Off the bookshelf: A reading list from the Arab publications

Sayed Mahmoud , Monday 2 Oct 2023

Of the recent and best selling titles from the print houses of Arab publishers, comes this proposed reading list.



A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A son’s memoir, Rodrigo Garcia, translated into Arabic by Ahmed Al-Shaf’i, Dammam: Athar, pp112


In an intimate and warm style, Rodrigo Garcia recalls the last days in the life of the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabrial Garcia Marquez, and of his wife Mercedes Barcha, who had an incredible impact on him.
With a perfect balance between elegant prose and visual narration, Garcia takes the reader straight into the lives of his parents at the moment when the father is stepping out of fame to the boredom that leads to death.
Garcia skillfully moves between places and times to evoke the time leading up to that day in 2014 when his mother, Mercedes, summoned him from Paris to be by his father’s death bed in Mexico City. Garcia tried to keep the journey across the Atlantic a secret to avoid bringing attention to his father’s illness but his scheme did not work and it took a little over 24 hours for the entire world to be focused on the last hours in the life of Colombian Nobel laureate.
Garcia also failed to take his father to his “last solitude” in a place away from home as the family was followed by the press. They decided to go back home and wait for the father to pass away.
Mercedes for her part is far from a side note in the memoir of the son. She is central to the story, especially since she was the one person who penetrated the wall of forgetfulness that Alzheimer’s forced on her husband. She is there warning Rodrigo that once death descends on his father the scene will turn into a circus. Mercedes would not let the zoo tamper with the last, incomplete manuscripts of Marquez. She took them to safety under her own protection until she herself died of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, six years after the demise of her husband.



A Nation with No Name (Ummah la ism laha), Nader Kazem, Manama: Suaal, pp368


A prominent critic with a multidisciplinary background that combines history, sociology and literary criticism, Nader Al-Kazem is best known for works that attempt to decipher the codes of Arab Gulf societies and shed light on their often hidden enclaves.
Al-Kazem made a mark with his book Inqaz al-amal (Saving Hope), which was followed by this book, subtitled “from state construction to deconstruction”.
A Nation with No Name is a series of articles in which Al-Kazem, in keeping with the project he is committed to, tries to examine the concepts behind the creation of the state and definition of statehood. In his introduction he quotes 17th century Italian poet Massimo d’Azeglio and 20th century Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as they both address the issue of identity. “We made Italy and now is the time for us to make Italians,” D’Azeglio says. “We shall be a nation if we want to be,” Darwish says.
Kazem’s book is about the liminal part of the definition of identity that lies between the propositions of both D’Azeglio and Darwish. This, he does through a clever study of the history of Arab nationalism that during most of its phases allowed for a whole range of coercion and violation of basic rights under the guise of the protection of national identity.
Al-Kazem notes that the pattern of discounting the other that was at the core of Arab nationalism was passed to subsequent radical political groups that came to the fore in the wake of the failure of the call of Arab nationalism. In this book, Al-Kazem does not hesitate to say that there is no difference between the intellectual concepts adopted by Azmi Bishara (a prominent Palestinian-Israeli thinker) and those of Michel Aflaq (a Baathist theoretician) when it comes to the concept of the ummah (nation), the language, religion and “eternal call” of belonging.
The book is a rich and thorough critical analysis of all contemporary attempts to address the issue of identity starting with the 19th-century scholar Rifaa Al-Tahtawi through Naguib Azouri, Sat’iaa Al-Hossari, Michel Aflaq, Costantine Rizk, Nadim Al-Bitar to Azmi Bishara.
Kazem also reviews Benedict Andreson’s Imagined Communities, with case studies of Iraq and Bahrain where surging sectarianism has defied calls for coexistence and anti-sectarianism.


The Complete Works of Ounsi El-Hajj, edited by Nada El-Hajj, Milan: Al Mutawassit, pp544

As well as being a critic and columnist, Ounsi El-Hajj was one of the most influential Arab poets of the second half of the 20th century. He died in 2014 at the age of 77 following a long battle with colon cancer.
This reprint of his complete poems is a literary event, given the fact that a good part of his oeuvre had been out of print for years – with the exception of an affordable edition of the complete works published in Cairo in 2007 by the General Authority for Cultural Palaces.
A towering figure in Lebanon, El-Hajj wrote poems that were atypical in style and syntax as they often read like Sufi songs. This proved both inspiring and controversial.
Through his column in the prominent Lebanese dailies, Al-Nahar and Al-Akhbar, El-Hajj was able to incite cultural debates, especially through the cultural supplement Al-Mulhaq which he produced during his years with Al-Nahar.
This new edition of the complete poems was the initiative of Khaled Al-Nasseri, poet, graphic designer, and founder and owner of Al-Mutawassit. The volume was revised by none other than Nada El-Hajj, Ounsi’s daughter.
The book is prefixed by an exceptional introduction by Al-Nasseri himself, in which he recalls reading El-Hajj’s collection of poems Lan (or “Shall not”) in the public library of Damascus, revealing a deep admiration for the style of El-Hajj. He calls El-Hajj a poet from the future whose work is as priceless as prehistoric engravings. “With every line of the poems of El-Hajj, I feel I am touching the sands that have been standing there in a testimony to prehistoric times.”



History Is Not Written Once (La yuktab al-tarikh marra wahida), Abdel-Rahman Al-Ibrahim, Kuwait: Takwin, pp372


This book is an attempt by a Kuwaiti historian to dissect many of the propositions that have recently circulated regarding the history of the Arab Gulf. Ibrahim argues that those concepts are neither well-founded nor adequately examined, given that they are more the impressions of their authors than the result of actual research conducted on clear criteria. He actually suggests that most of the material so far produced is the subjective narratives of authors who are influenced by the Orientalist approach.
In short, the author suggests the need for  serious and more substantial work to write the history of Kuwait and that of the rest of Arab Gulf societies that goes beyond the reductionist narrative in which Kuwaitis are either traders or sheikhs, advanced at the expense of every other segment of society.
The book is rich with reflections on issues of sectarianism as an unavoidable but often exaggerated and confused element of the history of Arab Gulf societies and the role and status of women in these societies especially with regard to their relation to Islamic doctrine in the years prior to the dominance of petroculture.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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