Arab literature takes centre stage in London

By Susannah Tarbush,

When Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz became in 1988 the first (and so far only) Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was hoped that this would lead to a major breakthrough for Arab literature in the West, including Britain. But for years such a breakthrough remained elusive.

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True, a few Arab authors achieved some success in English translation, but there was nothing comparable to the love affair of British readers with, say, Latin American magic realism, Russian and East European literature, and novels by writers originating from the Indian sub-continent.

Now the picture regarding the publication of Arab literature in English is dramatically changing. This was evident at the recent three-day London Book Fair (LBF), which took place 14th-16th April this year and chose the Arab world as its market focus.

Some 100 Arab publishers and cultural institutions exhibited at the fair. In addition, the LBF, together with the British Council, organised a programme of seminars at which more than 60 Arab writers, publishers and scholars, most of them invited from abroad, were panellists.

Other treats on offer included a “Breakfast with Bahaa Taher” in the English PEN Literary Cafe, during which journalist Maya Jaggi interviewed the veteran Egyptian novelist who recently became the first-ever winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for Sunset Oasis.

The IPAF, worth a total of $60,000 to the winner, is funded by the Emirates Foundation of Abu Dhabi and was inaugurated in association with the Booker Prize Foundation. The LBF and British Council brought all six authors short-listed for the IPAF to the fair. The IPAF is providing a fresh impetus for translation, for the award guarantees translation of the winning entry into English.

As well as highlighting translation from Arabic, the LBF showcased two ambitious new projects in the United Arab Emirates to translate works into Arabic. Kalima, an initiative of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, aims to translate 100 volumes a year. The Tarjem programme of the Mohammad Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Foundation in Dubai intends to translate 1000 bestsellers into Arabic over three years.

At the LBF, the presence of the Egyptian novelist (and dentist) Alaa Al-Aswany aroused much interest. Al-Aswany has enjoyed phenomenal success in the Arab world and beyond with his novel The Yacoubian Building and the film made of it. He was the “author of the day” on the second day of the fair. Publication of the English translation of a second novel by Al-Aswany in September is much anticipated.

Al-Aswany studied dentistry at the University of Illinois in Chicago, as did the young Saudi Raja Alsanea, another best-selling Arab novelist who attracted much attention at the LBF. Her first novel, Girls of Riyadh was a runaway success in Arabic, and has been translated into 23 languages. The paperback English edition will be published by Penguin in June. Publishers, whether Arab or Western, long to find the next Al-Aswany or Alsanea.

Margaret Obank, editor of a magazine of modern Arab literature, Banipal, notes: “There is now an expanding number of UK publishers publishing Arab authors in translation, plus a brand new one, Arabia Books, jointly founded by Arcadia Books and Haus Publishing to specifically focus on literary fiction from the Arab world, with special attention to the huge list of the American University of Cairo (AUC) Press.”

One reason for the growth of Arab literature in translation was the launching of Banipal ten years ago. Banipal has set up a book arm to publish translated fiction, and established the Saif Ghobash-Banipal prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Its latest project is to set up with the Arab-British Centre in London a library of modern Arab literature.

A striking indication of the rising presence of Arab literature globally is that the largest and most comprehensive international literary prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, has no fewer than three novels by Arab authors on its recently-announced shortlist of eight. The prize, worth 100,000 Euros, is open to novels written in, or translated into, English.

One of the shortlisted novels, De Niro’s Game by Canadian-Lebanese Rawi Hage, was written in English. The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Algerian former army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul), was translated from French, while Palestinian Sayed Kashua, who lives in Israel and is shortlisted for Let it be Morning, writes in Hebrew. All this goes to show just how rich and varied Arab contemporary literature actually is.


Claudia Isabel is a freelance journalist. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at