/Cairo by Nour El Demerdash/
Desert Songs of the Night: 1500 Years of Arabic Literature is a new anthology of Arabic poetry and prose, published last year by Saqi Books.
It reminded me of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East (2010, W.W. Norton & Company), which I really liked, so I decided to get my hands on Desert Songs of the Night as soon as possible.
Desert Songs of the Night presents some of the finest poetry and prose by Arab writers, from the Arab East to Andalusia, over the last fifteen hundred years. It was edited by Suheil Bushrui and James M. Malarkey.
I’ve read most of Bushrui’s work on Kahlil Gibran and was really enthusiastic to see him involved in this project. Bushrui died last year, so reading this book felt like the right way of paying respects.
The book itself was a huge task to take on – presenting fifteen centuries of a literature still largely unknown outside of the Arab world, finding a proper way to introduce each period and provide a wider context, linking it all together, choosing what’s important and what can be left out, adding the always present translation doubts…
It wasn’t easy, and that is obvious when reading the book.
The collection moves from the mystical imagery of the Qur’an and the colorful stories of The Thousand and One Nights, to the powerful verses of longing of Mahmoud Darwish and Nazik al-Mala’ika, and the resistance of the great Fadwa Tuqan.
It includes translated excerpts of works by the major authors of the period, as well as by lesser-known writers of equal significance. The editors stress that Arabic does not necessarily mean Islamic – in this anthology, there are many works by Christian and Jewish authors who formed an integral part of the culture of the Arab world.
Most of this collection covers the seventh to the 15th century, and then the 20th century – the time of revival in Arabic literature. There are many good selections – interesting, unique, important works – but the book left me craving for more structure, for the links binding it all together (literature with the body of history and time).
It would be amazing if each section included an introductory essay by the editors, it would make some of the writing much more understandable and allow the reader to connect all the dots. It would be nice to find out more about the authors and what their art meant in times and spaces they were living in.
All of that being said, this is still a really important anthology and I highly recommend reading it. The variety of the collection offers a good glimpse of the diverse and beautiful world of Arabic literature. Like the old poet Abu Tammam, quoted in the book, described it: “Blood relationship we may lack, but literature is our adopted father”.
We should let literature teach us, let it enable us to grow together, to get to know each other. Also important to mention, like Hanan Al-Shaykh puts it:
“At a time when the world is obsessing about violence and bloodletting in the Arab world, this remarkable anthology, which spans 1,500 years of Arab literary genius, is a stark reminder of the story we keep missing about the region.”
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