Sharjah 2011: the Charm & Challenges of the Arabic Novel

In the programme for the Sharjah Book Fair, many of the events have grand and romantic titles: the Secrets of the Arabic Novel; Literature, the Legend of Human Change; Whispers of Creativity.

I prepared myself for the Charm of the Arabic novel last night, expecting a session that would look at the language and poetics of the novel in the Middle-East, throwing out suggestions of literary fiction from the local area.

What I got was much deeper, and far more fascinating. Mohammed Achaari of Morocco and Syrian author Ebtissam Ibrahim Tressy discussed the importance of writing through political change, in times when freedom of speech is oppressed. Both panellists spoke eloquently about the need for fiction to document these times, and to be a force to push for change.

Mohammed Achaari’s novel The Bow and the Butterfly won the 2010 International Prize for Arab Fiction, in association with the Booker, though he began his career as a poet, publishing during the years of confrontations as authorities cracked down on freedom of expression – there were many confrontations.

He wrote The Bow and the Butterfly while seeing rapid changes sweeping Morocco in the 1990s.

Creativity is something to be reckoned with, and it is part and parcel of our lives & communities.

Mohammed Achaari

Achaari was also Minister for Culture in Morocco, an unusual duality that placed him in a hinterland between the politicians and the poets. He spoke with amusement about the reactions of his colleagues in both worlds:

I suffered a great deal – I was only a poet or only a politician, depending on the upset party! It is part of my character to be a sharp critic – I published many articles, which was unusual, but I wanted to be a writer and not a politician in the strict meaning of that word.

Ebtissam Ibrahim Tressy was shortlisted for the same International Prize and is a member of Syrian Writers’ Union. Her Prize-nominated novel was an extension of her earlier book, which narrated her father’s history, though she told us how she  also tried to document the problems and history of Syria from the 1980s. In a similar vein, using fiction to reflect on how politics affects personal relationships, she wrote a short story of the Israeli occupation of Beirut in 1982, through a love story between a local journalist and a Palestinian.

Tressy was currently focusing on writing a new novel about what is happening in Syria in 2011– she was currently documenting the struggles of her country. The novel will come in the aftermath of the current crisis, and will surely give us a vision from local voices of a country currently in turmoil.

She also spoke of how her father was supportive of her writing, and that his death prompted her to write after a long break:

When women get married and have children, creativity goes into the children. Writing becomes a marginal issue. It needs a shock to get back to it.

What Next?

I’ll be eagerly awaiting the English translation of Achaari’s book, which is sometimes translated as The Arch and the Butterfly, and looking forward to similar thought-provoking sessions on contemporary Middle-Eastern fiction, and the climate in which it is produced.

I’ll also be looking at the role of translation and the translator here at the Book Fair, and exploring more of Sharjah’s cultural output.

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