Cities can be energizing or inspiring, sites of sensuality or spirituality. Two such cities take center stage in this edition of What’s New in Translation, where our team members introduce you to new and exciting publications.
Sarab by Raja Alem, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price (Hoopoe Books)
Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor
Not only does Sarab, the forthcoming novel by Saudi author Raja Alem, open a new chapter in the fictional treatment of the 1979 siege of the Great Mosque—following Badriah al-Bishr’s Love Stories on al-Asha Street, Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s Where Pigeons Don’t Fly and Alem’s own The Dove’s Necklace (winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction)—it also marks a precarious moment in the development of the global novel. The book first appeared in April in German, and it’s set to be published in English in October by Hoopoe, an imprint of Cairo University Press. The work is intriguing, translated from a text that the novelist does not regard as finished. Since it deals with “a dark chapter in the history of this most holy city” of Mecca—as the Paris resident, Raja, says of her hometown, in a recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly—“I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound,” she continues. “I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.” Thanks to translator Leri Price, the Anglophone public who cannot read Arabic can nevertheless now imagine that new Arabic for themselves, across a different, and otherwise uncrossable, distance.
Despite the dominant conservative society of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi creative scene is considered the most daring in the Arab region. Indeed, many Saudi writers are courageous enough to confront the power of a patriarchal, religious culture; however, some have paid the price for their opinions, bold visions, and enlightened thoughts. For instance, liberal journalist and novelist Dr. Turki Al Hamad was known for his hard line against the Wahhabi order of the Minister of the Interior, following a complaint filed by religious authorities in December 2012 because of his tweets that were considered offensive to the divine, Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad. One such tweet states, “A new Nazi view of the world the Arab world calls Islamism. But this time of Nazism is over, and the sun will shine again” (1). Even more recently, the Saudi writer Raif Badawi has been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and floggings as punishment for using writing to express and expose the need for societal change. On January 9, 2015, Badawi was flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators in front of a Jeddah mosque, the first in a series of one thousand lashes to be carried out over twenty weeks (2).
This is the second in our series of essays highlighting women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who have never been translated into English before. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they face greater hardships in getting published. The latest essay focuses on the firebrand Saudi writer, Zeinab Hefny.
A dominant conflict in Arab society is the one between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. This conflict has led to extreme violence against the Shiites, from political marginalization in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, genocide by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to confiscation of property, captivity of women and bombing by ISIS. Recently, a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia struck Shiite targets in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the region, that left hundreds dead and wounded. Despite these atrocities, very few Arab writers have discussed the Shiites’ daily suffering and the violation of their political rights.
However, one who has stood up to condemn this racist sectarianism is the Sunni Saudi writer Zeinab Hefny. She plays an important role as an activist-writer who touches on multiple Saudi taboos—social, sexual, and religious—from the Shiite-Sunni issue to women’s rights.
Zefny’s novel, A Pillow for Your Love (2011), is a worthy addition to the canon of dauntless Arab literature attempting to expose the cultural, political, social and religious crises in Arab society that few Arab writers have confronted out of fear of prosecution. In the novel, Hefny discusses religious anathemas in the Arab community. She highlights the plight of the Shiite sect in the predominantly Sunni Saudi society. READ MORE…