Although 1,001 Nights and Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet continue to hold Western audiences in thrall, it was Naguib Mahfouz’s beautifully nuanced The Cairo Trilogy which won the Arab world’s only Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. Yet more recent winners of literary awards are not only having their books made into films, but are changing the literary landscape with their bi-cultural perspective of the Arab world.
The Arab world got off to a slow start with books – but caught up in spectacular style. Although Koranic and warrior poetry along with textbooks have been a salient feature of Arab life for hundreds of years, it was not until the 20th century that books were produced by printing presses – half a millennium after the Gutenberg Bible arrived off the European printing press in 1455. The Ottoman Empire outlawed printing and private publishing, instead employing tens of thousands of calligraphers to hand-craft governmental decrees, Koranic texts, textbooks and volumes of poetry.
In the last century writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, whose best-known work provided insight into life in Cairo from the Egyptian revolution until 1944, along with Palestine’s national poet Mahmoud Darwish, showed that they could captivate an international audience by brilliant descriptive skills and closely observed detail of national life.
But today the Arab publishing world produces mainly tiny print runs, seldom more than 3,000 copies for over 340 million Arabic speakers citing the current failure of the Arab home-grown novelist to shine on an international literary level due to difficulties of crossing physical and linguistic boundaries. The new Arab bestseller is likely to fuse a Western world view with understanding of home culture, reflecting a new dynamic between commerce, literary tradition and oil-based affluence.
Cornelia Helle, of the Middle East section at the Frankfurt Book Fair, was disappointed with the low Arab turn out at the 2015 event. “We would like to hear the Arab’s intellectual voice,” she explains. “Only through books can you get an insight into a culture.” But with only a handful of publishers present it appears that a Middle Eastern literary perspective remains in the background of the cosmopolitan world of books.
Perennial complaints of too few bookshops and poor distribution links have been partially solved through more than 20 book fairs held annually in Arab capitals where books are hawked, copyrights purchased amid acres of exhibition space . Pushing supermarket trolleys piled high with books through the Sharjah International Book Fair in November 2015 representatives of institutions and individuals avoided the difficulties of cross-border book distribution.
Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, founder of the Emirates Publishers Association, highlights translation as being a sticking point with Arab publications. She says that too few Arab books are being translated. “Despite initiatives and grants to foster translation of books from Arabic into other languages, the results are poor,” she points out. “Arabic books are still among the least translated books in the world.”
“Academic, technical, and scientific works are translated,” Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi admits. “But there are more translations into Arabic than out of it.” Translation is a conundrum in other languages. In France, for instance, where 30-40 per cent of published novels are translations, a specialist, literary translation school has been set up in Paris. The Ecole de Traduction Litteraire, will address the dissatisfaction of publishers with the way translators are trained.
The premise that successful translation is based on creativity, as well as fidelity to the source language, has produced impressive results. Trainees work in groups and follow trainer Patrick Maurus’s belief that translation is not about language but about literature in another language. It is a brave experiment and one that could have a significant impact on translations both into and out of Arabic.
Sheikha Bodour’s own children’s title, Kalimat, was created because of the lack of good quality books for children in Arabic. Along with Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Bahrain and Kuwait all hold their own book fairs emphasising the importance of children’s books. With 100 per cent school attendance, and accompanying high literacy rates in the countries of the Gulf, book publishing as the preserve of a few intellectuals is a thing of the past.
The Cairo Trilogy provided insight into life in Cairo from the Egyptian revolution of 1919 until 1944 and Mahmoud Darwish explored the Palestinian landscape with brutal honesty, but the writing that now garners awards is more likely to impress juries because of the international scope of the authors. Female Egyptian novelists such as Nawal El-Saadawi and Ahdaf Soueif (Eye of the Sun, The Map of Love) attract world attention because they bring depth and character to a region that is constantly in the news but without the human element.
Younger authors such as Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns) and Monica Ali (Brick Lane, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) underscore how the Arab literary map has changed. Far from running away from the impact of their home culture today’s writers are likely to embrace it.
Profitability accounts to some extent for the desire to publish novels by writers who have Arab roots. But, increasingly, these younger authors use writing as a means of defining their identity in a new society thereby testing the interest of the Western reader in “immigrant” novels. It might well be time to start questioning whether the 22-nation Arab world can look inward to produce a world-wide bestseller once again.