The Guardian review of Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World , penned by author Robin Yassin-Kassab, begins with the well-worn notion that the news media shrinks our minds, stuffing us with stereotypes about Arabs. Literature, on the other hand, expands our minds. Therefore, we must read literature about the Arab world.
I find myself disagreeing—wanting to assert first and foremost that we must read Arabic literature because it’s excellent literature—but never mind.
The review, which roves between the different short stories collected in Beirut39, is a bit chaotic. But Yassin-Kassab’s national organization of the collection (which I haven’t yet received) is interesting: “The Egyptian stories are more urban, more densely social.” And: “Stories from Syria and Lebanon are sexier, often concerned with subverting romantic stereotypes.”
Of course, no review of Beirut39 would be complete without revisiting the controversy that surrounded the selection of the 39 “best” up-and-coming writers of the Arab world under 39. Yassin-Kassab picks Hassan Blasim as his favorite writer under 40, calling him “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive.”
Blasim was not selected as one of the Beirut39; Yassin-Kassab doesn’t mention whether Blasim entered the competition.
Although I respect Blasim’s work a great deal—and reviewed Madman of Freedom Square enthusiastically in this summer’s Quarterly Conversation—I find the idea that he’s the best living Arab writer a bit overstretched. Better than a mature Elias Khoury, Sonallah Ibrahim?
In any case, on the controversies:
It would certainly be a mistake to believe that Beirut 39 is necessarily representative of the Arabs’ best. Controversy over the selection process led Alaa al Aswany, author of the wonderful novel The Yacoubian Building, to resign from chairmanship of the judging panel.
If you like literary controversy (who doesn’t?), you can read more about it on Al Masry Al Youm. Al Aswany claims the great author Hoda Barakat also resigned from the jury for similar reasons, although I saw no such statement from Barakat. In any case, you can also order the Beirut39 collection from Amazon, or better yet pick it up in your local independent bookstore.