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Five Essential Works of Arabic Literature

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.

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10 MUST-READ HISTORIES OF THE PALESTINE-ISRAEL CONFLICT

November 2 marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, when the British government famously promised to establish a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. A century of conflict in Palestine/Israel has produced a vast and ever growing historical literature in English, as well as in Arabic and Hebrew. Conflicting or irreconcilable narratives mean that works which tell the story of, and from, both sides, are rare. Views of fundamental issues like the legitimacy of Zionism or the Palestinians’ right to resistance inevitably color the interpretation of key events from Balfour to the 2014 war over the Gaza Strip. Perceptions can still be polarized about Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, the 1967 war, and the character of the occupation that persists 50 years later. Well-known books, especially by Israel’s “new” historians, have made a big impact on knowledge of the formative pre-state period. Here are ten others which in different ways and at different times have made a significant contribution to illuminating this unending story.

Ronald Storrs, Orientations

Storrs was the first British military governor of Jerusalem after the Ottoman surrender in December 1917. His memoir is elegantly if pretentiously written. It reflects contemporary colonialist assumptions about Arabs and Jews, the innate authority and arrogance of the world’s largest empire and the author’s mounting frustration as the confrontation unfolded in its earliest days. Storrs was in Palestine at the time of the Balfour Declaration and in the early Mandate years. Perhaps his most memorable line, as resentment and tensions mounted, was how “two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue, while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.”

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West Asia: Ancient legends, Modern Idioms

Artists of western Asia are heirs to the first civilizations known to man and their landscape is rich with examples of art, from the first human-form statues to Islamic and modern art. In the twentieth century, artists borrowed elements from their respective ancient patrimonies in an effort to create a national and regional cultural identity. Several artists’ groups formed between the 1930s and ’60s adopted European artistic modes of expression to produce works inspired by their heritage and by a rapidly disappearing landscape victim to urban migration and industrialization. This trend was most evident in Iraq, Jordan, and, to a limited extent, Israel and the Arabian Peninsula. Each country had its unique stages of development characterizing its artistic production, forging a synthesis of ancient western Asian cultures and Western styles. This unique synthesis is represented in the work of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in Iraq, and the Jewish Bezalel school of the early 1920s in Jerusalem. Jewish artists, traumatized by the Holocaust, rejected their European roots and turned to “Canaanite” myths and symbols in their quest for a national Hebrew identity. At the dawn of the twentieth century, life in many villages of western Asia had much in common with ancient life. Intrigued by this reflection of their heritage, artists depicted idyllic scenes of village life in areas such as the marshes of southern Iraq, a region ravaged in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein’s regime drained the wetlands and relocated the inhabitants.

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LGBT Writing in West Asia: How writers are using the pen to fight stigma and oppression

Many Armenian, Persian and Kurdish artists and activists address homosexuality and gender issues through their work.

On May 28, 2013, a small group of environmentalists gathered at Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the removal of trees. The police’s brutal response sparked the indignation of the city’s residents and soon, Gezi Park was flooded with ordinary citizens and activists. They voiced a number of grievances, chief among them the government’s refusal to engage with citizens about urban planning. The protests lasted for weeks and the makeshift camp erected in the Park featured a dizzying array of groups: ecologists, Armenians, Kurds, Zazas, Alevis, Communists, syndicalists, anti-capitalist Muslims and LGBT rights organisations.

The diversity of identities on display brought into the open the complex and sometimes confusing imbrications composing individuals’ self-identification in contemporary Turkey. Since the 1980s, sexual identities have played an increasing role in this construction, and over the last decade the stories and struggles of Turkish sexual minorities have been featured in a number of different media

To be certain, homosexuality, lesbianism, transgenderism and cross-dressing are far from new concepts to Turkish culture. Same-sex intercourse has been legal in Turkey (and the Ottoman Empire, its predecessor state) since 1858; 110 years before the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain. The topic of gay and lesbian relations in Ottoman society and its imagining among Orientalist writers is particularly popular among Western scholars.

While Turkish authors do treat similar subjects within their works, contemporary issues of social, political and economic equality, as well as the battle against discrimination, are more likely to be explored within Turkish academic publishing. Scholars Cüneyt Çakırlar and Serkan Delice, have been particularly active in their writings, whether in collections of contemporary Turkish studies on gender, queer identity and politics or in their participation in the Queer Düş’ün series by *SEL Yayıncılık, which seeks to bring English-language Queer writing into Turkish. Other writers, too, address difficult issues, whether theoretical or practical. Evidence of such comes to us from works such as Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet: Türkiye’de Beden, Sağlık ve Cinsellik (Neoliberalism and Intimacy: Body, Health and Gender in Turkey), where we find Cenk Özbay’s study of neoliberal sociology and the case of rent boys, as well as Yener Bayramoğlu’s look at heterosexism and homosexuality within contemporary advertising.

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10 Must Read Women Writers From The Middle East

The tradition of female writers from the Middle-East has been vastly growing in the twentieth century, with new generations of writers determined to give women a voice and represent issues regarding feminism, identity and class from a female perspective. From fiction to non-fiction writers, we profile ten fantastic female writers from the Middle-East. Layla Baalbaki

 

Widely acknowledged to be a pioneer in women’s writing in the Middle-East, Layla Baalbaki was one of the first writers to give women a voice in Arab literature, focusing primarily on female issues. Her 1958 novel I Live is a work far ahead of its time, revolving around a young Lebanese woman as she attempts to negotiate her place in the world; striving for political, social and financial independence. Sadly, Baalbaki’s honest exploration of women’s innermost emotions was met with controversy and hostility and she was charged with obscenity and immorality. Although eventually acquitted, Baalbaki wrote no works of fiction after 1964 and turned instead to journalism.

A noted Algerian feminist author, Assia Djebar is well known for examining the plight of Algerian women within a post-colonial context. Her works include the collection of short stories Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1980), inspired by Delacroix’s famous The Women of Algiers (1834). These respond to the Orientalist and patriarchal structures surrounding contemporary Algerian society and attempt to demonstrate the ongoing inequality which defines women’s lives. Djebar was elected to the Académie Française – a historic organization which seeks to uphold and protect French heritage and language – in 2005, the first Magreb writer to receive this honor.

Born and raised in Baghdad, where she studied journalism at university, Inaam Kachachi moved to Paris in 1979, where she has lived ever since. As well as regularly writing pieces for Arabic-language newspapers, Kachachi has published several novels which examine issues of displacement and homeland, as well as the brutal reality of Iraq today. Frustrated by the religious and didactic turn literature in Iraq has taken, Kachachi attempts to authentically portray complex characters in the Iraq which she experienced. Her most recent novel Tashari (2013) stretches back to the 1950s and explores the changing sociopolitical dynamic of the country through one family and their eventual dispersal across the globe. This novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

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This Side of Syria: Best Books to Understand the Syrian Experience

Americans have long prided themselves on the idea that we are a nation of immigrants. Even considering the complexity of this notion, the idea itself remains a point of emphasis in our national identity. One of the most enduring symbols of the United States is a woman holding a torch aloft in a harbor beckoning travelers to safe refuge, our Statue of Liberty. And yet in times when we have perceived that our security is waning, we lash out at these very immigrants who, in times of relative safety, we claim as a point of national pride.

Now, in the midst of a staggering global refugee crisis, we are seeing the fabric of our nation’s identity being tested once again. The brutal civil war plaguing Syria has displaced millions, forcing Syrians to flee their war-torn home and seek solace from inhumane and terrifying conditions. The United States has often stood at the forefront of refugee resettlement, but under the cloak of fear, President Trump is pushing this country to once again close off its borders.

It is, unfortunately, easy to ignore this crisis, to forget that those fleeing are seeking refuge from cruel circumstance – and often death. Literature once again, though, proves to offer a powerful window of empathy – a reminder of the essential humanity in all of us. In times like these, empathy and understanding are paramount. To hopefully help gain a better understanding of Syria, its people, and its rich literary tradition, we’ve pulled together a number of books and novels by Syrian authors or simply about the Syrian experience.

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The Representation of the Syrian Revolution in Literature

“These literary works depict the political, social and religious realities of Syria before and after March 2011 in order to draw a more comprehensive picture of Syria’s culture. These cultural details lay the foundation and act as necessary components for the development of the narratives and their relation to the current situation in Syria.”

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The need for writing

It would be inaccurate to assume that the literature centering on Assad’s family regime only started with the outbreak of the 2011 revolution. Some Syrian authors and dramatists have always addressed Assad’s politics in their works despite the fact that their criticism was indirect. They employed historical figures and events, constructing allegorical works so that they met the expectations of the censor. For example, some works were crafted to revolve around an event in pre-Islamic, Islamic or medieval Arab history and they exposed the ways the Arab kings ruled the masses. Through the interactions between the masses and the king, the monopoly of power alluded to the current politics of Syria and its corruption. Authors such as Mohammad al-Maghot, Mamduh Udwan, Sadallah Wanus and Zakaryya Tamer did not miss a chance to criticize the Syrian regime. however, there were not any explicit attempts to condemn that regime or its head.

With the outbreak of the revolution, the allegorical style would be abandoned because of the flooding of news of demonstrations, attacks, shelling and most importantly, the daily killing of innocent Syrians. Such incidents brought a radical change to literature. Due to the pace of news coming out of Syria, the media had to handle it in a way that served the needs of its audience, delivering the most up-to-date news without necessarily pinpointing the background of the revolution or taking into consideration the different constituencies that supported the revolution.

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10 Syrian Writers You Should Know

Syria’s literary tradition is just part of the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of a country which has faced many difficulties and hardships. Here we profile ten of Syria’s most prolific and influential writers, who have made a name for themselves both nationally and internationally.

Salim Barakat

Born in Qamishli in northern Syria, of Syrian and Kurdish descent, Salim Barakat’s literary works focus on Kurdish culture and heritage and explore its place in the wider Arab world. A prolific writer, Barakat has published dozens of novels, short story collections, and poetry anthologies, and is distinguished from his contemporaries for the innovative use of style and theme within his writing. He has been credited by literary critics for introducing the genre of magical realism to Arabic literature, with works such as The Caves of Hydrahodahose incorporating elements of the fantastic and mythological – including a society of centaurs – in order to reflect on contemporary culture and society.

Ali Ahmad Said Esber (Adunis)

Ali Ahmad Said Esber, known by his pen name Adunis, is arguably one of the Arab world’s most prominent poets, and has been regularly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1988. Adunis’ poetry epitomizes modernity and rebellion, building on the historic tradition of Arabic poetry in order to subvert it; his poetry often deals with themes of transformation, exile and reform, and he rejects classic poetic structure and form in order to experiment with verse, meter and prose poetry. He has been internationally recognized, and was awarded the prestigious Bjørnson Prize in 2007 by the Norwegian Academy for Literature and Freedom of Expression, as well as winning the Goethe Prize of the City of Frankfurt in 2011.

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The Restless Brilliance of Hassan Blasim by Bhaswati Ghosh

Bhaswati Ghosh

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim came to me rather unremarkably. In the dead of Canada’s fierce winter in January 2017, I had a sudden desire to read and cook from conflict zones around the world. I say sudden, but given the blood-stained cloud that hangs over Syria, Yemen, Iraq and much of the Arab world and parts of Africa, this couldn’t have been all that abrupt a thirst. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, Blasim’s debut short story collection, was one of the first books I borrowed from the library for my quest.

I didn’t make much of the simple black cover of The Corpse Exhibition, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Nothing — not its blackness or even a statutory warning on the cover (had there been one) — could have prepared me for what lay inside. Such was the emotive force of Blasim’s words that despite the macabre scenarios they pressed between themselves, I kept turning the book’s pages with hypnotic urgency.

The sharpness of Blasim’s storytelling knife stabbed me with the very first story in the collection, titled The Corpse Exhibition. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the leader of an organization involved with curating corpse exhibitions, speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of the displays — the boss cites as a prime example the naked corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child, placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound on their bodies — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

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