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Literary Review

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Desert Spring


Devoted to Yemeni, Tunisian and Libyan literature, Banipal presents the hopes and aspirations of the Arabic-speaking peoples in modern times.

Spring is just over in the great patch of desert that stretches westward from Oman in the Persian Gulf region to Morocco and beyond, reaching to the Atlantic coast of Africa. Figuratively too, a season of the flowering of the liberal democratic aspirations of the Arabs and North Africans in this Arabic-speaking swathe of land, has come about since end-2010. Protest movements against the ruling class that began in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt, saw the long-reigning despotic rulers of both countries depart. The blood-less nature of the protests earned it the nickname “Jasmine Revolution”. However, the bloodshed that has characterised the Libyan protests that began on February 15, 2011, during the initial week of which regime troops massacred unarmed protesters who had then to take to arms, led me to name it the “Red Hibiscus Revolution” in a recent essay. The pro-democracy protests that began in Yemen almost along with the Tunisian one, form a close second behind Libya in terms of bloodshed, followed by the Bahrainian and the Syrian ones in which several hundreds have been killed by security forces. Countries like Oman, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria and others have been trying to stave off protests by actually bringing in, or promising, sweeping pro-democracy changes. All these together are known now as “Arab Spring.”

How did this come about? The answer is, the common people were slowly becoming aware of their individual “selfhood” as modernity percolated down to their basic belief systems over the latter part of 20th century, topped off by the advent of the mobile phone and the internet here in the last decade, and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter etc. However, Arabic literature that emerged from here has obviously played a lead, pioneering role much earlier on, holding a mirror to their “selves”, pushing them into a self-reflexive mood.

Special issues

Here, an interesting coincidence catches our attention. Almost presaging the revolutions in Yemen, Tunisia and Libya were the special issues of the magazine of modern Arabic literature in English translation, Banipal (named after the great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, a great patron of the arts, who set up the first systematic, organised library in Nineveh) devoted to Yemeni, Tunisian and Libyan literature that came out over the last few months. Founded in 1998 in London by Margaret Obank, (who remained Publisher/Editor up to Issue No. 37, when Deputy Editor Samuel Shimon has been elevated as Editor) this magazine presents the hopes and aspirations of the Arabic-speaking peoples in modern times. Of course, the coincidence is confined merely to the realm of chance here as the literature in English translation published in these issues had appeared in Arabic original much early on, except in the case of a few novels in progress, short-stories and poems. Maybe it was a portent.

A similarity also strikes the eye: this magazine is in the format of Indian Literature — the same size, 200 plus pages in single column, and almost with the same layout!

Issue No.36 dealing with Yemeni literature, carries about 50 poems, seven short stories and excerpts from six novels. Modern Tunisian Literature is the focus of Issue No.39. Along with special features like poems from the celebrated Syrian poet Adonis's “ Printer of the Planet's Books” excerpted from his forthcoming book of poems, Adonis: Selected Poems, there are works of 12 poets, excerpts from five novels and short stories by six authors. A number of surveys and critical articles also adorn this issue. There are tributes to Tahe Wattar (1936-2010), and Farouk Abdel-Kader (1938-2010). Issue No.40 is focused on Libyan Fiction. There are eight novelists and ten short-story writers featured. The short story is acknowledged to be the dominant genre in Libyan literature. This issue also contains essays on the Libyan novel, short story and profiles on writers like Ahmed Fagih by Susannah Tarbush, Ali Mustafa al-Musrati by Margaret Obank and one on translating Ibrahim Al-Koni, the celebrated Libyan novelist, by Elliott Colla. More than 30 translators contributed to these issues.

Women writers

Another interesting aspect about these three issues is that, of the 103 writers presented, 26 are women, a percentage perhaps much higher than that found represented in any one literary publication or programme in India!

A great many of these writers have either been directly or indirectly involved in the freedom movements in their respective countries; many have been jailed, exiled or gone on self-exile, (especially the Libyans). Hence it is only natural that their works exude the spirit of freedom, and of rebellion against the oppressor and inspire the reader to dream of an egalitarian society. Samples are found in Yahya Taher Abdulla's stories and excerpts from Habib Abdulrab Sarori's novel in the Yemeni literature special, and in the Tunisian one, in the poems by Amina Said and Ines Abbasi (whom I had met in an international writers' conference in Pohang, South Korea in May-June 2008). In the Libyan Literature special, apart from several short stories, excerpts from novels like Hisham Matar's autobiographical novel Anatomy of a Disappearance, published in 2011, reveal the horrible crimes the Libyan regime commits against its own citizens like abductions, forced disappearances and mass murders of political activists in the prisons. This famous work which describes the state of fear Libyans live in under the Gaddafi regime, is currently available in India.

Dr. A.J. Thomas, formerly Editor, Indian Literature of Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, is a poet, fiction writer, translator and literary editor. He can be contacted at Website:

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