Novelists debate racism in Arab literature

The forum included writers such as Tarek al-Tayeb from Sudan, Haji Jaber from Eritrea, Ali Mokri from Yemen, Salwa Bakr from Egypt and others.
Sunday 07/04/2019
Art for change. Lebanese novelist Elias Khouri speaks during Tunisia’s Forum of the Arab Novel.       (Twitter)
Art for change. Lebanese novelist Elias Khouri speaks during Tunisia’s Forum of the Arab Novel. (Twitter)

TUNIS - When Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih released his seminal work, “Season of Migration to the North,” in 1966, a storm of controversy followed. The novel was one of the first pieces of literature to depict the life of dark-skinned Arabs.

More than 50 years later, Tunisia’s Forum of the Arab Novel made its theme the issue of dark-skinned people in the Arab novel.

The House of Novel hosted the second Arab Novel forum in early March. It featured panels and meetings with writers from the Arab world addressing questions pertaining to racism in Arab novels.

The forum included writers such as Tarek al-Tayeb from Sudan, Haji Jaber from Eritrea, Ali Mokri from Yemen, Salwa Bakr from Egypt and others. Lebanese novelist Elias Khouri was the guest of honour of the forum.

“Today we need to launch a new debate and ask different questions on the subject of dark skin and, more specifically, we need to ask (if) slavery has truly ended,” said Kamel Riahi, director of the House of Novel. “Perhaps slavery in its old form ended but it’s come back today in a different form.”

Riahi said the choice of the theme of this year’s forum was meant to express commitment to discussing issues that are often silenced in the Arab world.

Several novelists discussed the representation of dark-skinned Arabs in their novels as well as their own experiences as dark-skinned writers in the Arab world.

“The Forum of the Arab Novel has invaded all aspects of literature today but it is also a cultural and social tool to change minds and mentalities,” said Iraqi novelist Ali Bader. “The House of Novel in Tunisia is one of the aspects of influence and I hope there will be more of these institutions.”

Tunisian writer and winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction Chokri Mabkhout discussed the issues of racism in Arab literature, emphasising the need to talk about racism as it exists in the Arab world.

“Discussing issues of dark-skinned Arabs has increased lately in Arab literature,” Mabkhout said. “This can be attributed to the rise of a new generation of black writers following the success of Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih.”

“We’ve also seen a rise in the collective awareness regarding racism and also the role of the novel in giving a voice to the voiceless,” he added. “We should never keep quiet and we should never overlook the mission of literature, which is to unveil the reality of our societies.”

Tayeb spoke of racism in his novel and stressed the importance of exploring the history of slavery in the Arab world.

“People with dark skin are still treated as second-class citizens in the Arab world,” Tayeb explained. “Their representation in movies and in books is often pejorative and shows the depth of the racist attitude within Arab societies.”

Khouri spoke about issues facing black communities across the country. He commended the forum for playing an important role in changing mentalities through art and fiction.

“This forum is unique because it tackles an issue that is often silenced, the issue of slavery and the issues of the dark-skinned communities,” Khouri said. “If the ‘Arab spring’ has produced anything, it has to be the role of culture in breaking taboos and tackling the real issues of Arab societies.”

Delivering a lecture on “Writing the Novel Genre in the Age of Arab Pain,” Khouri warned against slavery that he says still exists.

“When we speak of slavery in the Arab world, we should not forget the fact that we live today [as] a slave to oppression,” Khouri said. “Slavery is not just a part of our past, which is often silenced and overlooked. It’s still a present-day reality.”

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