Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Best of 2010

Here it is, folks, the best Arabic books of 2010.

The Tale of The Old Man Whom Whenever Dreams of a City , Dies There , and other stories ( حكاية رجل عجوز كلما حلم بمدينة . . مات فيها) by Tareq Imam: A new book by Tareq Imam, one of the most stylish and promising young Egyptian writers, means one thing. A non-stop reading binge.

Refining his style even more, Imam delivers 17 short stories (and some of them are indeed short, like Before we came to be, which is only a page long) that take you on a dark journey through nightmares, joys, pains, visions and revelations. Highlights include The City of Drowned Ghosts, a fine, hallucinatory, ghost story; Black Angel, an atmospheric, haunting, story, in which Imam manages to accomplish in one page what many authors fail to in a novel; and Moving, a superbly written, disturbing tale, about a female puppet master, who is, well, much more than that.
Reminiscent of some of the best works of Poe and Bradbury, yet stunningly original in their own right, these stories are a breath of fresh air, and a reminder that Imam is a singular talent to be reckoned with.

Pardon me and other fears (أعذرينى و مخاوف أخرى) : There seems to be a horror literature renaissance taking place in Egypt. With more and more horror titles coming out every month, it isn't an overstatement to say that Egyptian horror fiction is alive and well. Pardon me and other fears, a collection of horror short stories by up and coming Egyptian writers, is one of the best of these titles.

With more than a dozen writers contributing to this collection, the reader is exposed to a myriad of styles. Some of the stories contained here are good, some are mediocre, but, mostly, they are all interesting, and sometimes even superb.

From Shaimaa El Sioufy's title story about a painter haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, to Hanan Abdel Ghafar's Liberation, a disturbing tale about the deadly wrath of a woman scorned, to Abdel Aziz Abo El Mirath's hallucinatory Night tales, which is made up of seemingly unrelated nightmarish vignettes, to the closing tale, Ismail Khaled Wahdan's clever The monsters of our city, this collection covers almost all of the standard plot devices (monsters, ghosts, demons, vampires . . .) and then some.

If this is any indication of things to come, then Egyptian horror sure has a bright future ahead of it.

The Waves of Autumn (أمواج الخريف) by Na'iem Sabry: This deceptively simple novel is a joy to read. With a straight-forward style, ebullient storytelling, and a masterful descriptive ability, writer Naiem Sabry does wonders with a cliched, simple plot. A sixty-year old artist vacationing in Rodos, Greece, discovers a new side to his personality when he decides to have an affair with a fellow traveler. But along with this newly found passion, he also discovers a hidden, lingering sense of regret buried deep within himself. He tries to confront himself and his weaknesses by seizing the day and making one daring choice after another, in an attempt to bring change into his life. But he discovers that change comes at a price. I couldn't tell you anymore of the plot, as it would be unfair to you and to the novel, which is brilliantly written and always one step ahead of the reader.

This novel, which reads like a collaboration between Henry James and Egyptian novelist Youssef El Seba'ey, is a touching, well-plotted tale, right down to its sad and darkly humorous ending.

Solo Piano Music (عزف منفرد على البيانو)by Fawaz Haddad: This masterful psychological thriller is like no other Arabic book I've ever come across. It combines aspects of the spy genre, the Jamesian Psychological drama, with thought-provoking existentialism, to produce a fine, ambitious thriller.

The plot - revolving around a secular Syrian writer and government official who, after getting attacked and beaten by a mysterious figure and becoming a sort of a celebrity, is entangled in a complex plot involving negotiations between the Syrian Government and Extremist Islamists - is layered, and at times dizzyingly complex. But author Fawaz Haddad's grasp of his characters, especially the protagonist, Fateh, that makes the reader want to tag along for this long and complicated journey. And a journey it is. Featuring a myriad of complex characters, shadowy goings-on, flashbacks and political intrigue, this isn't the easiest of reads. But Haddad's smooth prose, meticulous plotting, a fascinating supporting character (Selim, the enigmatic counter-terrorism agent), and a hell of a twist ending, all combine to make this a thriller worth spending some time and energy with. Highly Recommended.

My Journey: The Private Memoirs of Mohamed Abdel Wahab (رحلتى: الأوراق الخاصة جدا) edited by Farouk Goweida:Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab has always been a controversial and enigmatic figure. He has been described as an obsessive-compulsive, hypochondriac perfectionist, as well as a radical (and sometimes even a "criminal"), mainly because of his penchant for "westernizing" Arabic music. He was the first Arabic composer to incorporate "Western" String instruments into his arrangements, and he was the first to introduce Rock'n'Roll rhythms into Arabic compositions. His detractors loathed him, and his fans (all around the world) adored him. To this day, he is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century, for bringing Classical Arabic Music to the attention of the world, and because of his internationalist views.

My Journey: The Private Memoirs, gives Art Buffs, musicologists, Abdel Wahab's fans, and even his detractors a chance to know his "true" opinions, and, most importantly, to really get to know the man behind some of the most important musical achievements of the past century.

Abdel Wahab, in his own words, comes off as a complicated, obsessive man, whose only true love in life was his music, which, throughout the book, he calls his "mistress." He comes off as an intelligent, progressive thinker (for the most part, anyway), whose opinions - which, for the most part, he kept to himself - range from logical to shocking. His opinion of women, for example, is sure to ruffle the feathers of feminists, and his political leanings are sure to surprise many (he calls Nasser a deceitful liar who duped the Egyptian public). But, again and again, his love and respect for his art form is the thing that truly shines through. And his undying desire to modernize Arabic music and to merge it with the European principles of "harmony" and "melody," show him to be a true genius, whose passion for music is genuine and contagious. Some of his comments, especially the ones he wrote in his final years, have proven to be prophetic, as he describes the art scene in Egypt as chaotic, fueled by the need to make money not art. He also scolds both the Egyptian Government and the Egyptian public for letting the country's artistic product decline in quality, as he calls the relationship between the audience and the artist a "symbiotic" one: one can't survive without the other.

Although many of Abdel Wahab's comments and opinions are sure to ruffle some feathers, this is a fascinating read which gives readers a rare glimpse inside the mind of one of Egypt's most important artists and, arguably, its most important musician. A must read.

Next To A Man I Know (بجوار رجل أعرفه) by Mohamed Fathy: The winner of the 2009 Sawares Award for Best Short Story Collection, Next To A Man I Know by Mohamed Fathy, is one of the most surprising collections of Egyptian short fiction I've come across in a long while, mainly because of author Fathy's unique style of prose and his mastery of storytelling.

This isn't yet another collection of stories by an angry, young Egyptian writer out to scream and yell and protest. That's not to say that Fathy's stories don't touch upon hot-button topics like the rise of the Religious right in Egypt, unemployment, and repressed sexuality. Fathy's stories are sure to rouse some controversy; maybe even a lot of controversy. But Fathy, unlike many of his contemporaries, doesn't take the the easy way out. His stories are, first and foremost, polished, at times meticulously realised, pieces of storytelling, that almost always succeed at being hard-hitting and entertaining. Highlights include the title story, a shocking tale of child abuse, a topic that's rarely touched upon in Egyptian fiction, Playing with Beshoy, a touching portrayal of friendship, with a disturbing final revelation, the darkly humorous A Taxi and a Sacred Ride, a story about a man who rides a taxi with what he thinks is a prostitute, only to get much more than he bargained for, All that's left, a melancholy psychological drama about a regretful young man who works as a mascot at a children's amusement park, and who laments his lost love, and The Window, a story about masturbation and sexual repression.

This is an unmissable collection of stories by an Egyptian writer who is both daring and subtle, and who (with a few exceptions, like in Whiteness and Hussein Whom . . .) almost never relies on histrionics to get his ideas across. And he manages to achieve something that many Egyptian writers seem unable to: Tell a damn good story.

The Effendi (الأفندى) by Mohamed Nagui: On the surface, Mohamed Nagui's The Effendi looks like another one of those anger-laden books about the corruption eating contemporary Egypt from the inside out. But delve deeper into this wonderfully realized piece of literature, and you discover that this novel offers much more than that. Nagui uses the by now cliched template of the Egyptian young man who snakes his way up using unethical short-cuts and sleight-of-hand, and turns it over its head by writing something closer to a modern fairytale.

The story revolves around Habib-Allah a.k.a The Effendi, an Egyptian young man from a poor family, who after the death of his mother, and realizing that his aging father will not be able to save Habib from a life of poverty, decides to grab any opportunity that comes his way, no matter how shady it is. He starts to deal in US dollars in the Black Market, with the help of a young woman called Nazek, a pathological liar (who believes her mother was a "blessed woman" who spent all her life fighting a person she refers to as "The Fallen", a mythical creature akin to The Devil), and whom, as life goes on, becomes Habib's mistress. From then on, Habib-Allah begins to rise and rise, doing everything from event-organizing for a rich, spoiled young woman from The Gulf, to making deals with embezzlers to buy cheap land and sell it for tons of money, to, finally, becoming a producer of motion pictures, with the help of a pretentious, elitist wanna-be writer called Fayez.

Although Nagui's prose ranges from sublime to serviceable, his storytelling is hypnotic. His characters - many of which are pretty off-kilter - are vividly drawn, and his plotting is good. But it is his grasp of atmosphere and the strangely beautiful mythical interludes about "The Fallen", that make this novel a rich, singular piece of work.

Rich with symbolism and layered with ideas, this thought-provoking, dark novel about hypocrisy, regret, selling your soul for financial gain and social esteem, and people who spend their lives chasing phantoms, deserves to be savored.

* Available from Dar Al-Hilal.

The Palm House (بيت النخيل) by Tarek Eltayeb: I previously reviewed Tarek Eltayeb's first novel, Cities Without Palms, and found it to be a stylish if cliched piece of work. It was the work of a novice storyteller who despite his surprising mastery of sheer storytelling momentum, didn't have a lot to say, and whose plotting was average at best.

Not here, though. With The Palm House, which, according to the author, took seven years to complete, Eltayeb proves himself to be one of the most talented storytellers to come out of Egypt and the Arab world.

The novel, which is a sequel to Cities Without Palms, follows Hamza (the protagonist of Cities Without Palms) as he struggles to survive in Vienna, his latest home. Working as a newspaper vendor, and with only a cat as a housemate, Hamza's life is dull, oppressive, and lonely. But all that changes when he meets Sandra, a young Viennese woman who, after knowing that he used to live in a village filled with palm trees, reveals to him that there is a museum in Vienna called The Palm House, which features nothing but real palms. Together, Hamza and Sandra visit The Palm House and, slowly, begin to fall in love. As their love deepens, Sandra asks Hamza to share his life-story with her. And so Hamza, over the course of three years, tells her his story: His life as a young boy living in a secluded Sudanese village, the death of his family, his pilgrimage to Cairo, his travels around the world, and, finally, his landing in Vienna, looking for sanctuary and a new beginning.

First, let's get this out of the way: This is a melodrama. It is a story filled with tribulations, tragedies, adventures, and triumphs of the human spirit, many of which are far-fetched and held together by coincidence. In the hands of a lesser storyteller, this novel would have been boring and implausible. But Eltayeb isn't such a storyteller. He is a hugely talented writer, whose smooth prose, his obvious love of telling tales (including tall ones), his seamless plotting, and his ability to draw realistic, memorable characters, make this one enjoyable journey. And a journey it is! This novel is filled with quests, travels, confrontations, love-affairs, eccentrics, romantics, and tales within tales, which makes it just a tad too long. But Eltayeb's unique style makes it an effortless read that never lags, and never becomes anything but a joy to go through.

It is a testament to Eltayeb's skills as a writer, that even the cliched ending packs an emotional punch and has a strong bitter-sweet feel to it.

This is a marvelous novel about being a stranger in a strange land, and about lonely people trying to find comfort in each other. But, above all, this is a novel about storytelling, its magic, and its power to heal. Unmissable.

* Available from Al-Hadara Publishing.

But it's Mozart! (!و لكنه موتسارت) by Lamiaa Mokhtar: Every once in a while you come across a book that takes you by surprise; not necessarily because it's brilliant, but because it's unique and heartfelt. Lamiaa Mokthar's play, But it's Mozart!, took me by surprise, for several reasons. Firstly, it's a play about the almost mythic rivalry between Mozart and Salieri, and it's written by an Egyptian woman. That, in itself, is something, considering the current state of Egyptian society. Secondly, the play is so compelling and energetic, that, while reading it, one forgets that the play doesn't cover any new ground regarding the subject matter, which is a testament to Mokthar's storytelling talent. But, to me, the most striking aspect about this play is that despite its brevity, it manages to paint both Mozart and Salieri vividly, really bringing them to life. Mokthar makes this feat look easy, but, really, it isn't.

The rivalry between these two legendary composers (which, to this day, some claim is nothing more than a myth, unsupported by facts) has been the subject of numerous written works, most famous of which are Alexander Pushkin's short drama Mozart and Salieri, and Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, which was adapted into the Oscar-winning film of the same name. Mokthar borrows liberally from these two works; but she also adds another touch that is, arguably, all her own, which is giving the story an almost mythic feel by adding (in the very first scene of the play) the imaginary character of a gypsy that tells a young Salieri that his life will be ruined by the Sin of Envy. The ending, in which the ghost of Mozart's father appears to Mozart to show him the future, also is a brilliant touch, and one which gives the story and the play a bitter-sweet/fairy-tale like atmosphere.

I, for one, would have paid to see this play performed on the stage. But as a book (which the publisher cleverly formats like a novel for easy reading), this is a compelling, one-sitting read, which, if not quite a must for fans of Mozart, is recommended for readers and theatre-buffs looking for something fresh and heartfelt.

* Available from Dar Oktob.

The Rainbow Dance (رقصة قوس قزح) by Sherif Meleika: I previously reviewed Sherif Meleika's novel,Soloman's Ring (خاتم سليمان), which I found to be a revelation; a stylish, engrossing, original historical Egyptian novel that defies categorization. Well, Meleika's new novel, The Rainbow Dance (رقصة قوس قزح), also is a novel that is hard to categorize, and one which cements Meleika's position as one of Egypt's most important novelists. This is a beautifully written, deeply touching, and boldly dark piece of work.

The novel revolves around a group of Egyptian immigrants living in America (including Mourad, a former Judge, and his wife; Ashraf, a doctor who suffers from clinical depression; Magdy, an extremist young Muslim man; and Labib, a disturbed, sexually perverted musician) who all share a terrible memory: The memory of the 4th of July celebration where they all gathered and on which something terrible happened to Magdy's daughter. The novel is divided into seven parts (and an epilogue), each part focusing on the statement of one of the characters regarding what happened on that fateful day. Each part is represented by a different rainbow color which reflects the mood and/or psyche of each narrator.

Meleika really stretches his narrative muscles here, smoothly shifting from one voice to another to show us each character's take on what happened that day. Each character is meticulously drawn, so that you really get to know each of these deeply damaged, complex people. From Ashraf, who suffers from clinical depression, and whose sarcastic yet touching tone is compelling and haunting, to Mourad, whose guilt-laden, grief-ravaged thoughts are deeply affecting, to Salwa, the sexually-frigid wife, whose bitter, sad musings are moving and disturbing, these are characters that feel real, their thoughts ringing true. Also, the novel, bravely, deals with topics that most Egyptian authors are either too self-censoring or too coy to deal with; like Egyptians' and Arab's double-standards when it comes to the U.S. (for example: we loathe their sexual freedom and their lifestyle, yet, secretly, we covet and admire those very same things); homosexual Egyptian youths and - due to a repressed and oppressive society - how confused and guilt-laden they are; and, most importantly, how it really is to be an Egyptian immigrant in the U.S. (both the good and the bad). Meleika tackles all these issues with panache, wit, intelligence, and an unflinching eye; as this is a dark novel, filled with pain, loss and uncomfortable truths. But it is also compelling, wonderfully written, and filled to the brim with memorable characters and sharp dialogue.

Although the central premise is somewhat implausible (the characters too readily agree to share, with a friend, their most intimate thoughts regarding a tragic event), this is a minor caveat, since this is a fascinating, thought-provoking, challenging story about a group of flawed, damaged people, struggling with the darkest aspects of what it means to be human. A must read.

* Available from Al-Hadara Publishing.

The Widow Writes Letters In Secret (الأرملة تكتب الخطابات سرا) by Tareq Imam: Tareq Imam's third novel is, in my humble opinion, his most accomplished piece of long fiction. Although, from day one, his unique style and grasp of imagery were strongly evident, The Widow Writes Letters in Secret, is a step forward in terms of narrative skills and literary accomplishment. Why, you ask? The answer is simple: With this novel, and for the first time in his already accomplished career as a writer, Imam manages to imbue his stylish imagery and hallucinatory plots with something new: Affection for his characters.

The story - about an old widow (Malak) who returns to her native town for the first time in decades after her husband's death, and who tries to fill the emotional void in her life by writing romantic letters on behalf of her teenage students, whom she tutors, so that they can present them, as their own, to their lovers - is intriguing, and as told by Imam's unique style, highly atmospheric. Add the wandering ghost of Malak's husband and a mysterious letter which the widow wakes up one night to find plastered to the flesh of her thigh, and you get a wildly original, Gothic tale that is hard to put down once you start reading it. But what's really surprising here is how touching the story is. Despite its short length (the novella is 79 pages long), Imam manages to flesh out his characters, especially the widow, Malak, who is a tragic, sad character, perpetually mourning the loss of her youth and her first love. But despite her sadness and her age, there is a romantic fire that burns within her, whose heat we can feel and empathize with as the story moves along. Also, the relationship between the widow and the nun who lives across the street from her, is a touching interlude, brilliantly written, and a considerable achievement, considering that it only takes Imam a handful of pages to create such a vivid, memorable rapport between these two characters. Imam, as always, also has something to say about contemporary Egypt, and it isn't pretty, making this not only an entertaining piece of work, but also a multi-layered one.

Although the ambiguous, circular ending is a bit disappointing, this is an original, stylish, memorable piece of work, and another brilliant piece of storytelling by Tarq Imam, one of Egypt's most accomplished contemporary writers. Unmissable.

* Available from Dar Al-Ain.

The Idol (الصنم) by Mohamed Alaa El Din: A triumph of style over substance, Mohamed Alaa El Din's short novella The Idol (الصنم) is an acquired taste. The story is thin, the book is very short (under 60 pages), and the overall atmosphere dream-like. But the writing is lush, the descriptive passages drip with atmosphere, and the story, however thin, is strange and hypnotically told. The story revolves around the relationship between an oracle/mystic and his young son, who travel from one place to another, seemingly running from something. Along the way the father works as a fortune-teller and spellcaster, and, slowly, we discover that he is both feared by many and afraid of something that's haunting him and his son. Meanwhile, the son has terrifying visions that involve a mysterious man thwarting him and tides of blood washing over him. The boy feels that all his and his father's troubles are somehow linked to a family heirloom that they take with them wherever they go: an idol of a one-eyed man.

Yes. The story is indeed bizarre. But Alaa El Din sure knows how to cast a spell, as his style is fluid and unique, and his characters memorable. And the ambiguous, frightening ending also packs a punch. This is a stylistically daring novel, and one which haunts the reader days after he/she has finished it.

* Available from El-Ain Publishing.

The Fly On The Rose (الذبابة على الوردة) by Khodeir Meirry: Khodeir Meirry's autobiographical account of his experience as an "Enemy of The State" in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's reign, is a novel that is simultaneously harrowing and sublime. This is a novel written by someone who has literally been to hell and back; someone who has experienced the true meaning of human evil and lived to tell the tale. And the tale isn't pretty. Meirry, a prose stylist and a masterful storyteller, takes us through his journey, which begins with being a Medical School student who aspires to be a writer; to being considered a "criminal" and sent to a penal colony where he is tortured, almost to death, for refusing to admit his guilt of a crime that is never defined; to being sent to an insane asylum as a schizophrenic with no hope of a cure.

Throughout the novel, the reader senses Meirry's pain and anguish at the corruption, stupidity, ego, and lawlessness of Saddam Hussein's regime, where intellectuals are persecuted for no reason other than their desire to think, analyze and speak what they deem the truth; where soulless individuals are treated like gods, and humble people are treated like animals; where sanity is a precious commodity and insanity the norm. Meirry's account of his struggle to hold on to his sanity in the face of unspeakable horrors is touching, fierce and unflinching. But, strangely enough, never sentimental; mainly because Meirry focuses on what it means to be sane and strong; what it takes to break a man and transform him into nothing but a mumbling wreck; and what it truly means to be free. He doesn't dwell on the ugly details of torture and humiliation (although he doesn't shy away from them, either), instead focusing almost solely on his own psyche and how it responds to the horrors it experiences. In the end, according to Meirry, what saved him was a mixture of faith, resilience, sheer luck, and his belief in the power of art and imagination, as, during his incarceration, he devoured book after book, in an attempt to escape the harrowing reality that surrounded him.

With this novel, Meirry confirms his status as a superb storyteller, whose command of language, pacing and character is a marvel to behold. He is also the only Arab writer I've come across who's truly capable of portraying, with beauty and restraint, and convincingly, characters whose minds are coming undone. A masterpiece that should be discussed and analyzed for years to come.

* Available from Al-Hadara Publishing.

As for the best book of 2010 . . .

Soloman's Ring (خاتم سليمان) by Sherif Meleika: Every once in a while, I come across a book that gives me hope for Egyptian literature. Despite the amount of literary junk that Egyptian writers have been producing this past decade (most of it pretentious, hypocritical non-fiction), there are some books out there that give one, as a reader as well as an Egyptian, hope that Egyptian writers still have masterpieces hidden under their sleeves. Mansoura Ezz El Din's Maryam's Mazeis one such masterpiece. Soloman's Ring by Sherif Meleika is another.

This is a book that is admirable in its ambitiousness, hypnotic in its storytelling, elegant in its style, and, above all, one hell of a well-told story. Blending fact and fiction, real characters with fictitious ones (Gamal Abdel Nasser himself has a minor role in this tale), the story revolves around an Egyptian Jew named Dawood, whose life is turned upside down after the Military Coup d'etat and Nasser takes over as the first Egyptian President. After the jubilation and the first rays of hope die down, Dawood discovers that he's not welcome in his own country anymore, because he is a Jew. Meleika's novel dissects the Egyptian psyche, Nasser's and Sadat's regimes (warts and all), and the dual nature of War (it unites people under a cause, yet it reveals the ugliness and the weaknesses hidden within, which are only revealed under duress). Meleika also weaves a mythic thread into the tale, with a subplot involving a silver ring - hence the title of the novel - that Dawood buys from an old merchant, and which, seemingly, has mystical powers. Meleika uses the ring as a sort ofMcGuffin, a talisman that several characters, with various motives, want to wield in times of trouble. Arguably, the ring stands for clinging on to a straw during hard times, and for the power of faith, as well.

Spanning four decades of Egyptian history, with numerous characters and plot-lines, this a sweeping, ambitious, stylish novel, that is waiting to be discovered, read and analyzed; even if, at times, it becomes too sprawling for its own good. A masterpiece of modern Egyptian literature.