Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Arab Literature: An Untapped Treasure?

  ‘The Arab world also won the Nobel with me. I believe that international doors have opened, and that from now on, literate people will consider Arab literature also. We deserve that recognition.’  - Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

 ‘We know all about the intellectual somersaults that some European historians and scholars have performed in their attempts to deny that the Moors were black Africans. But never mind. Facts will remain facts.’ - Baffour Ankomah[1]

I would like to begin by first describing the geographical location and the culture of the people from whom the literature in question originates…


 ‘We leave the books unsupervised; because thieves don't read and readers don't steal.’

— Al-Mutannabi Street, Baghdad, Iraq


‘As we were flying across Saudi (Arabia) we started to appreciate the lie of the ground.

It looked like a brown billiard table.’ – From Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab

Let’s begin by bursting a few myths. Firstly, not all Arabs live in the so-called ‘Middle East’, which for some reason includes some African countries (‘How can Egypt not be a part of Africa but faraway Madagascar island is?’ some have asked.)

The largest Arab nation (by population) is Egypt, which is situated in northern Africa. Below is a chart by, showing the relative populations of Arab states:

It is telling that Palestine is not listed in the chart above, probably due to its unclear borderlines vis-à-vis Israel. Also notice the absence of Iran. Iran is NOT an Arab country. A bit of explanation from

Alone among the Middle Eastern peoples conquered by the Arabs, the Iranians did not lose their language or their identity. Ethnic Persians make up 60 percent of modern Iran, and modern Persian is the official language. (Persian also has official status in Afghanistan, where Dari, or Afghan Persian, is one of two official languages.) In addition, the majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslims while most Arabs are Sunni Muslims. So Iran fails most of the four-part test of language, ancestry, religion, and culture.

And according to, ‘Persians are not Arabs, any more than Koreans are Japanese.'

Another controversy concerns the very identity of the Arab people. Who are the Arabs? What makes them distinct from any other ethnic group? Unfortunately, such questions have no simple answers. But here is a great insight from

Much confusion attends the word ‘Arabs’, because it has not always been used with rigorous consistency. Moreover, in the wake of the global dominance of the Arab culture and Islamic political power in the between 7AD and 14 AD, the number of Arabs increased exponentially by the addition of many non Arab Arabized people, because acculturation and assimilation were deliberately fostered by state policy.

Today, the word Arab does not strictly imply or designate any known racial category of people. It is an ethnic identification that has several aspect including linguistics, politics and genealogy. Its meaning is nuanced depending on the particular context.

As an ethnic identity, an Arab is someone who considers himself to be an Arab regardless of racial or ethnic origin. This definition encompasses many Africans, Indians, Indonesians and Chinese who describe themselves as Arabs.

Usually the first language of persons who claim to be Arab is Arabic. There are over 200 million people worldwide whose first language is Arabic. Again these peoples spread over a large portion of the globe spanning from central Africa to central Asia. More than 70% of the so-called Arabs in the world live physically in Africa.[1]

According to E-TV, Arabic is, in fact, one of the most widely-spoken languages inside Africa.

Generally speaking, ‘the Arab world’ – also colloquially reffered to as ‘Arab Street’ in the West – consists of the 22 countries of the Arab League ie. Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Oman, Djibouti, Saudi Arabi, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Palestine, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE and Yemen.

Commonly Used Terms:

 The Middle East – Loose geo-political term used to describe western Asia and northeast

Africa that includes the nations on the Arabian Peninsula ie. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. (‘Western Asia is mistakenly called “The Middle East”.’ – Dr. Henrik C. Clarke, ‘You Have No Friends’ lecture)

 UAE - The United Arab Emirates ie.

  • Abu Dhabi  (Capital)
  • Dubai
  • Sharjah
  • Ajman
  • Umm Al Quwain
  • Ras Al Khaimah
  • Fujairah

 The Holy Qu’ran[2] – The sacred scriptures/holy book of Islam[3], equivalent of The Holy Bible to Christians or the Vedas to Hindus.

Sharia - Islamic canonical law based on the teachings of the Qu’ran (or ‘Koran’) and the traditions of the Prophet (Hadith and Sunna). (

 Bismillah / Basmala - The first word in The Holy Qu'ran ie. Bismillah hir Rahman nir Raheem (English: ‘In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful’).

 Muslimah – A Muslim woman, especially a devout one.

 The Hajj - An annual pilgrimage made by Muslims to Mecca (or ‘Makkah’) in Saudi Arabia. Making this trip is one of the Four Pillars of Islam.

 Al-Hajj – A prefix Muslims who have undertaken the Hajj pilgrimage may add to their names eg. A man called Salim Malik will now be known as Al-Hajj Salim Malik.

 Salaam aleikumEveryday greeting amongst Muslims, the standard reply being ‘Aleikum


 Inshallah – Very commonly used term amongst Muslims. Means, ‘if Allah wills’ (Christian equivalent is ‘God willing’).

 Marshallah / Mash'Allah – Respectful Arabic phrase used to show appreciation for a person or happening.

 Mosque – Muslim equivalent of a church or temple. The Muslim Holy Day is Friday

 Hijab/Jilbab/Niqab – Conservative clothing that can be worn by either an adult or a child.

In many Islamic communities, women/girls are expected to cover their heads and necks that's why they wear hijabs. A nikab is longer and covers the knees or even feet. A jilbab also covers up. The hijab is the most common one and is compulsory in some cultures; covers head to neck.                           

Halal / hallal / halaal – Permissible or lawful in traditional Islamic law. For example, Halal food is that which adheres to Islamic law (Equivalent of ‘kosher’ in some other traditions)

 Burqa (chadri or paranja in Central Asia) - An enveloping outer garment worn by women

 Haram / Haraam – Forbidden (by Islamic law)

 Madrassa - A Muslim school, college, or university that is often part of a mosque

 The 5 Pillars of Islam – Testimony of faith (shahada), Prayer (salah), Charity (zakah), Fasting (sawm) and Pilgrimage (hajj)

 Idd-il-Fitr – ‘Festival of Breaking Fast’; important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide

 Id-Mubarak - Eid Mubarak is a traditional Muslim greeting reserved for use on the festivals of Eid ul-Adha and Eid ul-Fitr. (Eid = ‘Feast’)

 Al-Aqsa mosque – The magnificent gilt-domed mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. The third holiest site in Islam.


Habibi – My beloved/love. However, it is very commonly used and often applied to a friend, a boy/girl friend, husband or wife.



 ‘No people in the world manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression

and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs. Modern audiences in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo can be stirred to the highest degree by the recital of poems, only vaguely comprehended, and by the delivery of orations in the classical tongue, though it be only partially understood. The rhythm, the rhyme, the music, produce on them the effect of what they call "lawful magic" (sihr halal).’ - Philip K Hitti, History of the Arabs[4]

 ‘For hundreds of years, Egypt's role in the region was as a cultural world.’ - Gamal Al Ghitany, editor of al Akbar al Adab (literary journal)

 In his narration of the mind-boggling PBS TV series Cosmos[5], Prof. Carl Sagan, gave some startling insights about the Great Library of Alexandria in ancient times:

 But the treasure of the library, consecrated to the god Serapis, built in the city of Alexandria, was its collection of books. The organisers of the library combed through the cultures and languages of the world for books. They sent agents abroad to buy up libraries. Commercial ships docking in Alexandria harbour were searched by the police. Not for contraband, but for books. The scrolls were borrowed, copied, and returned to their owners. To be studied, these scrolls were collected in great stacks called ‘books’, from the ships. Accurate numbers are difficult to come by but it seems that the library contained at its peak nearly one million scrolls.

 The papyrus reed grows in Egypt. It is the origin for our word for ‘paper’ and each of those million volumes which once existed in this library were hand-written on papyrus manuscript scrolls. What happened to all those books?  Well, the classical civilization that created them disintegrated. The library itself was destroyed. Only a small fraction of the work survived. And as for the rest, we are left with scattered, pathetic, fragments. But how tantalizing those remaining bits and pieces are! For example, we know that there once existed here a book by the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos who apparently argued that the earth was one of the planets that, like the other planets, orbits the sun and that the stars are enormously far away. All absolutely correct, but we had to wait nearly two thousand years for these facts to be rediscovered. 

 An excerpt from Egypt: Literature in Ancient Egypt: A prominent Component of Civilization, A Feature Tour Egypt Story:

 In ancient Egyptian literature, there is a story dating back to the Middle Kingdom (2022 BC-1850 BC). This era witnessed a great number of writers and thinkers who left behind a number of works of art reflecting the elevated status of thinking and culture in ancient Egypt. The story is titled The Sailor and the Wonder Island. It narrates the story of an ancient Egyptian sailor whose ship was wrecked with all on board drowned. As the only survivor, he lives on an isolated island, finds a treasure, returns home and the mysterious island sinks deep into the sea immediately after his departure.                                                            

Scholars of comparative literature maintain that the structure, plot and general theme of the source has inspired many of the greatest and most famous novelists all over the world. The story had influenced many famous classical and romantic novels invoking adventures in search of valuable treasures and heroes who lived in isolated islands.

An excerpt from a fascinating article titled, ‘Islamic Manuscripts from Mali: Timbuktu an Islamic Cultural Center’:

Timbuktu, the legendary city founded as a commercial center in West Africa 900 years ago, is synonymous today for being utterly remote. This, however, was not always the case. For more than 600 years, Timbuktu was a significant religious, cultural, and commercial center whose residents traveled north across the Sahara through Morocco and Algeria to other parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Located on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu was famous among the merchants of the Mediterranean basin as a market for obtaining the goods and products of Africa south of the desert. Many individuals traveled to Timbuktu to acquire wealth and political power…

Other individuals traveled to Timbuktu to acquire knowledge. It was a city famous for the education of important scholars whose reputations were pan-Islamic. Timbuktu’s most famous and long lasting contribution to Islamic– and world–civilization is its scholarship and the books that were written and copied there beginning from at least the 14th century. The brilliance of the University of Timbuktu was without equal in all of sub-Saharan Africa and was known throughout the Islamic world.

Over the past 1,200 years, the Western Sahara area has given birth to powerful empires: Ghana (8th-11th centuries), Mali (13th-17th centuries), and Songhai (15th-16th centuries). The influence of these empires transcends Mali’s current boundaries in its contributions to civilization and culture, particularly through Muslim scholarship. Many peoples, ideas, and goods passed through these empires by land and via the Niger River. Among travelers to the region were many Muslim scholars who came pursuing knowledge and whose scholarship survives in their manuscripts…

The texts and documents included in Islamic Manuscripts from Mali are the products of a tradition of book production reaching back almost 1,000 years. Although this practice is anchored in the methods of Islamic book production, it possesses features particular to West Africa. The bindings of manuscripts from Timbuktu, and West Africa in general, are unique in the Islamic world. Their decoration with incised markings is in a style characteristic of the area. Further, pages are not attached in any way to the binding–a practice different from all other Islamic manuscripts.

The form of Arabic script used in Timbuktu ultimately derives, as do all forms of the Arabic script, from the Kufic and Hijazi forms of Arabic writing developed in Iraq and the Hijaz during the eighth and ninth centuries. Western and Eastern style scripts developed from the Kufic script. The Western style, influenced by the Hijazi script as used in North Africa, evolved into the script known as Maghribi, or North African, beginning in the 11th century in North Africa, Spain, and Sicily. Western style script still is used in North Africa. From North Africa, this script crossed the Sahara Desert, came to Timbuktu, and spread throughout West Africa where scholars and scribes further developed the script. An exhibit of pages from these manuscripts is available at:

A TIMBUKTU MANUSCRIPT: Songhai Empire and Islam. al-Minnah fi Itiqad Ahl al-Sunnah (The Gift of the Followers of the Path of Muhammad).

Two poetry ‘diwans’ - Saqt al-Zand and Luzumiyyat - by the celebrated blind Syrian poet Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri date back to 1058 CE.



 ‘Open your mouth to speak only if what you will say is kinder or more beautiful than silence.’ – Arab proverb

In the Western world, one of the best-known and most influential Arab poets is Khalil Gibran (1883 – 1931). The author of such classics as The Prophet (1923), Gibran’s writings are so rich with wisdom and poetic flair that they have acquired a quasi-religious authority all their own. Below is a fragment of biography from Poetry Foundation:

 Though he considered himself to be mainly a painter, lived most of his life in the United States, and wrote his best-known works in English, Kahlil Gibran was the key figure in a Romantic movement that transformed Arabic literature in the first half of the twentieth century. Educated in Beirut, Boston, and Paris, Gibran was influenced by the European modernists of the late nineteenth century. His early works were sketches, short stories, poems, and prose poems written in simple language for Arabic newspapers in the United States. These pieces spoke to the experiences and loneliness of Syrian immigrants in the New World. For Arab readers accustomed to the rich but difficult and rigid tradition of Arabic poetry and literary prose, many of the forms and conventions of which went back to pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry, Gibran’s simple and direct style was a revelation and an inspiration. His themes of alienation, disruption, and lost rural beauty and security in a modernizing world also resonated with the experiences of his readers. He quickly found admirers and imitators among Arabic writers, and his reputation as a central figure of Arabic literary modernism has never been challenged…

Several of Gibran’s works of fiction—including the novella al-Ajniha al-mutakassira (1912; translated as The Broken Wings, 1957), with its story of a doomed love affair—are set in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon around this time, leading to speculation that they may be autobiographical; but nothing can be determined with certainty, especially given Gibran’s habit of embroidering his past.

Gibran left Beirut in 1901 and wandered around Europe; Paris was among the places he visited…

In 1906 Gibran published ‘Ara’is al-muruj (Spirit Brides; translated as Nymphs of the Valley, 1948), a collection of three short stories. ‘Rimal al-ajyal wa al-nar al-khalidah’ (The Ash of Centuries and the Immortal Flame) is a story of reincarnation. Nathan, the son of the priest of Astarte in Baalbek, loses his lover to disease. Despite her promise that they will meet again, he is maddened by grief and wanders lost in the desert...

An hour-long ‘musical interpretation’ of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet was recorded by Richard Harris in 1974 (Atlantic Records; music by Arif Mardin). The audio-visual piece is now available on YouTube video-sharing website, where it continues to garner positive comments and spark nostalgia amongst those who read the poems in their youth. The poems in the recording include ‘The Coming of the Ship’, ‘On Love’, ‘On Marriage’, ‘On Children’, ‘On Religion’ and ‘On Death’. More recently, an animated film titled The Prophet - inspired by and dedicated to Gibran - has been produced by Arab-American actress Salma Hayek. It was written and directed by Roger Allers.

 A few other influential Arab writers of recent times:

 - Nizar Qabbani was a former Syrian diplomat who became one of the Arab world's greatest poets. He died in London in 1998 at the age of 75. After his passing, reportedly due to a heart attack, Syrian poet Youssef Karkoutly described Qabbani as having been ‘as necessary to our lives as air.’ Born on March 21, 1923, Qabbani was twice-married. He met his second wife, Balqis al-Rawi, at a poetry recital in Baghdad, Iraq. An Iraqi teacher working for the cultural section of the Iraqi Ministry, she later died in a bomb attack by pro-Iranian guerrillas in Beirut, Lebanon. Qabbani’s best-known works include ‘A Poem for Jerusalem’ and ‘Drawing with Words’.




Below is part of Nizar Qabbani’s famous poem Jerusalem with English translation by Fisal, a resident of Rosetta, Egypt, where he teaches English as a Foreign Language (Note: Arabic is read from right to left):

Al-Quds (Jerusalem)

بـَــكــَــيــْـــتُ .. حــَــتــَّــى اِنــْـــتــَــهــَـــت الــدُّمــُـــوع

I cried till tears ended

صــَـــلــَّــيــْــتُ .. حــَــتــَّــى ذَابــَـــت الــشــُّــمــُـــوع

I prayed .. till candles melted

رَكــَــعــْــتُ .. حــَــتــَّــى مــَــلــَّــنــِــي الــرُّكــُـــوع

I knelt .. till kneeling got bored with me

ســَــألــْـــتُ عــَــنْ مــُــحــَــمــَّــدٍ فــِــيــكِ ، وعــَــنْ يــَــســُــوع

In you, I asked about Muhammad and Jesus

يــَــا قــُـــدْسُ ، يــَــا مــَــدِيــنــَـــةً تــَــفــُــوحُ أَنــْــبــِــيــَــاءَ

O, Quds, O, city scented by prophets

يــَــا أَقــْـــصــَــرَ الــدُّرُوبِ بــَــيــْــنَ الأَرْضِ والــســَّــمــَــاءِ

O, you, shortest paths between earth and heaven

يــَــا قــُــدْسُ ، يــَــا مــَــنــَــارةَ الــشــَّــرَائــِــــع

O, Quds! O, you, minaret of religions

يــَــا طــِــفــْــلــَــةً جــَــمــِــيــلــَــةً مــَــحــْــرُوقــَـــةَ الأصــَـــابــِـــعِ

O, you pretty child with burnt fingers

حــَـــزيــنــَــةٌ عــَــيــْـــنــَــاكِ ، يــَــا مــَــدِيــنــَـــةَ الــبــَـــتــُــول

Your eyes are sad, O, you city of the virgin (Mary)

يــَــا وَاحــَــةً ظــَــلــِــيــلــَـــةً مــَـــرَّ بــِــهــَــا الــرَّســُــول

O, you, shady oasis that the messenger (Muhammad) passed by

حــَــزيــنــَـــةٌ حــِــجــَــارَةُ الــشــَّـــوَارِع

The streets stones are sad

حــَــزيــنــَــةٌ مــَــآذِنُ الــجــَـــوَامــِــع

The mosques minarets are sad

يــَــا قــُــدْسُ ، يــَــا جــَــمــِــيــلــَــةً تــَــلــْــتــَـــفُّ


The full poem/translation is available here:


 - Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian writer who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. He published over 50 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays over a 70-year career. His works, some of which have been made into Egyptian and foreign films, include Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs, Miramar, La Belle du Caire, Fountain and Tomb , Adrift on the Nile, Arabian Nights and Days, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma and Children of the Alley.

 - Yusuf Idris (1927 – 1991) was an Egyptian writer of plays, short stories, and novels. He also wrote regular features for Egypt’s daily newspaper Al-Ahram. He was initially trained to be a doctor, studying at the University of Cairo. His most famous work was a play called Al-Farafeer which was centred on the paradoxical roles of its two main characters: the Master and the ‘Farfour’ (poor layman). His works include the short story collection The Cheapest Nights And Other Stories.

 - Salwa Bakr – Novelist, short story writer. Author of The Man From Bashmour, The Rooster’s Egg: A Fable of Ancient Thebes, inter alia.

 - Alaa al Aswany – Novelist/journalist. Author of The Yacoubian Building, Izzat Amin Iskandar, When Women are Sinners in the Eyes of Extremists, Why the Muslim World Can’t Hear Obama, inter alia.

 Gamal al-Ghitani – Novelist, short story writer. Author of Zayni Barakat, The Crop Mystery Woman, inter alia.


Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid – Historian, essayist. Author of Egypt and Cromer: A Study in Anglo-Egyptian Relations ,L’expédition d’Égypte et le débat sur la modernité, inter alia.


Radwa Ashour – Novelist. Author of Siraaj, Mapping the Nation: The Legacy of Darwish


Taha Hussein – Novelist. Author of A Man of Letters, Le livre des jours, inter alia.


Sonallah Ibrahim – Novelist. Author of Warda, Zaat, inter alia.

 Boualem Sansal – 2011 winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (a former Secretary-General of the United Nations) – Author of

Egypt’s Road to Jerusalem: A Diplomat’s Story of the Struggle for Peace in the Middle East (memoir)

 - In 2017, the world-renowned Sundance Institute highlited original works by 6 Syrian playwrights in Germany. The works were:

 ·         Terror by Liwaa Yazji (Film maker, poet, playwright, screenwriter & translator)

·         Wind The Wind by Mudar Al Haggi (Dramaturg and playwright)

·         Chronicles of A City We Never Knew by Wael Qadour (Playwright and theater director)

·         Love Stories in Marly's Hotel by Amre Sawah (Writer, dramaturg, journalist, theatre and film director)

·         Amad by Wael Salem (Graduate of Damascus Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts)

·         Family Statement by Ayham Abu Shaqra (A graduate of Damascus Higher Institute for Dramatic Studies)

Sundance Institute Theatre Program's Artistic Director, Philip Himberg:

 Many of the works address a very specific set of circumstances and places associated with the artistic diaspora but the stories are deeply personal, rather than overtly political, as is the case in the best theatrical writing. Time and space to create are essential to global culture, especially in times of conflicts and major transformations; preserving and cultivating independent voices and storytelling enriches societies. We’re excited to convene these artists in Berlin, with its dynamic and thriving metropolitan community which includes many Middle Eastern & North African artists.

 Other notable Egyptian scribes include Hassan Hegazy, Ahdaf Soueif, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Alifa Rifaat (Fatimah Rifaat).

 Recommended lit journal: Banipal (UK) Magazine of Modern Arab Literature

 ‘Tales From the Nile: The Best Egyptian Writers’, a curated list by Sasha Frost, for is available online at this URL:



 ‘Great literature can change our individual landscapes; it is an act of travel, of freedom, a slight re-writing of our cramped and determined interior spaces. Getting out from underneath the elephantine weight of the usual creates a sudden, dizzying lightness. It gives us the impossible power of stepping outside ourselves for just a moment.’

- M. Lynx Qualey, Arabic Literature

Abu Dhabi International Airport’s First Library Supporting the ‘Year of Reading’

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is an annual literary prize supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London and financially backed by the TCA Abu Dhabi, UAE. During its launch, in Abu Dhabi in 2007, Jonathan Taylor, the IPAF Chairman, said:


I believe that this Prize will reward and bring recognition and readership to outstanding writers in Arabic. I look forward to seeing more high-quality Arabic fiction being accessible to a wider world.


The judging panel - selected by the Board of Trustees - consists of five judges, made up of ‘literary critics, writers and academics from the Arab world and beyond’. It is modeled on the world-famous Man Booker Prize and reportedly aims at rewarding Arab writers and increasing international readership via translation.  Shortlisted finalists each receive USD $10,000 with the winner getting an additional USD $50,000. Again, Jonathan Taylor:


Impact is the essence of a successful literary prize. It needs to be discussed; argued about; criticised; and even sometimes praised! There may be lively disagreement about who is included and who is excluded from the longlist and the shortlist. And the eventual winner may provoke fierce debate as well as great acclaim.


- Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Yusuf Idris (Egypt) was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1997, he was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his novel City of Love and Ashes.

- In 2017, Bushra al-Fadil (Sudan) became the first Arab to pick up the Caine Prize for African writing. Bushra, 65 years old at the time, was declared winner for his short story, The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away, published in the anthology The Book of Khartoum – A City in Short Fiction. The story was originally written in Arabic in 1979 and later translated into English. Bushra is a poet, short story writer and novelist.


 ‘My language in novels and studies is very simple. They can be read by girls in primary schools and in secondary schools and they take it to their mothers in their village and they read it.’ - Nawal El-Saadawi, controversial Egyptian-born writer

Cover of Nayra Atiya’s award-winning book, Khul-haal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories

 There is no shortage of female scribes on Arab Street. Let us lower the veil – so to speak - on just a few of them, in order to get an idea of their writings.

 Sara al-Jarwan (Arabic: سارة الجروان) - Emirati novelist, short story writer and playwright. Author of Shajan Bint Al-Qadar Al-Hazeen (1992), Risa’il ila Al-Sultan (Letters to the Sultan, 2003), Turous ’Ila Moulay Al-Sultan, Al-Kitab Al-Awwal (Letters to My Lord The Sultan, Part One; 2009), and Udhraa’ wa Wali wa Saahir (A Virgin, a Saint and a Magician, 2011 ). Also author of the short-story collection Ayqounat Al-Hilm (The Dream’s Icon, 2003). Winner of the Best Emirati Book prize (2003) and the Al Owais Prize for best novel (2012).

 Leila Aboulela (Egypt/Sudan) – Author of the novels The Translator (1999), Minaret (2005), Lyrics Alley (2010), The Translator, and The Kindness of Enemies (2015). Winner of the 2000 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story, The Museum. Born in Cairo and raised in Khartoum, she currently lives in Aberdeen, Scotland,

 Miral al-Tahawy (Egypt) – Born to a Bedouin from the Nile Delta, Miral is a writer and academic. Her literature includes The Tent, The Blue Aubergine, The Strumming of the Gazelles and Brooklyn Heights. Currently an assistant professor of Arabic literature in the University of North Carolina, she has also written academic essays.

 Nayra Atiya - Born in Egypt, Nayra is an American oral historian, writer, and translator. Her 1982 book, Khul-haal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, won a UNICEF prize in 1990. Below is description of it from

 Five contemporary Egyptian women, in age from their early twenties to mid-sixties and all of the min- to lower socioeconomic classes, tell their life stories. From birth and childhood to puberty, clitoridectomy, marriage, adult life, and children, we are allowed a generous glimpse, through these very personal accounts, into the details of five women's daily lives. We become acquainted with their families, share their thoughts, dreams, fears, tragedies, and disappointments, as well as getting a good dollop of folklore, superstition, manners and customs, and general information.

 Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) – Controversial writer and former medical practitioner. Author of A Daughter of Isis (memoir), The Hidden Face of Eve, Woman at Point Zero (novel), The Innocence of the Devil, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, inter alia.

 Raja’a Alem (Saudi Arabia) – Teacher, novelist. Author of The Dove’s Necklace.

 Leila Ahmed – Author of A Border Passage (memoir) and Women and Gender in Islam

 Alifa Rifaat – Author of Distant View of a Minaret (short Stories)


Latifa al-Zayyat – Author of The Open Door


Zainab al Ghazali – Author of The Return of the Pharaoh (memoir)


Laila Abou-Saif – Author of  A Bridge Through Time (memoir)



‘Still eyes look coldly upon me,

Cold voices whisper and say --

“He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia,

They have stolen his wits away.” ’

- Walter de la Mare, Arabia

 The Sharjah International Book Fair is one of the showcase events of the Government of Sharjah (UAE) and has a history spanning 34 years.  Apart from being a book exhibition/trade fair, it also acts as window into Arab culture as it grows in order to keep pace with a fast-changing world.

 Ahmed Al Ameri, Director of Sharjah International Book Fair:

 The publisher, in the Arab world, he’s the publisher, he’s the distributor, he’s the wholesaler and he’s the bookshop. There is no distribution company existing in the Middle East. So the Arab publisher can distribute his books only through the book fairs around the Middle East. It gives them the choice and the options of meeting another international publisher and signing deal for translating Arabic book to foreign language. 


From an article in the UAE Edition of The National[1] :

 The 36th edition of Sharjah International Book Fair has returned with another bumper-sized programme, including panel sessions, book signings, poetry readings and cooking demonstrations.

Heralded as the world’s fourth largest book fair and held at the Expo Centre Sharjah until November 11, the fair took part in the emirate’s Flag Day celebrations on November 2. Banners and the national flag festooned the expo’s surroundings as patriotic and Emirati folk songs played throughout the afternoon on large screens… 

Key literary discussions began before sunset: one of the biggest sessions of the day featured foreign correspondent Souad Mekhennet – a German national of Turkish and Moroccan decent - who arrived to launch the Arabic translation of her English-written journalism memoir I Was Told to Come Alone

Literary critic Yousef Hattini will cast his keen eye on 13 Emirati novels. He will examine their themes, characters and narrative structure to provide insight on the development of Emirati fiction over the last four decades…

 - The Cairo International Book Fair is the largest and oldest book fair in the Arab world, held every year in the last week of January in Cairo, Egypt, in Madinat Nasr. It is organised by the General Egyptian Book Organisation.

 - From an article titled 'Riyadh book fair brings nearly 1,000 exhibitors', written by Abdul Hanan Tago:

 This year's (2014’s) fair confirms that reading in Lebanon and the Arab world is alive and well,’ says Raida Idriss, director of public relations in Dar Al Adab, which has won 10 books out of 100 in the Muse List, and won the Wajeeb Mahfoud award (At The Beirut 58th Annual International Arab Book Fair).

 After launching this international book fair, Minister Khoja (Minister of Culture and Information) said ‘the Riyadh book fair serves as a great networking platform for publishers, writers and scholars, as well as academic institutions.’ More than 300,000 titles, including several best-selling books from 31 countries, are on display in the fair this year.

 - From the official website of the Emirates Literature Foundation:

 The Emirates Literature Foundation, home of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, is a not-for-profit organisation that supports and nurtures a love of literature in the UAE and across the region through a programme of varied cultural initiatives.

Established in 2013 by Royal Decree issued by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, the Foundation aims to foster a life-long love for all literature. 'The Emirates Literature Foundation, home of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, is a not-for-profit organisation that supports and nurtures a love of literature in the UAE and across the region through a programme of varied cultural initiatives.’

Established in 2013 by Royal Decree issued by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, the Foundation aims to foster a life-long love for all literature.


 ‘I would rather understand one cause (of natural/scientific happenings) than be King of Persia.’

- Democretes, Greek philosopher/early scientist (conceptualized atoms), circa 400 B.C.

‘It is an obligation for every Muslim to seek knowledge. Seek knowledge even if it be in China. Seek knowledge from cradle to grave. Acquire knowledge, it enables its possessor to distinguish right from wrong; it lights the way to heaven.’ That is a famous quote attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Below are some fragments of biographies and works of intellectuals from (or inspired by) the Arab world who have not only sought knowledge far and wide but also shared it, and spread influential ideas:

- Some info about the much-lauded the University of al-Qarawiyyin, from

The University of al-Qarawiyyin or al-Karaouine (Arabic: جامعة القرويين‎) was founded by Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim woman, in 859 in Fes, Morocco; with an associated school, or madrasa, which subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the historic Muslim world. It is the oldest existing, continually operating and the first degree-awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records and is sometimes referred to as the oldest university.

-          Jurji Zaidan (1861 – 1914) was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and died in Egypt. A writer, educator and intellectual, he made his mark as a part of the vanguard of the Arab Nahda (Awakening). The Zaidan Foundation currently upholds his legacy. According to their official website:

The mission of the Zaidan Foundation is to enhance intercultural understanding starting with the international dissemination of the Arab cultural heritage.

The principal objective of the Foundation’s programs in the first three to five years is to promote the secular and progressive view of Arab and Islamic culture, history and language. Our audience is the broader English speaking world: the United States, England and Canada to be sure; but in addition countries with large English-speaking Muslim populations such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Other educational and cultural objectives that promote intercultural understanding may be added in due course. To achieve its objectives, the Foundation would support, directly or through educational or other institutions, the translation and publication of historical, literary and other works, research, scholarships, conferences, seminars, student exchanges, documentaries, films and other activities.

 - Edward W. Said, a Palestinian-American who achieved rock star status in academia, was a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University (USA) and the author of many books, including The Question of Palestine and the highly influential Orientalism. Educated in London as well as in the USA (Princeton and Harvard), he became a leading scholar, literary critic, public intellectual, and a ‘voice’ for the Palestinian cause. He was born to a well-off family in Jerusalem in 1935 and as a young man, he witnessed the suffering of Palestinians first-hand. In the US, where he taught literature for many years, he remained a supporter of the Palestinian cause. A couple of excerpts from some of his work:

There can be no true humanism whose scope is limited to extolling patriotically the virtues of our culture, our language, our monuments. Humanism is the exertion of one's faculties in language in order to understand, reinterpret, and grapple with the products of language in history, other languages and other histories. In my understanding of its relevance today, humanism is not a way of consolidating and affirming what ‘we’ have always known and felt, but rather a means of questioning, upsetting, and reformulating so much of what is presented to us as commodified, packaged, uncontroversial, and uncritically codified certainties.[1]



 The existence of individuals or groups seeking social justice and economic equality, who understand that freedom must include the right to a whole range of choices affording cultural, political, intellectual, and economic development, ipso facto will lead one to a desire for articulation as opposed to silence. This is the functional idiom of the intellectual vocation. The intellectual therefore stands in a position to make possible and further the formulation of these expectations and wishes.[2]

In the last decade of his life, having been diagnosed with leukemia, Edward Said authored a poignant memoir titled, Out of Place. He died in New York in 2003. Al Jazeera media network recently aired a documentary of this towering literary figure, titled Edward Said: Out of Place.[3] In the opening scenes of the film, the narrator intones:

 This empty chair beleonged to one of the finest minds of the 20th Century. In this study, an American Palestinian produced some of the most original modern writing and radical thinking that challenged Western perceptions of the East. He was born in Plaestine, under the British mandate, but lived his early life moving between Cairo and Jerusalem where his roots remained throughout his illustrious life. He was Edward W. Said, a literature professor who spent so much of his life feeling ‘out of place’.

 - Richard Ali, Nigerian novelist, poet and lawyer[4]:

 Mention must now be made of one of the world’s greatest writers, now late, who is remembered for his famous Cairo Trilogy—the novels Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street. I mean, of course, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, just two years after my countryman, Wole Soyinka, was the first African to win it in 1986. Mahfouz was an Arab, and an African, and we see what he thought about the many links between us for it informed the topic of his Nobel Lecture where he speaks of being a child of two civilizations—the Pharoanic and the Islamic, which are the African and the Arab really. In the lecture, he says—‘It was my fate, ladies and gentlemen, to be born in the lap of these two civilizations, and to absorb their milk, to feed on their literature and art.’ Naguib Mahfouz’s novels are an homage to old Cairo—that great cosmopolis where ideas and people from all over the world mixed and created something distinct—a bridge of civilizations. The great Arab public intellectual, Edward Sa’id, also lived in Cairo after the loss of Palestine and his last memoir, Out of Place, attests to the vibrancy of the city, its mix of people and ideas, its intersection, its bridging of many identities.

 - Mary Jane Deeb is the Chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the US Library of Congress. A short bio from 'Perfectly Provence':


Born in Alexandria, Egypt to Slovenian-Levantine parents, Mary Jane grew up speaking French at home. Her studies and travels took her from an Irish school run by nuns to Washington, D.C. Her career has included positions as the Editor of The Middle East Journal, Director of the Omani Program at The American University in Washington D.C. and Director of the Algeria Working Group at The Corporate Council on Africa.

 - New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD)[5] administrates an event dubbed ‘Arab Voices’. It is a festival of staged readings featuring work by Arab and Arab-American playwrights and their diverse stories of life in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon. According to the event organisers:

 The performances give audiences a glimpse into the life, heart, and soul of life in the Middle East. They cover various backgrounds and cultures while exploring the complex personal and global identity of being an Arab. The stories explore the characters’ adopted countries and illuminate the lives behind the headlines with candor, generosity and humor.

 Past performances include the following works:

 Oh My Sweet Land - Written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi

  • The Hour of Feeling - Written and directed by Mona Mansour
  • Foot - Written by Ismail Khalidi and directed by Ismail Khalidi and Shana Gold (About the life of Palestinian footballer Tareq Al-Quto)
  • Food and Fadwa - Written by Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader, directed by Shana Gold

 - Suzanne Stetkevych is an Arabic and Islamic Studies Faculty Member at Georgetown University (US). A specialist in Classical Arabic Poetry, she holds a BA in Art History from Wellesley College (1972) and a PhD in Classical Arabic Literature from The University of Chicago (1981). She taught Arabic literature for many years (1986-2013) at Indiana University, Bloomington, before her permanent appointment as Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University (2014--). Her publications, in English and in Arabic, are primarily concerned with the ritual, performance and performative underpinnings of the structure and function of classical Arabic poetry in its literary-historical setting. She engages ritual theory, rite of passage, gift exchange and sacrificial rituals; the socio-economic role of the qasida; the ceremonial aspects of qasida performance as a courtly negotiation of status and legitimacy; the spiritually and politically transformative role of madih nabawi (praise poems to the Prophet Mohammad). Among her books are: Abu Tammam and the Poetics of the Abbasid Age (E.J. Brill 1991); the Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual (Cornell UP 1993; pbk 2011); The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode (Indiana UP 2002); and The Mantle Odes: Praise Poems to the Prophet Muhammad in the Arabic Tradition (Indiana UP 2010).


‘Stories are so magical - before we can write, we tell stories.’ -  HRH The Duchess of Cornwall (UK)

Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan introduces her children’s book to young readers

The names of aristocrats, or sheikhs, often pop up when one undertakes a study of the arts of Middle Eastern Arab states. For example, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature takes place under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (UAE Vice-President & Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai), in partnership with Emirates Airline (a famous global carrier) and the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority. In the words of its organisers, ‘The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is the Middle East’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word, bringing people of all ages and backgrounds together with authors from across the world to promote education, debate and above all else, love of reading and writing.’

 Located in the Al Shindagha Historical Neighbourhood of Dubai, Dar Al Adaab (The House of Literature) is the regular venue of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. A quote from H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman of Emirates Literature Foundation:

 The heritage and history of the UAE is tied to literature. We have a wealth of prose and poetry and the Emirates Literature Foundation aims to cultivate an even richer literary tradition. The heart of this tradition is Al Shindagha Historical Neighbourhood, home to many veterans of the city and ideal for the Foundation’s initiatives, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and the Dubai International Writers’ Centre. The Festival has been instrumental in promoting intercultural exchange and fostering a culture of reading and writing in the country and thus, it is fitting that the Festival makes its home in this picturesque hub of cultural activity. Dar Al Adaab, the House of Literature, is the perfect inspiration for writers and thinkers in the city and we encourage you all to visit us in this beautiful Literary District.

 In 2009, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) held its first nadwa (writers’ workshop) for a group of aspiring writers from across the Arab world as part of its effort ‘to identify and encourage future writers of high quality and distinction by supporting literary initiatives.’ The stated purpose of the nadwa was to bring together gifted emerging writers in order to share ideas and develop their writing skills with the help of two established authors as mentors. It took place under the auspices His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.

 From a Publishing Perspectives online article on an inclusivity initiative for the visually impaired:

 ‘Visual literacy’ is the key term here, in what turns out to be another of the many initiatives established by the UAE’s Sheikha Bodour bint Al Qasimi. And the goal of the exercise is to help young people develop critical thinking by making them conscious of the options they have when they interpret what they see.

 Apart from patronage, there are various literary works that have been penned by royals themselves. A famous example is that of Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan who authored a children’s book titled The Sandwich Swap that was published in English and Arabic. According to the queen's website, proceeds from the sale of the book (a New York Times bestseller) will go to an organization in Jordan that is renovating 500 schools there. Oprah Winfrey interviewed Queen Rania about her literary effort.

Logo of a royal-backed arts foundation: ‘The names of aristocrats, or sheikhs, often pop up.’



 ‘The inhabitants are Moors who, although formerly rich, now live in utter poverty – their most usual occupation is that of making mats, baskets and straw hats so perfectly finished that the Portuguese bring them out to wear on feast days.’ - A Franciscan monk writing about Mombasa (East Africa) centuries ago

‘Bedouins Approaching a City’ (artwork) by Adolf Schreyer (1828 – 1899)

History scholar Dr. John Henrik Clarke in a talk titled, ‘Moors Were Africans and Arabs’:

 Out of the western Sudan would come a great general: Tariq ibn-Ziyad Al-Gabral. He would discover a weakness in Spain, fighting the Goths and the Visigoths, and the vandals fighting amongst themselves. The dissident element would do something in Spain (that) White people rarely ever do: they would sneak into Africa and tell the Africans how weak the Whites are. They said, ‘They are so weak, if you want to conquer them, easiest thing to do.’ Gabral would send a testing army of about 10 thousand, just to test their minds, and found, ‘It is easy!’ Then later he would send 60 thousand…Now, this is purely an African conquest…The Rock of Gibraltar is named after him (General Gabral) – ‘The hill or the mountain of Tariq’. ‘Gibraltar’ is a corruption of his name…Militarily, the Africans took over Spain, and militarily held Spain until 1240. But the Arabs did come in…Now let’s look at the Arabs and the Africans – a combination called ‘Moors’ in Spain…

 According to that Dr. John Henrik Clarke exposition, the so-called Moors were ‘a combination of Black Africans (Berbers[1] and West Africans) and Arabs.’ The ‘African conquest’ he described is detailed in an article on titled ‘The Black Africans Who Ruled Europe From 711 to 1789’:

 The Spanish occupation by the Moors began in 711 AD when an African army, under their leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa and invaded the Iberia peninsula.

 From the point of view of one European scholar, the conquest occured thus:

 The reins of their horses were as fire, their faces black as pitch, their eyes shone like buring candles, their horses were swift as leopards and the riders were fiercer than a wolf in sheepfold at night…The noble Goths (the German rulers of Spain) were broken in an hour, quicker than tongue can tell. Oh luckless Spain! (Edward Scobie, ‘The Moors and Portugal’s Global Expansion’)[2]

 According to

 The Moorish rulers lived in sumptuous palaces…One such Moorish palace ‘Alhambra’ in Granada is one of Spain’s architectural masterpieces. Alhambra was the seat of Muslim rulers from the 13th century to the end of 15th century. The Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 It continues to say:

 Although generations of Spanish rulers have tried to expunge this era from historical record, recent archaeology and scholarship now shed fresh light on the Moors who flourished in Al-Andalus for more than 700 years – from 711 AD until 1492 AD.



 ‘(Arabic) books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut and read in Baghdad.’ – Famous Middle Eastern saying

 From The Arab Book Market by Samar Abou-Zeid /Frankfurter Buchmesse (2013):

 With all the mentioned reservations, we can say that the Arab world, with its population of over 362 million people in 2012 (according to the World Bank data), produces between 15,000 and 18,000 new titles per year, with print runs varying between 1,000 and 3,000 copies each (but literary fiction even in English speaking countries doesn’t seem to have huge first print runs; cf. Ian Irvine p. 6). Which is the number of books produced in countries like Romania (with a population of 21.3 million in 2012), and Ukraine (population 45.6 million in 2012), and which is roughly the number of titles published yearly by Penguin Random House.

 Established in 1995, the Arab Publishers Association (ABA) is headquarterd in Cairo, Egypt, and has its ‘General Secretariat’ in Beirut, Lebanon. It is helmed by 30 board members; fifteen representing the Arab Publishers Associations and fifteen elected during the General Assembly meeting in Cairo.  It adheres to the laws and regulations of the Arab league.

 In an article titled Arab Book Trade Is Game for Growth (31 Jan 2009), Claudia Kaiser, general manager of KITAB (which organizes Abu Dhabi's annual book fair), gave some insights into the Arab book market. Some snippets from the interview:

 The Arab book market is very segmented, spread across many different countries. There's not a lot of readership here - reading isn't a favourite pastime of most people in the Arab world - there is some difficulty with distribution and different countries have their own prices, paper quality and translations. In terms of book selling, it's a very old-fashioned market…

 There are a lot of book fairs in the Arab world; every country has at least one. And these fairs are used to primarily sell books. Publishers will take a stand to sell to the public, and when the fair is over, the merchandise is moved to another book fair and the process begins again…

 To really bridge the Arab markets, you need good knowledge of the markets, with statistical data identifying what the problems are. We need to unify the market, and one means is by creating an online database in Abu Dhabi of all Arab books in print, and linking it to a good distribution system…

 One of the reasons international publishers are not active in this region is copyright infringement, an issue that is quite widespread. It's a big problem and hard to track. It ranges from a publisher copying a book and selling it, or translating and publishing it without buying the rights. Or they buy the rights, and agree to print 3,000 copies, but then print 5,000 instead.

 The Emirate of Sharjah has created ‘the world’s very first publishing free zone, offering those in the book industry the opportunity to capitalize on tax-free privileges.’

According to the website

 It is managed by Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) under the derivatives of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah. Because of being a cultural capital of the world, this free zone has become the most sought-after destination by book traders. Cultural projects such as Sharjah International Book Fair, Sharjah Public Libraries, and Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival are managed by Sharjah Book Authority in Sharjah Publishing City Free Zone. Business setup in Sharjah provides plenty of facilities for new entrepreneurs and business ventures with which they can get a head start in their business.

 Speaking at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, Ahmed Al Ameri - chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority – expounded on the much-touted ‘publishing city’:

 The Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, believes that any country’s journey towards renaissance and development can only be achieved through knowledge, which begins with nurturing one’s mind with culture and knowledge, the main source being literature.

 The Sharjah book fair is not merely a place for the sale of books and intellectual rights. It is an exhibition and a cultural and literary festival that offers an inspirational platform for industry professionals, academics, artists and the public.



According to an article titled ‘Prize-Winning Poet Ben Okri Pens An Ode To Louvre Abu Dhabi’, written James Langton and published online by The National:


           Awarding-winning Nigerian writer Ben Okri has been commissioned to write a poem    

            to mark the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi... He also narrates the work, entitled  

           Why Are You, You? for a new video released this week to promote the museum on 

           Saadiyat Island. The title is addressed to the museum, which the poet says is: ‘A world, 

           and a meeting of worlds.’ The Louvre's ‘dream’, Okri says, ‘Is to unite that which has

           been separated by history. To return the many to the one.’ He describes the museum as

           a ‘twenty first century wonder’ with: ‘Universal ideals, visions of art and truth.’


Located on an island in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Its capital city is the second most populous in the UAE (after Dubai) and economic activities include oil exports, international trade and tourism.


Okri’s tribute poem appears below:    


‘Why Are You, You?’

by Ben Okri


Why are you, you?

From this question, a new beginning.

From this question, a new destiny.

For you are a world, and a meeting of worlds.

Our dream is to unite that which has been

separated by history.

To return the many to the one.

A great story unites us all,

beyond colour and creed and gender.

The lightning flash of art

And the music of the heart.

We reflect all cultures, all ways.

We are a twenty first century wonder.

Universal ideals, visions of art and truth.

Now is the turning point of cultures and hopes.

Come with questions, leave with visions.

We are the link between the past and the future.

Here, through art, new possibilities are born. And

new answers are given wings.


Why are you, you?

Because we are mirrors of each other.

Because together we create new worlds.

Together we are more powerful than we know.

We connect, we inspire, we multiply illuminations

with the unique light of art.



 ‘In this sense, Palestinian literature is a literature of exile, a quest for identity in a hostile world, a writing of fractured lives and displaced hopes, a record of human tragedy.’

 - Fakhri Saleh, on Palestinian writing since 1948[1]

 ‘I've got a submarine / You've got gasoline / I don't wanna talk about wars between nations / Not right now' - U2, ‘Get On Your Boots’ (rock song)

Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour

Challenges facing the book trade in Arab dominions include ‘high levels of censorship’ and ‘closed markets’ in some areas.  Political issues loom large in the Middle East, even in matters cultural, and the State of Israel is often the elephant (or camel?) in the room. For example, in 2015, Al Jazeera media reported that an Israeli court had sentenced Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour to five months in prison for ‘inciting terrorism’ via a poem she posted on social media. According to the Al Jazeera report:

 Tatour was arrested during an Israeli police raid in October 2015, a few days after posting on Facebook and Youtube a video of herself reading a poem titled Resist, My People Resist Them as the soundtrack to images of Palestinians in violent confrontations with Israeli troops.

On Islamism and Arab Cultural Expression, from the website

 Arab Islamism has been something of an obsession in the West since 9/11. This project arose out of a perceived need to engage representations of Islamism by cultural and creative workers embedded in, or closely affiliated to, the Arab world who do not primarily target a Western audience. A key objective is to pluralise Islamism in the face of generalising and/or totalising representations. An initial archiving and preliminary analysis project, titled ‘Islamism in Arab Fiction and Film, 1947 to the Present’ was funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) UK under the auspices of the Religion & Society programme, and ran from Feb. 2010 to Feb. 2011.

  - Gearóid Ó Colmáin, Irish author and political analyst, in an interview with Russia Today (RT) TV:

 This (Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack) is nothing to do with religion. This is a complete farce...The French media are talking about Islam all the time.  These people (the terrorists) are not Muslims. This has absolutely nothing to do with Islam...Incidentally, there has been a novel published recently by Michel Houellebecq[1] and it has actually had a lot of media coverage in France. It's called Soumission[2] - ‘Submission’ - which is the translation for ‘Islam’. The problem with these terrorist campaigns is that they aim to make the people submit to stay in power…

 - From a GulfNews article titled ‘Book Culture Returns To-Post Daesh Mosul’ (MOSUL, Iraq; 3 Feb 2018):  

 Literary cafes, poetry readings and pavement bookstalls - Mosul’s cultural scene is back in business, months after Iraqi forces ousted Daesh from the city following three years of extremist rule.

 At the ‘Book Forum’ cafe, men and women, young and old, sit passionately debating literature, music, politics and history.

 Drinking tea, coffee and juice, some smoke nargileh water pipes while an oud player takes the stage to accompany a poet about to read from his work...

 A few months ago, opening a mixed-gender literary cafe in Iraq’s second city would have been unthinkable – punishable by flogging or death under Daesh rule.

 - A famous 15-stanza poem by the Iraqi poet Ghazay Dira al-Tai, published in al- Jumhouriya (an Iraqi newspaper) during the tenure of Ms Madeline Albright as US Secretary of State was highly critical of the US’ Iraqi stance. Below are the 4th and 5th stanzas of the poem:



your heart is black.

But love is white.

The facts are bright,

But you put off the light

In the middle of the night.



You can't climb the Iraqi


Because of its height.


All you say about Iraq

Is not right.

Iraq is not the house of


It is the source of light.


The 10th stanza serves up food for thought:



Before you go to bed,

Remember that many thousands

Of Iraqi children will become


Because of the blockade.


- Below is yet another political poem, this one by Palestinian poet/author Mahmud Darwish, (1941 – 2008):


My father once said

He who has no homeland

Has no grave on earth;

…and forbade me to leave.

 - The internationally bestselling novel Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia (the first of a trilogy) is allegedly the true story of a Saudi Arabian princess (simply referred to as ‘Sultana’ in the text) as told to her American friend, author Jean Sasson. ‘Sultana’, one of the many royals in the oil-rich desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, lives a life of privilege but is strongly opposed to what she considers the subjugation of females in her society. Her story is reminiscent of the ‘golden cage’ that the UK’s beloved Princess Diana talked of being trapped in. Princess (2001) became a New York Times bestseller has been named ‘one of the best 500 books written by women since the year 1300.’ The other instalments in the ‘Princess trilogy’ are Princess Sultana's Daughters and Princess Sultana's Circle.  A summary of the supposed non-fiction book series, from the author’s personal website:

It all began with PRINCESS, called ‘Absolutely riveting...’ by People Magazine.

 This first book in the trilogy describes the life of Princess Sultana, a princess in the royal house of Saudi Arabia where she lives in a ‘gilded cage’ with no freedom and no control over her own life.

 The saga continues with PRINCESS SULTANA'S DAUGHTERS called ‘Another page turner...’ by Publishers Weekly. DAUGHTERS continues the extraordinary story of Princess Sultana. Gripping and personal, DAUGHTERS recounts the lonely battle of a Princess who is attempting to secure freedoms for her daughters.

The third and last book completes the PRINCESS TRILOGY, called a ‘Political rallying cry....’ by Publisher's Weekly. CIRCLE paints a horrifying reality for women of the desert kingdom. As Sultana battles for a life of dignity, she saves other women from servitude.

 THE PRINCESS TRILOGY is the testimony of a woman of indomitable spirit and great courage.

 You have never read a story like the story of Sultana, and you will never forget her or her Muslim sisters.

To date, in an era often referred to as the ‘Information Age’, most literary references to Arabs or the Arab world are unflattering and show little understanding, empathy or sympathy towards that (sub)race. Below are a few random snippets from bestselling novels, to illustrate the point:

 ‘Now that the oil glut has taken all the teeth out of the Arab bloc’s threats against countries that have embassies here, they’ll be moving back. The only sensible thing. Trying to do business with the Israeli government from Tel Aviv is like making love through remote control.’ – From Ambush at Osirak by Herbert Crowder

 ‘Islam might be all right for some, he mused, but after staying in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and being told they were completely dry he wondered what kind of religion would stop a guy having a cool beer on a hot day.’ – From The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth

 ‘We were clearly and attacking force. We could be stuck in North-West Iraq, carrying the world’s supply of ammunition, explosive ordnance, food and water. You don’t have to be an archbishop to realize we were not there as members of the Red Cross.’ – From Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab

 ‘Kuwait, after all, was a fat pigeon ready for plucking. But in six weeks the pigeon had began to peck and scratch. Over a hundred soldiers and eight officers had either disappeared or been found dead…For the first time, the (Iraqi) occupation forces were experiencing fear.’ – From The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth

 The Glory, a novel by Herman Wouk, celebrates some historic Israeli armed forces’ victories - such as The Six Day War, the raid on Fatah headquarters in Lebanon, the Yom Kippur War (‘the first missile-to-sea fight in history’) and the surgically-efficient Raid on Entebbe (Uganda). ‘His treatment of history is brilliant,’ former America National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger blurbed about the tome. The San Jose Mercury News said, ‘Somerset Maugham lived and wrote great fiction well into his nineties. May Herman Wouk do the same.’

 Another notable Middle Eastern-themed tome by Herman Wouk is The Hope. The title refers to the State of Israel and the central characters are heroic Israelis, including an army officer, an arms procurer, a fighter pilot and a female soldier. The Houston Post described it as, ‘heroic storytelling…it will bring pleasure and education to any who may have wondered why Yitzak Rabin and Yassir Arafat waited so long to shake hands.’

 While there is nothing wrong with retelling historical events in fiction (In fact, this is something that is to be encouraged worldwide under Freedom of Expression/Speech/Religion), the distribution/availabity of narratives appears to be decidedly one-sided (with the possible exception of China and Russia):  from the West to the rest of the World. Wouldn’t it be great if novels from all parts of the globe would appear side by side in major stores, allowing readers to get balanced views? Like the Africans, the Arabs need to promote their own narratives, to tell their side of the story at an international – not national or sectarian – level.



 ‘I was born in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico. My grandparents on my father’s side were Lebanese. In Veracruz, there was a small community of Lebanese people. And then there were a couple of other smaller communities of people from the Arab region. But for the Mexicans, we were all Arabs – and I was raised to be proud of this.’ – Actress Salma Hayek speaking at the 2015 Khalil Gibran ‘Spirit of Humanity Awards’[1]

‘Trust in God but tie your camel.’ – Persian proverb

Flag of the Arab League

A definition of Pan-Arabism[1] from

 Pan-Arabism, general term for the modern movement for political unification among the Arab nations of the Middle East. Since the Ottoman Turks rose to power in the 14th cent., there have been stirrings among Arabs for reunification as a means of reestablishing Arab political power. At the start of World War I, France and Great Britain, seeking allies against the German-Turkish alliance, encouraged the cause of Arab nationalism under the leadership of the Hashemite Sherif Husayn ibn Ali, a descendant of Muhammad. As ruler of Mecca and a religious leader of Islam, he had great influence in the Arab world, an influence that continued with his two sons, Abdullah (Abdullah I of Jordan) and Faisal (Faisal I of Iraq). From the 1930s, hostility toward Zionist aims in Palestine was a major rallying point for Arab nationalists.

 The movement found official expression after World War II in the Arab League and in such unification attempts as the Arab Federation (1958) of Iraq and Jordan, the United Arab Republic, the Arab Union (1958), the United Arab Emirates, and the Arab Maghreb Union (see under Maghreb). The principal instrument of Pan-Arabism in the early 1960s was the Ba'ath party, which was active in most Arab states, notably Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. Gamal Abdal Nasser of Egypt, who was not a Ba'athist, expressed similar ideals of Arab unity and socialism....

 From Political and Social Thought in Africa by Helmi Sharawy:

 The emergence of pan-Arabism or Africanism was more of a political phenomenon than social-political development. We have therefore to question the popular content of these pan movements, their spontaneous consistence with the socio-political movement, and the role of the new consciousness in reforming that movement. Now that building consciousness has become an endeavour in itself, we have to ascertain the role of it’s actors, and the masses that adhere to it, in order to make sure that this new Africanism or Arabism is the same as the pan movement of before! The same holds in the case of Arabs, Arabity and pseudo-Arabism. Such a study will show that the new Africanism is more recent than pan-Africanism, and similarly, pseudo-Arabism is more recent than pan-Arabism.

 Formed in Cairo in March 1945, the League of Arab States (Arabic: جامعة الدول العربية) currently consists of 22 members. Its stated objective is to ‘draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries’.



 ‘Whoever does not love knowledge, then there is no good in him; so there should not be any acquaintance between you and him, and nor any friendship.’  – Imam Malik ibn Anas (Arab Muslim jurist, theologian, and hadith traditionist)

 ‘Literature should be more revolutionary than revolutions themselves; writers must find the means to continue to be critical of the negative elements in the socio-political reality.’ - Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian author

 From a University of Pennsylvania callout for papers on ‘contemporary Arabic literature in translation’:

 The early years of the 21st century have witnessed a new wave of Arabic literary works being translated into English and many other languages. A new generation of Arabic authors has been influenced by political events since 9/11, including the Iraq War and most recently, the Arab uprisings. Internationally, the translation of many prestigious literary works by Arab authors have introduced the contemporary Arabic literature to the global readers…

 The most recent generation of Arabic writers have depicted globalization, Arab diaspora, national and transnational politics, leading to the emergence of new genres including anthropological novels, graphic novels, and novels featuring magical realism.

 From a BBC report on the Sharjah Book Fair (United Arab Emirates):


While the Arab world has no shortage of literature, relatively little of it is translated for a wider audience. This contrasts sharply with the vast amount of English language material that has come onto the market in the region. And with the digital publishing industry giving Arabic work a wide berth, what can be done to push the work of local authors and publishers overseas?

 Award-winning Arab-English translator, Humphrey Davies:

To translate from Arabic, you have to know at least two forms of Arabic: There’s the formal language and then there are the dialects and almost any work of literature is bound to contain some amount of dialect.

Translator Humphrey Davies

A curated list of translated works on, titled ‘Arabic Literature in Translation: 18 Works Forthcoming in Winter-Spring 2018’, highlights some intriguing titles, including:

 ·         Moroccan Folktales, ed. Jilali El Koudia, translated by Jilali El Koudia and Roger Allen with a critical analysis by Hasan M. El-Shamy (Syracuse University Press)

·         Printed in Beirut, by Jabbour Douaihy, translated by Paula Haidar (Interlink Books)

 ·         Pearls on a Branch: Tales From the Arab World Told by Women, collected by Najla Jraissaty Khoury, translated by Inea Bushnaq (Archipelago)

 ·         Jerusalem Stands Alone, by Mahmoud Shukair, translated by Nicole Fares (Syracuse University Press)

 ·         In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People, by Muhammad al-Tunisi, edited and translated by Humphrey Davies (Library of Arabic Literature)

 And Then God Created the Middle East and Said ‘Let There Be Breaking News’ is a satirical book by London-based Karl reMarks (real name Karl Sharro), a Lebanese-Iraqi architect and noted satirist. The book is flush with amusing observations, such as:

 ‘People often ask me “what is the Middle East?” It’s the area between Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Turkey and the British Museum.’

‘When God put Europe near the Middle East, it was an Occident waiting to happen.’

 ‘A Muslim, a Christian and a Jew walk into a bar. According to new guidelines on religious tolerance, they enjoy a mutually respectful time.’

The poem below, Outwitted by Edwin Markham, is short but oh-so-powerful. I wish it were taught to every school child in the world:

He drew a circle that shut me out

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in.

Let us hope that one day, love (and peace-loving people) will have ‘the wit to win’ in the ‘Middle East’ and Africa. 

‘SOMEONE IN AFRICA LOVES YOU’  (poem, Arabic version)

Written by Alexander Nderitu (Kenya)

Translated into Arabic by Mohamed Ghoneem (Egypt)


"شخص في أفريقيا يحبك"


تأليف : الكسندر نديريتو

ترجمة : محمد عبدالحليم غنيم

لم تأت الفتاة الشقراء الطويلة إلى شرق أفريقيا في رحلات السفاري ،

وقالت انﻩا كانت طالبة فى أكسفورد ومتخصصة في التاريخ

و تريد أن ترى الأماكن التى عاشت في العبودية

و ﺁثار التنافس بين العرب و البرتغاليين .

كنت أول من تجسس عليﻩا وﻩى تمشي وحدﻩا على طريق البحر المتعرج

و شيئ ما عنﻩا قفز للتو و نبﻩنى لي.

سألتﻩا ما اسمﻩا و قالت: " سوزان ... مع حرف" ى " .


منذ تلك اللحظة ، لم تعد ﻩناك مسافة بيننا ؛

أخذتﻩا لرؤية أطلال جيدي وحصن يسوع

و في الليل دﻩشنا للسماء الصافية مثل المرﺁة

و ﻩللنا للنار الﺁكلة والراقصين الأبرار،

بجلودﻩم الأبنوسية تلمع في ضوء القمر مثل شفرات حلاقة .

تغيرت سوزان الى الحالة الاستوائية وضفرت لﻩا شعرﻩا

وبعد ذلك رقصنا على أنغام بوب مارلي و أغانى النائحين .

أينما كان ﻩو ، يجب على كيوبيد أن يكون سعيدة جدا -

رقصت طوال الليل مع الﺁنسة " سوزان " مع حرف" ى " .


رقدت سوزان على الشاطئ لساعات ،اسمرت البشرة ؛

علمتﻩا اللغة السواحلية ، و علمتني لغة حىى كوكني (1)العامية .

يقول الحكماء أن الوقت و المد لا ينتظران أحدا

سريعا جدا حان وقت عودة سوزان .

بدونﻩا ، لم تعد الحياة في المناطق الاستوائية كما كانت ،

أنا عصبي ﻩكذا يقول الفتيان زملاء الشاطئ واننى على وشك الجنون.

أرسلت الى سوزان رسالة عبر البريد الإلكتروني قائلا: " شخص في أفريقيا يحبك.

و أجابت قائلة ، افتقد أفريقيا و اشتقت إليك ".

التوقيع : " سوزان" مع حرف" ى " .




(1) حى فى لندن بﻩذا الاسم

ترجمة : د.محمد عبدالحليم غنيم




[1] For further information on Pan-Arabism see G. Antonius, The Arab Awakening (1946, repr. 1965); H. a Faris, ed., Arab Nationalism and the Future of the Arab World (1986); B. Pridham, ed., The Arab Gulf and the Arab World (1988).


[1] The awards are administrated by the Arab American Institute Foundation.

[1] Michel Houellebecq - A highly controversial, award-winning French writer, filmmaker, and poet. Author of  Whatever (1994),  Atomised (1998), Platform (2001), The Art of Struggle (1996) and La Carte et le Territoire (2010)

[2] Soumission (English: 'Submission') – A controversial but internationally bestselling novel by Michel Houellebecq which postulates a futuristic France ruled by a Muslim president. The Guardian’s  review of the book is available here:

[1] Ancient Libyans also known as Lebu/Libu, Meshwesh, and later often simply described as ‘Moors’.

[2] Golden Age of the Moor, ed Ivan Van Sertima, USA (Transaction Publishers, 1992), Pg. 336

[1] Edward Said, 'Humanism and Democratic Criticism'. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004

[2] Ibid.

[3] A film by Heba Bourini and Mohammad Jameel.

[5] The NYUAD Arts Center, PO Box 129188, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates


[1], Abu Dhabi, UAE, S 5 November 2017

[2] Qu’ran is often spelt or referred to as ‘Koran’ in the West.

[3] For more about Islamic culture:


[5] Part 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean


[1] Editor of  New African, a Pan-African magazine published by IC Publications in London

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