Discover five books from Arabic literature in numbers
by the Dewey Decimal, by best-seller rank or its review score, or by the year a book was first published. Numbers give them internal structure as well. Our beloved storyteller Sheherazade counted each of the nights she spent spinning tales for King Shahrayar, where one story nested inside the next until she reached the fabled 1,001 (Alf Laylah Wa Laylah). Here are five more English translated books from Arabic literature to discover, all of which are organized by numbers.
A contender for the “longest Arabic novel,” Ahmed Fagih’s Maps of the Soul appeared in 12 volumes. The action starts in the 1930s, with a man named Othman al-Sheikh leaving his small town in the Libyan Sahara and moving to Tripoli, which was then under the rule of Fascist Italy. Only the first three volumes are available in English, but they can stand alone, shaping a picture of mid-twentieth-century Libya.
Al Khansa (575-645 CE) is our #1, and Loss Sings brings us the works of this Najdi poet by pairing her elegiac, grief-struck poems with Arabist James Montgomery’s own experience of death. Al Khansa was called “the finest poet among the jinn and the humans” (by al-Dhubyani) and “the greatest poet among those with breasts” (by al-Nabigha). An early convert to Islam, she was one of the firs great Muslim poets.
Basran poet-scholar al-Hariri (1054-1122) was a great composer of maqamat, and these works are often labelled “untranslatable.” Michael Cooperson has nonetheless brought the 50 playful tales of the Maqamat al-Hariri into 50 different English styles, from that of Sinclair Lewis to Virginia Woolf to English hymnists. Each translational method offers a fresh way of looking at the adventures of the tales’ roguish Abu Zayd.
Ahmed Khaled Towfik— Egypt’s “pop culture godfather”— wrote more than 200 novels in a variety of genres before his death in 2014. He set a new standard in Arabic genre work from science fiction to Young Adult to horror, and his Paranormal books are currently being made into a Netflix series. His compelling dystopic Utopia is set in Egypt in the year 2023, in a dystopic future where the country is starkly divided along class lines.
The 1,001 was not the only collection of fastpaced Arabic stories making the rounds of homes and libraries in the medieval period. There was also the 101, recently translated to English for the first time. If you want an English edition of the 1,001 Nights, wait for Yasmine Seale’s new translation and follow her “Nights Bot” on Twitter at @the_small_hours. Until then, enjoy the tales in the 101.
M. Lynx Qualey is the editor-in-chief of the ArabLit cooperative and founder of ArabLit.org a website that brings together translators, authors, publishers, critics, academics and readers around discussions of Arabic literature in translation.