Where are the playboys?

Robert Irwin

  • Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi
    Columbia, 1056 pp, £40.00, June 2005, ISBN 0 231 13254 9

Gamal Abdul Nasser was inspired in his youth by ‘Awdat al-ruh (literally ‘Return of the Spirit’), a novel by one of the grand figures in Egyptian literature, Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987). Published in 1933, it chronicles the tribulations of the urban poor and ends on a triumphant note, with the nationalist demonstrations of 1919. In its simple way it was an inspiring document written in days of hope, before cynicism and despair found their way into Arab fiction. The fervently patriotic ‘Awdat al-ruh was in a sense a foundation document for the Egyptian Republic that was established after the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. Disillusion with Nasser’s regime soon followed. That disillusion was given voice in such novels as Naguib Mahfouz’s gloomy Miramar (1967), in which the various characters staying in a hotel comment on the failure of Arab socialism to deliver on its promises.

After Egypt’s crushing defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 and Nasser’s death in 1970, Mahfouz wrote more openly of disillusionment with the great leader, and in Karnak (1974) his narrator denounces the arbitrary arrests, detentions and tortures that had been part of Nasser’s style of government. In 1981, a friend of Mahfouz’s, the novelist and journalist Gamal al-Ghitani, published al-Zaini Barakat, a historical novel that is ostensibly set in the 16th century and mimics the style of contemporary Mamluke chronicles. But, as Edward Said noted, Ghitani’s novel was ‘in effect an allegory of Nasser’s rule with its combination of honest reformist zeal and political paranoia and repression’. The repression continued under Anwar al-Sadat, though the country was opened up to foreign investment and exploitation by multinationals. Both aspects of Sadat’s regime were satirised in Sun’allah Ibrahim’s The Committee (1981), in which the doomed protagonist, interrogated by the mysterious and quietly menacing ‘Committee’, is placed under pressure to nominate the chief feature of the age for which it will be remembered. He breaks into an absurd rhapsody in praise of Coca-Cola: ‘The fact is that we should believe what people say about this innocent-looking bottle. It plays a decisive role in the way we choose our life, our tastes, the kings and presidents of our countries, and even the wars we join in and the treaties we sign.’

As all this may suggest, Arab fiction is mostly political (and some would add that Arab politics is mostly based on fiction). The Syrian novelist Halim Barakat doesn’t allow for any choice in the matter: ‘Contemporary Arab writers have been preoccupied with themes of struggle, revolution, liberation, emancipation, rebellion, alienation. A writer could not be part of Arab society and yet not concern himself with this charge.’ It would be easy to reconstruct the political history of modern Egypt from its novels; and the same would be true of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco and Algeria.

In Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s anthology, 727 pages are devoted to short stories and just 253 pages to extracts from novels. Muhammad al-Muwailihi (1858?-1930), Jurji Zaydan (1861-1914) and Tawfiq al-Hakim are among the earliest authors to be included, but most of those anthologised are still alive. Though Egypt, Syria and Iraq feature strongly, a striking number of the younger writers come from the Gulf. If a hypothetical anthology of similar size and chronological scope were to be put together devoted to British literature, it would surely give far more space to the novelists. But whatever the composition of the British team, the chosen authors would be working in a well-established literary tradition going back at least as far as Defoe, whereas Muwailihi and Zaydan are at or close to the beginnings of the Arabic novel and short story. Moreover, the British anthology would probably display a bemusing range of topics and approaches. There would be little in it overtly about politics and perhaps nothing at all that could be read as obvious political or social protest.

Modern Arabic Fiction, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly concerned with political and economic themes. The stories tend to give voice to either angry protest or quiet despair. That this is the case is not down to the bias of the compiler. On the contrary, Jayyusi, who has previously compiled anthologies devoted to Palestinian literature and modern Arabic poetry, has done her job well. All the writers I would have expected to find are here (and often represented by their best work), as well as others I was unaware of but pleased to have been introduced to.

The anthology accurately reflects the general rather heavy tenor of modern Arabic fiction. Of course, there is plenty for Arab writers to complain about. A glance at the lives of some of those anthologised suggests as much. The Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani was assassinated by the Israelis. Naguib Mahfouz was the victim of an assassination attempt by an Islamic fanatic. The Syrian poet and short-story writer Shawqi Baghdadi spent years in prison. The novelist ‘Abd al-Rahman Munif was imprisoned and tortured. Gamal al-Ghitani was imprisoned. The Palestinian short-story writer Akram Haniyyah was imprisoned by the Israelis and then deported. The doctor and feminist writer Nawal al-Sa‘dawi was imprisoned and relentlessly persecuted by the Egyptian authorities.

Censorship is another problem and, like imprisonment, has become a badge of honour for some writers. Then there are those, like the Moroccan Mohammed Choukri, who grew up in extreme poverty and have had to educate themselves in order to become writers. The number of those writing in Arabic but living and working outside the Arab world is perhaps another indicator that all is not well within that world. Those in Britain include Layla Ba‘albaki, Hannan al-Shaykh, Ahdaf Soueif, Tayyeb Salih and Zakariyya Tamir. But France is even more popular with Arab writers and there are quite a few to be found in Germany and Scandinavia.

Soon after the Six-Day War, the Israeli politician Yigal Allon told Emile Habiby, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, that the Palestinian people did not exist any longer, for if they did, they would have produced their own literature. Habiby seems to have taken the remark personally: he set about producing a distinguished body of fiction that included his famous The Secret Life of Sa’eed the Ill-fated Pessoptimist. An extract from this novel appears in Modern Arabic Fiction, as does an extract from Kanafani’s tautly constructed narrative of Palestinians on the run in All That’s Left to You. Anton Shammas is a Palestinian writer who does not feature in Jayyusi’s anthology since he writes in Hebrew, but in his best-known novel, Arabesques (1986), he conjured up the lost paradise that was Palestine before the triumph of the Zionists and its almost total obliteration thereafter.

Other writers included here have engaged in the same sort of literary resurrection of a Palestine Irredenta, most notably Liana Badr. In an extract from Stars over Jericho (1993), she evokes a lost land of lush orchards, ‘fragrant gum Arabic in rice pudding, sweet golden puffs of zalabia dough, the warm thirsty smell of roasted watermelon seeds, soft lupin seeds in brine, dripping pickles, custards scented with orange-blossom water’, where shrak bread is baked on a round iron griddle and doors are surrounded by honeysuckle blossom. But not all that was lost by the Palestinians was lost to Israeli soldiers, demolition men and land-grabbers. The pace of change and globalisation have threatened and in many cases destroyed the graceful courtesies and rituals of rural life throughout the Arab world. In her autobiographical novel Fragments of Memory (1975), Hanna Mina writes about old ways of harvesting silk from mulberry bushes in the Syrian hills and the collapse of that way of life under pressure from distant and poorly understood international economic forces.

The destructive consequences of modernisation are one of the major themes of Modern Arabic Fiction. The most searching, caustic and lengthy fictional exposé of the impact of Western economic penetration of the Arab world was produced by ‘Abd al-Rahman Munif (1933-2003). As Jayyusi puts it, ‘Munif is one of the foremost novelists of the Arab world. A naturalised Iraqi citizen, he was born in Amman, Jordan, to a Saudi Arabian father and an Iraqi mother. He studied at university in Cairo, then in Yugoslavia, obtaining a doctorate in oil economics.’ Munif’s five-part novel Cities of Salt (1984-92) examined in an unsentimental way the impact of the oil industry on a traditional desert community. (Jayyusi has chosen for her anthology an extract from another of his novels, the enigmatic, quasi-allegorical Trees and the Murder of Marzuq.)

Many of the stories selected deal with the sufferings of the poor and their hopes and fears. The Egyptian short-story writer Yusuf Idris (1927-91) placed ‘a special emphasis on the plight of people in less fortunate circumstances’; ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Mushri (1954-2000) was ‘highly sensitive to the small things in life’; ‘Abd al-Malik Nouri (b.1921) is ‘concerned with the various phenomena of life among poor and downtrodden people’; Mahdi ‘Issa Saqr (b.1927) writes about ‘the problems that face ordinary people as they struggle for subsistence and even sometimes survival in the face of the odds of Iraqi life’. Some of these stories are well done (and two by Idris, one about first love, the other about a prosperous taxi-riding beggar, are especially good), but others are trite, sentimental or downright depressing. Translations of Russian writers have long been popular in the Arab world and the stories of Chekhov and Gorky cast long shadows. After a while, I longed to come across stories told from the point of view of a four-star general or a wealthy tribal sheikh, and novels that explored the world of Gulf playboys or well-funded cultural bureaucrats.

But if the world of the rich and powerful is mostly closed to the imaginations of Arab novelists, there are exceptions. In Cities of Salt, Munif wrote, at some risk to himself, about power politics, and his books are banned in Saudi Arabia and some other countries. Another taboo area is Islam. Again, there are exceptions. In Awlad haratina (1959, translated as Children of Gebelawi), Mahfouz set an allegorical account of the foundation and fortunes of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and science in a poor quarter of Cairo. It was probably this book that provoked the Islamist attempt to murder him. On the other hand, the Sudanese novelist Leila Aboulela writes about Islam extremely positively and her first novel, The Translator, was described by the Muslim News as ‘the first halal novel written in English’ (since she writes in English, she doesn’t feature in Jayyusi’s anthology).

While many of those included have evidently suffered for their art, a second glance at the potted biographies suggests that quite a few writers have benefited from the scale of the cultural bureaucracy that flourishes in the Arab world. ‘Abd al-llah ‘Abd al-Qadir was secretary-general of the Union of Iraqi Artists and director of theatre and folk arts at the Ministry of Culture; Daisy al-Amir was the director of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in Beirut; Muhammad ‘Aziza worked for the Arab Section of the Cultural Sector of Unesco; Muhammad Barrada was head of the Union of Moroccan Writers; Harib al-Dhahiri is the director of the Union of Arab Emirate Writers; Mustafa Farisi was secretary general of the Tunisian Society of Authors; ‘Abd al-‘Al al-Hamamsi became deputy president of the Egyptian Writers’ Union; and so on and on. It is as if a gigantic Pan-Arab Arts Council with many regional offices towers over and dwarfs the literature actually produced. The regional literary culture seems to be one of platform performances and conferences.

The existence of such a vast cultural bureaucracy has the merit of providing necessary subsidies for Arab writers. Novels don’t sell in large quantities and it is practically impossible to make a living by producing fiction. On the other hand, I suspect that the various cultural bodies and unions may constrain what is published in subtle or not so subtle ways. I also have the sense that some members of the literary elite, indifferent to or despairing of reaching a wider literary public, are writing for one another. The novels of Edwar al-Kharrat, an Egyptian, and Ilias Khouri, who’s Lebanese, are notably difficult and one would have to turn to, say, the novels of Christine Brooke-Rose to find similarly taxing British works of fiction.

Mahfouz is almost unique in reaching a broad reading public (as well as being widely available in English). Though Jayyusi admires his achievement, she thinks less well of him than I do. She criticises him at several points for his lacklustre style, for providing a reading experience that is without real pleasure, for failing to ‘positively engage the readers’ consciences’; for not having gone out of his way to present a flattering portrait of his fellow Egyptians; and for overshadowing the achievement of other Arab writers. But no other Arab writer has shown his range, adaptability and ability to innovate. Jayyusi has selected an extract from what may well be Mahfouz’s best novel, The Thief and the Dogs, a marvellous roman noir that can be read as a mystical, downbeat variation on The Count of Monte Cristo. She has also chosen ‘Rendezvous’, a fine story.

Though I would not wish to give the impression that it is all glum out East, two of the best pieces anthologised, ‘Rendezvous’ and Tayyib Salih’s ‘The Cypriot Man’, are both about the imminence of death. In The Crane, a poetic novel about exile and memory by Halim Barakat, one of the characters observes: ‘We get very emotional when we meet death . . . the complete opposite of Western people. They exaggerate their solemnity and we exaggerate our weeping.’ The Iraqi short-story writer Muhammad Khudayyir’s ‘Clocks like Horses’ is another star piece in the anthology. In this story, which is itself as intricately constructed as clockwork, the ticking of clocks and drumming hooves of horses conjure up a romantic portrait of the history of old Basra and the Gulf trade in horses with British India.

There is nothing in Modern Arabic Fiction from one of the finest Arabic novels ever written, Tayyib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, but then that book is currently and deservedly in print as a Penguin Modern Classic. Yet it remains the case that only a small amount of Arabic fiction has been translated into English and even less is in print. They order these things better in France and Germany. I don’t think it is fair to berate British publishers; it’s we readers who are at fault. The publishers would publish more Arab literature if only we would buy and read the stuff. It’s hard to guess why we are so unreceptive. Is it post-colonial guilt? Do we think fiction an inappropriate vehicle for political campaigning? Or are we just too hedonistic and frivolous in our fiction reading? For whatever reason, we prefer to remain spectacularly ignorant about what goes on in the Middle East.