The latest issue of Banipal, the London-based magazine of Modern Arab Literature, reflects the growing international profile of Saudi novelist Yousef Al-Mohaimeed [pictured left]. The magazine’s fiction section includes three chapters from the English translation of his novel “The Bottle”. And the ‘Books in Brief’ section contains news of the publication of the English version of his novel “Wolves of the Crescent Moon” by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press.
“Wolves of the Crescent Moon” was first published in Arabic in 2003 by Riad El-Rayyes Books, Beirut, under the title “Fikhakh al-Rai’ihah”, meaning “Traps of Scent”. The AUC Press English edition is for the Middle East; internationally, the novel is to be published by Penguin in December. The latest Penguin catalogue has praise for the book from the acclaimed Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh, who describes it as “a remarkable, rhythmic, genuine novel throbbing with sensuality and moral courage.” Two months ago a French translation, “Loin de cet Enfer”, was published in France by Acts Sud.
The Arabic original of “The Bottle” was published by the Arabic Culture Center Beirut/Dar Al-Baida in 2004. The English manuscript is with Al-Mohaimeed’s literary agent Thomas Colchie, and seems to have a good chance of being published in the US or Britain. The novel has also been translated into Russian.
“Wolves of the Crescent Moon” and “The Bottle” were translated into English by Anthony Calderbank, the noted scholar and translator of Arabic who lived and taught in Cairo for a number of years and now works for the British Council in Saudi Arabia. Two chapters from the translation of “Wolves of the Crescent Moon” appeared in Banipal’s Summer 2004 issue as part of a special feature, ‘The Novel in Saudi Arabia’. An essay by Saudi literary critic and fiction writer Ali Zalah in that special feature named Al-Mohaimeed as one of the most prominent of those contemporary Saudi novelists whose work portrays the major economic and social changes in Saudi society.
In “The Bottle”, Al-Mohaimeed shows a striking degree of empathy with women and sensitivity to the difficulties they face. His central character is a woman, Munira Al-Sahi. The extract published in Banipal opens in Riyadh in February 1991, soon after Operation Desert Storm. Military vehicles and troop carriers still patrol the streets at night. There is a description of Riyadh, with its different nationalities, coming to life on a cold morning. Munira, an unmarried woman in her early thirties, has spent a sleepless and tearful night after the discovery of her lover’s deception.
“Why had he deceived her so much, let the pretence go on for all these months? How had he managed to work his way into her life with his false name and his made-up job, and character and family and friends; a whole sinister world of deception?” Her father is particularly afflicted by the disaster. “The commander of the Mother of all Battles in Baghdad could not have felt more defeated and shamed as his armies withdrew from Kuwait than Hamad Al-Sahi had felt the previous night when the treachery of his favourite daughter’s fiancé was finally revealed.”
The city is full of Munira’s memories of her fiancé and the places where they would snatch time together. Her oppressive brother, who had spent time in Afghanistan, has forced her to give up her job as a journalist, and insists on escorting her to and from her work at the Young Women’s Remand Centre. Munira’s only comfort is writing on pieces of paper, rolling them up and putting them into an old bottle decorated with faded Indian designs in silver.
The narrative then travels back to Munira’s childhood, when her grandmother would reward Munira and her sisters with presents when they told sad stories. The grandmother gave Munira the bottle, which had colored sweets in it, and told her to keep it. Munira fills the bottle with her secrets and tells it all her troubles. Al-Mohaimeed has a rich, poetic narrative style and the extract from “The Bottle leaves the reader wanting to know more of the mysteries that lie within the bottle.
In addition to the extract from “The Bottle”, the latest issue of Banipal showcases exciting examples of Arab literature from across the Arab world and beyond. Lebanon is represented through an extract from a novel by Lebanese writer Hassan Daoud, “Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-making Machine”, translated by the US-based fiction writer and translator Randa Jarrar and to be published shortly by Telegram Books of London. Banipal also features the English translation, by Max Weiss, of the novel “Tahleel Dumm” (“Blood Test”) by the Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun, who is cultural editor of As-Safir newspaper.
There is a special feature on the Iraqi novelist Ghaib Tu’ma Farman who was born in Baghdad in 1920 and died in Moscow in 1990. As well as an appreciation of Farman by Iraqi Professor Salih J Altoma, of Indiana University, the special feature includes two chapters from probably the best-known of Farman’s eight novels, “Five Voices”, translated by Issa J Boullata. There is also an extract from Farman’s novella “Mr Ma’ruf’s Woes” translated by William M Hutchins.
Another Iraqi novelist with work in the new issue of Banipal is Duna Ghali, who was born in Iraq in 1963 and lives in Denmark. The extract from her novel “’Indama Tastayqudh al-Ra’iha” (“When the Scent Awakens”) is translated by William M Hutchins.
Banipal’s book publishing arm will in October publish the English translation of the novel “Al-‘Ateeli” (“The Cripple”) by the painter, political cartoonist and author Nabil Abu Hamad who was born in Palestine, grew up in Lebanon and lives in London. The current issue of Banipal carries an extract from the novel, translated by Suhail Shehade, which is set among Palestinians who fled Haifa for Lebanon in 1948.
The “literary influences” section of the magazine is contributed by the Palestinian writer, literary critic and translator Issa J Boullata who grew up in Jerusalem. As well as providing a lively account of his childhood reading, he gives a portrait of the Palestinian educator, scholar and poet Khalil Sakakini. Sakakini inspired Boullata to become the teacher and educator he would be for 56 years, in Palestine, in the USA and then at McGill University, Montreal.
Another in-depth encounter with a writer is the perceptive interview with the Moroccan writer poet and literary critic, Mohammed Bennis carried out by Camilo Gomez-Rivas, who is writing a doctoral thesis at Yale University on Islamic law and society in the Maghreb. The interview is supplemented by Gomez-Rivas’s translations of poems by Bennis.
Bennis is one of several poets included in the latest issue of Banipal. From America, there are poems from Iraqi-born Sargon Boulus and the distinguished woman poet D H Melhem , born in Brooklyn to Lebanese immigrants. There is Iraqi poet, translator and filmmaker Sinan Antoon’s haunting poem about Baghdad, “Necropolis”, and poems from Iraqi Salah al-Hamdani, and Syrian Amira Abul Husn.
In addition, Banipal carries reviews of a number of novels. Mona Zaki reviews Hamdi Abu Golayyel’s novel “Thieves in Retirement” (Syracuse Univerity Press, translated by Marilyn Booth) set within a building in a newish Cairo neighborhood. Peter Clark considers Jordanian writer Fadia Faqir’s third novel “My Name is Salma” (published in the UK by Doubleday and in the US by Grove Atlantic under the title “The Cry of the Dove”) to be “easily her best”.
Judith Kazantzis reviews “I’jaam – An Iraqi Rhapsody” (published by City Lights) by Sinan Antoon.
Kazantzis writes: “The jerking contrasts between past ‘normality’ and the gathering nightmares of the isolation cell are done with such conviction that I’jaam reads as a miniature of Iraqi suffering from the Baathists to Bush.”
Tarek el-Ariss of New York University praises “The Illusion of Return” by the London-based Palestinian writer Samir el-Youssef as a “fascinating look at the generation of the 1970s and 1980s in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, capturing the ideological mood of the time and exposing its corresponding psychological framework.”
Saudi Gazette, 30 July 2007