.

      Okay. Let’s all get to work reading some Arab novels. Report back here as you can.

  15. March 4, 2010 12:46 pm

    Bob D and Chauncey M will be mad at me for that one. It kept going off in my head. I think it was lost in the vast meadows of flowers up there.

  16. Connie permalink
    March 5, 2010 7:21 pm

    I was going to go with Mahfouz or something classic. I’m extremely ignorant when it comes to Arab novels. I think I need to start slowly. Say, does The Kite Runner count???

  17. Connie permalink
    March 6, 2010 9:23 am

    Well, I’ve searched my stacks and come up with NO Mahfouz. I did find In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2006. Maybe I’ll read that instead.

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