There’s a lot of news coming out of the Arab world these days, mainly grim stuff in the press or online, painting a depressing and very much one-sided picture of this vast geographical and culturally diverse area. If you want to delve a little deeper into the Arab world and see another side of its rich heritage and culture, it’s well worth taking the time to sample some of the delights of Arabic literature.
Here are five suggestions to give you an idea of what’s on offer. They are all available in English translation, so you don’t have to learn Arabic to read them, though you may be tempted to once you have.
The Epistle of Forgiveness by Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri
This celebrated freethinker, ascetic, humanist and committed vegetarian lived in Syria during the 11th century. The head of his statue in his home town of Ma’arrat al Numan was recently chopped off, possibly because he challenged accepted doctrine with a passion. He was the Voltaire of his time.
‘All religions err’, he says. In fact, there are only two sects in the whole world: ‘One, man intelligent without religion, the second, religious without intellect’. In the epistle, al Maarri considers the works and thoughts of some of the great poets and thinkers who preceded him. With his great erudition and mastery of language, coupled with a biting sense of irony, he challenges and refutes their views and is critical of many aspects of accepted orthodox belief. At one point, in what is a clear precursor of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he makes a journey to paradise where he meets the wine-drinking, womanising pagan poets of the pre-Islamic period, and then to hell where he encounters the religious scholars.
Once banned in Algeria and decapitated almost a thousand years after his birth in his home town, Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri is widely read in the Arab world, and many Arabs acknowledge him as one of their greatest literary figures. His influence has been enormous, but so little known in the modern West that we have little idea how far ahead of his time he really was.
The latest English version of The Epistle of Forgiveness has just won the Sheikh Hamad Translation Prize.