Is Arab Middle Class Literature under Siege?

There’s an enchantment readers feel when we stumble on a relatable novel. To find a story that reflects our lives, and to read ourselves in its characters, their background, the places they frequent, and the difficulties they encounter. If the author is skillful enough, she’ll smoothly strum across our reality and fantasies, leaving us believing the story could well be ours. Yes, novels can induce a state of literary insobriety, a conscious high that develops a better understanding of our human dynamics.

I know the feeling because I’ve experienced it many times. Not recently, though.

No sooner had I learned to read than I started devouring the novels I found on the shelves at home. In fact, my fascination with books began long before that. At the age of three or four, I’d put on my father’s reading glasses, browse through the pages, and fake amusement as if I fully understood what was going on. It didn’t matter much that the novels we had were by Egyptian authors. It was the mid-seventies, and the Ba’athists’ strong grip over the cultural scene made it very difficult for noncompliant novelists to publish their work. Many writers left Iraq, while others decided to stay but stopped writing altogether. We didn’t have a single Iraqi novel in the house, I’m certain, but that wasn’t a problem because I immensely enjoyed the stories told by two particular Egyptian novelists: Naguib Mahfouz (first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1988) and Ihsan Abdel Quddous.

While Mahfouz’s famed Trilogy and other novels navigated the fantastical bygone alleys of Cairo with their prostitutes and thugs, tyrannical husbands and submissive wives, Abdel Quddous’s novels seemed incredibly vivid and relatable. His educated-middle-class protagonists straddled two different cultures, as did my father, who was a descendant of farmers with a post graduate degree in Internal Medicine and Cardiology from Columbia University, NY. The working women in Mahfouz's novels and their fight for their rights resonated with my mother, an independent and headstrong teacher of history. And indeed, the westernized children’s rebellion against their parents and their constant questioning of issues like love, sex, politics and religion sounded exactly like mine, as well as my siblings’ and friends’.

Ihsan Abdel Quddous didn’t shy away from tackling social ills. His strong advocacy for gender equality manifested itself in the way he portrayed many of his female characters. Ana Hurra (I Am Free, 1952), to cite one example, tells the story of a young middle-class girl who embarks on a journey to defy the patriarchal authority of her family and society. The novel immediately stirred up controversy, earning Quddous the title of an adept interpreter of modern day Arab women’s aspirations and feelings.

Influenced by a journalistic background, Quddous’s style was fresh, unpretentious, and irresistibly cinematic. Dozens of his novels and short stories were thus adapted into films that varied in quality and depth.

Naguib Mahfouz’s and Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s personalities couldn’t have been more different, and yet the two great novelists had mutual respect and admiration for one another. The screenwriter for several films based on Abdel Quddous novels was none other than Naguib Mahfouz. But, unlike Mahfouz, who was keen not to upset the Egyptian leaders of his time, Abdel Quddous, a born confrontationist, was jailed several times for his political views and stances. Another difference between the two was that Mahfouz had a small circle of friends and abhorred travelling, so much so that he declined to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, and sent his daughters to receive the accolade on his behalf. Abdel Quddous, on the other hand, was a world traveller and a socialite, hence the remarkable diversity of form in his writings, covering such genres as fictional travelogue, diaries, and psychological fiction. Several of his books were translated to English and other foreign languages.

In an interview with Hadil Ghoneim for Mada Masr in 2015, translator and scholar Trevor le Gassick admitted that Abdel Quddous was envied by many of his fellow writerfolk. “The fact was, everybody was reading his work, and everybody knew that everybody else was reading his work. He reached a level of popularity that nobody else had. The American University in Cairo did a survey at one time on who was the most popular novelist, and Ihsan topped the list,” le Gassick said. However, when the Nobel went to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, everything started to change.

The American University in Cairo Press has since published over forty volumes of Mahfouz’s writing translated into English. In 1996, it established the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, awarded annually in support of Arabic literature in translation. AUC Press’s Facebook page rightly proclaims itself “the leading English-language publisher in the region, offering a backlist of more than 1,200 publications including e-books, and publishes annually up to 100 new books.” That’s wonderful! But how many novels or short story collections by Ihsan Abdel Quddous did AUC Press translate? Zero!

The emphasis on Naguib Mahfouz’s bona fide localist literature and the total negligence of Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s overreaching novels might well be part of the university’s and its press’s attempt to rebut the allegations of a Western-colonialist mission that have surrounded them. But they’re not the only ones to blame.

It’s undeniable that there has been a significant shift over the years in the social structure in most Arab countries. The gap between the rich and the poor is drastically widening, threatening to swallow much of the middle and upper-middle classes, which should be all the more reason for western publishers to provide titles by the insiders in the middle who can see how the economic pressures are reshaping the cultural and political scene. Instead, presses choose to invest in the unwavering appeal of Orientalism and translated several books about ISIS and its horror stories of atrocities. I’m not insinuating in any way that those accounts are unimportant or they don’t deserve to be shared. On the contrary, they are and they should. It’s just that dwelling on them alone doesn’t allow the readers to understand the big picture. Symptoms are features of the disease, but they’re not the disease.

Another factor that’s been driving the lack of interest in publishing novels about or by the Arab middle class, deeming their stories and viewpoints superficial, and thereby illegitimate material for valuable fiction, is the current Arab Gulf's domination over the publishing industry. If a certain press today is barred from the only remaining and thriving book markets in the Arab world and the handsome literary prizes awarded by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar — unless it relies on other foreign funding — that may well be the end of it. The aforementioned prizes, worth hundreds of thousands of American dollars, have been going, with a few exceptions, to either historical, fantasy or extremely abstract works. There’s hardly any meaningful tackling of modern-day problems.

Even some of the Lebanese publishers, once known for their daring and liberal editorial policies, have been domesticated by the new bosses, who can’t tolerate the call for personal and political freedoms. It’s not allowed in the lands of the rich to talk about injustice or to pinpoint the other flaws in their prevalent system. Abdel Quddousean characters are considered a threat to autocracy and patriarchy. And to be honest, they are!

Twenty-eight years have passed since Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s death. His novels are still widely circulated throughout the Arab world—albeit mainly in pirated digital copies. The challenges and conflicts endured by his characters are as relevant today as they ever were. But when I tried to search for their English translations, I could hardly find any in print.

It’s also been a while since I last read an Arabic novel that I could see myself in, or anyone I know for that matter. And the argument that the middle class is not influential anymore doesn’t make much sense, because just like my father’s generation had played a significant role in modernizing their communities in the mid-to-late twentieth-century, the young educated middle class Arabs are also leading political reform movements. They may have lost the battle for an Arab Spring to the Islamists, but they haven’t given up the fight.

First appeared in ArabLit, titled “The Silencing of Ihsan Abdel Quddous”

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