15.09.2009Going With the Flow
If one believes the augurs of the literary world, then a publishing house such as this should be on its last legs; and a list such as this would in any case not exist, as it mocks all economic reasoning: the main emphasis placed on contemporary Arabic literature! Despite this, Lenos is no small publishing company clinging on for dear life. It is too ambitious for that, the books are produced with far too much care and above all, the publishing house has already been in the business for 31 years. Heidi Sommerer and Tom Forrer, the heads of the publishing house, planned from the very beginning not to stand in the way of the Zeitgeist, but to gently sail along in its wake. Left-wing oriented works of non-fiction and Swiss fiction (Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Guido Bachmann, Blaise Cendrars) initially characterized the publishing house's list, that should have been called "Leros" after the prisoners island during the Greek military dictatorship. A printing error - and too little money to wipe out an entire edition - resulted in the publishing house remaining as "Lenos". Today, Heidi Sommerer is of the opinion that this is a much more sensible sounding name.
The move to Arabic literature had its beginnings in 1983 after the meeting with Hartmut Fähndrich, a specialist in Middle Eastern and oriental studies. In fact, after the initial success with the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani things were rather slow-moving. However, then in 1988 after Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize, Arabic literature surprisingly moved into the spotlight; simultaneously women's literature boomed. Two Lebanese authors have been on Lenos' best sellers list ever since: Emily Nasrallah and Hanan al-Shaykh. While Nasrallah has a catchy though conventional style, Hanan al-Shaykh has proved to be one of the most advanced Arabic female authors. "Sahras Geschichte" (The Story of Zahra), the book with which the Lebanese author born in 1945 shot to fame in 1980, takes us to Beirut and the civil war. It tells the story of the psychologically weak Zahra who suffers under a tyrannical father, is abused by her brother's friend, receives electroshock therapy and finally finds the longed-for security with a sniper, of all people – until she falls pregnant. Hanan al-Shaykh is a virtuoso in the field of story telling from the female point of view, thereby sweeping away western prejudices often present about Arabic women.
Despite such qualities, Hartmut Fähndrich is of the opinion that Arabic literature is still looked down on. Besides such prejudices, the poetic style of many Arabic novels often runs contrary to what the standard German reader is used to. Without the willingness to try out a different style, the reader often fails to get to grips with even the best works. The Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni is a prime example of what one misses. The author was born in 1948 and grew up in the Libyan Sahara Desert with the Tuareg nomads. He tells tales of violence, destruction and sexuality in a world in decline. Some form of disaster or the other always affects the rigid, tribal society that defies desert living conditions and destroys the delicate balance of coexistence between man and nature. These can be natural catastrophes or caused by intruding strangers as in "Blutender Stein", Lenos 1995 (The Bleeding of the Stone) or through presumptuous loners as in Ibrahim al-Koni's novel "Nachtkraut" that was published last year in German.