Afro-Arab Fiction in Translation: 5 Must Read Novels from 2015 and 5 to Look Forward to in 2016

 By M. Lynx Qualey

Arabic literature is often seen as something that belongs to the “Middle East,” not to Africa. This sharp distinction is not just a recent invention, but an impoverishing one, and one that novelists have continually subverted. Sudanese writers like Hammour Ziada (Longing of the Dervish) or Amir Tag El-Sir (French Perfume, Ebola ’76, Grub Hunter); Moroccans like Ahmed Bouanani (L’hôpital); and Eritreans like Abu Bakr Khaal (African Titanics) are champions of an Afro-Arab novel. These novels engage not just an “East-West” fusion of literary forms, but a remix of classical Arab forms, Afro oral storytelling, European genre fiction and more.

5 Must Read Novels from 2015:

1.)  The Confines of the Shadow, by Alessandro Spina

The Confines of the Shadow is the first of a series of Spina’s novels that chronicle Libya’s modern history. Spina, of Arab Christian descent, was born in Libya and his novel constructs overlapping pictures of a multiethnic Libya where the colonial shadow spreads and constricts. Spina’s novel brings us to a place that is vibrantly Ottoman, Arab, Berber, and now Italian. It is informed by overlapping intellectual and cultural tradition– from the 1,001 Nights, to Ibn Khaldun, to opera.

2.) The Scarecrow, by Ibrahim al-Koni

The Scarecrow is the final volume of al-Koni’s Oasis trilogy, which follows the founding, flourishing, and decline of an oasis village in the Libyan Sahara. The trilogy begins with al-Koni’s ALTA-award-winning New Waw, continues with The Puppet, and ends with The Scarecrow. To take pleasure in Ibrahim al-Koni′s work is to embrace its strangeness. Al-Koni focuses nearly all his oeuvre on the vast Libyan desert. One of his great literary gifts is to de-center the human, equally bringing out animal, landscape, and spirit.

3.) Ebola ’76, by Amir Tag Elsir

Elsir is one of a growing number of contemporary Sudanese novelists who’ve achieved critical and popular acclaim among Arabic-reading publics. This novel — like Elsir’s French Perfume — does what Elsir does best, offers a satiric and over-the-top account of the many strata of Sudanese society in crisis. Ebola ’76 begins its infectious journey with Lewis Nawa, a South Sudanese factory worker who travels to the Congo to mourn his mistress and then carries Ebola home, infecting as he goes. Elsir is a tremendously prolific author, and this work could have been more tightly edited. But it’s a strong conceit, and also fearlessly crosses borders and social strata in its search for characters/hosts, just as a virus might.

4.) French Perfume, by Amir Tag Elsir

This blackly funny, fast-paced story centers on the arrival of an (possibly imaginary) French woman into a small Sudanese town. Anticipation of her arrival wreaks ever-increasing havoc. Although this novel interrogates the “North-South” relationship, it is very different from the seminal work by El Sir’s famous uncle, Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North. Here, we wait breathlessly for the beautiful Northern woman to arrive in the South.

5.) Mortal Designs, by Reem Bassiouney

This novel builds on the contrasts of its main characters: the over-the-top Captain Murad, who wants a giant pharaoh-like mausoleum built to honor his death; Hazem, an architect to whom aesthetics is central, but who longs for an immortalizing project like the mausoleum; and Asma, a peasant-class single mother who’s struggling to provide her children what she deems a better life, which sometimes means swallowing the condescension of her upper-class “benefactors.”

 Bonus: 5 Forthcoming Novels to look forward to in 2016

1.) The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz

This surrealist first novel by psychiatrist-writer Abdel Aziz, which appeared in Arabic in 2013, describes Egyptians queueing for hours in front of a mysterious gate. This novel will be published by Melville House Press in May 2016.

2.) L’hôpital, by Ahmed Bouanani

As Moroccan poet and scholar Omar Berrada writes, the novella “is set in a hospital (for people sick with tuberculosis), an enclosed space in which patients are abandoned by a failed infrastructure, and from which nobody exits. It is partly autobiographical, as Bouanani spent 6 months in such a hospital in 1967/68.” Bouanani’s work focused on documenting Moroccan oral poetry, crafts, ceremonies, popular myths and beliefs, a literary fusion visible in his work. This will be published by New Directions later in the year.

3.) The Televangelist, Ibrahim Essa

This popular novel, shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and translated by award-winning Jonathan Wright, will appear under AUC Press’s new imprint this spring. It’s a fun political thriller set in the contradictory world of Egypt’s top TV preachers.

4.) Whitefly, Abdelilah Hamdouchi

Moroccan detective novelist Hamdouchi’s police procedural, Whitefly, is a fast-paced thriller set against the backdrop of Arab and African migration across the Mediterranean.

5.) The Book of Khartoum, ed. Raph Cormack and Max Shmookler

Shmookler wrote, in 2014, that “the stories in our collection span the roughly four decades since the publication of Tayyib Salih’s much acclaimed Season of Migration to the North in 1969. Some are works of social protest, others of technical mastery or experimental daring. Despite variations in theme and style, we’ve chosen them because they all revolve around Khartoum in one way or another.” Literary life in Sudan saw a number of setbacks in 2015, with the regime’s shutdown of Mafroosh, the monthly book fair, and the shutdown of the Sudanese Writers Union. This collection works against the narrowing of creative space in Khartoum, bringing together a wide range of Sudanese literary voices.

Also coming: The Longing of the Dervish by Sudanese writer Hammour Ziada won the 2014 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. This guarantees publication in English translation. Publication date is not yet scheduled, although anxiously anticipated.

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