We do not see the hut when the lights first come up, and then we see it. Its inhabitants are not interested in us, perhaps because their problems do not concern us. These women spend their days waiting for a man, and they know that one day he will come. Lights shine upstage from the front of the stage, illuminating a door in the back wall. Neither fully open nor quite shut, it swings gently on its hinges, creaking intermittently, as though the fitful wind outside the hut is knocking to make its presence known within. Then the light sweeps downstage and to the right: we see a flight of stairs rising to the princess’s room, mirrored by a flight on the left leading down to their larder. Centre stage is an old-fashioned, rectangular dining table—or rather, it is simply old: it has no identifiable fashion. Around this table there are four chairs, the back of one slightly higher than the rest. The chairs are not neatly arranged but are scattered about as though hastily vacated. Between them wend the backs of two women dressed in black, cleaning the shabby furnishings and complaining.
First song of autumn
Joy of my days, come
watch me run
I’ve bought white shoes
and see-through eagle’s wings
I am the clarinet’s mouth
and you the ransomed player
Kneel and guzzle me, set
the sea’s taste in my throat
and make my breast a wave
upon whose mane the sun
nes t ree
in turn I bore straw
much straw and went
in search of a tree to make
my nest but a tree I did not find
and with the straw I’d gleaned I packed
my chest I picked a field and I stood upright there
Matthew Chovanec reviews Yasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety, for which Robin Moger won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in 2017
Arabic novels are so frequently described as Kafkaesque or Orwellian that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the two authors were themselves Arab. It is a small wonder that noone has yet tried to uncover their secret Arab origins by etymologizing their names (قفقاء and الروال) in the way that the Turks have for Shakespeare. It is true that both of their names have become literary shorthand for a type of writing dealing with dystopia, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. It is also true that Arab societies have continued unabated to live through dystopias, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. But the label flattens out what is particular and new about so much excellent Arabic writing, and suggests that everything you need to know about the daily experience of living in a dysfunctional and cruel system can be captured by the term “nightmarish”.
You’re not there
but details linger. Who knows how
they trickle in and scurry out,
how they hum like a knot
of sandgrouse caught
in the snare of distance,
to silence, that stranger
not to be trusted,
The only window, in disrepair
Don’t come tonight, sad bat
Packing your head between my brows.
We have denied one another at times
In despair and in defeat. In vain
Face bumping at face,
The heart at the heart.
There are things All the Battles by Maan Abu Taleb is not. It is not a cliched story based on a Rocky film. It is not an Arab version of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club in which the protagonist discovers fighting in order to feel “alive”. Whilst Abu Taleb’s first novel is ostensibly about boxing, it is really a meditation on masculinity in the Arab world today.
Had All The Battles been about boxing, it would have been an implausible story. No practitioner of the sweet science, however good, can turn professional in a year; but this is what the novel’s protagonist, Said does. An advertising executive by chance, this bored individual discovers boxing at the venerable age of twenty-eight. After a few fights he packs in his job – only to be mullered by a seasoned British boxer in Dubai.
He had friends,
and they pledged him in the evening of his sorrow
not to turn him over to the soldiers
or to deny him when
he was summoned by the king.
And one turned him over
for a handful of silver
then committed suicide
and by another he was denied
three times before dawn broke
and once he had died his lips
could smile again, and then
he went on his way evangelizing,
boasting that he had known him,
and fished blessings by baptizing
in his name.
The Daybook of Bishr the Barefoot
Abu Nasr, Bishr bin al-Harith, sought out debate and discussion and heard all that was said and so inclined to mysticism. And one day he was walking through the market when, taking fright at the people there, he removed his sandals and slipped them beneath his arms and set off running through the sunbaked stones and sand, and none could keep pace with him. This was in the year 227 AH.
Abandoned bags are tossed about by the noon breeze.
Tree leaves, narrow pavements,
children next to shoes,
teens, out of school, are smoking.
The curls on their foreheads are so shiny
they look frozen and stiff.
My sister screamed in the night
Take me to my brother’s house
And there she screamed that same night
No no! Take me back to the house of my father
They took her back
And when she made to scream again
The night had passed
And the men had gone to work.
Matthew Chovanec reviews Darf Publishers’ new edition of Mohammed Hussein Haikal‘s Zainab, translated by John Mohammed Grinsted
Darf Publishers out of London are reissuing the “classic” 1913 novel Zainab by Mohammed Hussein Haikal in John Mohammed Grinsted’s English translation. This is part of their effort to bring world literature into English. They have previously released a wide range of titles from Arabic-speaking countries as well as others in Africa, with a special focus on Libyan literature. Any effort to translate and publish more work in English is admirable, and Darf should be commended.
The Storm Takes the Heart.
.What does that glum sun search for in its useless
round and why does its purple body come apart
and endless discs come tumbling down from its
flaming core, followed by black birds
black and crossing over like the storm
whose eyes aglow with tears we barely glimpse, they come
out from the graves of the forefathers and make for Jordan.
Horses at the door
Must this go on forever?
and the hand that slips
from me unnoticed.
Nourhan Tewfik reviews Ebola ’76 by Amir Tag Elsir, translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby
As Lewis entered, Ebola was all around. It hovered inches from him, anticipating its moment to pounce. The virus had already claimed the bodies of most of the people he encountered there. It coursed through the blood of the old, sunken-cheeked beggar woman as she silently extended her hand towards Lewis to receive his half franc. It had infiltrated the veins of the stern guard, who now leant against his battered old rifle, his gaze flitting between the visitors as they came and went through the main gates. It inhabited the many mourners who passed before Lewis’s distracted gaze. Even as he knelt in tears beside the grave of his lover, who had died just two days previously, the virus was there, lurking in her corpse beneath the soil.
In his short novel Ebola ‘76, a Darf Publishers title translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby, the Sudanese writer Amir Tag Elsir moulds a fictionalised account of the 1976 Ebola outbreak in South Sudan and Congo.
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.
Two Versions of “The People Are Asleep”
“The people are asleep,
Don’t wake the people, darling,
So she’d tell him
Whenever he cracked his knuckles on the balcony,
Whenever his eyes shone behind the door
Like a password,