Banipal magazine’s revealing list of 100 best Arabic novels

“Season of Migration to the North” (Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal) by Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih ranked first with 61 nominations.
Sunday 25/11/2018
A copy of “Season of Migration to the North” by Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. (Twitter)
Cult novel. A copy of “Season of Migration to the North” by Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. (Twitter)

LONDON - In recent years the writing of Arab novels has increased significantly, coupled with the establishment of many awards celebrating Arabic literature – the novel in particular.

The London-based Banipal, a literary magazine dedicated to the promotion of contemporary Arab literature through translations in English, recently published a list of the best 100 Arabic novels selected by 100 authors, critics, academics, intellectuals and translators.

The books have been ranked according to the number of nominations received for each title, with “Season of Migration to the North” (Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal) by Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih ranking first with 61 nominations. Salih’s other works that made it to the list include “The Wedding of Zein,” “Daw al-Bayt” (Bandarshah I) and “Doumat wad Hamid.”

Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy” (al-Thulathiyya) came second with 41 nominations. Twelve other novels by Mahfouz also figured on the list, including “Children of the Alley,” which ranked fifth, “The Harafish,” “The Thief and the Dogs,” “Midaq Alley,” “Miramar” and “Adrift on the Nile.”

Third on the list is “For Bread Alone” (Al-Khubz al-Hafi) by Moroccan Mohamed Choukri, which received 37 nominations, while “The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist,” by Israeli Arab writer Emile Habiby ranked fourth, receiving 36 nominations.

Also among the top ten on the list are “Zayni Barakat” by Egypt’s Gamal al-Ghitani, which ranked sixth with 34 nominations; “Cities of Salt” by Saudi novelist Abdelrahman Munif, ranking seventh with 33 nominations;  “In Search of Walid Masoud” (Al-Bahth an Walid Masoud) by Palestinian author Jabra Ibrahim Jabra in eighth place;  “Rama and the Dragon” (Rama wal-Tinnin) by Egypt’s Edwar al-Kharrat at ninth; and “Gate of the Sun” (Bab al-Shams) by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury in tenth place.

In 2001, the Arab Writers’ Union (AWU) released a list of the “top 105″ Arabic novels of the 20th century. Banipal’s new list shares 44 titles with the AWU’s list, but includes 35 novels that did not make it to that list and 21 titles published after 2001, representing a new generation of novelists.

The latter include “Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Iraqi Ahmed Saadawi, ranked 15; “Papa Sartre” by Iraqi novelist Ali Bader, ranked 22; “In Praise of Hatred” by award winning Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa, ranked 44; and “The Bamboo Stalk” by Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi, ranked 47.

Published in 1966, “Season of Migration to the North” is described as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century and depicts the lasting effects of colonialism on contemporary Sudanese society. Set in 1960s Sudan, events are narrated by an unnamed man who, after studying for some time in England, returns to his native village in rural Sudan with hopes of using his Western education to some benefit. However, the narrator is intrigued by an enigmatic new face in the village, Mustafa Sa’eed, becoming aware, as the latter’s alarming past unfolds, that their experiences are more connected than he could have imagined.

Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy” (1956-57) is one of the most celebrated works of his career. It comprises “Palace Walk”; “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street,” all of which are real street names in Cairo – the setting for the three novels. Through the lens of one family, that of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a well-off merchant in Cairo, the trilogy traces the turbulent period in Egypt’s history spanning from 1919, the year of the revolution against the British colonial powers, to 1944 and the close of the second world war.

In “For Bread Alone,” published in Arabic in 1982, Choukri presents an astonishing and candid account of his early life in Morocco. Beginning from the famine, which drove his family from their home in the Rif to Tangier, the author describes the struggle to survive amid a society rife with danger and poverty, not to mention the violent rages of his vicious father. Unable to find steady work, he plunges into the simultaneously thrilling and horrifying depths of a world of sex, crime and drugs, until a chance encounter in prison changes the course of his life.

In “The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist” (1974), Habiby powerfully depicts the political reality of the post-1948 Palestinian experience in this modern classic. Saeed, a gullible and comic character, is a Palestinian who becomes an Israeli citizen and informer, narrating his experience of the suffering and hardships encountered by Arabs in Israel through a series of letters to an Israeli newspaper.

“Children of the Alley” (1959) was originally published as a newspaper serial. It is considered as one of the most controversial of Mahfouz’s works. It weaves together the stories of the inhabitants of an imaginary 19th-century alley in Cairo, ruled over by the tyrannical Gebelawi. The reinvention of Abrahamic religious figures in the protagonists of the novel, such as Moses and Prophet Mohammad, has earned it both criticism and praise as a striking metaphor for the interlinked histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.