Abu Dhabi International Book Fair: Why irony is no laughing matter in Arabic literature
Irony is a fraught business when it comes to Arabic literature.
The negative connotations inherent within the literary tool make it one of the trickiest to master for regional novelists.
The topic was discussed at length on Thursday as part of an Abu Dhabi International Book Fair panel featuring acclaimed Sudanese novelists Hammour Ziada and Amir Taj Al-Sir.
Short-story writer, novelists and journalist Ziada, who won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2014 and last year had his second novel, The Longing of the Dervish, shortlisted for the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and translated into English, stated that irony has a long way to go before it is accepted in Arabic literature.
“It is recent that irony appears more in the Arabic novel,” says Ziada. “It is used as a tool in opinion writing and in commentary articles or in political analysis as a way to undermine authority or comment on the political status quo or as a form of protest,” he says. “Using irony in this political way relates it as something insulting or belittling in the Arab mind, rather than an effective literary tool.”
Al-Sir, a 2011 Ipaf nominee whose latest work 366 won the Katara Prize for Arabic Novel last year, agrees. “In our Arab novels, no matter what these novels set out to do, they cannot seem to use irony like a western novel, where it is an established literary device,” he says. “We are still working on that in the Arab world.”
The reason, Zaida points out, is that irony is often mistaken for sarcasm, and sometimes, even mistaken for an insult.
“Irony is based on playing with the measurement of things, so making big of the small or belittling something big might be taken as an insult in Arabic culture,” he says.
Zaida cites Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef, often referred to as the Arab Jon Stewart, as an example. “When [Youssef] uses sarcasm and irony to comment on a situation, he is often criticised heavily by religious and political figures and described as insulting”.
When it comes to his own craft, Al-Sir says he doesn’t set out to consciously weave irony into his work, instead he prefers to “writes what he feels”.
“There is so much irony in life, and a writer writes from life and about life,” says Al-Sir. “When I meet a poor, old government worker, for example, who has been sitting behind the same booth day in and day out for 40 years, processing people’s papers every single day, and then dies without ever getting his own papers processed, that’s an ironic situation that I want to write about.”
His biggest tip for young writers is to be sensitive to the irony in life around you. “Writers need to be observant, noticing things not everyone might see. Train your memory to store it all. Everyone and everything can become material to use in writing,” says Al-Sir. “Take from life around you, and since life is already so ironic, you will have no problems writing with irony.”
• The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs until Tuesday, May 3, at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. For details, visit www.adbookfair.com