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Breaking taboos in Middle Eastern fiction Add to ...


By Boualem Sansal Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

Europa Editions, 240 pages, $15



By Salwa Al Neimi Translated from the Arabic by Carol Perkins

Europa Editions, 141 pages, $15



By Laleh Khadivi

McClelland and Stewart, 292 pages, $29.99



By Shahriar Mandanipour Translated from the Farsi by Sara Khalili.

Random House Canada, 295 pages, $29.95



By Sulaiman S. M. Y. Addonia

Random House, 320 pages, $28.95



By Randa Jarrar

Other Press, 292 pages, $27.95


A few weeks ago, Canada saw the English-language publication of Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis, which won the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008. This year's winner was Azazeel, by Egyptian scholar and novelist Youssef Ziedan. Both books deal with Egyptian history. Taher sets his story at the very end of the 19th century, shortly after his country was occupied by the British, while Ziedan turns to the 5th century AD for his tale of internecine Christian conflict in Roman Egypt.

While both books were published in Arabic to wide acclaim, such is not the case with many novels and short stories written in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and other languages of the Middle East, which end up being censored or banned outright (the Coptic Orthodox church lobbied the Egyptian government unsuccessfully to have Ziedan's book banned).

As a result, the ability to write in a Western language, or the availability of translation services, becomes imperative for many authors. With the freedom so afforded, writers from across the region are incorporating all manner of taboo subjects into their fiction, and often simultaneously revealing the rich and varied cross-cultural influences that have shaped them. An overview of six recent novels exploring Middle Eastern topics highlights this phenomenon.

"I'm trying to come to terms with the Holocaust, something that would try the patience of God himself, and behind it all is the figure of my father." So wrote "Rachel" (Rachid Helmut Schiller) in his diary a few months after discovering that his late father, a German who settled in Algeria following the Second World War, helped produce the Zyklon B gas used by the Nazis to murder millions of Jews and others. Rachel has since committed suicide - having apparently subjected himself to the sentence he feels his father deserved - and alongside his diary we have that of his brother "Malrich" (Malek Ulrich Schiller), a former Islamic extremist who now sees Islamism and Nazism as two sides of the same coin. Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal's novel The German Mujahid, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, consists of both diaries.

Inspired in part by the haunting poem with which Primo Levi introduces If This Is a Man (in Canada, Survival in Auschwitz), apparently based on a true story, and billed as "the first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust," The German Mujahid is an intriguing but deeply flawed work. While it is true the Islamism espoused by al-Qaeda features similarities with Nazism, both in its totalitarian character and in its endorsement of mass violence, Sansal's repeated comparison between the two trivializes the suffering of victims of the Holocaust. Indeed, Sansal seems to have transposed the Holocaust paradigm onto the struggles around him, so that the victims of Islamist terror and Algerian state violence remind him of Jews in concentration camps.

Sansal's story would have been more resonant had the focus been less on the Holocaust and more on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in the Arab world, subjects touched on only briefly. Arabs played a marginal role in the Shoah, whether aiding or opposing the Nazis (examples of both kinds can be found in Robert Satloff's Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands), but the suffering of the Palestinians has unfortunately led to the stigmatization of all things Jewish in many Arab quarters.

Unlike Sansal, who lives in Algiers and writes in French, Salwa Al Neimi lives in Paris and writes in Arabic. The Syrian Al Neimi has penned a short but sizzling novel about a liberated Syrian woman's steamy sex life in France. The narrator of The Proof of the Honey unabashedly proclaims: "I have a physical need for water, semen, and words. The three things I need in life. I cannot exist without them." Throughout, she details her torrid sexual encounters with vigour, though her apparent lack of faith in love resurrects a tired and simplistic dichotomy.

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