Written by Tom Little
Each year in the UK, only a handful of Arabic books translated into English make it onto shelves of high-street bookshops, a glaring oversight given the region’s hugely diverse literary landscape.
While Arab authors have, for decades, produced brilliant novels, plays, short stories and poetry, working in many cases around strict government censors, the West has, for the most part, ignored their output.
Perhaps this is partly due to a lack of willing and competent translators, or even due to the decline in the print trade in Europe. But this blindness is all the more surprising given the influence that Arabic literature has had on writers across the world for centuries. Dante, for example, is said to have drawn heavily on the work of an 11th century Syrian poet when composing The Divine Comedy.
So, we’ve decided to put together a list of five Arabic works of literature that have left an indelible mark on the world’s greatest writers down the years. Once again, we’re not even going to try and claim this list is anywhere near comprehensive, so we’d love to hear your own suggestions. Get in touch!
1,001 Nights by Various Authors
It has been said that it is harder to find works of literature that have not been influenced by the 1,001 Nights than those that have, and the number of writers across the world who look to the works shows their importance almost 800 years since the first complete collection of the stories.
Combining the folklore of Mesopotamia, Persia, India, the Arab world, the stories vary from detective tales, to science fiction, to biting political satire, and European greats like Proust and Borges drew heavily on them in their own writing.
Theologus Autodidactus by Ibn al-Nafis
Considerably less well-known than the 1,001 Nights, but just as interesting in its own way.
Theologus Autodidactus, written by the 13th Century Damascene physician Ibn al-Nafis, is considered to be one of the very first Arabic novels, and one of the earliest sci-fi stories.
The novel tells the tale of Kamil, a feral child who spontaneously generates on a desert island, and is not only an early example of sci-fi, but also a coming of age story.
Unfortunately, Theologus Autodidactus hasn’t had the same attention from translatiors as the 1,001 Nights, but it’s still well worth a look if you can find a copy in English.
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
Skipping forward a few centuries, we come to the Lebanese émigré Khalil Gibran’s poem, The Prophet.
Gibran came to New York at the turn of the 20th Century, fleeing misery and poverty in Lebanon. He became part of a vibrant community of Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese authors living in the US, known as the Mahjar writers, and his 1923 book of prose poems, The Prophet, sealed his reputation.
Although Gibran’s pastoral idylls and aphorisms may not be to everyone’s taste, The Prophet is one of the best-selling books of all time and influenced generations of writers, singers and artists.
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz is the Arab world’s only Nobel Laureate for literature to date, and the books of his Cairo Triolgy, Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957) influenced a generation of Arab authors.
The books follow the fates on a Cairene family from the 1919 revolution until the Second World War, giving a sweeping view of Egyptian society at the time, creating a mesmerising cast of characters and pondering the transience of human life.
The final volume of the trilogy, coincidentally, gives its name to a rather good website about the culture of the Arab world and Middle East. Ahem.
Cities of Salt by Abd al-Rahman Munif
Abd al-Rahman Munif (1933-2004) has been criminally ignored in the West, but the Saudi novelist is one of the great Arab authors of recent times.
His quintet of novels tracing the evolution of a fictional Emirate from Bedouin society to ultra-rich oil producer, Cities of Salt, is an undisputed masterpiece, and shows the violence inflicted upon traditional Gulf societies by the discovery of oil and the arrival of modernity.
Contemporary authors like Hisham Matar cite Munif as a key influence, and his moral courage in tackling the social malaises of the Arab world landed him in hot water with his Saudi compatriots (he was stripped of his nationality because of his activism and writing).
Although his quintet has inexplicably been translated into English only as a trilogy, Cities of Salt is a classic and more than worthy of your time.