The Beirut39 project began in March of 2009, at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, when organizers threw open the following call: They wanted the 39 best young writers from what’s dubiously known as “the Arab World.”
Organizers, who had already selected the “Bogota39” in 2007, gave their criteria: Writers must be under 40, they must have published at least one book, and they must be “of Arab origin.” Egyptian author Alaa el-Aswany, an early chair of the competition, resigned because he felt the contest insufficiently open to new talents. But the contest—which required a published book—did not promise to discover the unknown.
The nominations list was 447 long, and included acclaimed young writers such as Iraqi Hassan Blasim (longlisted for The Independent’s foreign fiction prize), Egyptian Tareq Imam (awarded and then un-awarded an Egyptian State Incentive award), Palestinian-American Fady Joudah (winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award), Palestinian-American Nathalie Handal (winner of the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award), and Libyan-British Hisham Matar (shortlisted for the Man Booker), as well as popular writers such as Ghada Abdel Aal, whose I Want to Get Married! was turned into an Egyptian soap opera this past Ramadan.
None of the aforementioned writers made the Beirut39 cut. Critic and novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab—who was not eligible, as he was born in 1969—expressed his disappointment in a review of the collection, calling Hassan Blasim “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive.” Yassin-Kassab echoed others in saying that it’s a “mistake to believe that Beirut 39 is necessarily representative of the Arabs’ best.” It’s a reasonable warning, although any reader who approaches a literary prize-winner certain that they’ve found the definitive best is nearly certain to be disappointed.
Pioneer translator Denys Johnson-Davies writes—in his introduction to The Essential Yusuf Idris—that, during the course of judging a BBC Arabic short-story competition, he fought hard for the recognition of a certain short story, which was eventually given second place. Johnson-Davies later discovered that the story had been plagiarized, and that it had been, in fact, written not by the second-place winner but by the genius of the Arabic short story, Yusuf Idris. Johnson-Davies doesn’t mention who took the first prize, but it does make one wonder: Was the winning story really so good that it was worthy of triumphing over a tale by Idris (even one of his lesser works)? Moreover, Johnson-Davies notes that he had to fight for the story’s inclusion at second.
But assume, for a moment, that Robin Yassin-Kassab and others are wrong, and that these 39 represent the clear and objective best of Arab writing. Another screen then comes between reader and collection: the not-always-even quality of the translations. Often likened to an actor giving voice to a play, a translator can render a text beautifully or dully, or one of many shades in between. The selections are also quite short, so that one can hardly say that Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World is a joy to read. A reader is just coming to enjoy Abdelkader Benali’s style when it’s time for Abdellah Taia, and then a very different Aberrahim Elkhassar. But, as you also might expect, the collection does introduce a number of talented authors to a larger audience. Four whose work you should seek out:
1. Abdelkader Benali. A Dutch-Moroccan author whose contribution to Beirut39 is an excerpt from his novel The Trip to the Slaughterhouse. The novel, written in Dutch, isnot formally innovative, but it is enjoyable and well-crafted. The excerpt is narrated by a young boy who must navigate forbidding parents, a complicated cross-cultural landscape, and the observations of a bright older sister. The brief section is a pleasure for the rich and pithily rendered family scenes and for the contrast between naïve boy and clever sister. When the narrator tells his sister that he’s been beaten up by Dutch boys for a little “nick” in his skin:
He pointed to his crotch.
She giggled, then giggled harder, as if she was being tickled. ‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard that there’s a disadvantage to being a boy! I’ll spare you the details of what we girls have to go through. The less said the better. May that knowledge be forever denied you. May it be a fortress you’ll never have to enter, a fortress that looks out over a magnificent hillside but is a cold, damp place in which to live. Especially in a family like ours, with all its restrictions and unrealistic expectations . . .
2. Adania Shibli. A Palestinian novelist and short-story writer who lives in London and has the unfortunate honor of having once been called, by Ahdaf Soueif, the “most talked-about author on the West Bank.” Since Soueif’s statement, that cowbell has been hung around Shibli’s neck in nearly everything written about her. But more important than any West Bank chatter is Shibli’s way with imagery when creating a character’s world. Her Beirut39 story “At the Post Office” is well-done, but her more remarkable work is the novella Touch, translated into English by Paula Haydar andpublished by Interlink in 2010. Here, the eight-year-old narrator is on her way to a funeral, covering a hole in her clothing:
The pushing became harder and harsher, and each time it would force her hand away from the hole, so she would press on it harder and harder, using all her strength, including that in her right hand. That hand now had weakened its hold on the bottle, and a little black liquid leaked out with each step she was pushed backward.
3. Ahmad Yamani. An Egyptian poet, and one of the major young innovators of Egyptian verse. Many Arab critics still hold up poetry as the “Arab diwan,” the primary form of Arabic literary expression, although, if true, this is not evident in the Beirut39 anthology. There are only 15 poets in the group, and only ten of those chose to publish poems in the collection.
Yamani has since published other books, but Beirut39 features poems from The Utopia of Cemeteries, which Yamani wrote when he was 22.
Chimo died this morning
Chimo is not my friend, but he died
He used to talk non-stop as if paying an old debt to words
which were about to abandon him
4. Rabee Jaber. Selected by translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid as the Arabic author most in need of translation for The Quarterly Conversation’s “Translate This!” feature, Jaber was also shortlisted for the 2010 “Arabic Booker” (the International Prize for Arabic Fiction) for his novel Amreeka. It is the author’s Amreeka, or America, that is excerpted in the collection, and the excerpt gives a glimpse of the author’s talent for painting large landscapes full of history and character. Joe (Khalil) Haddad is fighting in World War I when he sees:
In one of the villages near Ypres he saw German prisoners locked inside cages and shackled like animals, up to the knees in mud. They were like hippopotami in the river, their lower halves beneath the muddy surface and upper halves in the frigid blue air.
Perhaps Jaber will get his due of recognition in his forties, or fifties. But, in an interview with the Abu Dhabi-based The National, Jaber said that he did not resent his relative lack of fame:
The Arabic writer lives in the margin but maybe that is not such a bad destiny. Maybe in the margin he keeps himself intact. Like Homer, like Kafka, he better pray not for recognition first, but for two more important things: good health and enough time to finish his work.