With Sharjah as London Book Fair’s guest of honour in 2022, the time is nigh – nay, now – for publishers to acquire Arabic titles for translation. But where to start? Unlike other languages such as Korean or Swedish, which have robust agenting infrastructure, very few Arab authors have agents to get them through the door. As such, the majority of Arabic titles that one finds in English have been championed by a translator (not necessarily always the one on the by-line). Translators are the ones with their fingers on the pulse, their ears to the ground. They stay abreast of titles winning critical acclaim and those with an energetic fanbase. The list below of must-translate titles includes not only two of my own recommendations but those of some of my esteemed colleagues, too, because it would be unfathomable to come up with such a list without turning to them for their invaluable input.
1. Inaam Kachachi’s The Outcast (Dar al-Jadeed, 2017)
Luke Leafgren – winner of the 2018 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation – advocates for The Outcast, “a story of three characters whose lives intersect across continents and decades. Two are based on real people: an Iranian-Iraqi woman, Taji, one of the first female journalists in Baghdad in the 1940s; and a young Palestinian man, Mansour, who falls in love with her in Karachi before emigrating to Colombia. Through their eyes, the reader experiences many of the political and cultural events that shaped the Arab world in the twentieth century. The third character, a young Iraqi violinist named Widyan, endures both heartache and torture in her homeland before finding asylum in Paris, where she falls under Taji's wing. After hearing Taji's stories of a life lived boldly through lovers and a second career in the French intelligence service, Widyan seeks to reunite Taji with Mansour, despite a separation of fifty years. The Outcast is a novel about lost home, lost love, and a lost culture, preserving in memory what cannot be restored. Praised highly in the months after publication, critics continue to write about the clarity of the novel's vision and the interlocking narrative structure that jumps between characters and time frames. The Outcast was shortlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Kachachi's third novel to receive that honour.”
2. Najat Abed Alsamad’s In The Tenderness of War (Madarek Publishing House, 2015)
Anam Zafar, emerging translator mentee at the National Centre for Writing (2021), recommends a unique collection of true stories from the Syrian conflict. “Each account tells the tale of a woman, man or child the writer met in her capacity as a doctor and humanitarian volunteer in south-western Syria. Wanting to urge the world to see the humans behind the headlines – and as personal therapy – she began recording these stories, not changing a single detail, and while the descriptions of hardship are unflinching, what really shines through is the glimmer of hope still held by each character, no matter how unexpected the source. In poetic narration balanced with frank dialogue, the accounts are like snapshots, never more than four pages long. The writer uses first, second, and third-person narration to create a multidimensional assortment that spans cities and villages, the rich and the poor, single mothers, students, prisoners, and more, exposing conflict as an individual experience in which entire countries simply cannot be viewed through a single, zoomed-out lens. As the tenth anniversary of the Syrian conflict passes, this bold call to bear witness has never felt more pertinent.”
3. Taghreed Najjar’s Against the Tide (Al Salwa Books, 2013)
Elisabeth Jaquette, longlisted for the 2021 International Booker, champions a Palestinian young adult novel, saying, “When the course of her family’s life changes forever, 15-year-old Yusra is faced with a choice. Either she accepts her new life as it is, or she defies society’s expectations and does something no woman in Gaza has ever done before: support her family by becoming a fisherwoman. Against the Tide (2013) by Taghreed Najjar is inspired by the true story of a young Palestinian girl named Madelein Callab, who became Gaza’s first fisherwoman at the age of 15. Notable for its strong female protagonist, complex characters and relationships, and rich details about life in Gaza, Against the Tide explores universal themes: feelings of being trapped by family restrictions, frustration with society’s expectations, and eagerness for greater responsibility. Yet Yusra’s circumstances are anything but ordinary, and the novel candidly addresses challenging realities of poverty, family stress, and losing a loved one. Shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Children’s Literature, and featured on the list of ‘10 Books by Arab Women Writers that Should Be Translated’, this title is not to be missed.”
4. Shady Lewis’ On the Greenwich Line (Dar Elain, 2019)
Katharine Halls, co-winner of the 2017 Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation, shares how excited she is about this Egyptian bestseller, which was also picked as book of the year by critic Belal Fadl. “The novel trains the sceptical eye of an immigrant on the absurdities of racism, austerity, and bureaucracy in London, where Lewis himself has lived since 2006. From the bird’s eye view of a jaded local government employee, he offers a minutely observed and gently devastating story of the city and its lonely inhabitants that reminds me of Ali Smith’s There But For The. Lewis came to attention with a groundbreaking first novel, The Lord’s Way (Kotobkhan, 2018), which recounted the multigenerational saga of a Christian family in Egypt through the confessions of a young man trying to convince his priest to issue him a marriage license. His third book, A Brief History of Creation and Eastern Cairo – which unfolds during a breathless few hours of armed confrontation between security forces and Islamists, and is based on real events which took place in 1989 – has just appeared with Dar Elain and promises to be just as rich and impressive.”
5. Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin’s Samahani (Masciliana Editions, 2018)
Adil Babikir, winner of the 2020 Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation, endorses the latest work of Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin (winner of 2009 Tayeb Salih Award and the 2020 Prix de la Littérature Arabe). “It is a highly cynical piece on the Omani occupation of Zanzibar in the 19th century. By depicting the agonies of the native Zanzibaris at the hands of the Portuguese, the Omanis and the Europeans, Sakin builds a grand narrative that is an outcry against persecution of all forms, from slavery to neocolonialism. Through sharp turns, Sakin draws revealing images from a world characterized by barbarism and inhumanity, interspersed by deep dives into the perplexed souls of the slaves and their failure to cope with grief and tragedy. Samahani, a Swahili word that means ‘forgive me’, stands in stark contrast to everything in this novel, where vengeance is the keyword. The themes of the novel are reminiscent of Heart of Darkness. It also invites comparison with Mario Vargas Llosa's The Dream of the Celt, which explores the colonial subjugation of the native inhabitants of the Congo Basin and the Peruvian Amazon during the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century, respectively. It is striking how Sakin has managed, through cinematic techniques, to work historical events into a fantastical world as engaging as the legendary Thousand and One Nights. This novel has attracted strong critical review across the Arab World.”
6. Jan Dost’s Safe Passage (Dar Masciliana, 2019)
Marilyn Booth, 2019 International Booker Winner, says if she were to embark on a new translation, she would recommend, “Syrian-Kurdish poet and novelist Jan Dost (b. 1965), a leading figure in Kurdish diaspora literature. Based in Germany and from the northern Syrian town of Kobani, Dost has published a dozen novels (in Kurmanji Kurdish and Arabic) and several poetry collections; and is the recipient of the Galawej Award for Kurdish Literature. I am especially drawn to Safe Passage, a taut novel with surrealistic overtones chronicling the Syrian civil war, narrated by an early-adolescent boy whose only listener is his precious piece of chalk. It bears narrative linkages to Dost’s much-praised Green Bus Leaving Aleppo (2018), narrating evacuations from the city following the 2016 ceasefire, through the perspective of the grandfather of Safe Passage’s narrator. Both capture tragic family histories amidst violence, flight, and memories of home. With an unusual narrative voice and powerfully original story, Safe Passage stays in the mind for its protagonist and its perspective on Syria now.”
7. Maha Hassan’s In Anne Frank’s House (Al-Mutawassit, 2020)
I can’t stop thinking about this meditative, haunting non-fiction title by the Syrian-Kurdish novelist Maha Hassan, who has twice been longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. In it, Maha reflects on her time during a year-long writing residency in Anne Frank’s house, diving deeply into her private worlds, further than any of her previous works, exposing loss and anguish. Even after leaving Amsterdam, the specter of Anne Frank remains with her during her travels to Tunisia, Egypt, and Palestine, ten years on. The second part of the book is a series of letters to Anne Frank, written by Maha during her travels. Throughout the eerie, slim volume of 184 pages, Maha is forced to confront and challenge the widely held belief about Jews by her countrymen, drawing connections between her lived experience as a Kurd and that of Anne Frank’s as a Jew.
8. Badr Ahmed’s Five Days Untold (New Dalmoun for Publishing and Distribution, 2021)
Christiaan James, career diplomat, recommends Five Days Untold, where “Ziad wants no part of this terrible civil war, but what choice did the government give him? Ill-trained and poorly-equipped, he longs to return home to the simple life of a craftsman he once knew. Getting back won't be easy, though. As enemy jets rain down missiles and the outside world doesn't seem to care, Ziad realizes his journey has just begun. Five Days Untold (2021) by Yemeni author Badr Ahmed brings into sharp focus the horrors and senselessness of war while offering a dark meditation on how the past, both collective and individual, impacts the present. Rich in pathos and filled with vivid imagery, Five Days Untold paints an unflinching portrait of war on a micro level and weaves together themes related to fate, agency, and the sustaining power of family bonds. Written during the ongoing crisis in Yemen, Five Days Untold is the author's third book. His most recent novel, Bayn Babayn, has been translated into Italian. Ahmed is the former executive director of the Arabic Literature Gallery in Yemen, which suspended operations due to the war.”
9. Najwa Bin Shatwan’s The Horse’s Hair (Rewayat, 2020)
Najwa Bin Shatwan is a prolific, pull-no-punches writer, who was the first Libyan to ever make the International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist. Her latest novel is a feminist take on the creation story, set in traditional Libyan society, told through the acerbic, sarcastic voice of an unborn child who is desperately trying not to be born till the nation is fit enough to live in. Hawwa (the Arabic name for Eve) is a young adolescent in 1960s rural Benghazi. Hawwa survives multiple pregnancies after having been married off to Adam, a lorry driver. (despite being in love with her cousin Amer). Dark humour laces Hawwa’s struggle for her freedom and reproductive rights, whiles the unborn child leads the reader through its parents’ tragic trajectories. The Horse’s Hair is reminiscent of feminist retellings such as Circe (Madeline Miller), and is an urgent tale sure to keep readers turning the pages. Saudi Arabia has banned this novel from entering the country.
10. Iman Mersal’s In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat (Kotob Khan Books, 2019)
M Lynx Qualey, founding editor of ArabLit Quarterly magazine, can’t stop raving about a poetic work of literary nonfiction. She says: “In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat (2019) is a unique work of literary history by the celebrated Egyptian poet Iman Mersal, akin in some ways to Hisham Matar’s world-spanning The Return. Yet here, Mersal is tracking down not a parent, but the long-forgotten mid-century Egyptian writer Enayat al-Zayyat, who had only one posthumously published novel. From this starting point, the book spreads out in surprising and heartbreaking directions, illuminating many different facets of mid-twentieth-century Egypt and beyond. Through Mersal’s journey, we get unexpected looks at mid-twentieth-century (and contemporary) psychiatric care, an intense friendship with Egyptian film star Nadia Lotfy, marriage and divorce, and the radiating impact of both World Wars. We search for details of why her writing was rejected during her lifetime, see how powerful cultural figures later re-wrote her story, and follow the novel’s journey to eventual publication. With a detective’s intensity and a poet’s imagination, Mersal’s book eventually takes us to the day of the author’s suicide. This book deservedly won the 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the literature category, which means a translation subsidy is available. It is also available in a French translation (Actes Sud) by Richard Jaquemond, Sur les traces d'Enayat Zayyat."