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What Does the Arab World Read?

This question would be better asked in Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut or Damascus or in any of the traditional capitols of Arab culture.. Or in Dubai, the new capitol of Arab culture.. the capital that initiated an international film festival costing millions of dollars every year, although Dubai itself has not produced even one long cinematic work.. It also initiated substantial awards for the Arab novel comparable to the Nobel Prize in their financial sizes .. although again, Dubai itself has not yet produced any serious literary works, with the exception of a few attempts of beginning novelists.

The very question about what the Arab world reads triggers deep sadness for Arab writers who belong to a world that does not read -- although the first word in the Qur’an is Iqra’ – literally the command to read..

Sadly, the books that are most read in the Arab world are the religious books produced by a group of people who interpret Islam according to their wishes and who reproduce patterns of thinking that are outdated and threaten the projects of enlightened thinking in Arab culture .. Such books darken the mind of the culture..

And such books assume an important place in the lives of many desperate people in the Arab world.. And desperation is widespread in the Arab world..
This desperation, if it continues, can lead to disaster.

What’s paradoxically promising in this dark picture is that the Arab novel is moving forward in an astonishing manner. It even competes with poetry in Arab culture, and poetry is the most prominent phenomenon in traditional Arab culture that many believed for so long nothing could compete with it..

The new Arab novelists, during the past 20 years, were able to open up all sorts of issues, from dictatorship politics, to the fantasies of the proponents of a restrictive Islam..

The creators of new Arab culture have sacrificed so much during the past 25 years.. in their attempts to innovate and move the culture forward.. The traditional powers have assassinated a number of forward thinking writers such as Hussain Merrowah, author of the book titled “Materialistic Tendencies in Islam”, and the thinker Mahdi Amel.. in addition to the thinkers and writers who were assassinated by Israeli forces.. They include Palestinian novelists Ghassan Kanafani and Majed Abu Shararah, and the cartoonist Naji Al-Ali..

There are many antagonistic forces facing Arab culture, both internally and externally.

Many journalists are killed daily in Lebnon, Palestine, and Iraq.. in addition to the many accusations and even legal trials of Arab thinkers with the complaints that they are breaking both political as well as social limits..

However, Arab writers, thinkers and artists possess hope the size of our desperation.. The Arab novel is now distributed in large unprecedented numbers..

The latest novel by Ala Uswanee sold about ¼ million copies in less than one year.. Such success creates hope to no limits for other writers.. Now, many Arab novelists are competing to win the first Arab Novel Booker’s Prize initiated in the Arab world.. This is only a reflection of where the art of writing is in the Arab world..

Although Arab culture in some ways, is in its worst conditions at this time, simultaneously, it is in its most powerful conditions of defending its secular aspirations and focus on humanity rather than on regionalism.. I believe that the coming years will witness the rise of the Arab novel throughout the world..

Do not be surprises if the Arab novelists became the leaders in this art during the 21st century.

 

**Translated by Ibtisam Barakat