Farah Elhouni suggests three must-read novels found in Main Library, Near East Collection (Orange 4)
Orange 4 in the Main library is home to the Near East Collection of books, holding books from different countries across the Middle East and North Africa. It is a relatively small but rich collection, with widely circulated names such as Nagib Mahfouz and Tawfiq Al Hakim.
The following are three modern works that revolve around the Arab world that can serve as an introduction to modern Arabic literature. They are all available in English, two being translated from Arabic and one originally written in English.
Year of the Elephant by Leila Abouzeid [Orange 4 (843.09 A46 )]
This novel by Moroccan author Leila Abouzeid follows a woman after Morocco gained independence from France. The heroine finds herself in a new world after being left by her husband despite her sacrifices alongside loosing her standing in society despite the role she played in the political battle for independence.
The main themes of the novel can be found in the title, ‘Year of the Elephant’, which has significance in Islamic culture. It refers to a failed invasion of Mecca, pre-Islamic period.
This novel is considered a feminist text, but is unique from other feminist texts in that it remains local and therefore loyal to the culture and independent from Western values. The plot manages to reflect the conflict between tradition and modernity. This is seen in the depiction of traditions as having deprived her of her marital rights, and in the way modern standards of life do not align with her moral compass.
In the original Arabic version, the language used in Leila’s debut novel is beautiful and balanced with the regional dialect ‘derja’, native to Morocco. This is perhaps an intentional pull between the traditional standard Arabic and the ever evolving Moroccan dialect to parallel the main theme. It follows through in the English translation found in the NE collection in Orange 4, leaving you equally as confused… much like the heroine herself.
The honest yet unconventional approach of storytelling is what makes this an interesting read.
The Journey of Ibn Fattouma by Nagib Mahfouz [Orange 4 (892.73 M156 )]
In this philosophical novella by Nobel Prize winner Nagib Mahfouz, political ideologies are examined and applied to society in an attempt to identify what the best ideal to strive for in society should be. The story follows the fictional Ibn Fattouma, parodying the journey of the famous traveller and scholar Ibn Battuta.
Just like Ibn Battuta travels the world to explore it, Ibn Fattouma travels and experiences a culture shock in each “bilad” (land) he visits. The descriptions are vivid and detailed, taking us to what may be considered valid adaptations of what ideologies envisioned by political thinkers might look like in the real world.
Although this novella was written in a time where Egypt and the world was up against competing ideologies, it is still very relevant today with the question of ideologies still being one that is widely debated in the Arab world.
The Journey is from Mahfouz’s philosophical era, where he takes a break from his usual fiction on honest reflections of everyday Egyptian society, and moves towards big ideas without neglecting society as a whole.
For anyone wanting to explore Arabic literature, Mahfouz is a must read. The Journey of Ibn Fattouma is as an interesting starting point.
The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar [Orange 4 (892.73 M212 )]
This autobiographical account of Matar’s return to his native country Libya in 2012, after a lifetime of exile, is his most recent after a number of novels that deal with the same themes of exile, coping with loss, and dictatorship. The nostalgic family memoir centres on his Father who was abducted by government officials in the 1990’s, and the way by which the absence affected him and those around him. Matar’s return to Libya is chronicled in a nostalgic manner – following from passages of his longing to return to Libya.
Matar explores his relationship with Libya as someone who grew up as a “third culture kid”. He also explores his relationship with other countries he resided in, including Egypt, referring to it as the Land in Between.
For many, the appeal of this memoir lays in the fact that it is a sentimental account of a little known about country… but later turns out to be about much more than just that.