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Over the last few years it has become possible to read much more widely in contemporary Arabic literature through the medium of English translations. Even an embarrassingly incomplete list would fill a paragraph: Vintage has published Peter Theroux’s translation of Abdelrahman Munif’s epic trilogy about the modern history of state which resembles Saudi Arabia; the “Mamlouk” style in historical novels is represented by the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani’ s Zayni Barakat in a Penguin paperback; and Nawal Al-Saadawi’s powerful apocalyptic [End Page 208] visions of a postmodern Egyptian society are available from various publishers. There is more than one available translation of the Palestinian satirist Emile Habibi’s The Pessoptimist. Enterprising researchers can track down the Proustian reveries of the Egyptian writer Edwar Kharrat, in his City of Saffron and Girls of Alexandria in unusually resonant translations by Frances Liardet, published by Quartet Books in London. The enigmatic parables of the Lebanese writer Elias Khouri (Little Mountain, Gates of the City and Travels of Little Gandhi) are available from The University of Minnesota Press. Hanan Al-Shaykh’s Beirut Blues is being marketed aggressively by Anchor.
A whole series of potential Middle Easts are available to us with a little research, but it is Naguib Mahfouz who has dominated the anglophone awareness of Arab culture, in a role comparable to that the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun played on the French scene. The guidance we get from the journalistic world is to single out a leader of the tribe and zero in single-mindedly. It is a situation which might distort our vision of the field, and yet I cannot be altogether displeased at the centrality of Mahfouz’s reputation. He really is a dominant, powerful, and originary voice, both as the creator of an Arabic narrative style in the 1940s and as a prolific, patient, and protean commentator on the social scene since then. Everyone since has learned from him.
By early novels Moosa means the eleven books published from 1939 to 1959, a period which includes his three historical novels on pharaonic themes, usually considered juvenilia, and the eight novels which follow, in which he developed a style of Arabic social realism, elaborate evocations of contemporary reality grounded in the traditional neighborhoods of Cairo. It is a formidable record: Al-Qâhira al-jadîda (New Cairo), Khân al-Khalîlî, Zuqâq al-Midaqq (Midaq Alley), Al-Sarâb (The Mirage), Bidâya wa nihâya (The Beginning and the End), and the trilogy, for many readers his masterpiece, the three novels translated as Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street. (In addition to the trilogy, Midaq Alley and The Beginning and the End are both available in English—all of them from Anchor.) It might have been logical for Moosa to conclude with the trilogy, as the next step in his career was a period of experimentation (Mahfouz’s response, after a creative impasse, to the revolution of 1952). Instead he closes with a short summary of Awlâd hâratinâ (Children of our neighborhood, translated as Children of [End Page 209] Gebelawi), the brilliant, overtly allegorical, narrative in which the sons of a mysterious patriarch in a Cairo setting represent the various prophets of the Judao-Christian-Islamic tradition. Awlâd hâratinâ points toward a whole series of new styles in which Mahfouz would, famously, recapitulate the evolution of European modernisms.
Moosa is obviously more at home with the world of realism, and the affinity is evident in the way he describes the novels. For the greater part of the book we are in the world of plot summaries, often concerned to identify the exemplary characters and sort them out from the villains. From time to time he identifies a narrative brushstroke close up, spotting the artfulness of a characterization or a turn of plot. (Mahfouz is a particular master of juxtaposing plot turns in meaningful parallels.) For the most part Moosa locates us at that slight distance from which the...