Cover of The Epidemic (Dar Al-Adab, 1981) and author Hani al-Rahib

There has been a rising demand for Arabic literature in translation over the last ten years, and numerous publishing houses are attempting to produce translated works for growing, curious audiences unable to access the originals.

One of these publishers, And Other Stories has taken an innovative approach to participating in the burgeoning field of publishing translated Arabic literature. AOS involves consumers in the process of deciding which books to publish through reading groups organized in New York, Cairo, and online. These groups read translated selections of novels or the complete original in Arabic and discuss them together. (Read more about the process here)

One of the first books to be included in the new project is Syrian author Hani al-Rahib’s The Epidemic (1981), translated by Bassem Frangieh. Frangieh is the Professor of Arabic Language and Literature and the Chairman of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. While working on translating The Epidemic, Frangieh and al-Rahib became friends and Frangieh has not continued working on the translation since al-Rahib’s passing in 2000.

Born in a Syrian village in 1939, al-Rahib lived an exciting life often affected by controversy and volatile political situations. He was a professor of literature at the University of Damascus and the University of Kuwait, where he was fired for allegedly inciting students to rebel.

Al-Rahib wrote novels, short stories, and literary criticism throughout his career and is a highly renowned pioneer of the modern Arab novel, unafraid to tackle sensitive issues.  With eloquence and a unique style, al-Rahib used his stories to pose questions he considered pertinent to contemporary Arab societies.

The Epidemic follows numerous generations of people who struggle with the frustration of defeat and disappointment. Set in Syria, the novel is filled with political symbolism which thinly obscures criticism of an oppressive political system. The following is an excerpt of The Epidemic, translated by Frangieh:

He did not react when he heard that a war had broken out of a type that humankind had never experienced. The limited news reaching Al-Sheer was outdated and unreliable. He knew that the war was everywhere, that it might consume everything and kill millions of people. It might reach his hermitage one day. His daily routine did not change. He continued following the sun and synchronizing his movements with its own: he rose with it, revolved with it, and turned westward toward the village when it set. He slept in the silent hermitage among the graves after sundown. That day while the sun was still hanging on the horizon he left as usual, from his place, for the village. He was entirely white – his hair, his clothes, his shoes and his rosary. Only his eyes were black.

When he arrived in the eastern part of the village all the children ran into the alleys and the news spread like wildfire: the Sheikh had come. The men poured into the main street, the women stood on their doorsteps. But the children were confused. Within seconds the main road was blocked off, so they scattered in many directions, making the only sounds in the fearful quiet.

The first of the men to reach the Sheikh and kiss his hand was the lucky one. He retreated as fast as a squirrel. Moments later the quiet was disturbed. No longer did anyone wait in turn. They crowded together and pushed each other. Some of them fell to the ground. Some of them missed the opportunity to kiss his hand. The women left their doorsteps. The Sheikh decided that the time had come to stop, the disturbance had become intolerable.

He stopped. They stopped. They dispersed. They encircled him. A silence like the one at the hermitage and the graves prevailed over the area. It spread fast from one area to the next, and the next. At that point his fingers left the rosary and his arms rose slowly straight out to shoulder height and his hands dropped. He walked.

Everything became still. They approached him silently to kiss his hand, as if they were going to offer to an altar their loyalty, a kind of atonement for still being alive. But the Sheikh seemed about to fly away, ready to leave the silence behind him.

If you are interested in reading more from this novel, or in getting involved with the new reading groups, please see the website or get in touch directly at reading@andotherstories.org.