Abu Dhabi is singled out as the savior of the Arab novel, at least in the commercial sense, in an article in this week's New Yorker magazine. The emirate's "Arabic Booker Prize" (the almost universal shorthand for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a partnership between the Booker and Emirates foundations) topped the list of initiatives with the potential of helping the next generation of Arab writers perform their craft without the subsidy of a dentistry practice.
A choice morsel:
After the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, in 1988, there was a significant surge of interest--Mahfouz himself finally got an American commercial publisher--but the burden of bringing Arabic books to English readers still falls mainly on devoted translators, and on the small and heroic presses that have performed this service from the start. Their joint efforts have rarely mattered more. The Arab reading public, although avid for all sorts of fiction, in a plethora of newspapers and cheap feuilletons, has (for evident economic reasons) not fully embraced the novel as a published book. Few Arabic novels sell enough copies to earn their authors anything like a living income; even Mahfouz kept a civil-service job until he was sixty. Today, the most sophisticated literary public is under siege. "Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads" is a saying that prevailed in what now seems a dream of literary possibility, free of stifling fundamentalism, civic chaos, and bombs.
If you're a English reader interested in knowing what's beyond The Yacoubian Building and The Girls of Riyadh, the article worth a read (answer: Ghassan Kanafani, Elias Khoury, Sahar Khalifeh, to name a few). It also includes a useful warning about Al Aswany's follow-up novel, Chicago: "It is, frankly a disappointing book."