Owing to Shoe Lane library, I've suddenly increased my knowledge of Arabic fiction by leaps and bounds. I'd go so far as to say a quantum jump, except of course a quantum is a fairly small packet of energy, and I have expended a few centillion quanta at least. And still the well doth not dry! There are more books in the pipeline, and will help me in effort to read outside of the Eurocentric translation world that kept me occupied for the most of last year.
The plethora is all down to Arabia Books, an imprint which has been instrumental in translating Arabic fiction for six years. It has been incredibly generous as well - on its fifth anniversary last year, it gave away a complete set of its books to every library that signed up to the offer - for free! No wonder Shoe Lane library is a treasure-trove!
The coverage of the books is varied - not just in the countries but also in styles and genres. I've gone through books from Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt (of course), Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. I've seen nothing as yet from Yemen or Saudi or Oman or Kuwait or the UAE, but while I can expect some intellectual development in Yemen and Oman, not so from the others mentioned, stultifyingly rich and stupendously prodigal.
The variety in styles and approaches is eye-opening, too. All the countries above have suffered or continue to suffer under repression - political, social, sexual. You'd expect to find, therefore, novels of protest, and you do, but you also find remarkable works of commentary and character and inventiveness. There are memoirs, epic histories, small and taut tales of suffocation and sexual liberation. There are feisty women and brave girls as often as there are subtle men and layabout boys.
I guess one of the questions of anyone approaching Arabic fiction is - is there really an Arabic fiction? After all, there is so much variation in the language across the Arab world that for all intents and purposes Maghrebi Arabic is quite distinct from, say, Lebanese. I learn that much of the writing is in classical Arabic, which owing to the Qu'ran, is understood all across the region. No surprise then that authors choose to write in the high style, rather than in the vernacular, as that opens up their readership. However, Egyptian and Lebanese Arabic is fairly well-understood, I think, because of the soft power wielded by these countries - their pop and film industry is extremely popular. But it's not entirely clear to me which of the books I've read were originally written in the local Arabic.
Over a few posts, I'll try to summarise some of the highlights of my months of reading Arabic literature. For the impatient among you, I'd recommend a visit to the blog Arabic Literature (in English), which contains way way more coverage and suggestions for reading and interviews than I could ever manage.