Time to let children, teens, and young adults engage with Arabic literature in translation.
Many of the books on the list of Middle Eastern Literature for Middle School are excellent works — my eldest child, for instance, gives a thumbs-up to Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Where the Streets Had a Name.
However, the list, like most of books recommended for young readers, includes almost entirely texts written in English. There are a few exceptions: the Goha stories skillfully adapted by Denys Johnson-Davies, and the Rafik Schami books translated from German (which are quite strange choices for a middle-school reader, all things considered). All the books about Iraq were written by Westerners.
The importance of having children, teens, and young adults engage with literature in translation — literature from other traditions, that builds on different discussions — is an essay for another day. But it is even more essential with Arabic literature, where books are so often treated as anthropological exercises (so why shouldn’t they be written by any “scientist”?).
Books marked with an (A) are particularly accessible.
1. (A) Code Name: Butterfly, by Ahlam Bsharat, trans. Nancy Roberts
Why: My review in The National goes into greater detail about the book, which was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, and is an excellent read for adults or teens.
Discussions: Who is in charge of this damned world? What is our responsibility towards justice? What is Butterfly’s responsibility?
2. Fifteen Iraqi Poets, ed. Dunya Mikhail
Why: Dunya Mikhail’s The War Works Hard is itself a strong teaching text, but her selection of 15 poets gives teen readers a chance to experience Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s “Rain Song,” which is all at once magically accessible and constantly revealing new terrain, as well as Nazik al-Malaika‘s “New Year,” poems by Sargon Boulus, Saadi Youssef, and more.
Discussions: The 1,500-year traditions of Arabic literature. Also: Dunya embeds discussions and questions in the introductions to each poet.
3. The Corpse Exhibition, by Hassan Blasim, trans. Jonathan Wright
Why: The stories here are violent, as the title suggests, and some of Blasim’s stories are boundary-pushing, but never inaccessible or anything but page-turning. What is violence? Why is violence? Surely this is something teen readers urgently want to know, just like the rest of us.
Discussions: Why don’t the stories end? Why stories packed inside stories? Why the rough edges?
4. (A) The Servant, Fatima Sharafeddine, trans. the author
Why: This is YA written for Arab teens. I haven’t read the translation, but the Arabic lent a startling clarity to the main character’s journey, and Fatima infuses the story of a child-maid in Beirut, forced into servitude by her family, a great sympathy.
Discussions: What is agency, what is servitude, who is visible and invisible?
5. Always Coca-Cola, Alexandra Chrieteh, trans. Michelle Hartman
Why: This is a book that movies around young women’s bodies and choices, and choices about their bodies.
Discussions: See above.
6. Stealth, Sonallah Ibrahim, trans. Hosam Aboul-ela
Why: This is for the advanced teenaged reader, but it’s a gorgeous, evocative, and ultimately painful portrait of pre-1952 Cairo and a child’s relationship with his father and absent mother. About sneaking, watching, knowing.
Discussions: Will he become his father? Are we destined to become our parents? How do we break out and become ourselves?
7. (A) I Want to Get Married!, Ghada Abdel Aal, trans. Noha Tahawy
Why: It’s funny, that’s why. Portraits of suitors in contemporary Egypt, which came out of Ghada’s blog of the same name.
Discussions: Ergh, why do people want to get married? Why normative courtship rituals? Is Ghada critiquing current social practices or strengthening them?
8. (A) The Bamboo Stalk, Saud Alsanoussi, trans. Jonathan Wright
Why: This is a wonderfully straightforward coming-of-age exploration of identity issues in contemporary Kuwait. The central character is confused about religion, belonging, identity, nationality, and family.
Discussions: All of the above.
Bonus: It could be read with Goat Days, about a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia written by Bahrain-based Indian author Benyamin. Translated from the Malayalam by Joseph Koyippally.
9. The Hedgehog, Zakaria Tamer, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies and Brian O’Rourke.
Why: Tamer’s stories have a wonderful, simple elegance and lend themselves to readings, re-readings, and discussions (dictatorship and power, among other issues). More on Tamer here.
Discussions: Is it possible to change the systems we’re in?
10. Tajdeed, an issue of The Common, ed. Jennifer Acker and Hisham Bustani
Why: A startling range of work from 26 emerging and established writers from 15 Middle Eastern countries. There are experimental works, but also very accessible ones. Includes work by other authors mentioned here (Hassan Blasim, Zakariya Tamer).
Discussions: Youssef Rakha and M Lynx Qualey both have essay-introductions that can be used for discussions.
11. Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt, by Jurji Zaydan, Samah Selim
Why: What, like, Arabs have a long history that didn’t just begin with the invention of the television, or the internet, or twitter?
Discussions: Methods of telling historical narratives, why Jurji Zaydan wanted to tell these stories (and not write contemporary novels).
For more posts on Arabic literature, make sure to visit Marcia Lynx Qualey’s blog: ArabLit