Matthew Chovanec: On Its Own Fucked-up Terrain

Matthew Chovanec reviews Yasser Abdel Hafez’s The Book of Safety, for which Robin Moger won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize in 2017

Rohan Daniel Eason (copyright One Peace Books), from a children’s illustrated Kafka. Source: wired.com

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”.

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Ali Almajnooni: Balls in Armpits

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Olivia Arthur, from “Jeddah Diary”: Saudi girls playing with sparklers in the night during Ramadan, 2010. Source: magnumphotos.com

As I was preparing to pay for my purchase at a clothes store, the salesman touched my hand—suggestively. He did not apologize, nor did he shrink in embarrassment. Instead, he looked me in the eye, and I discovered that his eyes were fluttering slightly.

As a matter of fact, I was by no means shocked at the man’s touch. I have gradually grown accustomed to this kind of behavior. First are the unnecessary, sugary words, the persistently stalking steps throughout the shop, and then the obnoxious, abhorrent touches. Although it had happened many times before, yesterday I was baffled as to what to do. Maybe it was because my little brother, Abdullah, was really close too me when this occurred. He was leaning against the white wooden cashier stand, idly tracing with his fingertips the floral lace of my drapey overcoat coming out of the front of my unbuttoned abaya. He was standing on my left, and I felt the tickle of his fingertips in the midst of my bafflement.

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