Syrian Writers

Hanna Mina receiving the Mohamed Zafzaf Prize for Arabic Literature

Syria’s writers are not particularly well known to non-Arab audiences—with a few exceptions, such as Adonis and Salwa al-Neimi—but many are celebrated in the Arabic-reading multiverse. The list that follows highlights only a few, with an emphasis on those available in English translation.

Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) One of the most beloved of modern Arabic poets. A number of his poems have been set to music and sung by the likes of Abdel Halim Hafez, Fairuz, and Umm Kulthum. Several collections of his work have appeared in English (trans. Bassam Frangieh and Clementina Brown, Nayef al-Kalali) and individual poems appear in numerous places online. Qabbani also has an official website.

Hanna Mina (b. 1924-ish) Mina’s The Sail and the Storm is No. 14 on the “best 105 Arabic books list,” as voted by the Arab Writers Union. It is not available in English, so far as I know. But Mina’s Sun on a Cloudy Day was translated by Bassam K. Frangieh. And Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family was translated by Olive E. Kenny and Lorne Kenny and published by Interlink in 2004.

Adonis (b. 1930) Perpetual Nobel Prize shortlister (and controversial essayist) Adonis recently had a collection of his poetry assembled, translated, and edited by Khaled Mattawa, and it was deservedly shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. If you’re going to read Adonis in English, that’s the place to start.

Zakaria Tamer (b. 1931) Tamer is particularly gifted with the Arabic short story and is also one of the pioneer authors of Arabic children’s books. Some of Tamer’s stories were translated by Ibrahim Muhawi and collected in Breaking Knees, published by Garnet in 2008.

Halim Barakat (b. 1933) Barakat is a novelist and short story writer; his The Crane (2008) was co-translated by Roger Allen and Bassem Frangieh, and published by AUC Press. Barakat has a website, where he lists, among other things, all his translations.

Walid Ikhlassi (b. 1935) Ikhlassi’s House of Pleasure was voted one of the “top 105.” It’s not available in English, but University of Texas Press has published Iklhassi’s What Ever Happened to Antara . Also, Iklhassi’s play “The Path” is in the collection Modern Arabic Drama, edited by Salma Khadra Jayysusi and Roger Allen. And courtesy of @sate3, you can see a photo of Ikhlassi speaking live on Syrian TV.

Haidar Haidar (b. 1936) Haidar is by equal turns celebrated and censored (his Banquet of Seaweed got Ibrahim Aslan, for instance, into a good deal of hot water), although remains little translated. Bits and bobs of his work have been translated into English, but none of his novels, not even his The Desolate Time (which was one of the “top 105″) nor his controversial Banquet of Seaweed.

Sa’dallah Wannus (1941-1997) The celebrated Syrian playwright’s The King Is the King (Al-Malik huwa ‘l-Malik) is available free online.

Ghada Samman (b. 1942) Samman’s Beirut Nightmares made the top 105; it was re-issued last fall by Quartet. Samman’s Night of the First Billion is also available from AUCP, trans. Nancy Roberts.

Nabil Suleiman (b. 1945) His The Cycles of the East made the “Top 105″ list; he’s been published in Banipal in English translation, although not—so far as I know—elsewhere.

Rafik Schami (b. 1946) Although Syrian-born, the celebrated Schami writes in German. A number of his works have been translated into English. I have reviewed his The Dark Side of Love, trans. Anthea Bell.

Fawwaz Haddad (b. 1947) Haddad has been on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) longlist (2011) and shortlist (2008). The Unfaithful Translator, which was on the 2008 shortlist, is officially banned in Syria, although according to Nadia Muhanna in Syria Today, it is “relatively easy to come by.” Muhanna writes, “Unfazed by the controversy, Haddad says his favourite literary themes remain corruption and censorship, as well as political and military coups.” Both Haddad and IPAF-shortlisted Khaled Khalifa have signed this petition in solidarity with the Syrian people’s “dreams of justice, equality and freedom.”

Salim Barakat (b. 1951) Barakat is both a novelist and a poet, whose style has been called similar to magical realism or “neoclassicist.”

Khalil Sweilah (b. 1959) Sweilah was the unexpected winner of the 2009 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for his novel The Scribe of Love. Judge Fakhri Saleh said, of the novel, “Khalil Sweileh excels in hybridizing his narrative through multiple referencing, thereby rendering his novel, which is a satire on love as well as a hilarious parody of its tales, a kind of clever game through which he exposes the subject of love, the novel as a narrative genre, and the act of writing itself.” The novel has not yet come out in translation, but it will.

Maram al-Massri (b. 1962) Al-Massri’s A Red Cherry on a White Tiled Floor was translated by Khaled Mattawa. Two poems from that work, are available on Narrative magazine—here and here—and others are available on Facebook.

Khaled Khalifa (b. 1964) Khalifa’s IPAF-shortlistedIn Praise of Hatred is also banned in Syria. English rights have been sold, although the translation has not yet appeared.

Lukman Derky (b. 1966) Derky is a fixture of the Damascus publishing and poetry scene.

A few younger writers—from Samar Yazbek to Tal al-Mallouhiwere briefly profiled yesterday.

Anthologies:

Modern Syrian Short Stories by Michel Azrak; M. J. L. Young

This list is not meant to be exhaustive. But please post your own suggestions below.

2 replies

  1. This was a very good series, focusing on writers from individual countries. How about one for Lebanese writers and one for Jordan/Palestine? Oh, and the Maghreb countries too! :-)

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