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A bright decade for Arab literature in the United Kingdom
By Susannah Tarbush
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 04 - 01 - 2010

The dawning of the new decade has prompted much looking back over the “noughties” to pick out the highlights in various fields. On the world literary scene, one of striking features of the past decade has been the high profile of Arab literature in the English-speaking world.
There had been hopes ever since Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 that the work of Arab writers would become better known in the West. But in Britain it took until the 2000s for Arab fiction to gain the momentum for a major breakthrough.
The Egyptian Alaa Al-Aswany came to particular prominence with his novels “The Yacoubian Building” and “Chicago” and the short story collection “Friendly Fire.” Saudi author Rajaa Alsanea leapt to fame with her chicklit novel “Girls of Riyadh.”
These books gained many readers, and attracted much media attention. Whereas in the past novels translated from Arabic tended to be the preserve of specialist publishers, these titles were produced by mainstream publishers. Alaa Al-Aswany's UK publisher is the Harper Collins imprint Fourth Estate, while Rajaa Alsanea was published by Penguin.
There had, of course, long been the translation and publishing of Arab literature in Britain, issued by such well-regarded publishers as Saqi and Quartet. But the 2000s witnessed the gathering of a critical mass for Arab fiction publishing, especially when in 2008 the London Book Fair chose the Arab World as its World Market Focus.
Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature has been a motor of the increasing interest in Arab fiction. Founded in London in 1998 by Margaret Obank and Iraqi writer and journalist Samuel Shimon, Banipal has translated and published the work of hundreds of Arab authors whose work had never before appeared in English. In 2004 it established a book publishing arm, Banipal Books.
The enthusiasm for Arab literature has given rise to some other publishing vehicles. In 2008 Haus Publishing and Arcadia jointly founded in London Arabia Books, which works closely with the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press.
Arabia Books' recent titles include “Learning English” by Lebanese author Rachid Al-Daif and “B as in Beirut” by another Lebanese, Iman Humaydan Younes. It is distributing “The Theocrat” by Moroccan writer Bensalem Himmich, translated by Roger Allen and recently published in paperback by AUC Press.
The new venture Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) links two heavyweights: Bloomsbury Publishing of London, and the Qatar Foundation. “Our launch will be in April, which will kick off with a major event in London on April 6” says BQFP consultant publisher Andy Smart.
BQFP will also hold events in London, Doha and Beirut around “Beirut39” - the project of the Hay Festival to select and celebrate 39 of the most interesting Arab writers under the age of 40. Beirut39 is a centerpiece of the Beirut World Book Capital festivities 2009/10. BQFP is to publish in English and Arabic the anthology “Beirut 39 New Writing from the Arab World”, edited by Samuel Shimon with an introduction by Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf.
Other forthcoming BQFP titles in English include “Murad Murad” by Palestinian Suad Amiry , and “The Attack” by Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Algerian ex-army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul).
One sign of the growing presence of works by Arab authors in English has been their winning, or being shortlisted for, major literary prizes. In 2008 the Lebanese-Canadian novelist Rawi El-Hage won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for “De Niro's Game.” Worth 100,000 Euros (around $144,000), IMPAC is the world's largest literary award for a single work of fiction written in English.
In 2000 the newly-created $15,000 Caine Prize for African Writing, administered from the UK, was awarded to the Egyptian-Sudanese author Leila Aboulela, who writes in English, for her story “The Museum.” Aboulela's first novel “The Translator”, published in 1999, was longlisted for the Orange Prize for women's fiction. In 2001, her short story collection “Coloured Lights” was published by Polygon and she was taken on by the prestigious London publisher Bloomsbury for her 2005 novel “Minaret.”
The Man Booker Prize is Britain's most important fiction prize, worth 50,000 pounds to the winner. Two Arab writers who live in London have in the past been shortlisted for the Man Booker. Egyptian Ahdaf Soueif was shortlisted for her 1999 novel “The Map of Love” (Bloomsbury). In 2006 the Libyan Hisham Matar was shortlisted for his debut novel “In the Country of Men” published by Penguin under a two-book deal. The novel has been translated into 22 languages and won a string of awards. Matar completed a draft of his second novel a few months back.
A powerful new force in bringing Arab literature to the West is the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), popularly known as the Arab Booker. IPAF was established with support from the Emirates Foundation of Abu Dhabi in association with the Booker Prize Foundation. The first prize is $50,000, plus the $10,000 that goes to each of the six shortlisted authors.
In 2008, its first year, IPAF went to the Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher for “Sunset Oasis.” The translation of “Sunset Oasis” by Humphrey Davies was published by the Hodder & Stoughton imprint Sceptre last year. It received generally very favorable reviews, and was recently named in several British newspapers as a book of the year. The publication of the translation of the 2009 IPAF winner “Azazel” (Beelzebub) by Egyptian Youssef Ziedan, is eagerly anticipated. Atlantic Books is to publish the translation, by Jonathan Wright, in the spring.
The art of translating Arabic fiction to English received a major fillip in the noughties with the launch of the 3,000-pound Saif Ghobash-Banipal prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2006. The 2009 prize was awarded to Samah Selim for her translation of “The Collar and the Bracelet” (AUC Press) by Egyptian Yahya Taher Abudullah, who died in1981.


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