Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Salma Khadra Jayyusi's Arabic fiction anthology
The renowned Palestinian scholar, poet and translator Salma Khadra Jayyusi has made a unique contribution to the study of Arab literature and civilisation during a long and productive career. The latest fruit of her passion for bringing Arabic literature to a wide readership is “Modern Arabic Fiction: An Anthology”, edited by Jayyusi and published by Columbia University Press. The anthology is a companion volume to “Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology” which she edited for the same publisher in 1987.
This ambitious fiction anthology has been many years in the making, and its 1056 pages encompass an immensely rich array of work by Arab novelists and short story writers translated into English. The short stories and novel extracts reveal the vitality and diversity of a literature that is still little known in the West.
The book is divided into three sections. The first includes the work of 14 “pioneers”. The second comprises short stories by 119 writers, and the final section groups extracts from novels by 28 writers (some writers appear in both these sections). There is a biography for each writer.
Jayyusi’s 70-page introduction is an essential guide to Arabic fiction. She traces the historical roots of fiction, with classical Arabic literature being “one of the richest and most varied in world literary history.” She points to Arabic influences on European literature, and to certain similarities between Arabic and Western fiction.
Jayyusi examines the development of the Arabic novel from the late 19th century and of short story writers from the 1920s. She points out that Egypt managed to stay at the centre of fiction in the Arab world, especially with the rise of Naguib Mahfouz in the 1950s. When Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, this was “not simply a recognition of a single author’s achievement but also an acknowledgement of the fact that the Arabic novel had reached distinction on a global scale.”
Other writers whose work Jayyusi discusses at length in the introduction include novelists ‘Abd al-Rahman Munif, Ibrahim al-Koni, Gamal al-Ghitani, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Ghassan Kanafani, Edward al-Kharrat, Gha’ib Tu’ma Farman and Fu’ad al-Takarli, and short story writers Yusuf Idris and Zakaria Tamir. In compiling the anthology, Jayyusi has been keen not only to include such famous writers, but also the up-and-coming and the lesser known.
Almost all the translations have been undertaken afresh, even when previouisly published English translations of certain works exist. Most of the translations are collaborative efforts, pairing a translator from the Arabic with a writer. The translators include Jayyusi’s daughters May and Lena, Salwa Jabsheh, Aida A Bamia, Roger Allen and Mona N Mikhail. Among the distinguished writers with whom they have worked are Christopher Tingley, Anthony Thwaite, Jeremy Reed and Naomi Shihab Nye.
Jayyusi does identify one gap in Arabic fiction, when she writes that there is a need for a fiction to match the state of terror in which the Palestinians are living. She writes: “…neither literature nor art, as far as I know, has been able to match the colossal dimensions of this communal experience… a Palestinian Guernica is now overdue.”
Saudi Gazette, 21 February 2006