The Arab world is in desperate need of more English language novelists to bring home the realities of life in the region.
In the play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, a half dozen creations of Luigi Pirandello muscle their way on to the stage and demand that they be allowed to tell their own stories. I sometimes have similar sentiments when it comes to English literature about the Arab world.
In English, there is an overabundance of political and historical non-fiction about the region, but little in the way of novels or other fiction, especially written by Arabs or in which Arabs are not more than incidental characters used as exotic background colour.
Of course, there are exceptions. Among the most successful is the Egyptian novelist and short story writer Ahdaf Soueif. I have only read one of her works, The Map of Love, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and shares its title with a collection of poems by Dylan Thomas published on the eve of the second world war.
The book, which is well-crafted and cleverly weaved together, offers an insight into Egyptian society rarely available in the English language. However, the romantic parallel storylines – one contemporary, the other at the turn of the 20th century – and the syrupy sentimentality of the prose robbed me of the will to go on and I abandoned the book halfway through. I have still not regrouped sufficiently to attempt any other of her novels, although Aisha sounds promising.
Tony Hanania, the London-based Lebanese novelist, is another example of an Arab writer who has been relatively successful in English. His novel Unreal City takes the reader into the depressing Wasteland-esque depths of war-torn Beirut. It provides a fascinating psychological exploration of how ordinary people – in this case, a young, areligious, Shi'ite drug addict who was once in love with a Christian girl – can turn to extremism in extraordinary situations.
Despite its insight, sensitivity and humanity, the novel, like so much non-fiction about the Arab world, revolves around conflict and violence, whereas I yearn to see fiction about the more mundane aspects of the region, about the universal human experience in an Arab shell.
Interestingly, Hanania continues a well-established tradition of Lebanese Christian writers in English. In the early 20th century, a number of Lebanese-American writers left a fleeting mark on English language literature. They formed the New York Pen League, a dynamic and vibrant Arab-American literary movement in the 1920s and 1930s. However, its pan-Arabist members, who wrote in both Arabic and English, were to have a more lasting influence in the Arab world than in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Most notable among them was the poet and artist Khalil Gibran whose poetry was mostly written in parable and dealt with philosophical themes. His most famous work, The Prophet, was one of the bibles of the 1960s counterculture and helped elevate him to become the third bestselling poet in history, after Shakespeare and Lao Tse. But such philosophical and metaphysical writing hardly provides much social insight into the contemporary Middle East.
Moreover, most Arab literature in English is translated from Arabic. The ruler of the roost here is undoubtedly the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, most of whose works are available in English. Other translated novelists with a certain following in English include the Sudanese master of post-colonial fiction Tayeb Saleh, the Egyptian and Lebanese feminists Nawal el-Saadawi and Hanan al-Sahykh, as well as the late Saudi dissident Abdel-Rahman Munif, seen by many as the most important Arab author of recent decades.
However, the drawback of translated Arab literature for a non-Arab reader is that, owing to significantly different writing conventions, many works do not make the journey across the language barrier smoothly and the reader often needs to be well-versed in Arab societies and cultures to follow the narrative.
One exception to this is the dentist-turned-novelist Alaa al-Aswany, widely credited with giving the Arab novel back its teeth with the sharp social commentary and risqué politics of his novels, which tend to transfer well into English.
Compare this dearth of Arab literature written in English with the legion of successful writers who hail, either directly or indirectly, from south Asia and who have brought the Indian subcontinent, with all its richness and diversity, as well as the immigrant experience, to vivid and colourful life. The roll call includes Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Anita and Kiran Desai and Hanif Kureishi.
So, what is behind this sparseness?
Part of the reason is a question of intimacy. The British colonial experience in India lasted for centuries which has created a love-hate fascination on both sides of the divide. In contrast, direct British rule lasted only a matter of decades in the Arab world, and most of it was in the guise of “protectorates”. In addition, the largest minority groups in the contemporary UK are from the subcontinent.
Being an avid and dedicated reader of “Indi-fiction”, I can only wish that something remotely similar will one day emerge to show the Arab world in all its cultural and social wealth. And the situation for Arab fiction could change if more determined writers come along to tap into the fascination with Middle East and channel it into new and exciting directions which explore the region's human depths and challenge simplistic prejudices.
I have embarked on my own novel about the contemporary Arab world. Set in the surreal, ultramodern cityscape of Dubai and the metropolis of stark contrasts, Cairo, it follows the intertwined lives of a number of misfits, including a cross-border undertaker and king of his own underworld who falls in love with a feminist bellydancer torn between the art and eroticism of her profession.
There is also the ageing expatriate manager who cannot bear to be separated from his wife – the last living member of his family – when she dies in her sleep and decides to cover up her death, with unforeseen consequences, until he can come to terms with it. A refined academic struggles with the private hell of his rootlessness as a Palestinian refugee and the trauma of living through the civil war in Beirut in which he lost a leg in mysterious circumstances, while upholding his intellectual standing and trying to be a good father. Then, there is the young lesbian learning to deal with her forbidden sexuality and overcome a devastating crush she feels for an older woman, and the young university student and pirate radio DJ determined to be part of a sexual revolution in Cairo who unexpectedly falls for a conservative girl of the wrong religion.
I hope that my work-in-progress will help, in its own modest way, a little understood and regularly misunderstood region to tell its own story and that 1,001 other voices will emerge to reflect its rich range of cultures and societies.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 22 March 2008.