In the contemporary Arab world, Bilad ash-Sham, or the Levant, surely comes first for poetry. Whether you’re looking for Muhammad Maghout’s bitter satire, anti-romanticism, and defence of the poor and the peasants, or for Mahmoud Darwish’s lyrical nationalism — whether you appreciate the modernist obscurity of Adonis or the powerful simplicity of Nizar Qabbani; you will turn to Syria and Palestine for your verse fix. The Arabs certainly do. For poetry in the Middle East isn’t the elite preoccupation it has become in the West. Taxi drivers and market men will quote you snippets of Qabbani’s love poetry or angry anti-occupation verse according to their temperament and the twist of the conversation. Even the illiterate may know some Qabbani from hearing it quoted in the café or crooned by the Iraqi singer Kazem as-Saher, with orchestral accompaniment. When Arab rappers want to express hardcore identity, they proclaim: “I’m an Arab like Mahmoud Darwish!” (the ‘Dam’ crew from Palestine.) That’s how uncissy Arab poetry is.
But for the Arabic novel, a genre which is only a century old (although there are much earlier precursors), the action is centred in Egypt, unsurprisingly – Egypt with its huge population and its indefinable, unmeasurable metropolis.
The most famous of Egyptian novelists is Naguib Mahfouz. Amongst the Arabs his books are bestsellers in garish covers, and many have been made into classic films. His international reputation was sealed when he became the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Reflecting changes in 20th century Arab reality, his style developed from heroic through realist to magical realist or romantic symbolist.
His career began in the 1930s with historical novels such as ‘Thebes at War’ which used ancient Egyptian history to bolster patriotic pride, racial identity, and resistance to the British.
In the 1950s Mahfouz focussed on the archetypal novelistic theme: social change. This and his extensive reading of European novels resulted in the brilliant psychological realism and richly-peopled urban setting of ‘The Cairo Trilogy’, which follows three generations of a family’s life from the First World War to the Free Officers’ Revolution. The Trilogy did everything the 19th Century European realist novel had done, but perhaps did it better.
In the 60s and 70s Mahfouz’s work became more experimental. My own favourite comes from this period: ‘The Harafish,’ which means ‘the rabble’. It is a more universal study of human lust for power and immortality, and is also sexy and drama-packed. By now Mahfouz’s alleyway, that key social unit of traditional Arab cities, has become not just necessary realist background but a freefloating metaphor. It could represent Egypt, or the Arab world, or humanity. Its daily action reflects psychological and sexual tensions as well as social and political conflict.
The vaguely allegorical ‘Children of Gebelawi’ (its Arabic title is ‘Children of our Alley’) traces human history from the Fall through Judaism, Christianity and Islam to modern secular scientism. In its troubled Egyptian context, the book was controversial enough to get the old man stabbed in the neck by an Islamist in 1994. Mahfouz found it difficult to write after that, but continued producing small works until his death in 2006.
His books are classics of world literature and should be read by anyone who likes reading, whether or not they are interested in Egypt.
One star of the ‘Sixties Generation’ is Gamal al-Ghitani, whose historical novel ‘Zayni Barakat’ is particularly good. This is set in 1516 when Egypt’s Mamluk dynasty was crumbling before rising Ottoman power, but like all historical novels it has as much to say about the moment of its authorship. Many Western journalists are frustrated novelists; the oft-censored and once imprisoned Ghitani is a frustrated journalist. His fiction refers to the rise of a new Egyptian ruling class, to Israeli conquest and American hegemony, and the experience of living in a police state.
The Marxist writer Sonallah Ibrahim, in a reaction against social realism and linear narrative, produces kafkaesque and often hilarious criticism of contemporary Egypt. Another frustrated social commentator, Ibrahim blurs borders between literature and reportage. In ‘Zaat’, for instance, chapters describing the sexual, workplace and bureaucratic battles of the eponymous heroine are intercut with headlines culled from the Egyptian press which tell their own story of galloping corruption, loss of national independence, social dislocation and hypocritical Islamism.
A contemporary Egyptian bestseller, in Europe as well as in the Arab world, is Alaa al-Aswany’s ‘The Yacoubian Building.’ Mahfouz’s microcosmic alleyway has been replaced by a residential building inhabited by, amongst others, a gay character, a pious businessman-politician who makes his real money by trafficking drugs, a young woman who has to smile through sexual harrassment in order to keep her job and feed her family, and the doorkeeper’s son who is turned to political violence by frustrated ambition and police torture. Aswany doesn’t quite have the stature of Mahfouz, not yet at least, but he has the same humanist focus on social change and the same democratic comprehensiveness.
Most contemporary of all in its tone is Ahmad al-Aidy’s ‘Being Abbas el Abd’, which is an Egyptian ‘Fight Club’, amongst other things. It contains graphic weirdness and all manner of iconoclasm. Its humour and quickness of thought, and its up-to-the-minute Cairene cynicism, produce devastating lines such as a list of the ‘three options of the Arabs’: “Security in exchange for peace. Oil in exchange for food. And silence in exchange for aid.”
This slim novel has a high frequency of lines you want to underline and repeat for their own sake. Like: “She swivels her gaze with the neutrality of a security camera.” Or: “Another of the ladies is embracing me at an angle that allows her reticent breast to remain that way.” Or: “The usual Oriental machismo – that machismo that blazes up in a house as the light of a female fades.”
‘Being Abbas el Abd’ has a post-modern playfulness in its relationship with genre and literary tradition. When a prostitute relates her first sexual encounters, “She doesn’t say anything about ‘plucking roses’ or ‘and so Shahrazad reached the morning’s shore.’” The book tells us what is happening to contemporary (Egyptian) Arabic as well as to the Arabs. This is a language refigured by the computer and mobile phone, by the closepacked discourses and jargons of the metropolis, by advertising and Hollywood, by psychobabble, by the English language. “Close your eyes, drag and drop the Defilement icon into the folders of your brain,” writes our narrator. In the Arabic, there are expressions which are uncomfortably direct translations from English idiom (‘give a damn’ for instance). In translation, we read, “‘I forgive U,’ she says, dubbing herself into English.”
I have some problems with the Humphrey Davies translation. When I read “Cut to the chase,” or “Don’t act dumb with me! I mean like what’s with the women?” I have to struggle to place myself back in Cairo. But that’s because this American slang sounds foreign to me. al-Aidy is trying to make his Arabic conform to what he hears in the buses and cafés, to make it as local as possible. How do you translate that?
‘Being Abbas el Abd’ is fast-moving, globalised, irreverent, erotic, and alienated. As such it would surprise Martin Amis, who tells us that a monolithic Islamism has won everywhere in the Muslim world. It would confuse any of the commentators who complacently wrap up the ‘Arab mind’ in a trite image or two.
The West is hearing a lot about the Arabs, but only within the straitened confines of its corporate media, which inevitably simplifies. “Making Sense Of It All,” sloganises BBC World. Non-fiction written by outsiders can be good (on Egypt, ‘In an Antique Land’ by Amitav Ghosh is to be recommended), but the stuff in the best-seller lists (Bernard Lewis, VS Naipaul) usually has a narrow agenda. Novels provide context and complexity. They offer a more nuanced understanding and a sense of the human texture of a part of the world which is, naturally, every bit as diverse as any other.