The publishing industry has a reputation for being somewhat risk-averse: the word ‘marketability’ sounds as a death-knell in the ear of the aspiring writer, and the word ‘translation’ is, well, just kinda dirty. Which means that, here in the English-speaking British Isles, we don’t get to easily read a whole lot of foreign-language writing, whether in English or otherwise – and considering the large immigrant and multi-lingual populations that fill our cities, that’s pretty ridiculous/sad/disgraceful. For every Kite Running mega-hit, there’s a plethora of titles and authors that never get anywhere near the bookshop shelves, never mind the supermarket loss-leaders. This isn’t an obscure complaint, however, and there’s a noisy subsection of the industry that battles to redress the balance. And, ta-da, here’s a result: Bloomsbury and the Hay Festival have compiled Beirut 39, gathering together writings by (yup) thirty-nine Arab writers under the age of forty. It’s called New Writing, but that’s arguably a condescension: they might be new to the Brit lit scene, but these men and women are far from new writers, most of them with numerous books and publications to their names – it’s just that, from our blinkered Anglophonic perspective, they might as well not exist. But exist they do, and nomenclature issues aside, this is a valuable collection in bringing these writers and their works to wider attention. The book includes novel extracts, short stories and poetry, most of which have been translated from Arabic, though some were written in French (and one in English, by a US-based Egyptian writer). The work is set across the Arab world, from Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Morocco to the wider international diaspora. Like all fiction set in an unfamiliar context, it’s often disorienting and perhaps unintentionally oblique – I wasn’t as attuned to the societal nuances as I would be with pieces set in Ireland, the UK, or, perhaps, more tenuously, Australia or the USA – but that’s also enormously refreshing. Likewise, the mix of poetry, stories and extracts is a little startling – while it gives us an excellent cross-section of the work being produced across the young Arab world, it presents its own challenges to the reader, who, like me, mightn’t be especially conversant with all the forms on display. But that’s to my shame, not that of the editors – this is a demanding, fascinating and necessary collection that knocks its readers right out of their comfort zones.
With almost forty writers represented, it’s difficult to do a comprehensive run-through. In general, I found myself gravitating towards the short stories; I’m not a poetry expert and I found the novel excerpts hard to contextualise and/or assess, at times, but that’s a problem inherent in excerpting, rather than a flaw with the individual samples on show here. That said, of the poetry, I was drawn to Joumana Haddad’s excerpt from ‘The Geology of the I’; it had an incantatory quality I associate with Allan Ginsberg – a violent biographical recitation:
I am blackmail, my inaugural vice.
I am war
and the corpse of the man the combatants dragged around in front
and his torn-off leg trying to catch up with him.
Another excerpt was from Abdelkader Benali’s The Trip to the Slaughterhouse, an apparent coming-of-age novel, in this part of which the boy protagonist starts to notice the various restrictions and prejudices that shape his life – his sister denied an education, his own bullying at his judo lessons. The editorial notes don’t specify whether each extract is the opening chapter of the novels in question, but this one definitely felt like a compelling introduction. Adania Shibli’s short story, ‘At The Post Office’, features Afaf, a teenage girl who’s quit school to work in her local post office – despite her initial rebellion, she ‘had completely surrendered to her fate from the very first day.’ In contrast with the inquisitive, defiant edge to Benali’s protagonist, Afaf’s story is shadowed by a turgid sadness and resignation – which isn’t to say that it’s not riven with sharp humour, as well. Then, in sharp contrast with these two rather contemplative, realistic pieces, comes Ahmad Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ (another exerpt) – a ghoulish, creepy, highly memorable story of a body-snatching Iraqi. Mohammad Hassan Alwan’s ‘Haseef from Glasgow’ looks at immigrant communities – the narrator’s Kashmiri former driver has spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia, working for a rich boss, supporting his own wife and children back home and feeling disconnected; now, once he’s taken his family to live in Scotland, the son of his old employer is finally confronted with the sadness and complexity of a relationship and a power dynamic that he’s hitherto taken for granted. Randa Jarrar’s ‘The Story of my Building’, set in Gaza, is another quite overtly political piece – it takes a sideways glance at Israeli/Palestinian relations via a small boy’s experience of his building being blown-up. Directly referencing Isaac Babel, this is the only story in the book written originally in English. It’s sharp and funny and very shocking in its climactic scenes. One last one: I loved Rosa Yassin Hassan’s ‘Guardians of the Air’, in which Annat, a Syrian woman, works for Canadian Immigration, translating the stories of Arabic refugees who are seeking asylum in Canada. As the story progresses, Annat’s disillusionment with the system grows. Hassan looks at the subtleties of cultural and linguistic translation and the contrast between worlds as the officials and the applicants come face to face in a drab office – and the irony of my reading it in English translation is not lost.
Any Cop?: Yes, certainly. Beirut 39 probably won’t be the most immediately accessible collection you’ll read this year – and the inclusion of extracts from longer works doesn’t help in that respect – but it’s so diverse, there’s something to suit most tastes. Plus, of course, it wedges open a door onto the Arab literary scene for those of us who’ve remained oblivious for too long. An important anthology.