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Arab writing translates into international success

Two books written in Arabic have won English PEN's Writing in Translation award - a sign that literature from the region is beginning to punch its weight.

It's been quite a year for Arabic writing in translation. Miral Al Tahawy's Brooklyn Heights and Youssef Ziedan's Azazeel were both published by major English language imprints. Khaled Mattawa's incredible translation of Adonis's Selected Poems won awards, with the Syrian poet enjoying unprecedented attention in the western media. Work finally began on the Lebanese author Rabee Jaber's bibliography - probably the Arab writer most deserving of an English audience. And Samar Yazbek rightly won the International PEN Pinter Prize for her coruscating revolution diary, Woman in the Crossfire.

The growing sense of momentum surrounding contemporary Arab literature was underlined late last month when the worldwide literary network English PEN announced that two of the six books receiving its 2013 award for Writing in Translation were originally written in Arabic.

The idea of the award is to "recognise translated works of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that contribute to intercultural understanding and promote freedom of expression". This isn't just a nice trophy, however; the winning publishing companies receive a grant to help promote, market and champion the books. And if ever there is a book that should be championed, it is Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus.

The book isn't out until May, but The National was given a sneak preview of three of these "voices" recently. They are among the most moving, inspiring and revealing pieces of non-fiction writing we've come across in some time. Safa Al Ahmed talks of the experience of being Shi'a in Saudi; Mohamed Mesrati details life under Gaddafi in Libya; and Khawla Dunia's "diary of an unfinished revolution" in Syria is on similar heartbreaking territory to that of Samar Yazbek. What makes their achievements all the more staggering is that there's only one previously published author among them. These are personal reflections - and all the better for it.

"The whole idea was to get voices from the Arab world writing about themselves," confirms one of Writing Revolution's editors, Leyla Al Zubaidi. "Most of what is read in the West has been written by western observers, but these are the people who live through the trauma, who maybe blogged about it or posted Facebook updates."

For Al Zubaidi, success would constitute newspaper editors reading the book and asking its contributors for comment on, say, the situation in Syria "rather than just commissioning their foreign correspondents". But is it too soon for Writing Revolution? Even as we spoke, the situation was changing in Egypt again - immediacy can sometimes be the enemy of insight.

"I don't see it as a problem," she argues. "I'm afraid that if you wait too long, the feelings that people have get buried. All the work is an expression of a certain moment: grief, guilt, fear, even euphoria. I hope that this book can reflect all that but also underline the fact that the struggle for freedom and dignity is not an overnight thing - it is been going on for a decade or more."

Which is a point emphasised by the other Arabic book to win a 2013 English PEN Award. Nihad Sirees' The Silence and the Roar might on first glance seem another timely novel, a Syrian author writing about a man who dares to defy a tyrannical ruler's regime.

But The Silence and the Roar was first published in Arabic in 2004.

"This is exactly the job of literature, to tell things very early or very late," he says. "I tried to sketch the true image of the dictator and his relationship with the people. By satirising him, I wanted to alert people, to take away that halo of greatness and holiness which the dictator has drawn around himself."

The book had to be smuggled into Syria from Lebanon - although Sirees jokes that it didn't make his relationship with the Syrian authorities any worse than it already was at the time (he and several other intellectuals were banned from public cultural life). But when the pressure of constant government surveillance got too much earlier this year, Sirees left for the US.

So while the events in Syria have had an overwhelming personal effect on Sirees, at least the heightened interest in the region has finally led to the translation into English of The Silence and the Roar.

"Actually, I do hope all this has happened because of the novel itself, and not that it is relevant to the breaking news," he says. "I really want English readers to discover our lives through novels - because in a novel, the reader can discover more things than if he simply follows the news."

Which is a neat way of surmising the "intercultural understanding" English PEN are so keen to encourage.

The Silence and the Roarby Nihad Sirees, translated by Max Weiss (Pushkin Press), is out in January. Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus, edited by Layla Al Zubaidi, Matthew Cassel and Nemonie Craven Roderick, translated by Robin Moger & Georgina Collins (IB Tauris), is out in May. For more information, visit www.englishpen.org

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