Going With the Flow

The search for great Arabic literature in Germany begins at the publishing house, Lenos. A portrait by Stefan Weidner for the German weekly newspaper, "Die Zeit".

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.

Making coffee in a hail of bullets

No handed down code, no "ancestral laws" are accepted any more, the brutality and the sexuality are excessively experienced and described, stimulated by the mysterious "night weed" with aphrodisiac qualities. The intense very emphatic style coupled with often pathetic symbolism used by al-Koni often oversteps the limits of what would be considered acceptable in Germany. However, it is precisely the nomadic style and careless disregard of all limits defined by what is

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supposedly good taste that characterizes the literary greatness of the nomad al-Koni. His 800 page volume "The Tuareg Epic", also called "The Magician" is a narrative river without banks and at the same time in keeping with the old tradition, an oriental book of wisdom, a search for the correct way of life. In the extreme conditions of the Sahara desert, the essential questions are: sedentary or nomadic life? Tradesman or shepherd, spirit or money, striving for happiness in this or the next life? Reading "The Magician" is like a spiritual experience in a way that only oriental literature knows how to convey.

Tayeb Salih, born in 1929 in Sudan, is another great name in the series published by Fähndrich. Following the success of the novel "Die Zeit der Nordwanderung" (Season of Migration to the North) in 1998 (to be highly recommended from the Lenos publishing house selection of Arabic novels) Salih's short stories were published last year. The central theme, as in his novel, is the confrontation between East and West, traditional and modern life, artfully interweaving the subtle and the brutal portrayals.

The lack of clarity that prevails in the market for Arabic literature, where there is neither an index of deliverable books nor a reliable source of literary reviews, makes the search for such literature a trying and research intensive process. What does help is the pioneering cooperation of several European publishing houses and translators who meet regularly to exchange experiences. This cooperation has resulted in "Mémoires de la Mediterranée" (for the German speaking world published by Lenos) that has the declared aim of publishing autobiographical and documental works from the Arabic world in as many of the seven participating languages as possible.

Literary gems can be found in the autobiographies of the Christian Palestinian Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and the Iraqi Alia Mamdouh; the latter tells the story of becoming an adult in the old city of Baghdad and the former tells the story of a childhood in Bethlehem in the twenties. Such books, as well as those by Tajeb Salih would have the clout to popularize Arabic literature, if only they were given enough attention. Certainly, there are also some less dynamic books in the Arabic literary series that require a certain special interest, such as Hassan Dawud's novel, "Der Gesang des Pinguins" (The Song of the Penguin) published last autumn and set in post-war Lebanon.

Should this be too demanding, then the rousing mix of narrative, essay and autobiography "Ein Gedächtnis für das Vergessen" (A Memory for Forgetting) can be recommended. In this book the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, even recognized in Israel, portrays the days of the Israeli occupation in 1982 from a Palestinian point of view. In one of the most famous passages in Arabic literature, Darwish describes at great length how he tries to brew coffee in the extravagant Arab way while in a hail of bullets. A lovely metaphor for Lenos'work: To proffer the most wonderful Arabic delights, despite this being contrary to all (supposed) common sense and risking its (publishing) life. However, how much sugar your coffee should have is left for you to decide.

Stefan Weidner, Translation: Farina Boltersdorf

Source: Die Zeit, 5. Juli 2001

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