Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 October 2008
Issue No. 919
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Book review:

Reading Modern Arabic Literature

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature, David Tresilian, London: Saqi, 2008. pp184

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Darwish; Mahfouz; al-Shaykh; Salih; al-Aswani

Recently modern Arabic literature seems to have made several long strides all at once. It is interesting to note that in the 20 years from 1947 to 1967 a mere 20 titles from modern Arabic literature appeared in English translation. In the next 20 years the situation improved slightly with 84 titles being published in translation between 1967 and 1988. I do not have figures for the yearly number being published these days, but the position has greatly improved.

Modern Arabic literature is no longer read by just a few students interested in the subject. I remember not so long ago being told off in a review of a book of mine that I was not transliterating the names of writers properly. How was it that I was writing, for instance, Tayeb Salih when the correct rendering should be al-Tayyib Salih (with dots under the t, the s and the h to distinguish them from other letters in Arabic which are not to be found in English)?

The situation has now arrived where one calls a writer by the name he has chosen for himself in English. What reader cares whether the 's' in Salih is in fact the letter 'sad'(so called in Arabic) or whether the 'y' in his first name is doubled or not? We see names like Dostoevski and Tchekov written in different ways and do not feel that any harm has been done to the writers; after all, we are not students of Russian and do not have to spell out their names in that language.

Anyway, the position is now "the simpler the better," and no one any longer has to learn Arabic in order to read modern Arabic literature. Something I had long been advocating has now happened: modern Arabic literature has been taken out of the academic cupboard.

Even so, when reading a certain book of fiction, it is interesting to know, as an ordinary reader, where it fits into the history of that literature. While several books have been written that seek to give the ordinary reader a background to the Arabic novels that are being made available today in English translation, none does the task better and more entertainingly than David Tresilian's A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature.

David Tresilian, who lived in Cairo and was in direct touch with those who were writing and with those who were writing about modern writers, deals with the early years when it was the few translators who determined what was and was not translated. After all, if one is not guaranteed to make money from translating a certain book, one's choice is determined by personal criteria. Will it sell well? Will it easily find a publisher? Is it a book that the translator feels strongly should be made available in translation? Is the writer a friend of his and would he therefore be doing him a service? Is the book reasonably easy to translate and not too long?

I remember several years ago reading a well-known novel by Khairi Shalaby and feeling that here was a book that deserved to be translated, but I was put off by its length. It then won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize and was translated into English, and the translator was awarded the UK Banipal Prize for his translation. The situation has now changed: it is the publisher, with advice, who chooses the books he wants translated, and the translator is paid on the basis of the number of words (which, incidentally, is not always a proper way of estimating the work to be done).

The present book deals very adequately with all the main figures in modern Arabic literature: Naguib Mahfouz, who was the writer who gave it its first boost, Tewfiq al-Hakim, primarily a playwright and thus not read as much as he deserves, the talented short-story writer Yusuf Idris, the Sudanese novelist and short-story writer Tayeb Salih, and the controversial Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, among many others.

The author also writes about the way in which a number of talented women writers have dealt with the problems peculiar to women in the Arab world, writers like the Egyptian feminist Nawal al-Saadawi and the Lebanese Hanan al-Shaykh, both of them living mainly outside the Arab world and both writing originally in Arabic, who are among the most widely read in translation. He also deals with two other outspoken Egyptian women writers, Alifa Rifaat and Salwa Bakr, and from here goes on to discuss the portrayal of homosexuality by Arab writers of today, as seen, for example in the best-selling novel The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswani, the first-ever Arabic work of fiction to achieve record sales both in the original Arabic and in translations done into French, English and other languages, this at a time when T.V.and the computer are vying with the time people have available for reading books.

Though described as "brief," Tresilian's book also deals with modern poetry, which, though playing an important role among the educated in the Arab world, has not had the translators to make it easily available to non-Arab readers. However, anyone interested in the modern literary scene cannot ignore such poets as the Syrian Adonis, the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish or the Iraqi Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. He has also drawn attention to the poetry that is today being written in the colloquial language, particularly in Egypt by such writers as Nigm and Abnoudi, and the attempts at experimental writing that are appearing these days in such novels as al-Aidy's Being Abbas el Abd, which are making more and more demands of those translators willing to take on such tasks.

Tresilian's book is not merely informative about the subject it deals with but also provides thought-provoking messages to the general reader.

Reviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies

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