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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Arabic reads you can find in English this autumn

From memoirs to sci-fi, satire to sleuths, and poetry to boxing, an abundance of stories will emerge from the region

Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th-Century Najd By Hmedan al-Shwe'irEdited and Translated by Marcel Kurpershoek. Courtesy NYU Press
Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th-Century Najd By Hmedan al-Shwe'irEdited and Translated by Marcel Kurpershoek. Courtesy NYU Press

Genre fans, rejoice! Works of grim literary realism usually dominate the lists of books translated from Arabic into English. But this fall, the options are wide and playful: an Egyptian woman’s memoir of the 1970s; 18th-century Najdi satire; science fiction set in 2090s Jordan; a gritty new Moroccan detective series; two graphic novel hybrids from Egypt; and the ‘Great Arabic Boxing Novel’. There are also several new translations from acclaimed Arab poets.

Arabic genre fiction wasn’t always a novelty. Detective fiction was popular for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For decades, Arabic versions of Miss Marple, Arsène Lupin and other fictional sleuths could be found in kiosks across the region. Yet by the late 20th century, crime writing had largely faded out of style.

Moroccan author Abdelilah Hamdouchi is one of several Arab authors reviving the genre, and, in September, Hoopoe Fiction is launching Hamdouchi’s new “Detective Hanash” series with Bled Dry, translated by Benjamin Smith. The story is set in Casablanca where “an ill-fated young prostitute and her lover are killed in a gruesome double murder”. Like the best of crime fiction, Hamdouchi’s page-turning novels are not just whodunits, but also offer social critique.

For fans of tough, lean writing, there’s Ma’n Abu Taleb’s fictional debut, All The Battles, translated by Robin Moger.

The novel follows Saed, an office worker whose life is transformed by boxing. A searing examination of sport and social class, this will appeal to a wide range of readers.

Two innovative graphic novel hybrids are also out this fall. The first is Donia Maher’s noir-esque The Apartment in Bab El-Louk, with art by Ganzeer and Ahmed Nady, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. The second is Ahmed Naji’s much-anticipated Using Life, with art by Ayman Al Zorkany, translated by Ben Koerber. An excerpt published in a state-run journal sparked a highly publicised trial against Naji that resulted in him being jailed for two years.

For science fiction fans, there’s Fadi Zaghmout’s Heaven on Earth, translated by Sawad Hussain.

The popular Jordanian blogger is best known for his forthright characters in The Bride of Amman, but here, Zaghmout heads in a different direction. This novel is set in 2090s Jordan, where ageing is reversible and reproduction strictly limited. For short-story aficionados, Banthology, ed. Sarah Cleave, will be released in October. The collection brings together seven compelling stories, one from each of the nations put under a travel ban by the United States’ Trump administration.

Memoirs and novels written about the 2011 uprisings continue to appear, including Egyptian novelist Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven, coming in October.

Yet with Arwa Salih’s 1997 memoir, The Stillborn, we get a rare glimpse of another era. Samah Selim translated this look back at 1970s Egypt, which still has strong resonance today.

Because publishing focuses so much on the new, there has been relatively little attention given books like The Stillborn and other compelling 20th-century writing.

Haus Publishing seeks to rectify this with the launch of its “modern classics” series. The first book will be Syrian novelist Mamdouh Azzam’s tragic love story Ascension to Death, translated by Max Weiss. Also in December, Haus will publish Moroccan author Abdelkrim Ghallab’s classic 1966 novel We Buried the Past, translated by Roger Allen.

This fall, the Library of Arabic Literature is set to bring out another of the series’ fun classics: Hmedan al-Shwe’ir’s Arabian Satire. Al-Shwe’ir, who lived in the Arabian Peninsula in the early 18th century, was known for his ribald humour, self-deprecation and stinging verse, voiced in a Nabati poetic form. This bilingual, facing-paged edition was edited and translated by Marcel Kurpershoek, a research fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi.

For those interested in the peninsula, there are also two historical novels set in Saudi Arabia coming this fall. The first is prolific Jordanian author Samiha Khrais’s The Tree Stump, a historical novel set around King Faisal, T E Lawrence, and the Arab revolt against the Ottomans, translated by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari. The other is by Kay Campbell, a former Jeddah-based reporter, whose charming A Caravan of Brides weaves together several periods of Saudi history.

For those ready for a new twist on Arab history, the satirical Travels of Ibn Fudayl is coming in October under the pen name “George R Sole”. This novel, which masquerades as a work by a British academic who has translated a medieval manuscript, is complete with a snarky introduction and footnotes.

The book pokes fun at academia while chronicling the titular Ibn Fudayl’s experiences in Al-Andalus and beyond.

For the legion of Mahmoud Darwish fans, a collection coming in September, I Don’t Want This Poem to End, includes the last known work by the iconic Palestinian poet. It brings together work from his early and late years, translated by Mohammed Shaheen. There is also a moving introduction by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury that describes how work was retrieved from Darwish’s home after the poet’s death in 2008.

This fall you can also expect work from the great Egyptian poet Iman Mersal. Her prose work on motherhood, How to Mend: On Motherhood and its Ghosts, will be forthcoming in Robin Moger’s translation, from the Lebanese publishing initiative Kayfa ta, part of their series of unusual “how to” books. Previous books include Haytham Al-Wardani’s How to Disappear, translated by Jennifer Peterson and Robin Moger and are available free on the Kayfa ta website.

Two hotly anticipated collections from young Syrian poets are also coming in October. One is Golan Haji’s A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know, co-translated by Haji and the poet Stephen Watts.

Haji’s poems inscribe recent Syrian history, underpinned by Kurdish mythology, imagery and folklore.

The second collection is Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenaline. Almadhoun is also well-known for his striking poetry films.

For readers eagerly awaiting International Prize for Arabic Fiction winners, Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, and Destinies, by Rabai Al Madhoun, those books are set to arrive early next year.

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Read more:

Fall into a good book: autumn reads

Book world hopes for literary breakthrough in autumn

Dates for Sharjah International Book Fair confirmed

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