Reviewed by Diana Abu-Jaber
Sunday, August 7, 2005


An Anthology

Edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi

Columbia Univ. 1,056 pp. $59.50

I gave a reading, years ago, after which one of the audience members commented that I "write like an Arab." At the time, I was too startled to say much more than "Thank you." Such a statement, however, is troubling to anyone who resists the notion that race carries with it some sort of innate sensibility. Indeed, for a fair-skinned, American-raised, Irish-Arab like myself, the notion of race itself is entirely questionable.

Cultural representation is always a tricky business. Authors who attempt to bridge cultures are accused of all sorts of insufficiencies and betrayals. And while Edward Said's ground-breaking work Orientalism (1978) attacked the artificial divisions between the so-called "East" and "West," the ideological divide between America and the Arabic-speaking countries sometimes seems as impassable as ever. One of the challenges for readers living in a time of fear is the deep silence that such anxiety and repression engender. But for some of us, a repressive state of affairs just makes us all the more curious.

So it is fortunate indeed that a timely, ambitious anthology has appeared to help break the silence. Modern Arabic Fiction is a marvelous report on life in the contemporary Arab world told in a bold and lively multiplicity of voices. Edited by the noted Middle Eastern scholar Salma Khadra Jayyusi, this book presents the work in translation of more than 140 fiction writers from all over the Arabic-speaking world. Some, like the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, have achieved international recognition, while many others will be new and exciting to an English-speaking audience.

The sheer size of the anthology conveys a sense of urgency. This is a work of both artistry and testimony, of bearing witness to life in the contemporary Middle East, addressing themes of class, work, relationships, family, identity and gender, in short, all the same issues -- in somewhat different packaging -- that preoccupy Western writers. It is an intriguing, daunting, sometimes repetitious, frequently revelatory compendium, a universe of stories that can be dipped into over and over again.

In a 70-page introduction, Jayyusi discusses parallels in the development of Arab literary history and its American and European counterparts: the rise of modernism and post-modernism, social critique and formal experimentation. She also provides a helpful description of some of the more influential authors, such as Mahfouz, Gamal al-Ghitani and Zakaria Tamir.

The collection itself is divided into three parts: "The Pioneers," "Short Stories" and "Selections from Novels." One of the idiosyncrasies of the book is its organization: The selections in these three parts are organized alphabetically (by author) rather than chronologically. Also, many of the individual pieces aren't dated, and some of the authors are given no birth dates, nor is there an index, which could have offered some optional transliterations of the authors' names for those uncertain of the spellings. Fortunately, however, each entry is prefaced with a brief introduction, which helps considerably to put the works in context.

The section on "The Pioneers" offers a range of Arabic works dating from the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, several with a highly folkloric or fabulist quality. There are riddles, jokes, morality tales embedded within narratives and memoir. In this, the book embodies the individual object lessons of its stories: expanding global understanding, undermining stereotypes and countering the many clichés of the nightly news that would have Americans believe that Arabs are always angry, rioting, uprising and lacking any capacity for humor, charisma or any sort of thoughtful introspection. Marun 'Abboud's "The Highway Robber," for example, is a wry, irreverent story about a pious thief who commits terrible crimes yet never neglects his daily prayers. And Muhammad al-Muwailihi's piece, "The 'Umda in the Tavern," is highlighted by a conversation between the Prince and the Playboy that features Shakespearean wordplay and wit alongside an unexpectedly modern sensibility.

The section called "Short Stories" includes richly developed pieces depicting life on the farm and in the village as well as descriptions of modern Middle Eastern cities. Several pieces focus on the tensions arising between traditionalism and the carelessness of urban life, including the disfiguring influence of the oil industry, as in Abd al-Hameed Ahmad's tragic story "The Alien Farmer" concerning an Omani farmer whose way of life becomes outmoded because "no one cares about palm trees any more, and lambs are now slaughtered in special slaughterhouses." Other pieces highlight unhappiness arising from the growing presence of corporations or technology (often represented by the West). In "The Fire Within," the Algerian story-writer 'Abdallah Rukaibi portrays the uneasy tension one character feels between the familiar stresses of the modern working world and his lost sense of youthful passion and idealism: "It's true I don't have a long experience in administrative work, as . . . some of my colleagues do," the narrator says. "But I spent years out under the trees, fighting for the revolution. I lost my health on the rocks. I slept on the ground and under the open sky. I lived with the birds."

Those who read or teach Arabic works in translation will find in Part 3, "Selections from Novels," many familiar names: Liana Badr, Halim Barakat, Emile Habiby, Ghassan Kanafani, 'Abd al-Rahman Munif and of course, Mahfouz. The powerful literary voices showcased here offer stories of war and peace, love and disaster. Ghada Samman's excerpted "Nightmares of Beirut" is a potent work, vivid in its depictions of the Lebanese civil war, its interior narrative ineffable and haunting: "When I looked at him surrounded by his antiques, he seemed to me to be like a scarecrow guarding a field of ashes."

While I wouldn't venture to say that there is such a thing as a characteristic Arabic voice or sensibility, certain traits do recur in these works: an emphasis on self-analysis, a sense of dissatisfaction with economic and political hardships, a preference for reflection over physical descriptions or stylistic flourishes. But it's difficult to know how much of this is influenced by the nature of translating Arabic into English, or possibly even the editor's own predilections (although it's hard to imagine a single volume more comprehensive than this one).

The myriad scenes and cities depicted here create a psychic journey that begins in the Arab countries but travels everywhere. There is an enlivening distinctiveness about these authors, yet at the same time there is that elusive quality of transcended boundaries -- dare I use that risky old word "universality" -- a wonderful, deeply human corrective to the adversarial nature of contemporary American foreign policy, and an answer to the fearful stereotyping that has characterized so many Western media portrayals of the Arabs.

Such an inclusive anthology, of course, necessarily sacrifices in depth what it gains in breadth. But overall, this is a profoundly ambitious, timely and unusual book. These are the private artistic lives and visions of contemporary Arabs. Translated, yes, but otherwise unmediated, unrestricted and rendered entirely in their own words. ยท

Diana Abu-Jaber, the author of "The Language of Baklava," teaches at Portland State University.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company