Join us


The Globe and Mail: "Breaking taboos in Middle Eastern fiction"

Date: Jan 19 2010

A few weeks ago, Canada saw the English-language publication of Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis, which won the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008. This year's winner was Azazeel, by Egyptian scholar and novelist Youssef Ziedan. Both books deal with Egyptian history. Taher sets his story at the very end of the 19th century, shortly after his country was occupied by the British, while Ziedan turns to the 5th century AD for his tale of internecine Christian conflict in Roman Egypt.

While both books were published in Arabic to wide acclaim, such is not the case with many novels and short stories written in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and other languages of the Middle East, which end up being censored or banned outright (the Coptic Orthodox church lobbied the Egyptian government unsuccessfully to have Ziedan's book banned).

As a result, the ability to write in a Western language, or the availability of translation services, becomes imperative for many authors. With the freedom so afforded, writers from across the region are incorporating all manner of taboo subjects into their fiction, and often simultaneously revealing the rich and varied cross-cultural influences that have shaped them. An overview of six recent novels exploring Middle Eastern topics highlights this phenomenon.

"I'm trying to come to terms with the Holocaust, something that would try the patience of God himself, and behind it all is the figure of my father." So wrote "Rachel" (Rachid Helmut Schiller) in his diary a few months after discovering that his late father, a German who settled in Algeria following the Second World War, helped produce the Zyklon B gas used by the Nazis to murder millions of Jews and others. Rachel has since committed suicide - having apparently subjected himself to the sentence he feels his father deserved - and alongside his diary we have that of his brother "Malrich" (Malek Ulrich Schiller), a former Islamic extremist who now sees Islamism and Nazism as two sides of the same coin. Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal's novel The German Mujahid, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, consists of both diaries.

Inspired in part by the haunting poem with which Primo Levi introduces If This Is a Man (in Canada, Survival in Auschwitz), apparently based on a true story, and billed as "the first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust," The German Mujahid is an intriguing but deeply flawed work. While it is true the Islamism espoused by al-Qaeda features similarities with Nazism, both in its totalitarian character and in its endorsement of mass violence, Sansal's repeated comparison between the two trivializes the suffering of victims of the Holocaust. Indeed, Sansal seems to have transposed the Holocaust paradigm onto the struggles around him, so that the victims of Islamist terror and Algerian state violence remind him of Jews in concentration camps.

Sansal's story would have been more resonant had the focus been less on the Holocaust and more on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in the Arab world, subjects touched on only briefly. Arabs played a marginal role in the Shoah, whether aiding or opposing the Nazis (examples of both kinds can be found in Robert Satloff's Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands), but the suffering of the Palestinians has unfortunately led to the stigmatization of all things Jewish in many Arab quarters.

Unlike Sansal, who lives in Algiers and writes in French, Salwa Al Neimi lives in Paris and writes in Arabic. The Syrian Al Neimi has penned a short but sizzling novel about a liberated Syrian woman's steamy sex life in France. The narrator of The Proof of the Honey unabashedly proclaims: "I have a physical need for water, semen, and words. The three things I need in life. I cannot exist without them." Throughout, she details her torrid sexual encounters with vigour, though her apparent lack of faith in love resurrects a tired and simplistic dichotomy.

The narrator's frustration with contemporary Arab culture's suppression of desire and her ambitious mission to re-sexualize the Arabic language can be traced to her sexual awakening, which began with the discovery of surprisingly explicit commentaries on the joys of sex composed by Arab writers centuries ago.

This aspect of the book proves fascinating, though sometimes in an unintended manner; that so many Arab intellectuals and artists feel compelled to justify their controversial works by depicting them as continuing an illustrious Arab tradition - as Al Neimi has done - points up the burdensome weight of history and heritage in Arab societies.

Taken together, two recent novels about Iran demonstrate that, whether Persian nationalist or Islamic in orientation, the Iranian state has proven extraordinarily repressive. The Age of Orphans, whose pre-publication manuscript earned debut author Laleh Khadivi a Whiting Writers' Award, tackles the unhappy fate of the Kurds of Iran, especially during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (reigned 1925-1941) and his son and successor, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (reigned 1941-1979).

Meanwhile, Shahriar Mandanipour's Censoring an Iranian Love Story, explores the travails of young lovers in contemporary Iran, and the ultimately insuperable obstacles faced by those who would write about this controversial subject from within Iran's borders.

"The Kurds have no friends but the mountains," goes the old saying, though in The Age of Orphans even the mountains seemingly turn against the Kurds. A young Kurdish boy is orphaned when his father dies during a confrontation between the Persian army and Kurdish guerrillas in the 1920s. Adopted by the very regiment that orphans him, the boy learns how to be a loyal servant of the shah (Khadivi pointedly refrains from capitalizing the word), in whose name various punitive military expeditions are launched against the Kurds and other restive ethnic minorities. The boy is renamed Reza (after the shah), Persia becomes Iran, and the shah is succeeded by his son. As a captain in the Iranian army, Reza is dispatched to the Kurdish region to pacify the rebellious people in whose bosom he was raised. Eventually, he will suffer the consequences of this soul-destroying mission: "As a soldier he will be deftly divided through the head, as a murderer cut open through the heart and as an old man split so thoroughly that one side of him dies first, unbeknownst and long before the other, damned to serve in hell as a half a man."

In prose that is by turns beautifully lyrical and frustratingly grandiloquent, Khadivi shows Western readers a little-known aspect of pre-revolutionary Iran, a country whose ideology rested on the twin pillars of Persian nationalism and veneration of the shah, with bloody consequences for those - such as non-Persian ethnic minorities - who dissented. The subject of minorities in Iran certainly enthralls, though the author's own ethno-nationalist inclinations, which prompt her to consider Kurdish-majority regions as belonging to the Kurds, and which lead her to exalt the supposed specificities of Kurdish lineage and stock, cannot but unnerve readers wary of ethnic chauvinism.

Renowned Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera has bluntly stated: "The condemnation of totalitarianism doesn't deserve a novel." Reading Censoring an Iranian Love Story, which depicts the Islamic Republic of Iran in all its absurdity, one realizes the truth of Kundera's observation. Most people don't need to be convinced of the iniquity of the theocratic regime in Iran - even most Iranians don't. And the recent repression of dissent as well as quality books on life in Iran - Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis - has likely darkened the rose-coloured glasses of the Islamic Republic's precious few Western admirers.

Nevertheless, Mandanipour's novel, which consists of two parallel tales - the not-by-choice platonic love affair between Sara and Dara alongside the narrator's efforts to write their story in a manner that will pass the country's draconian censorship laws - proves surprisingly original. The postmodern artifice of situating the love story itself alongside an attempt to render it in literary - albeit expurgated - form, enables Mandanipour to provide a wonderfully wry and sarcastic commentary on the laws and mores governing love and literature in Iran.

And for all his aversion to the Islamic Republic, which replaced Persian nationalism and veneration of the shah with Islam and veneration of Khomeini, Mandanipour acknowledges that, in his country, literary love and tragedy were conjoined long before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Ironically, the punishments for lovers in Saudi Arabia, a country in good international standing, are just as severe, if not more so, than those in increasingly isolated Iran. The Consequences of Love, Eritrean Sulaiman Addonia's debut novel, is set in Jeddah. "I had been in this country for ten years," muses narrator Naser, a 20-year-old Eritrean refugee, "yet I had never talked to a girl or held a woman's hand."

All of that changes when a woman, her face and body concealed by the mandatory black abaya, begins passing notes to Naser, in which she writes forthrightly of her attraction to him. Naser dubs the girl "Fiore," Italian for flower (Italian colonialism in the Horn of Africa having left a lingering linguistic mark), and the two eventually progress beyond epistolary professions of love to an actual physical relationship.

The dangers are tremendous and ubiquitous; even when merely exchanging notes, Naser realizes that "just one careless moment could have me arrested by the religious police and that could lead to Punishment Square where lovers are lashed and sometimes even killed."

The fact that Fiore turns out to be beautiful reveals a lack of courage on Addonia's part, a quality that otherwise can be found in abundance throughout his novel. Indeed, not only does Addonia write frankly and movingly about forbidden love all the way through to the story's heart-wrenching and unflinchingly realistic ending, but he does so within the context of a scathing exposé of Saudi Arabia's myriad social ills: religious extremism, oppression of women, circumstantial homosexuality and exploitation of foreign labourers. The Consequences of Love is the real deal - passionate and potent.

Kuwait isn't nearly as repressive as neighbouring Saudi Arabia - which is a good thing for headstrong Palestinian-Egyptian Nidali, the protagonist of A Map of Home, as she spends her childhood in Kuwait City. Randa Jarrar has crafted a warm, ribald and insightful evocation of life in Kuwait, Egypt and the US.

Much of the first half of the novel, however, is exasperatingly quaint, as precocious Nidali endures her parents' quarrels, hangs out with her diverse group of friends, and stuffs herself with za'tar burgers.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 infuses the heretofore languid tale with some much-needed drama, and the family's subsequent move to Egypt and later Texas allows Jarrar to explore cultural and linguistic acclimatization with a great deal of poignancy. Made aware in the US that she speaks a formal and somewhat stilted English, Nidali ruefully recalls "how in Egyptian my language was full of songs and lilts and catchy turns of phrase. I wished, then and for many months later, that I could translate the way I was, my old way of being, speaking, and gesturing, to English: to translate myself."

Her parents have an even more arduous time; experience teaches Nidali that "[t]here's nothing sadder than a fourteen-year-old explaining a movie to her middle-aged parents." Yet arguably the finest feature of A Map of Home is the narrator's fresh and self-deprecating sense of humour. Having equipped Nidali with such an endearing trait, Jarrar prevents the most emotionally laden subjects - the saga of the Palestinians, the tentative sexuality of an adolescent girl, the growing chasm between a father and daughter - from becoming exaggerated and melodramatic. Witty but never callous, earnest but never sombre, A Map of Home gets better with every chapter, until the reader has been completely charmed by its strong-willed and mischievous heroine.

Though one cannot speak of a unifying theme binding these very different novels together, all underscore the importance of Western languages, especially English, for authors writing from or about the Middle East. Written in French, The German Mujahid was banned in Boualem Sansal's native Algeria, but won the RTL-Lire prize in France. Though available in Lebanon - where it was published - Al Neimi's The Proof of the Honey was banned in several Arab countries. If Khadivi's The Age of Orphans had been written in Farsi, as was Mandanipour's Censoring an Iranian Love Story, the book might never have seen the light of day; it has yet to be published in the language in which it was written, and Mandanipour has relocated to the US. If Eritrean Addonia had not written his debut novel in English - his third language - from the safety of London, he might have met the same fate as several of the unfortunates in his novel, who suffer whippings and worse. And although it straddles cultures and, in a sense, languages, Jarrar's A Map of Home, with its frequently colloquial English and many Americanisms, to say nothing of its graphic descriptions of masturbation, would have had a hard time finding a home in the Arab world.

In all instances, the publication of these books in English signifies the importance of this language for writers delving into controversial Middle Eastern subjects, and English-language readers are that much richer for it.

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf

Join Our Newsletter and receive a FREE eBook!

Stay updated on Europa’s forthcoming releases, author tours and major news.

Are you a bookseller? Click here!

Are you a librarian? Click here!