Contemporary Arab Literature in the West

"Lisan" – Paving the Way for an Underdog Literature

When in 2004 the Arabic world was the guest of honor at the world's largest book fair in Germany, hopes were soaring high that Arab literature might now find a larger readership. But as it turns out, it is still dependent on individual initiatives. Stephan Milich reports

​​Many publishers, Arab authors, and translators could tell tales of woe about the difficulties of conveying Arabic literature to a German-speaking public. Even the "Arab World" showcase at the Frankfurt Book Fair hardly changed matters. The varied activities, cultural events and open discussions that focused on Arabic literature produced positive, but only short-lasting effects.

In discussion rounds at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, assessments of the intervening situation on the chances of success for Arabic literature in Germany were met with an all-around sober and resigned mood.

Initiative of a small Egyptian publisher

In this light, the courage and commitment of a small Egyptian publisher from Basel deserves all the more praise. With its new journal for contemporary Arabic literature, a platform now exists, for the first time, to introduce German-speaking readers with Arabic literature on a regular basis.

The new, bi-annually published literary journal "Lisan," which bears the same name as Hassan Hammad's publishing house, has joined the effort of a considerable number of institutions and initiatives that have since sprung up to promote Arabic literature and culture in Germany.

​​The publisher and editor Hassan Hammad – who made his PhD at the Cairo University for a study of the function of irony in the works of Mahfouz – together with his comrades-in-arms hope to accomplish still more. The first "Lisan" (Arabic for language, mouthpiece, tongue) provides readers with an interesting glimpse into the current work of well-known authors of Arabic prose and poetry such as Gamal al-Ghitani, Ibrahim Aslan (both from Egypt), and Amjad Nasser (from Jordan).

In addition, the journal serves as a colorful anthology of young, experimental contemporary writers, such as Nabila az-Zubair from Yemen, Suzanne Alaywan from Lebanon, and Mustafa Zikri from Egypt. "There are many such young authors throughout the Arab world," publisher Hammad keenly stresses in the preface.

Opportunity for young authors and translators

In total, "Lisan" presents 21 authors with selections of their work, introductory short biographies, and, in some cases, even bibliographical references, in an unpretentious, yet attractive format.

Another welcome sign is that the work of the young authors has been rendered into German by young translators, more than half of whom are Arabic native speakers with a background in German studies. This is quite a positive development for the Arabic literature scene in German-speaking countries.

In this respect, "Lisan" regards itself as a "workshop for literary translation, giving young translators the opportunity of plying their skills, perhaps for the first time, in a professional forum." Commendable is the inclusion of an appendix with short biographies of the translators, whose efforts remain all too often anonymous.

Establishing a canon of modern Arabic literature

As an added bonus, the translated texts and introductory biographies of the authors are supplemented with a scholarly essay by the Egyptian Germanist Jihan Hassib on the image of women in the works of Christa Wolf and Radwa Ashour as well as a commentary by Muntassir al-Qaffasch on Peter Handke's novel "Wunschloses Unglück" ("Perfectly Happy Misery"). Readers looking for an Arab perspective on German literature should find plenty to interest them here.

According to Hammad, his goal for the future is to "establish a canon of modern Arabic literature or put together a bestseller list." High aspirations, to be sure. The majority of the included authors, however, are Egyptians, and the next issue with its announced focus on Cairo will once again give preference to Egyptian literature.

Yet, Egypt is not the only venue for Arab culture. One hopes that the journal will attempt to broaden its choice of authors to include those from other Arab countries and thereby do justice to the exciting variety offered by the wider Arab world.

There can be no doubt that, all in all, the new journal for Arabic literature is a successful contribution towards improved mutual understanding and promotes literary exchange between two cultural worlds that often fail to understand each other.

"Lisan" does not play on typical Middle Eastern clichés nor is its emphasis on already familiar mainstream literature. The journal is an example of authentic cultural dialogue and, as such, a welcome addition that opens a window on Arabic literature and Middle Eastern viewpoints.

Stephan Milich

© 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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Dossier: German-Arab Literature Exchange
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Website Lisan (in German)

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