I’ve been asked to review the year in Arabic literature, and I’m going to be honest about it. Rather than celebrating a yield to which I did not contribute — surely that makes it worthless! — I’m going to plug two books that appeared with Al-Kotob Khan in Cairo at the tail end of 2019.
I choose them not because I carefully read everything that was published and dispassionately selected the best two but because, as editor and fellow writer, I was personally involved in their coming into the world. And this just might be the ultimate way to blow my eminently noise-worthy trumpet, sparing me both the burden of exhaustiveness and the pretence of objectivity.
I love these two books the way I love my own work, but because they do not bear my name I have no qualms about unilaterally declaring them the literary event of the year. There may be better crafted, more accomplished things lying around, but at the start of 2020, it is these two that make me optimistic about the next decade, filling me with hope for the future of Arabic literature.
Carol Sansour’s poetic sequence In the Time of the Apricots is a trilingual volume that includes my English and Henri Jules Julien’s French translation as well as the original Arabic. It’s a gorgeous object, the work of Palestinian designer Maryanne Jaraysi. But its power lies in the effortless way it subverts received accounts of both the Palestinian cause and Arab womanhood.
In her sincere, refreshingly unaffected vision of self and homeland, Sansour – a native of Beit Jala – exposes just how flimsy and counter-productive modern literary discourse on those two topics has been. She does so not through contention and confrontation but by using the most organic language — making no distinction between Palestinian dialect and standard Arabic, or between poetic and prosaic registers — and saying the least rhetorical things.
At one point she does write, “It may be that the idea of Arab nationalism precisely is the idea of the state of Israel,” but it’s by replacing the idealised, absented homeland which Arab poets have lamented and yearned for since the Nakba with a sensual and physical presence that she makes us emotionally, intellectually, even politically aware of what it means to be a secular, independent and socially engaged woman in Palestine.
In place of the paradise that isn’t, Sansour gives us a rough-hewn earth where mothers, daughters, wives and sisters grapple with the everyday and the universal. And in place of un-parsed Western “feminism”, rephrasing UN declarations and politically correct assertions of identity devoid of Arab context, she shows us an emancipated female perspective.
By turns lyrical, narrative and polemical, these intense, concise pieces work not only through occupation and patriarchy — Sansour seldom calls them that — but also through beauty, love and the imperative to remain a human agent as opposed to a cog in the machineries of some ideological grand narrative. The result is no less “committed” or persuasive for being true to itself.
“The mornings green, yellow/ and honey hued”, thus the book’s refrain. “In the time of the apricots/ The smell of burning sugar/ Children playing in the dust/ while my mother makes coffee... My mother/ In the time of the apricots/ Always my mother.”
Amgad Al-Sabban’s collection of short stories Sleep Thieves — so far only available in Arabic — is the winner of a Mawrid grant and, prior to being collected in book form, the subject of many a perceptive critic’s admiration on the web. Even though it is a young author’s debut, it testifies to a mature, distinctive voice and a clear sense of literary purpose.
Within the narrow scope of an essentially existential question — what does it mean to be alive or conscious — Al-Sabban manages to achieve a range of tonal registers and narrative dimensions. The title story opens with the narrator, a suicidal insomniac, returning home from work to be confronted by mother, grandmother and pregnant sister about “stealing the sleep” from his brother-in-law. It ends with him being buried while his sister finally gives birth.
A man dreams of establishing an incredibly bureaucratic NGO to bring the bereaved together with the souls of their loved ones. A middle-class mother turns into a cat. Or a group of women dress one man up as a bride, celebrating, before throwing him into the Nile.
A Mansoura native born in 1990, Al-Sabban has already been, among other things, a Saudi-based accountant and a front-rank member of one of the Nile Delta’s oldest Sufi tariqas. And his perspective on the world — at once melancholy and funny, effervescent and profound, and faithful to direct, local, everyday experience in its acute awareness of human hopelessness — is unlike anything I have come across in modern Arabic literature.
Reading a Sabban story is like being accompanied through the most intricate and intimate ins and outs of life in contemporary Egypt by a homegrown Kafka, a delinquent Borges, and a sober Bukowski. However far below the surface, there is no theory or erudition, no sense of the world beyond direct experience, and no attempt to make language do anything more than tell the story.
"The pallbearers went round the grave once, twice, three and four times,” Al-Sabban writes at the end of Sleep Thieves. “Each time they would push me forward, until I was facing the open grave. My sister gave a big scream, it was the scream of labour. I said to myself, ‘My sister will give birth now.’ And it was as if I was reminding myself of something I had totally forgotten. I repeated it a second time, and I grew certain that the new child is coming to steal the sleep from me.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.