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from the July 2017 issue

Writing Against the Grain

Photo: Courtesy of Dana Awartani and Athr Gallery

The four writers featured in the July 2017 issue of Words without Borders are among the over 150 artists coming to London this month as part of the biennial Shubbak Festival. Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture encompasses a dazzling range of art forms and an almost overwhelming array of artists. This month, we welcome artists for sixteen exciting days of events across more than thirty venues, closing the festival with the literature program. This year’s theme for our intensive weekend of literature at the British Library is “Writing Against the Grain,” and it features eighteen writers from ten dialects and many different homelands, spanning the Arab region and the diaspora.

There are over 400 million native speakers of Arabic across a vast swath of the planet: no single writer or text can begin to represent that many unique minds and pulses. With a broad diversity of voices teeming across the various realms the language spans—geographical, socio-economic, stylistic, ideological—the selection process for Shubbak at the British Library is always a fascinating task, but never an easy one. Working across the genres from poetry to graphic novels, from science fiction to romance, in our program the traditional meets the experimental, the ancient meets the futuristic, the famous meet the little known. Even the Arabic language itself is not always a point of commonality among the vibrant group in our prgram; some authors write in Arabic and are translated, some write in English, and some translate their own work or other writers’ work from Arabic or back into Arabic. All of their work is aesthetically appealing, original and alluring, in all their different ways and for all their different reasons.

But the one thing all the writers on the 2017 Shubbak program clearly share is that each of them is pushing the boundary of the known and working against the grain of the status quo. This resistance means different things to different writers, given that there are different struggles going on even within one single city (or within one person)—let alone across the whole region. These writers are pushing against convention and conformity, rejecting various aspects of the formulaic and the hegemonic, and this takes a range of forms, from the subtle to the massive: some of these writers are smashing down the old system with a sledgehammer, while some are dancing through the cracks appearing in it.

We are delighted to be partnering with Words Without Borders to bring readers a little taste of this work, in brand new translations exclusive to this issue. We have selected pieces by four of the writers featured in our 2017 festival lineup: Nadia Al-Kokabany, from Yemen; Mohamed Abdelnabi and Basma Abdel Aziz, both from Egypt; and Mansour Bushnaf, from Libya.

Despite the huge challenges that bringing a writer from Yemen to the UK involves under the current circumstances and border regime, at Shubbak we were determined to try our best to do so and thereby celebrate the creativity of that beleaguered place. Often overlooked by international media, when Yemen does come into the spotlight it is usually only as a disaster zone. This not only means that Yemeni art is all but invisible to the international community, but that the 2011 revolution risks being eclipsed by all that has happened since. The time lag involved in literary production means that six years after the uprising began we are seeing those events celebrated, explored, and unpicked in Yemeni literature.

Nadia Al-Kokabany’s 2016 novel The Ali Muhsin Market has been rightly celebrated in the Arab press for its handling of the Yemeni revolution and the humanity of its portraits, as well as its exploration of the effect that the events of 2011 had on the ordinary people on the ground in Sana’a. Al-Kokabany writes with tenderness and deep empathy for her characters, painting a detailed picture of their daily lives and concerns, their perspectives and their emotional outlook, even as her busy plot races on. In the extract we feature here, Al-Kokabany zeros in on some of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of Sana’a’s urban population, for whom the revolution seems to offer an extra hope of scraping together their precarious living. Oblivious to the politics at play, swept along in events they barely understand, the characters end up becoming victims of the violence that breaks out, in a cruel and painful twist to their fraught story of attempted survival. The glimpse she offers into the harsh lives of these working children is a stark reminder of what lay behind the uprising against the regime, and a sensitively imagined insider’s eye view into the grassroots of urban Sana’a life. Away from the news channels and the spotlight there are rich worlds to be told.

Mohamed Abdelnabi’s In the Spider’s Room, meanwhile, is based on the real-life experiences of the more than fifty men who were imprisoned in the infamous “Queen Boat” incident in Cairo in 2001, accused of homosexuality. This spring, the novel was shortlisted for the Abu Dhabi-funded International Prize for Arabic Fiction, becoming the first novel with gay characters and gay lives at its center to receive that honor. The novel is the tale of Hany Mahfouz, a character the author has to publicly stress is fictional, given the violently homophobic context in which he writes and publishes and the tendency to assume queer narratives are autobiographical. Although there have always been some gay or sexually nonnormative characters in Arabic literature—as far back as medieval poetry, or the “Arabian Nights,” as well as in modern fiction—they have tended to be marginal characters, one-dimensional, and usually written by straight-identifying authors. But recent years have seen an important shift in the Arabic scene, with a diversity of queer writers inscribing their own multiple selves onto the pages of Arabic literature, something we are celebrating at Shubbak with a dedicated queer literary event this year for the first time.

Being assumed to be one of these queer writers, despite identifying clearly and publicly as straight, is a difficult place for an Egyptian writer to occupy. The scenes I witnessed at the IPAF prize ceremony and book fair in Abu Dhabi this year demonstrated both the extent to which spaces are opening up for queer Arabic literature to blossom and the terrifying extent of the homophobia in literary audiences there. Those new spaces are breathtakingly exciting and heartening, but the old order is a sickening thing to witness firsthand. Saying there is a long way to go would be an understatement: so the place Abdelnabi writes from is one of vulnerability, and the strength it takes to conjure up and tell these tales is formidable. “How do you know all these details?” as an uptight female guest at an Abu Dhabi public appearance asked pointedly, her voice taut with fear and suspicion. “I was lucky enough to have really informative sources, people were very generous with their accounts during my research into that community,” replied Abdelnabi with utter calm—a calm he maintained even in the face of audience members advocating violent physical punishments for the “crime” of choosing whom to love.

Abdelnabi’s artfully woven tales have multiple engrossing layers, sensory effects, and technical flair. Although still in his thirties, he is a celebrated translator of English literature into Arabic and a gifted historical novelist, spinning a multi-generational family epic in this novel in the background of his main characters’ lives. Given that the Anglophone literary context has a richer body of homoerotic work already in publication than the Arabophone one does, we have chosen an extract, entitled “My Grandfather and Sitt Biba,” that shows Abdelnabi’s ability to write beautiful prose about family histories, rather than only highlighting his work on physical and emotional intimacy between male lovers, important as that is in the original linguistic and social context. But given that context, it is also essential to applaud his work on that basis, and to see it as activism, clearing the path for a freer, more vital future.

As someone who spent twelve years in prison under the Gaddafi regime for his play “When the Rats Govern,” seminal Libyan playwright Mansour Bushnaf knows more than many about waiting for a revolution. Despite (or because) of their incendiary nature, the more than thirty plays he has written since the 1970s have all been performed in Libya to critical acclaim, and several have been staged elsewhere in the Arab world too. But until now, the only work of Bushnaf’s to appear in English translation had been his characteristically irreverent political novel Chewing Gum, published by Darf Press in 2014 in Mona Zaki’s translation. In a tragic reflection of the hellish situation post-Gaddafi Libya finds itself in, that novel was banned in Libya in 2012 and remains so—the only copies available there have to be smuggled in from Cairo. “Fundamentalists control the cultural scene,” as Bushnaf unequivocally put it to me. So much has changed in terms of the context in which he writes, and yet of course there is still so much to be resisted: in the short play we publish here, Bushnaf turns his sharp eye and his searing critical mind to the vexed question of the interplay of the secular and the religious. “The Veil” is an important example of a dissident practicing Muslim critiquing dominant Islamist discourses from within: in this case, using the age-old theatrical tool of surrealism. Lean, taut, and eerie, in under five hundred words the original Arabic text hits the reader on myriad viscerally discomforting levels, as the staccato action stutters and all certitudes disintegrate in a juddering mash-up of familiar cultural references both religious and profane. These spare and stylized scenes are haunting, and the lights fade to black at a moment when little hope seems in evidence anywhere on stage.

The phenomenon of theater work leading to prison sentences is a sadly familiar one, not just in Libya but in many other places on this planet, Egypt among them. Basma Abdel Aziz references it as a metaphorical structure for the erudite piece of sociolinguistic political reportage we feature here, first published in the independent Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr. Abdel Aziz’s polymathic multidisciplinary approach to critiquing and healing Egyptian society has seen her celebrated as a poet, novelist, journalist, sculptor, academic and—crucially—a psychologist specializing in the rehabilitation of torture victims. For a masterful demonstration of the way these art forms interweave for Abdel Aziz in her fiction, in a sublime English translation, her 2016 novel The Queue (an excerpt of which was first published in the January 2016 issue of WWB) is not to be missed. We chose to translate some of her journalism here, however, as none of it has appeared so far in English despite her significant reputation in Egypt.

Abdel Aziz’s depiction of totalitarian president Sisi’s heavy-handed, ill-advised, and inappropriate public rhetoric will perhaps feel more familiar and relevant to the American or British reader now than ever, in a political moment when we can draw useful parallels between demagogues without losing sight of the specificities. Abdel Aziz notes the theatrical approach to political discourse Sisi employs, and his wayward attempts to win over his audience, freestyling unexpected policies and dropping crude off-the-cuff comments that alienate as many people as they attract. Abdel Aziz’s astute analysis of how this rhetoric holds various different demographics in its sway, despite its lack of any rational persuasive power, will surely resonate with readers from many global political contexts. As she says of one such section of the population living under Sisi, “They discuss, criticize, and ridicule his rhetoric, but do not have the strength to organize actual opposition.” Sisi is an easy target for caricature, perhaps, but to get an analytical insight of this level straight from Cairo in English translation is a rare privilege indeed.

The festival program encompasses a diverse group, and these four writers are brightly distinct from each other—but what they all have in common is a trueness, a reaching beyond, an originality, a forging ahead, a will to complicate the picture and add new beats to the tune.

© Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July 2017 issue
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