Aboud Saeed’s eponymous début novel is the first full-length book I have ever read in Arabic. Although familiar with Arab literature in English translation, I could never get past the sixth or seventh page of any book written in fus’ha, systematically deterred by what appeared to be a stilted tone, excessive formality, and irrepressible associations with ninth-grade grammar lessons and Quranic edicts. No matter the subject matter, a voice of imperious authority seemed to emanate from every text I read, such that attempts at engaging with literature written in my mother tongue ended with feelings of having attended a sermon by Hassan Nasrallah (and even he cuts his fus’ha with smatterings of Lebanese).
The experience may be a subjective one, but undoubtedly is also shared by all Arabs who have failed to emotionally bridge their native language with its written counterpart. That the latter bears little resemblance to the former may indeed help explain the alarmingly low rate of reading in Arab countries as compared with the rest of the world. Either way, Aboud Saeed is a relief for frustrated Arab reading publics, presenting an accessible story unencumbered by fus’ha’s usual weight. The two-hundred page work of fiction is composed of undated, memoir-like diary entries about the childhood, youth, love, and war experiences of Aboud Saeed, a Syrian blogger living in exile in Germany.
Among the book’s remarkable qualities is the author’s disregard for niceties of any kind. Whether speaking of altercations with schoolteachers, the premeditated murder of a lizard, or Saeed’s latent envy of successful Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, the author’s language is matter-of-fact and unsparing. When asked to compose an essay on the topic of martyrdom at school, for example, he embarks on a gleefully obscene ramble that desecrates all that is sacred: “Sir, I want forty blonde girls and I do not want virgins; sir, give me a bottle of Birat Al-Sharq [an Aleppan beer brand] and take your rivers of wine; take of all your breaking news, sir, and give us the news that our math teacher is sick and won’t be in today.” Such instances of juvenile provocation pervade the novel, and have a rich tradition in contemporary Palestinian literature in particular, where experiences of degradation and violence are often offset by facetious comic relief. Both in those novels and in About Saeed, ostensible dismissiveness belies agony and frustration, and arguably represent an attitude of defiance.
Saeed’s protagonist is only too happy to explain how a perfectly unremarkable adolescent interest in women and beer might constitute an act of defiance: “What is a martyr? We want to live. The revolution of life, sir! The revolution of life: that is our subject, and not that of martyrdom and the martyr, sir.” This statement reflects the protagonists’s defiant desires in at least three ways. First, it flies in the face of Baathist attempts to indoctrinate Syrian children with compulsory ‘revolutionary’ education from elementary school onwards; though since abolished in some areas, many schools continue to teach the subject. Second, the protagonist demonstrates that he will not allow himself to be politicized: the political subject is, after all, a human being, with all of a human being’s interests, likes, dislikes and personality quirks. It is precisely this individuality that is repressed by the discourse of collective martyrdom. Third, the wish itself is defiant: Syrian boys, like boys in other parts of the world, are generally scolded for publicly expressing desire for women. In a milieu that sets great store by social norms, expressing such banal desires can be transgressive, if not for adult readers, then certainly for Arab youth.
I was given this book by someone who wanted me to give Arabic literature a chance, and their mission has since been accomplished. Written largely fus’ha Arabic, Aboud infuses the language with an explosive humor, disarming self-deprecation and degrees of obscenity that reanimate the language for those exasperated with its literary customs of euphemism, restraint and poetic pomposity.