Marcia Lynx Qualey: A Review of the Newest Arabic Novel (Remix)

Arab Muscle Dancers, 1898, by B. W. Kilburn

Insert Title Here, by Our Arab Author, translated by So-and-so. Such-and-such publisher. $12.99.

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? We in the West hear about the Middle East all the time, but for most of us it remains unknown and unknowable. More complicated still is that, as I learnt at the weekend, forms like the novel and short story were alien to Arabic culture before the first decade of the 20th century: the genres are, themselves, imports.

Still, the subject sounded like something I ought to have ideas about: America’s destabilization of the Middle East after 9/11 has had an increasing impact on the area’s writers.

It is unfortunate, given the epic potential of this topic, that [our author] appears to be… insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. It’s the elephant in the living room; it cannot be ignored.

Pride and Prejudice this is not.

Yet, if the goal is collaboration, isn’t it as important to listen as to speak? If you live in the desert, you have two choices: Transform it or learn to live in it. Of the former, there are several brilliant examples: California’s green-lawned communities implanted in brushwood, and Israel’s Negev Desert. Barukh Binah, the Israeli press officer at the United Nations and at the Israeli consulate in New York, said [our author] was considered a good neighbor of Israel[.]

[Our author] has had the courage to lift the veil of an obscured world.

There is little danger of encountering anything like official propaganda, since the Arab novelist stands, almost by definition—as a thinker, as a conduit of intellectual life—in opposition to the retrogressive forces in the modern Arab state. It’s a side benefit, in times like these, that [our novel] also tells the Western reader, in the way only a great novel can, a little bit about a little part of the Islamic world; and that these characters are Muslim and also, identifiably, are us.

Overall, if you can muster the patience, this novel will teach you some important things about this still mysterious time and place.