Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thirty-Nine Writers

Beirut39: New Writings from the Arab World
Various Authors
Various Translators
Edited by Samuel Shimon
320 pages
Bloomsbury USA
June 8, 2010

Beirut39 is an anthology of poetry, short stories, and novel excerpts put together by the Hay Festival, an annual literary convention described by Bill Clinton as "the Woodstock of the mind." Since its inception in 1988, the Hay Festival has expanded internationally and become particularly well-known in Latin America. On April 15, 2009, it brought together thirty-nine authors in Beirut, Lenanon. According to a panel of judges, these authors represent the most promising Arab writers under the age of forty. They hail not only from North Africa and the Middle East, but also from the Arab Diaspora in North America and Western Europe. Most write in Arabic, but others prefer French and even English.

As Abdo Wazen explains in the introduction, there is no longer simply "Syrian literature" or "Egyptian poetry." Arab literature is a global phenomenon that reflects the movement of Arab peoples all over the world and their embrace of the Internet and the information age. Many of the writers represented in the anthology are foreign-educated, have lived abroad, and are probably multilingual. Naturally, their work is influenced by myriad literary currents and has moved beyond the ideological molds that characterized their forebears in the '60s and '70s. Young Arab writers are united, says Abdo, by "their tone of protest, and their rebellion against traditional literary culture." They are individualists who "aim to express their personal concerns as they see fit, freely and spontaneously." Abdo also claims that they compose a collective "youthful realist novel, or neo-realist novel, or fantastic novel or post-modern novel," but I think that's a bit much. They're too diverse for that.

Although my knowledge of Arab literature is limited (I've only read The Story of Zahra and Season of Migration to the North), I feel that I just had an amazing introduction to its most current incarnation. Although I enjoyed all the pieces in Beirut39, I have decided to highlight my favorites below.

Abdelaziz Errachidi, from Bedouins on the Edge (translated by Alexa Firat)

An excerpt that initially comes across as a detective story: an elegant car crashes in the Moroccan desert but the occupants are missing. The townsfolk are entranced by the mystery, especially a local outcast known only as al-mahjub. As truth and fiction merge together, the story takes on the feeling of an hallucination, like a mirage shimmering on the sandy horizon.

Abdelkader Benali, from The Trip to the Slaughterhouse (translated by Susan Massotty)

A young, unnamed boy lives with his sister and Moroccan-born parents in the Netherlands. His father, an otherwise distant man, becomes strangely happy once a month when he gets to take a trip. No one will tell the boy where his father goes even though they're also careful to emphasize that it's really not a secret. The mood is characterized by tension: of things left unsaid, of culture clash and the rifts between tradition and modernity, of the disagreements between parents. Tension reinforces that trace of menace: why is his father always so eager to visit a slaughterhouse?

Abdellah Taia, "The Wounded Man" (translated from French by Frank Wynne)

A cross between "Death in Venice" and an essay on French film. Late at night, a young Moroccan professor surreptitiously watches a banned movie on a foreign channel as his mother sleeps on the couch next to him, oblivious. The professor, a closeted gay man, is caught up in the violent, forbidden desires enacted to a tragic end by the two male leads. Like Mann's Aschenbach, he perceives something transcendent arising from his awakened passion: the power of cinema to reach across cultures and transform a viewer worlds away.

Abderrahim Elkhassar, "Amazigh" (translated by Tristan Cranfield)

A poem about a disaffected Moroccan who links his introverted, non-conformist nature to a wildly romanticized (and possibly imaginary) ancestor, "the Amazigh king of old" who lived a life in tune with nature. Perhaps the speaker's internal dissonance arises from his living on another's land, away from the home of his forebears. ("Amazigh" is the Berbers' name for themselves.)

Ahmad Saadawi, from Frankenstein in Baghdad (translated by Anne Shaker)

An impoverished denizen of Baghdad collects scrap from the local dumps and sells it. Considered an odd one by his neighbors, he is obsessed with human waste, be it household trash or the body parts strewn about in the wake of suicide bombers. He is building a person on the roof of his building, a mad attempt at reassembly from the dehumanizing horrors of war. And then patchwork corpse up and disappears.

Bassim al Ansar, three poems (translated by Robin Moger)

"An Outing," "A Life Surrounded by Trees," and "A Panorama of Wonder" are difficult to explain yet I found their dreamlike imagery and unexpected juxtapositions enjoyable to read. The last one is rich in irony. The present war in Iraq is described in a nonchalant voice that jars with the eerie metaphors.

Dima Wannous, two stories (translated by Ghenwa Hayek)

The title characters of "Hanan" and "Jihad" are residents of Damascus, whose scenic beauty is brought to life through Wannous's sharp, clear prose. In the former, a beautiful, woman reclines on her balcony with a cup of coffee, enjoying the stillness of the early morning and reflecting on the vitality of her latest lover. In the latter, the son of a legendary government minister is sitting alone in his opulent mansion. He has been trying to find fulfillment by indulging in high culture and has sought, vainly, to become a creator in his own right. The confident attitude revealed through the litany of luxuries doesn't quite mask Jihad's hidden insecurity.

Faïza Guène, "Mimouna" (translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone)

Mimouna, our narrator, tells us the story of her life from before her birth in Algeria to the birth of her first granddaughter in France. Her tone is conversational, as though she is speaking directly to the reader, but gradually evolves from the exasperation of one forced into the world to the settled voice of an old woman. Are we where we are by mere chance, being born only to die, or is there a divine will at work? Allah knows what he is doing, Mimouna concludes, we're here for a reason.

Hyam Yared, "Layla's Belly" (translated from French by Frank Wynne)

Post-war Beirut tries to forget its pain in bars and clubs. Layla is disgusted but she joins them anyway, bringing home man after man and trying to convince herself she's having oodles of fun. Bitter and cynical, the prose reflects the true feelings she tries to deny. Until she meets Will, who woes her with talk of the soul. But he's no different.

Mansour El Souwaim, from The Threshold of Ashes (translated by Rowan al Faqih)

This one is confusing, which leads me to wonder if they began this excerpt in the wrong place and I'm missing context? But Souwaim's dark, feverish prose won me over, beginning in a nighttime haze and then recovering itself as the narrator emerges from his illness. A strange story of blackmail and debauchery begins. Very reminiscent of Season of Migration to the North, I thought, and then noted that Souwaim is also Sudanese and had, in fact, been awarded the Tayeb Salih Award for Creative Writing.

Mansoura Ez Eldin, "The Path to Madness" (translated by Haroon Shirwani)

A creepy Egyptian story summed up by its title. The primary narrator, a single woman living alone in an apartment complex, is intrigued and disturbed by her odd neighbor. On the one hand, she is completely straightforward. Yet her account is disorienting, seeming to circle and circle around itself before finally collapsing.

Mohammad Hassan Alwan, "Haneef from Glasgow" (translated by Anthony Calderbank)

A bittersweet tale about the hardships faced by international migrant workers employed as servants in Saudi Arabia. The narrator is not Haneef himself but the grown son of the wealthy family he spent twenty years chauffeuring. We hear very little of Haneef's voice, only the narrator's childhood memories of him, which speaks strongly about Haneef's subordinate position. He is a Pakistani with three daughters back home in war-torn Kashimir. Now in Glasgow, he is even further away from them. You miss your old driver??? The narrator's wife is disbelieving.

Najwa Binshatwan, "The Pools and the Piano" (translated by Ghenwa Hayek)

A story of life during a tumultuous period in Libya. Seen through the eyes of a child, the bonfire of foreign books and Western instruments loses much of its political immediacy, taking on instead the appearance of a fun and interesting event. Divisions between Libyans and other national/ethnic groups arise out of fairy tales. The touches of magic realism give the narrative an almost Latin American feel.

Rabee Jaber, from America (translated by Marilyn Booth)

A vivid, hellish description of an Egyptian-American doughboy's experiences on the battlefields of World War I.

Randa Jarrar, "The Story of My Building" (English)

A ten-year-old boy lives with his extended family in al-Zarqah, the poorest neighborhood in Gaza. He shares a room with his sister, is top in class at school, and enjoys playing with his neighbor's pigeons. His otherwise happy life is punctured all too often by violent death: of his immigrant uncle in Detroit, of his other uncle who hijacked a plane, of the intermittent battles outside. He returns one morning to find his building gone and his favorite pigeon dead. A story that is simple, sweet, and brutal all at once.

Samar Yezbek, from The Scent of Cinnamon (translated by Haroon Shirwani)

A beam of light cutting across the corridor awakens the mistress to a tryst between her husband and her maid. But all is not what it seems. The prose is charged and dramatic, reflecting the heightened emotions of the two women as the betrayal is revealed to be even greater than expected.

Zaki Baydoun, nine poems (translated by Tristan Cranfield)

A collection of nine mixed verse/prose poems. Casual in tone, cosmic in perspective.

The Guardian has a more general review that covers the trends and styles represented by this sampling of young Arab writers.

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program


Amy said...

Great review. I'm really looking forward to reading this myself.

Emily said...

Wow, I don't normally gravitate toward wide-ranging collections of short fiction/poetry like this, but several of your descriptions have me very intrigued! Maybe I'll have to check this out sometime...

E. L. Fay said...

Amy: Awesome. More people need to read contemporary Arab literature, especially now.

Emily: I usually don't read anthologies like this either. But I know so little about Arab literature I felt it would be a great introduction. And I was right!

Emily said...

Ah yes, "anthology." There's the word I was looking for. :-P

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