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I was pleased to see strong attention in the New York Times Book Review of September 11, 2011 being paid to young Arabic writers. A second novel by Libyan, Hisham Matar, Anatomy of a Disappearance is reviewed by Robert Worth.  Matar’s first novel, In The Country of Men greatly impressed me [reviewed here] so I am pleased to see Worth praising the second one.


“Ever since a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire last December, people around the world have been asking how a new generation of Arab rebels learned to do what their parents could not: resist and even defeat a brutal police state. But a darker corollary soon arose. Why did it take so long? Why did the earlier rebellions fail? And how much damage has been done to the fabric of the societies that are now struggling, at the cost of so much blood, to reinvent themselves?

For Western readers, what often seemed lacking — as in Iraq in years past — was an authentic interpreter and witness, someone who could speak across cultures and make us feel the abundant miseries that fueled the revolt. “No one plays this role, in my view, as powerfully as Hisham Matar, a novelist who left Libya at the age of 9 and later emigrated to Britain …

Matar writes in English, in extraordinarily powerful and densely evocative prose; he seems uniquely poised to play the role of literary ambassador between two worlds that have long been locked in mutual suspicion and ignorance.”  Worth


Nuruddin Farah, from Somalia and now living in Minneapolis and Capetown  has released his 11th novel, Crossbonesreviewed by Hirsh Sawhney, with some cautions about difficult plotting and some verbosity.  It looks like very political, and contemporary novel, and is the third in a trilogy titled “Past Imperfect.”  Farah hadn’t been on my radar of Arabic language writers as I’ve become a student and a fan of them lately.  He certainly goes to the top of my read-next list now with, if not Crossbones, one of the other in the trilogy.  Actually, he is incredibly prolific and this would seem to be the third trilogy!

Before Malik’s  a [half Somali, half Indonesian war correspondent] arrival, the city was controlled by “armed clan-based militiamen high on drugs,” intent on threatening those who refused to “do their bidding.” Now “religionists” have enforced a precarious order. Malik learns that many of these white-robed men, members of the ruling Union of Islamic Courts, are former militia members currently inflicting a different kind of trauma. They oppress women, assassinate dissidents and form alliances with pirates. But these zealots aren’t single-mindedly demonized by the author, who takes great pains to illuminate the roots of Somalia’s turmoil in a nuanced manner.

Farah demonstrates how war profiteers make lucrative careers out of chaos. The bloody Ethiopian invasion, which received significant backing from the United States, not only foments anti-American sentiment, but also makes the most secular Somalis sympathize with the religionists.

Sawhney”   On the back page of the Review is not a review of a single book but an informed essay about the state of young Egyptian writers, with many writers and titles mentioned, among them Waguih Ghali’s “Beer in the Snooker Club,” a coming-of-age novel set in 1952,  Alaa al-Aswany, a dentist turned literary star whose “Yacoubian Building” captured the jaded grandeur of downtown Cairo, Ahmed Alaidy, whose stories of youthful mall culture used a vernacular Arabic — complete with text messages — that challenged the high orthodoxy of classical Arabic, and Khaled al-Berry, who skillfully narrated his experiences as a teenage jihadist in “Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise.” Azimi recounts a recent visit to Cairo:

Seven months after Mubarak’s fall, Hashem, a wry, wiry chain-smoker, can be found in his office — some 500 yards from Tahrir Square — presiding over an improvised literary salon from an unassuming swivel-chair throne. During the revolution, his dusty, moth-eaten offices functioned as a refueling station for legions of activists. When I visited him one evening at the end of July, the smoky room slowly filled with members of the Egyptian literati, including Hamdi Abu Golail, a writer who often addresses his vexed relationship with his Bedouin heritage, and Magdy el-Shafei, a graphic novelist who in 2008 wrote “Metro,” a tale of two young men who, driven to desperation, rob a bank. (“Metro,” as it happens, was banned under Mubarak for indecency. Today, Arabic and English editions are forthcoming.) “You have millions of witnesses to this revolution,” Hashem told his guests that evening. “Each one is a potential new writer.” Hashem, for his part, has plans to publish an anthology of impressions of the revolution, many by amateur writers. “This has changed our young people.”

  Negar Azimi






Diana Abu-Jabar, a Jordanian American, as a new novel called Birds of Paradise, with a mixed review by Cristina Garcia.  Though not about the Arabic world, or the youth or events of the Arab Spring — actually, how does Coral Gables, Miami and Haiti sound to you?–  it may appeal to some.

… the indisputable stars of “Birds of Paradise” are Felice and Miami itself, with its obliterating light, its “perfumed flames” of vegetation, the grand theater of its skies, its “running currents of Spanish.” Miami and Felice mirror each other, getting under our skin, making us sweat to soaking. Abu-Jaber has captured Miami’s insiders and outsiders, the ordinary and the outlandish, the hype, the hurricanes, the hoopla. This, perhaps, is her greatest achievement in a novel of mixed success.


Finally, not a novel but a sociology, travel, reportage by Robin Wright, titled Rock the Casbah, and reviewed by Mohamad Bazzi.

Wright, a veteran foreign correspondent, argues that the Arab world’s younger generation is at the vanguard of a sweeping and seductive cultural revolution. Setting out to challenge the lazy trope that Islam is incompatible with modernity and democracy, she traveled across the Middle East — with forays into the wider Muslim world — to profile hip-hop artists, poets, playwrights, feminists, human rights activists, TV imams, comic book creators and comedians. Wright contends that these reformers are working toward a “counter-jihad” to reclaim Islam from militants who crave perpetual holy war. “For the majority of Muslims today, the central issue is not a clash with other civilizations. It is instead a struggle within the faith itself to rescue Islam’s central values from a small but virulent minority,” she writes. “The new confrontation is effectively a jihad against the Jihad.

Lots of promising stuff here, and good on the Times for focusing a bit on this part of the world we have known so crookedly