The 100 best Arabic Novels

cover Banipal 63, Painting by Egyptian artist Ahmed Morsi

This issue of Banipal magazine is a feast of literary fiction, poetry, essays, book reviews and paintings, opening in surprising colour. Do let us know what you think.
The title feature The 100 best Arabic novels is a new up-to-date list in response to the greatly increased popularity of novels in the Arab world. The introduction explains how it was prepared and nominations ranked. To whet your appetite, here are the first five: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri, The Secret Life of Saeed The Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby and Children of the Alley, also by Naguib Mahfouz.
We present a feature on Iraqi writer and academic Hayat Sharara who tragically lost her life to suicide after decades of struggling against and suffering the tyranny of the Ba’athist regime and the later barbaric western sanctions. Her posthumously published novel When the Days Grow Dark excerpted below is a lament for the city of Baghdad by the first-person narrator, who is, like Hayat Sharara, a university teacher. He can only talk in whispers, even to himself, and is haunted by a nauseous fear that no one is immune from, and that “even stuck to their clothes”. The daily life continues relentlessly, with people, worn down by constant orders, daily humiliations and intimidations, facing no alternative but to go along with the culture of orders . . . that had to be obeyed.
The striking front cover painting is by Egyptian poet and artist Ahmed Morsi, whose paintings and poems are celebrated in this issue. The poems, selected from his Photos from the New York Album, are paintings in words that become mini films – driving to Manhattan, or in scenes with neighbours in apartment blocks.
We present works by three further Egyptian writers. In a chapter from the novel To Be Loved by Jihan, by the late Mekkawi Said, we meet a shy young man who is unsuccessful in getting to know Jihan and so tries to attract the attention of the beautiful Reem, a TV presenter, to the envy of his friend Emad. The short story by paediatrician and author Azza Rashad, entitled Prickly Jasmine, is about two sisters growing up, with beautiful descriptions of their comings and goings: Jasmine is always taking photos on her mobile phone and Reem has a secret boyfriend Karim, whom she is eventually allowed to marry. The three poems of Girgis Shukry, poet and cultural journalist, are a combination of imaginative musings about what poetry is all about and contemplative observations on the passage of life – “I’ll put the future in the fridge / beside the tomatoes / that will be best / and throw the past down the lavatory.”
We honour the memory of Syrian author Hanna Mina, the indefatigable pioneer of the Arabic novel. He has left a lasting legacy in his numerous works of a passionate and genuine rage “against colonialism, corruption and injustice across the Middle East” that is greatly needed today.
Rounding off the issue are a number of book reviews that will give readers plenty of ideas for books to buy, or borrow from the library. In one, of Syrian poet Nouri al-Jarrah’s first collection in English translation A Boat to Lesbos (Banipal Books, 2018) fellow poet Ruth Padel writes of his “unforgettable lyrics”.