Hidden gems: four translated Arabic books you need to read

The Frankfurt Book Fair invited scholars and critics to discuss the Arabic literary scene

Syrian author Samar Yazbek. The English translation of book 'Planet of Clay' is nominated for 2021 National Book Awards. Alamy
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How do you shed light on hidden Arabic literary gems? This was the topic of conversation on the opening day of events at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Wednesday.

In the first of a series of sessions organised by the Arabic Language Centre and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award at the world's premiere publishing event, which runs until Sunday, a panel of Arabic literary critics, translators and book agents discussed ways to increase the visibility of Mena authors and their works.

As part of that expansive conversation, streamed online on the book fair’s website, Chip Rossetti, Library of Arabic Literature editorial director, and Yasmina Jraissati, founder of Raya Literary Agency, spoke about four translated Arabic works that are deserving of more of our attention.

1. 'Names of the Lion' by David Larsen (2017)

In a work that defies genre and style, poet and scholar David Larsen translates the late 10th century Arabic lexicographer Ibn Khalaway's list of names given to lions. “This is not exactly a beach read,” said Rossetti.

“Larsen translates more than 400 names that the 10th century grammarian listed in Arabic. It is very engaging and useful because more than it being quirky and fun, it also expands your mind about what constitutes literature and even poetry.”

2. 'Impostures' by Michael Cooperson (2020)

Winner of the 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award for translation, Michael Cooperson takes 50 of fifth century Iraqi poet Al Hariri’s narratives and reimagines them in 50 English dialects.

"It is brilliant because he takes these short narratives, which display the brilliance of the Arabic language, and does the same with English, which includes everything from cowboy slang and cockney to the style of Jane Austen," Rossetti said.

"Cooperson was showing off English in the same way Al Hariri was showing us all the different things Arabic can do.”

3. 'Planet of Clay' by Samar Yazbek (2021)

Nominated for the 2021 US literary prize the National Book Award for Translated Literature, this harrowing and poetic novel follows the life of Ria, a Syrian child caught up in the civil war.

Jraissati praised the Syrian author's narrative style. “The fact it is nominated for the National Book Awards speaks for itself in terms of its quality," she said.

"It is an interesting and powerful book that's worth looking at because Yazbek uses this strange writing device when discussing the chemical attacks in Damascus, in order to say the unspeakable. It works very well because it sticks to the very primeval meaning of destruction rather than a political one.”

4. 'Children of the Ghetto' by Elias Khoury (2019)

The first in a trilogy, this novel by Lebanese author Elias Khoury was hailed as a masterpiece by Jraissati.

Set in New York, Children of the Ghetto examines the life of Adam Dannoun who, upon a chance encounter with Blind Mahmoud, investigates his family history and in turn begins to speak of the struggle of the Palestinian people.

"The novel doesn't get the attention that it deserves," Jraissati said. "I think it is a literary masterpiece and it deserves to be translated more widely because it takes a very sensitive topic and he manages to convey it with a lot of humanity and intelligence.”

The Frankfurt Book Fair runs until Sunday, October 24. You can stream all online sessions at buchmesse.de

Updated: October 23, 2021, 10:01 AM