When she was in her early twenties, Egyptian writer Ghada Abdel Aal began the complicated process of seeking a spouse. It involved meetings in parental living rooms over awkward glasses of tea. On one such occasion her potential groom spent his time screaming at a soccer game on tv. Another turned out to have a couple of wives already, and a would-be husband who was also a policeman started investigating her background for criminality or other unwanted elements. She turned to blogging about these meetings and discovered that other Egyptian women had similar experiences. Since then, her blog has become a huge success around the Arab world; her book I Want to Get Married has been published in several languages (it came out last year in English) and has been adapted for television. Ghada, a religious Muslim who covers her hair and who is quite hilariously funny in person and in her writing, has had the kind of cultural impact that makes her countrymen leap around with excitement when they meet her (as I can attest from having seen her at a book festival in an Arab country not long ago.) Here’s what she told me about how she came to write her book and its impact on her life:
When Kamal Abdel-Malek was a young student, he chose to study outside the Arab world, eventually becoming a professor at Brown and Princeton Universities in the US. It was the first step in the physical and intellectual journeys of this intriguing Egyptian writer. Born in Alexandria and now a teacher of Arabic literature at the American University in Dubai, Abdel-Malek’s latest publication (available in English) is perhaps his most important, because it answers many of the questions Westerners asked themselves about the Arab world since the 9/11 attacks almost a decade ago. Abdel-Malek’s technique is an unusual and compelling one, because instead of seeking to explain how Arabs are, in America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature, 1668 to 9/11 and Beyond he shows how we look to them. It’s a reversal of what the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said noted in Westerners writing about the Middle East: When you read the perceptions of Arab writers about Western society, it shows as much about the Arab writer as it does about the country he’s observing. Kamal took time to explain more about this vitally important book and to talk about his life as a writer. Demonstrating his originality as a thinker, he’s also the first writer I’ve interviewed on this blog to give due credit to Dan Brown.
If you’ve been wondering why the people of Tunisia and Egypt have risen up against their dictators and why it caught Washington with pants down, it’s because you didn’t read THE FOURTH ASSASSIN, the latest of my Palestinian crime novels.
In THE FOURTH ASSASSIN, which was published exactly a year ago, my Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef travels to New York for a conference at the UN. While there, he uncovers an assassination plot. But he also has to address the conference about the life of ordinary Palestinians —— and the people of other Arab countries.
Cairo is a place we all know to some degree, even if only the image of the pyramids and the Sphinx. A short visit there is enough to make you wonder about how much of this teeming metropolis you really don’t know. No writer gets so deep as Sanna Negus under the skin of this ancient city, which remains key to the future of the benighted Middle East. Sanna’s the Middle East correspondent for Finnish radio and television. Her new book “Hold onto Your Veil, Fatima! And Other Snapshots of Life in Contemporary Egypt” is a stunning portrayal of Egypt that’s both homage and expose. Pulitzer winner Lawrence Wright calls her “one of the most informed and well-connected reporters in the region.” She’s also one of the best writers. Here she talks about the decade she spent in Cairo (before moving to Jerusalem) and how she wrote her book.
JERUSALEM — Time was anyone with an interest in the Middle East could be guaranteed a couple of books a year would be brought out by U.S. journalists based in the region. Now many of those correspondents are history, with news bureaus closing and those that remain cutting back. The new books written by Americans tend to be by think-tank types or others whose agenda is hard to figure out.
But you know that already. It’s one reason you’re reading GlobalPost, which was founded partially to replace the disappearing corps of U.S. foreign correspondents. [That’s where I first posted this.]
So GlobalPost has solved your journalism problem. But, still, what’re you going to do about the books? With a book written by a foreign correspondent you couldn’t always be sure of a good read —I’ve ploughed through some stinky “notebook dumps” in my time by reporters who padded pages with meaningless tales of their Palestinian and Israeli “friends” — but you at least knew that it was by a responsible journalist answerable to editors and readers even for his extracurricular writings. Not so with think-tank academics whose financing and agenda can make for deeply skewed accounts.
The Guardian asked me to contribute to their regular feature in which authors pick their top 10 novels on a particular subject. Read my top 10 novels set in the Arab world here. Most of the writers I picked are Arab, though there are a couple of Westerners and Tariq Ali is a Pakistani. This, by the way, is what I wrote in introducing the list:
“The Arab literary world and Western publishing don’t cross over much. The literature of the Arab world is largely unknown in the west, and even westerners who write about Arabs are sometimes seen as fringe, cult writers. That comes at a cost to the west, because literature could be such an important bridge between two cultures so much at odds. What we see of the Arab world comes from news reports of war and other madness. Literature would be a much more profound contact.
“I live in Jerusalem and write fiction about the Palestinians because it’s a better way to understand the reality of life in Palestine than journalism and non-fiction. The books in this list, in their different ways, unveil elements of life across the Arab world that you won’t see in the newspaper or on TV.”