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The Atlas is proud to be partnering with the Hay Festival's Beirut39 contest, celebrating Beirut's year as UNESCO World Book Capital, to find the hottest authors under 40 of Arabic origin. Nominations are open until August 24th, 2009.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Girls of Riyadh Go to Dublin & Samir El-Youssef in Belgium

Susannah Tarbush reports in the Saudi Gazette that Rajaa Alsanea's The Girls of Riyadh has been longlisted for the Dublin/IMPAC award for fiction, which was won last year by Canadian-based Lebanese writer Rawi Hage's YA novel De Niro's Game. Tarbush notes that, along with Alaa Al-Aswany, Alsanea and Hage
have broken through into the Western literary mainstream, which has been a stimulus for Arab literature. Publishers are increasingly interested in publishing translations of Arabic writing, and are on the lookout for new Arab authors who may have mass readership appeal.

She also flags up Saqi's publication of David Tresilian's A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature; her discussion of the book suggests some of the tensions between the EuroWestern emphasis on mass market popular publishing and the current practice and status of literature in the Arabic world, according to Tresilian, who sees:
three main trends on the contemporary Arab literary scene: a weariness with politics, a growth in the number of women writers, and a related emphasis on individual experience at the expense of larger public themes. A further development has been regional writing, as exemplified by Nubian writers and by the Libyan Ibrahim al-Koni whose novels are set among the Tuareg people.

Recently there has been a turning away from European literary models and towards elements from the pre-modern literary heritage and from the oral and popular culture. But ominously there has also been a growing intolerance of literary expression generally, “which has made what was always perhaps a minority activity into one that is now that of a sometimes embattled minority.”

Alsanea's novel, however, points to a fourth trend that mediates between what Tresilian perceives as a turning away from literature as popular expression: as a novel based on, and presented like, an email listserv, Girls of Riyadh is one of a growing number of novels (like Being Abbas El-Abd and The Poison Tree that use the popularity of new media communications as a form and forum for fiction, resulting in popular - and in all three cases, taboo- and genre-busting - novels with both regional and international presence.

Evidence: the IMPAC nomination for Alsanea's novel came, according to Tarbush, from a librarian in Warsaw.

And Tarbush is spot-on in drawing attention to the raised international profile of Arabic literature, although some authors pursue a different tack from Alsanea's gossipy, technologically-astute take on Sex and the City, which explores gendered double standards of life in Saudi Arabia, but also implies a gradual change (seconded, as the NYT reports, by the appearance of the first female Saudi rock band, The Accolade). Over at Words Without Borders, Arnon Grunberg catches London-based Lebanese author Samir El-Youssef in a humorous mood in Antwerp. El-Youssef's second novel A Treaty of Love is bleakly romantic, but in Antwerp he proves adept at turning his mordant view of life to stand-up (or rather, sit-down comedy).

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