Arab literature in the New Yorker

A couple friends have forwarded me this article in the latest New Yorker, about the increasing availability of Arabic literature in translation. This is how it opens:

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? There are, of course, newspapers to keep responsible Americans up to date when trouble looms, and public television or even the History Channel to inform us about the occasional historic battle or archeological discovery or civil war. What else do we need? The ways that people think and work and suffer and fall in love and make enemies and sometimes make revolutions is the stuff of novels, and Arabic novels, while not yet lining the shelves of the local bookstore, have been increasingly available in English translation, offering a marvellous array of answers to questions we did not know we wanted to ask. On such subjects as: the nature of the clientele of the elegantly crumbling pre-Islamist bars in downtown Cairo, straight and gay (“The Yacoubian Building,” by Alaa Al Aswany); what it felt like to live through the massacre in the Shatila refugee camp, in 1982, and how some of the people who still live there have been managing since (“Gate of the Sun,” by Elias Khoury); the optimal tactics that a good Saudi girl should use to avoid being married off, which appear to require that she study either medicine or dentistry (“Girls of Riyadh,” by the twenty-something Rajaa Alsanea, who has herself completed an advanced degree in endodontics).

The article analyzes Mahmoud Saeed's Saddam City, Sinan Antoon's I'jaam, Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun, Ghassan Kanafani's short stories Men in the Sun and Return to Haifa; Emile Habiby's The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, and, briefly, a few others. The discussions of the individual works are interesting; I particularly liked Pierpoint on Kanafani--whose talents ignite her own writing--and on Khoury--whose ambitions and shortcomings she deftly sketches. But as usual trying to discuss the simultaneously broad and sparse category of "Arabic literature in translation" is nearly impossible to do with resorting to some awkward transitions and generalizations.

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