The book world has been abuzz with the Arabic Booker. High-quality fiction is connecting with political conflict and the convulsions in the Middle East have revealed a literary culture often closed to the West.
Boyd Tonkin describes how the ceremony itself was infected by the surrounding political drama:
‘Yet even here, under the obligatory tank-sized chandeliers of a hotel ballroom and with local dignitaries aplenty in the audience, the unsettling new realities could hardly be left outside. Whenever a speaker mentioned the Arab democratic spring, a gunshot crackle of applause rippled through the hall.’
Formal innovation has played its part too, with the novel finally coming to prominence in the Arab world. As Michael Binyon puts it in the Times (£):
‘Arabic literature has undergone an extraordinary resurgence in recent years. There is an old saying that “poetry is the register of the Arabs”. Today it is the novel. Rarely have so many writers engaged so passionately with the issues now roiling Arab society: political freedom, sexual revolution, women’s rights, religion, fundamentalism and the repressive effects of tradition, family and prejudice.’
But Orwell’s worry that literature will be snuffed out by some form totalitarianism (here a religious totalitarianism) remains all too true. Binyon writes:
‘Previous state censorship has been replaced with something more insidious: the threat from religious extremists, who will not allow any modern writer to question the fundamentals of Islam’.
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