We do not see the hut when the lights first come up, and then we see it. Its inhabitants are not interested in us, perhaps because their problems do not concern us. These women spend their days waiting for a man, and they know that one day he will come. Lights shine upstage from the front of the stage, illuminating a door in the back wall. Neither fully open nor quite shut, it swings gently on its hinges, creaking intermittently, as though the fitful wind outside the hut is knocking to make its presence known within. Then the light sweeps downstage and to the right: we see a flight of stairs rising to the princess’s room, mirrored by a flight on the left leading down to their larder. Centre stage is an old-fashioned, rectangular dining table—or rather, it is simply old: it has no identifiable fashion. Around this table there are four chairs, the back of one slightly higher than the rest. The chairs are not neatly arranged but are scattered about as though hastily vacated. Between them wend the backs of two women dressed in black, cleaning the shabby furnishings and complaining.
First song of autumn
Joy of my days, come
watch me run
I’ve bought white shoes
and see-through eagle’s wings
I am the clarinet’s mouth
and you the ransomed player
Kneel and guzzle me, set
the sea’s taste in my throat
and make my breast a wave
upon whose mane the sun
nes t ree
in turn I bore straw
much straw and went
in search of a tree to make
my nest but a tree I did not find
and with the straw I’d gleaned I packed
my chest I picked a field and I stood upright there
Matthew Chovanec reviews Yasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety, for which Robin Moger won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in 2017
Arabic novels are so frequently described as Kafkaesque or Orwellian that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the two authors were themselves Arab. It is a small wonder that noone has yet tried to uncover their secret Arab origins by etymologizing their names (قفقاء and الروال) in the way that the Turks have for Shakespeare. It is true that both of their names have become literary shorthand for a type of writing dealing with dystopia, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. It is also true that Arab societies have continued unabated to live through dystopias, oppressive bureaucracies, and the horrors of totalitarian society. But the label flattens out what is particular and new about so much excellent Arabic writing, and suggests that everything you need to know about the daily experience of living in a dysfunctional and cruel system can be captured by the term “nightmarish”.
You’re not there
but details linger. Who knows how
they trickle in and scurry out,
how they hum like a knot
of sandgrouse caught
in the snare of distance,
to silence, that stranger
not to be trusted,
The only window, in disrepair
Don’t come tonight, sad bat
Packing your head between my brows.
We have denied one another at times
In despair and in defeat. In vain
Face bumping at face,
The heart at the heart.
There are things All the Battles by Maan Abu Taleb is not. It is not a cliched story based on a Rocky film. It is not an Arab version of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club in which the protagonist discovers fighting in order to feel “alive”. Whilst Abu Taleb’s first novel is ostensibly about boxing, it is really a meditation on masculinity in the Arab world today.
Had All The Battles been about boxing, it would have been an implausible story. No practitioner of the sweet science, however good, can turn professional in a year; but this is what the novel’s protagonist, Said does. An advertising executive by chance, this bored individual discovers boxing at the venerable age of twenty-eight. After a few fights he packs in his job – only to be mullered by a seasoned British boxer in Dubai.