Liberation and artistry have transformed the Arab novel

The great Arab novel is undergoing a resurgence, challenging traditions, breaking taboos and developing new aesthetics

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National.

There is little doubt that the Arab novel has been on the rise in recent years. The volume of published works, the expansive themes and forms, the breaking of taboos, the new emerging prizes and the active translations into other languages all point to such a rise. Size of readership is also widening, though not at the same pace as other promising developments. In certain ways, part of the impetus of this rise could be accredited to the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz winning the Nobel Prize in 1988. Since then Arab novel writing and publishing have witnessed a remarkable leap.

This new contemporary wave of Arab novel has indeed moved the art of fiction writing in the Arab world into new territories: breaking more taboos and developing new aesthetics. Socially and culturally, the Arab novel has come to the forefront, exposing and questioning many previously unquestionable traditional forms of sociality. Aesthetically, creative forms and experimental structures and prose have also flourished, challenging classical traditions and reflecting more self-confidence and adventurous attitudes.

Key to understanding the rise and success of the recent surge of the Arab novel, which deserves to be underlined, is its relation to the suppressive socio-cultural and political conditions in the Arab world. The flourishing of Arab fiction is in fact linked and provoked by the continuation of these conditions, and is a sharp response against its coercions and an uncompromising denunciation of it. This key linkage between the success of the Arab novel and the suppressive environment from which it is emerging merits further elaboration in more than one aspect.

In the first place, the sheer contradictions and interwoven sets of political, social and religious patriarchies of the Arab reality at home and/or abroad keep creating manifestations of suffering, longing and revolt at individual and group levels. All this produces ripe themes waiting to be captured aesthetically and creatively, not only in novel writing but also in other forms of art. The Arab reality over the past two decades, in the 1990s and 2000s, has perhaps witnessed a trajectory of the sharpest changes: global wars fought on Arab land, deep rifts among and within many individual countries, a mushrooming of sectarianism, increases in religiosity and conservatism.

The recent Arab reality has also experienced both a continuing lack of justice and the heavy presence of authoritarianism, compounded with confusion over modernity and westernisation led by the globalisation of communication, satellite broadcasting and internet penetration. Added to this has been the collapse of pan-Arab ideologies which has brought with it lack of meaning and purpose, and also the alienation of younger generations and general challenges to identity and belonging. For many Arabs, aspects and consequences of this vastly compounded surreal reality seem in fact unbelievably more fictitious than fiction.

Thus successful creative representations of these aspects and consequences, when cleverly formulated, have yielded astounding works, as has indeed been the case over the past two decades in the field of novel writing. A second aspect worth noticing is the fact that the Arab novel has become one of the freest intellectual and yet public platforms of expression in the Arab sphere. Apart from the internet and blogging, no other intellectual platform could accommodate the sensitivity, daring and provocation that the new Arab novel is addressing. While some relatively free media outlets that challenge the boundaries of political free expression shy away from touching traditional social taboos, representations in Arab fiction challenge exactly these religious, social and cultural boundaries.

Fanaticism in general and even religion itself is criticised, existential questions are posed, social norms and traditions are deconstructed, self-expression and longing for emancipation takes voice limitlessly, and so on and so forth. But on top of all this and related to it is the incidence of both female writings and writers. A generation of female novelists, from the Maghreb countries to the Gulf countries, has strongly and confidently burst on to the literary scene. All prize short-lists have had on them successful female writers. It could be said that nowhere else in Arab writing or social platforms are women's issues, including suppression, desire for rebellion against traditional constructs and emancipation, expressed and presented as they are in the Arab novel.

Intimately related to the above is a third aspect that is worth mentioning and that is the diverse background of the Arab novelists in general. Because of the harsh Arab reality and the limited venues of free expression, we have witnessed ex-politicians, journalists, academics and activists, males and females, migrating to the field of fiction writing. Most of them have done so seeking a freer sphere for self-expression. Some of their production suffers, expectedly, from directness and emphasis on message-delivering at the expense of aesthetics. But a considerable part of the writing by these groups has nonetheless succeeded in impressing.

Many of these newcomers have discovered in fiction writing a new terrain. It is here and not in academic or serious journalistic writing where almost everything is allowed: subjectivity and self-expression, freedom from political correctness, wild articulation, naming things even with prejudice, nurturing metaphors that are decoded by all, and so on. Notwithstanding all of the cultural considerations mentioned above, it must be said that it is not just cultural criticism that matters in fiction and creative writing. Literary forms, artistic presentations and imaginative approaches remain first and foremost. No compromise on the aesthetics of literary works should ever be accepted. And the guarding of the aesthetics of the new wave of Arab novel has evolved into the a motivating cause for a number of fiction prizes in the Arab world, chief among them the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, launched in 2007/2008.

In taking a quick or even a deeper look at the titles that have made it on to the long and short lists in the past three years, one could safely conclude that a combination of fine artistic writing and social and political taboo-breaking themes has lain at the heart of this plethora of Arab fiction writing. Taboo-breaking works are common in all cultures; most of them substitute lack of aesthetics with sensationalism. This type of work has little artistic value, if any. The same applies to Arab fiction writing. There have been many "works of fiction" that were produced exploiting a challenge to the three traditional taboos: politics, sex and religion. Hastiness and opportunism are clear in many cases where authors seek fame and publicity, claiming heroism because of the sensitive subjects they embark on, sometimes with risks. One could compile a long list of Arabic works over the past few years that belong to this taxonomy.

However, the carte blanche that used to be given to these works only on the basis of taboo-breaking has been revoked. The true contribution of the fiction and literary prizes comes exactly at this juncture - that is to shepherd all experimentation, cultural challenges and theme exploration within the boundaries of literary criticism as the main criteria for judging creative writing. Dr Khaled Hroub is the Director of Cambridge Arab Media Project at the University of Cambridge. The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is funded by the Emirates Foundation and is independently managed by its own board of trustees