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Books this Season: Arabic Literature

Winter 2004/2005

Fiction / Arabic Literature / Memoirs and Biographies / Politics / Nonfiction

Readers of the German press did not profit much from the thematic focus of the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair 'Arab Worlds'. What little media attention the few Arab authors received came mainly from critics in exile. While Die Zeit published a supplement on Arabic literature, essays from Arab intellectuals on Islam and the West were notably absent. Yet maybe a volume of verse by Syrian poet Adonis will generate more interest in the Arab world than clever political commentary. And perhaps a book on Arab cuisine with recipes for mouth-watering titbits like lamb fillets crusted with cardamom and coffee beans stands a better chance than many books of turning the clash of civilizations into a garden of earthly delights. If so, the Book Fair had a lot to offer.

Arabic poetry

The most highly praised book from the Arab world was a volume of poetry by Syrian writer Adonis, "Ein Grab für New York". The FAZ calls it "songs of hubris and nemesis" and a foreshadowing of 9/11. The FR advises the Western reader not to be irritated by its "blooming metaphors" but rather to give in to its "dizzying cycle of images". Also recommended is a volume of poetry by Arab women, "Ein Buch namens Freude", collected by Annemarie Schimmel. Die Zeit was the only paper to review the verse of Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwisch, published under the title "wo du warst und wo du bist", recommending the book in urgent terms.

Arabic novels

The epic "Tor zur Sonne" by Lebanese author Elias Khoury was well received. The SZ praises it for not falling into the "trap of the heroic genre", while Die Zeit calls it a "great novel". There are, however, some voices of dissent. The taz feels that the 700 plus page tome demands a high price in "patience and endurance", while for the FR the book displays "terrifying monotony". "Die Reise des Ibn Fattuma" ("The Journey of Ibn Fattouma"), the latest book by Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, was well received. The NZZ calls it "consciously subtle lore" and Stefan Weidner in the FAZ argues that while its "political allegory" genre may take some getting used to, the book stands firmly in the tradition of "epic journeys towards mystic awakening".

"Die dunkle Seite der Liebe" by Rafik Schami, a Syrian take on Romeo and Juliet, got rave reviews. Fritz J. Raddatz in Die Zeit nearly burst with enthusiasm for the work of the German-based writer, calling it "Scheherazade in technicolour". Boualem Sansal's novel "Erzähl mir vom Paradies", set in contemporary Algeria, provoked shivers at the FR. "No one has written with such rage since Celine and Malaparte."

An essay, a travel book and a cookbook

In his narrative essay "Mohammedanische Versuchungen", Islam scholar Stefan Weidner has bundled his love for the Islamic culture into a combination of analysis, journal and self-reflection. Renee Zucker in the taz considers this the book of the year, forgiving Weidner for defending Samuel Huntington's thesis of the "clash of civilizations" from an Arab perspective. For the FAZ, "Mohammedanischen Versuchungen" is nothing less than the "most intelligent book written on the clash of cultures". Those interested in how the Middle East looked in the 1930s are advised by the FAZ to read the travel account "Die Reise nach Oxiana" ("The Road to Oxiana") by Lord Byron's descendant Robert Byron.

For the FAZ, the cherry on top is "Kulinarisches Arabien", which blends recipes such as "lamb fillet with a coffee bean and cardamom crust on stewed eggplant with pomegranate sauce" with regional and geographic information.

Books on Arabic literature

Where to start? Is it not a commonplace that Arabic verse is unparalleled? And let's not forget the medieval authors - as Edward Said recently wrote in Al Ahram, high Arabic has remained practically unchanged for centuries. Shall we dip into the works of 20th century writers? Or perhaps we should start with a survey of Arabic literature and its authors? Three reference books come highly recommended: Wiebke Walther's "Kleine Geschichte der arabischen Literatur" - an "important book" (Die Zeit), guides the reader through Arabic literature from pre-Islamic times to the present. The "Lexikon arabischer Autoren des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts" is a "perfect guide", according to the taz. Lastly, Islam expert Navid Kermani, writing in the FR, called "Arabische Literatur, postmodern" a highlight of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

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