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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Great Arabic Love Stories

As part of The Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read bonanza, Ahdaf Soueif has selected five Arabic novels as part of today's "Love" issue. Soueif's punchy pull-out section is brilliant, claiming that "you could argue that the first narrative to emerge from what has come to be called the Middle East was the first love story of all time: the story of Isis and Osiris" and providing a swift history of writing about love in Arabic: most of it is excluded from the Guardian's selection because "the art form of record for the Arabs has always been poetry, and Arabic love poetry runs in an unbroken tradition from the 7th century until this day." On the other hand, the "novel form entered Arabic in the early 20th century and, as with most western imports of the time, it took root first in Egypt and greater Syria (now Syria, Palestine and Lebanon) - then in the rest of the Arab world," becoming "the art form of choice for depictions and critiques of societal norms and explorations of the great questions of the age."

Romantic love, argues Soueif, resonates in the novels she has chosen as it reveals questions of tradition vs. modernity, gendered and generational conflictions, ethnicity and sexuality, concluding that "the Arab novel is concerned with love, but cannot see it or deal with it independently of society." Her selections bear this out:

Latifa al-Zayyat: al-Bab al-Maftouh (1960)
Naguib Mahfouz: Cairo trilogy (1956-57)
Colette Khoury: Ayyam Ma'ah (1959)
Enayat el-Zayyat: Al-Hubb w'al-Samt (1967)
Layla al-Juhani: Jahiliyya (2006)

Bearing out the confluence of romance and politics, Khoury -- whose breakthrough novel shocked Syrian society with its depiction of female sexuality, in a semi-autobiographical account of her affair with Nizar Qabbani -- was last week announced as Syria's first ambassador to Lebanon, having served for a year as President Assad's literary advisor.

Mahfouz aside, Soueif emphasises the achievements of Arab women writers in using love and the erotic as prisms through which to consider social and political questions, particularly as conceptions of love have direct impact on their lives and imaginative possibilities. The "Love" issue is rich with women writers from around the world; it will be interesting to see if this gender parity is maintained in future issues (including Science Fiction and Fantasy). And The Cairo Trilogy aside, only Al-Bab Al-Maftouh has been translated into English (published by AUC). Al-Zayyat's novel is so influential that it has spurred a "We Are All Laila," a collective blog by young Egyptian feminists still fighting the same battles to open doors that confronted Laila, Al-Zayyat's protagonist, in 1960.

Also striking is that, apart from Amin Maalouf's Samarkand, no Arabic novels make the grade in the wider selection. Will Woman at Point Zero be selected for the "Family & Self" issue? And what Arabic novels do you think the panel could have considered for inclusion in their top 1000?


susannah said...

Some suggestions: Ghassan Kanafani's "Men in the Sun", Hanan al-Shaykh's "The Story of Zahra", Tayib Saleh's "Season of Migration to the North", Salwa Bakr's "The Golden Chariot". As for which Guardian categories of its "1000" these books fall into, one could argue about that for some time!

PEN Atlas said...

Definitely Tayib Saleh! Over the whole list, I think North African literature fared even worse than Middle Eastern (for what those terms are worth). But as the list progressed, I thought more about just what an exclusionary category the novel is, as a Western form that depends on leisured readers -- and yet one that excludes and obscures sources such as The Arabian Nights....

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