Following the news and analysis of events in Egypt over the last weeks via Twitter, television, and Facebook has left me feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and depressed.
To help decompress, I have compiled a short list of fantastic books in translation to divert my bleary eyes from computer screens and consider contemporary events not through constantly breaking news but rather through the eloquent world of Arabic literature.
For Arabic literature connoisseurs, I must make the disclaimer that this is intended to be neither comprehensive nor authoritative, but a small offering of enjoyable texts, some newly available in English, and all longer than 140 characters.
That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Robyn Creswell
Published in translation this year, That Smell is Ibrahim’s 1974 narrative of a man coping with daily life after his release from prison. In true Ibrahim fashion, his uniquely uncluttered prose conveys a caustic disillusionment with newly encountered realities. (Read more)
The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, translated by Max Weiss
The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi, translated by Trevor Le Gassick
Originally published in 1974, this dark and sarcastic novel is told from the point of view of the anti-hero Saeed, a Palestinian collaborator. Habibi’s book is a brilliantly complex tragi-comedy that envelops the reader in a surreal series of misadventures. (Read more)
Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
The quintessential tale of ‘otherness’, this beautifully written novel tells the story of a man who leaves his traditional village in the Sudan to study in England, then returns home to find himself a perpetual stranger, belonging neither at home nor abroad. (Read more)
And some fantastic new books in their original Arabic, both published this year and not yet translated:
Al-Taboor (“The Queue”) by Basma Abdel-Aziz
Acutely capturing the frustrations of bureaucracy and the dangers of a security state, Abdel-Aziz’s debut novel takes place in a dystopic Egypt where citizens interact with each other as they wait endlessly for official approvals and decisions from the all-powerful ‘Gate.’ (Read more)
Ramallah Al-Shaqra’ (“Blonde Ramallah”) by Abbad Yahya
Blonde Ramallah is an encounter with the social changes occurring in Ramallah as a result of the hoards of foreigners living in the city. A refreshing break from emotional portrayals of the city as experienced by those returning from abroad, Yahya sarcastically describes a fractured Ramallah from the perspective of an insider who feels like an outsider. (Read more)
For those interested in more suggestions, I defer to the brilliant Marcia Lynx Qualey’s definitive blog, Arabic Literature (In English).