Saudi Gazette, Saudi Arabia
Aug 31 2009



Two Arab novelists on the frontline in English


By Susannah Tarbush


Among the Arab writers who have had novels published in the UK in
English translation this year, two names in particular stand out:
Bahaa Taher of Egypt and Elias Khoury of Lebanon. Both are major
literary figures in the Arab world, and thanks to the magic of
translation, they are becoming increasingly known to the
English-reading public.

The English version of Taher's novel `Sunset Oasis', published by the
Hodder & Stoughton imprint Sceptre, hits UK bookstores this week. The
Arabic original was in 2008 the first-ever winner of the $60,000
International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), so the publication of
the English translation has been eagerly awaited.

Khoury's novel `Yalo' was published in English translation in June by
the MacLehose Press imprint of London publisher Quercus and has
already garnered some highly favorable reviews.

Like `Sunset Oasis', `Yalo' was translated by Humphrey Davies, one of
the most eminent translators of Arabic literature. Davies's
translation of an earlier Khoury novel, `Gate of the Sun', won the
inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2006. (This
is not the first English translation of `Yalo'. Last year Archipelago
Books of New York published a translation by Peter Theroux which was
shortlisted for the Best Translated Book 2008 Award.)

Taher and Khoury were in London last Thursday evening en route to the
Scottish capital, Edinburgh, to participate in a session of the
Edinburgh International Book Festival. Aficionados of Arab literature
had the chance to meet them when they appeared at the Frontline Club,
West London, in an event billed as `an Edinburgh taster'. They
discussed their work with the prominent cultural journalist Maya Jaggi
of the Guardian newspaper before the floor was thrown open for
questions.

The writers spoke eloquently, and with a generous sprinkling of humor,
about their own work and on wider issues of Arab literature and
politics. The subjects ranged from narrative techniques, to portrayals
of victim and victimizer, women in novels, Arab prison literature and
torture methods, and the impact of invasion and occupation on fiction
writing.

Taher, born in 1935, is the author of six novels and five short story
collections. `Sunset Oasis' is the fourth of his novels to be
translated into English.

The novel is set in late 19th century Egypt under British colonial
rule, and depicts Police officer Mahmoud Abd El-Zahir, who is sent to
the rebellious Berber-speaking oasis town of Siwa in the remote west
of Egypt as district commissioner and tax collector. His posting is a
punishment for his having sympathized with the Urabi revolt, the
failed nationalist uprising that led to the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian war
and to British colonial rule. Two of Mahmoud's predecessors in the
Siwa posting have been murdered.

Mahmoud's wife Catherine insists on accompanying him on the hazardous
journey to the oasis. She is determined to try to salvage her shaky
marriage and to find the tomb of Alexander the Great. Things turn out
disastrously, and the novel culminates in a spectacular act of
destruction by Mahmoud, who is based on a real-life character.

Khoury, 61, is the author of 12 novels, six of which have appeared in
English translation. He is particularly known for his 1998 novel `Gate
of the Sun', an epic narrative of the Palestinian 1948 naqba
(catastrophe). Possessor of a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, he
is editor in chief of the cultural supplement of the daily newspaper
An-Nahar and Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and
Islamic Studies at New York University.

`Yalo' is set in the early 1990s in a prison outside Beirut. The
protagonist Yalo is repeatedly tortured, interrogated and forced to
write accounts of his life. He relates how he joined a barracks during
the civil war, deserted to Paris, was picked by a Lebanese arms dealer
to become a security guard, had an affair with his boss's wife and
became a robber, voyeur and rapist. He falls in love with one of his
victims, who denounces him and precipitates his arrest.

Khoury said that forcing a prisoner to write his life story `is a
bizarre technique, but it is, unfortunately, used in Arab prisons.'
The technique is designed to destroy the psyche of the prisoner at the
hands of his torturers.

Yalo is both a victim and a victimizer. He is `an outcome of the civil
war, and fought with the fascists. He is pushed through torture to
confess things he didn't do, and discovers that through the writing
which is destroying him he can reconstruct his personality.'

He is of Assyrian background and Khoury links his story in modern
Lebanon with the thread of blood stretching from the massacres of
Assyrians, along with Armenians, in Turkey in 1915.

Taher said the idea of victim and victimizer is also reflected in the
themes of `Sunset Oasis', whether in relation to Mahmoud, or to
Alexander the Great who `while victimizing others was at the same time
defeating himself.' Khoury remarked his generation of writers is
indebted to people like Taher who brought about a new wave in Arab
literature. The 1960s generation in Egypt was important in `liberating
fiction from imitating the naturalistic and realistic European novel'.

Taher expressed some caution over experimentation. He has read `Yalo'
twice and discovered that it has `a form of its own; you cannot
categorize it'. He warned that this kind of development `in the hands
of a novelist less experienced than Elias Khoury or others of his
generation is very dangerous, because a writer would not know where to
stop.'

`I find that in our modern literature there are some writers who are
writing experimental things just for the sake of experiment ` not
because they have really something new to add, or because they believe
that they should modernize Arabic literature, but just because they
want to be unusual and do not want to be conventional writers, And in
cases where the writer is not very experienced or very talented this
could be a very dangerous development in the history of the novel,' he
concluded. - SG

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