Robin Yassin-Kassab

Beirut 39

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This was published at the Guardian.

The Arab world is undergoing seismic transformations, groping its way towards new, as yet unknown forms, throwing up works of art as well as bombs in the process. In the face of vast complexity, however, and in a time of war, our media’s first response is to dumb down.

If the news media simplifies, literature, by offering social and psychological context, broadens and diversifies our understanding of the region, and particularly literature written by Arabs. (When Martin Amis or John Updike write about Arabs, they are of course writing about themselves, their own ideas of how Arabs tick.)  The reading public seems to know this. Recent years have seen an increasing demand for Arabic writing in English translation, though Europe still translates far more.

So the publication of “Beirut 39” ­– 39 extracts by Arab writers under 40 – is a timely and worthwhile initiative. The 39 are winners of a contest organised by Banipal magazine and the Hay Festival of Literature, and the book’s name honours UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2009. “Beirut 39” contains short stories, novel extracts and a few poems, often brimming with exuberant confidence and sparkling with innovation. The quality of translation ranges from acceptable to excellent.

Many of these worlds are alien to British readers, at least superficially. Libyan writer Najwa Binshatwan’s “The Pools and the Piano”, for instance, opens: “We took time off our classes to clean the school of the black ashes left behind from the burning of the foreign-language books.”Abdullah Thabit imagines the harsh education of “The Twentieth [9/11] Terrorist ” more successfully than Hollywood could. In Ala Hlehel’s ironic story, a Palestinian-Israeli writes to a resistance leader requesting that he send bombers anywhere but Haifa, because after each attack in Haifa the writer is bothered by journalists working on ‘coexistence’ pieces.

But many stories, even if their setting is unfamiliar, take us via individual lives into universal territory. Among these: the nighttime expulsion of a maid who pursues affairs with both master and mistress of the house; a philandering Damascene housewife measuring the beauties, shortcomings and material benefits of her lovers; a lonely woman in a Cairo towerblock slipping towards madness; a man watching a film about gay lovers on satellite TV, torn between sexual arousal and fear that his sleeping mother will awake.

Grouping work from such a vast geographical area is justified because the Arabs – whatever their spoken dialect or state loyalty – share a culture-language, a literary culture, and a key range of religious, political and historical references too. But Abdo Wazen’s introduction arguing that the new generation of writers destroys regional boundaries in order to create a pan-Arab literature – as there is now a ‘globalised’ Arab cinema, music and news media – is debatable. The stories and poems in “Beirut 39”, while open to pan-Arab and international influences, are textured according to their regional origins as well as their specific locations. They represent an unforced Arabism, no longer self-consciously “committed”, and hence more suggestive, more profound in its implications

For instance, Wajdi al-Ahdal’s tragi-comic nightmare “A Crime in Mataeem Street” feels distinctly Yemeni, as it should, but resonates under any regime of corruption. “Man conducts himself in a certain criminal way,” al-Ahdal writes, “like a predator in a forest, in order to obtain his material and moral entitlements in society.”

The Egyptian stories are more urban, more densely social. Youssef Rakha’s “Suicide 20, or the Hakimi Maqama” which plays with Druze theology in contemporary Cairo and London, is the most intriguing of these. Stories from Syria and Lebanon are sexier, often concerned with subverting romantic stereotypes. The extract from Rabee Jaber’s “America”, in which a Syrian-American (when ‘Syrian’ meant Lebanese, Palestinian and Jordanian too) suffers First World War hell, makes one wish the whole novel were available in English.

Some tales originate in the state of ghorba – a word meaning ‘residence beyond the Arab world’, related by root to the words for ‘alienation’ and ‘the west’. In Abdelkader Benali’s “The Trip to the Slaughterhouse” a Dutch-Moroccan teenager tells his sister about being beaten in the shower for having a circumcised penis. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard that there’s a disadvantage to being a boy!” the clever sister retorts. In Faiza Guene’s lively “Mimouna”, written in French, an immigrant remembers her youth amid Algeria’s War of Independence. Randa Jarrar, whose well-received novel “A Map of Home” follows a Palestinian coming-of-age through Kuwait, Egypt and Texas, and who writes in English, fits into the migrant category, but her contribution here addresses the problems of the old country. “The Story of My Building” retells Isaac Babel’s “Story of my Dovecote”, with the pogrom transferred to Gaza.

More alienated still than ghorba is the Iraq depicted in the extract from Ahmad Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad”, where a scrap vendor assembles the body parts he finds littering the exploded streets in order to construct a composite corpse – which moves off of its own accord. Saadawi’s macabre hyper-realism reminded me of Hassan Blasim, who isn’t represented here, despite being under forty and perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive. Blasim’s “The Madman of Freedom Square” presents writing of a whole different order – tight, intelligent, urgent in each word. Only a couple of the pieces here reach a similar standard. It would certainly be a mistake, therefore, to believe that “Beirut 39” is necessarily representative of the Arabs’ best. In fact, controversy over the selection process led Alaa al Aswany, author of the wonderful “Yacoubian Building”, to resign from chairmanship of the judging panel.

“Beirut 39” is a rich and varied feast, but one whose portions are dissatisfyingly meagre. In some cases the extracts were too brief for the reader to fully appreciate, so 15 longer pieces may have been wiser than 39. At worst, the book offers a disconnected and slightly frustrating reading experience. At best (Jaber, Jarrar, Wannous, Yazbeck, Saadawi), it motivates you to search out the writers’ full length works. Insha’allah it will motivate publishers to publish more Arab writing, and all of us to understand a little more.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 12, 2010 at 9:56 am

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