A First Taste of Arabic Literature

[caption id="attachment_55234568" align="aligncenter" width="620"] One of the oldest stories in the collection, "House of Flesh" by Yusuf Idris, tells of the marriage of a widow to a blind Qu'ran-reader, and of the joy and pain it causes her and her daughters. SOURCE: Getty Images Europe[/caption]
A Reader of Modern Arabic Short Stories, edited by Sabry Hafez and Catherine Cobham, provides intermediate and advanced students of Arabic with a collection of eleven high-quality short stories from the Arab world.

There is no translation of the stories, so this book will primarily serve readers who are capable of reading Arabic with relative fluency. As such, it is an ideal text for universities to use in Arabic literature courses and for students of Arabic who have sufficient command of the language to read short stories written in the original language.

After each story there is a helpful section in English defining Arabic words, explaining cultural terms, and providing short commentaries that clarify particular expressions and matters of grammar and colloquial expression. [caption id="attachment_55234574" align="alignright" width="98"]"A Reader of Modern Arabic Short Stories," edited by Sabry Hafez and Catherine Cobham "A Reader of Modern Arabic Short Stories," edited by Sabry Hafez and Catherine Cobham[/caption]

What makes the book unusual and particularly noteworthy is the extremely thoughtful, probing, and critically engaging commentary provided by the authors that precede each story. These commentaries discuss diverse issues raised by the texts—from matters of literary style and structure to social and cultural mores. They also help situate the stories in a particular national, cultural, and temporal context.

The commentary on the Egyptian short story “Al-Khutuba,” for example, details how the short story examines tensions caused by social change: “The story dramatizes a confrontation between generations and observes an aspect of the nature of power, as the father deliberately creates an atmosphere of interrogation and relishes his opportunity to be in a bargaining position, evidently an unusual situation for him. What emerges most forcefully is how truth and understanding are obliterated in the name of good sense and reasonable behaviour.”

Similarly, the commentary on the Jordanian short story “Al-Bash’a” illustrates the critical orientation of the story as it examines the stultifying aspects of inflexible norms in some Bedouin communities: “Al-Bash’a shows how a formalistic attitude to morality results in fear, desolation, and a distortion of moral values. Although the ritual which is the title of the story is obviously as outmoded as the burning of witches, it would be invidious to pretend that it has no modern urban counterparts. In any case the story is not concerned to juxtapose the stagnating traditions operative in the story with any others, but to portray the oppressiveness and the double standards of this particular community of sedentary Bedouins on the edge of the desert.”

Readers will also find that the introductions describing the authors of each short story provide an introduction to the broader subject of Arab writers and Arab writing in the twentieth century. These provide a window on the context in which the stories were written and the particular intellectual and social currents with which authors identified themselves, found themselves challenging, or simply were inevitably confronted with as a matter of the societal developments taking place around them.

Most of the stories are written by Egyptian writers, with a smaller number by Iraqi, Syrian, and Jordanian writers.

Themes the writers explore include the secular religious divide, tensions between urban dwellers and countryside dwellers, sincerity, blasphemy, intolerance, family relationships and domestic violence, gender discrimination, class tension, moral hypocrisy, and the speed of social change and the difficulty it poses for individuals and communities who cannot acclimatize to it.

This is a very strong collection of short stories from the Arab world, a valuable source text, and one whose commentaries are original, rigorous, bold, and consistently illuminating.

Even for readers who cannot read the Arabic stories themselves, those with an interest in Arab writers and in critical commentary on Arabic writing will find this book a resource and a useful compilation.