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Book review: a look at the best new Arabic titles in English translation

A bestselling 13th-century cookbook; stories by popular Al Bernameg TV host Bassem Youssef; a controversial book about Saudi women and award-winning Iraqi novels are among the noteworthy English works coming from Arab authors this spring.

The new year promises several strong reads from and about Syria. This month, Haus Publishing kicks off their Modern Arabic Classics series with Ascension to Death by celebrated Syrian author Mamdouh Azzam. In the novel, translated by Max Weiss, a love story runs up against an unforgiving family and regime. Ascension to Death was one of three books chosen by Samar Yazbek for the 2012 Finnegan’s List project, a list of works in urgent need of translation.

In February, Perseus Books will bring out Alia Malek’s The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria. The Syrian-American author and civil rights lawyer was last year’s winner of the US$50,000 (Dh183,600) Hiett Prize for her writing about Syria.

This new book promises to interleave history and the author’s emotional return to her Damascus family home.

Also from Syria, New Directions is to bring out a new short-story collection by Osama Alomar, The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories, translated by C J Collins. This is the second collection in English for Alomar, who now lives in Chicago. These sharp, allegorical stories are in the tradition of the great Zakaria Tamer.

In late spring, the Library of Arabic Literature (Lal) will publish Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. The text originally circulated during the 13th century, a golden age for Arabic cookbooks, and has now been edited and translated by Charles Perry. The bilingual edition brings together more than 600 recipes and is bookended by chapters on preparatory perfumes, medicinal oils, and after-meal hand soaps.

Yet this medieval cookbook isn’t just a reference for scholars. At a conference last year, Lal executive editor Shawkat Toorawa promised that “the translator has cooked every single item in the book”. Also, non-specialist chefs were going through the recipes to “make sure they are actually usable by someone who wants to just cook a recipe”.

Three compelling new books by Egyptian authors are also slated for spring release. In March, HarperCollins is set to bring out Bassem Youssef’s English-language comedy debut. Youssef’s popular satirical TV news show Al Bernameg had a brief but influential run, and his Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring promises to chronicle the show’s hits: from Tahrir Square to the “Aids cure” machine to allegations that Youssef was a CIA operative, recruited by comedian Jon Stewart.

AUC Press’s Hoopoe Fiction imprint, meanwhile, will bring out several Egyptian novels. The Book of Safety, by Yasser Abdel Hafez, is for fans of the vibrant young dystopic thrillers coming out of Cairo.

In this novel, translated by Robin Moger, the protagonist transcribes testimonies at the state-run “Palace of Confessions”. That’s where he meets a university professor-turned-master thief who steals from the rich and blackmails them into silence.

Also in March, Hoopoe will publish the final book in a wide-ranging, historical-realist trilogy by Egyptian novelist Kamal Ruhayyim. The trilogy began in Egypt with Diary of a Jewish Muslim, continued in Paris with Days in the Diaspora, and concludes in Egypt with Menorahs and Minarets.

In this last book, Galal remains torn between his Jewish mother’s cosmopolitan family and his Muslim father’s rural farming kin. All three books are translated by Sarah Enany.

Two much-anticipated Iraqi novels, both listed by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), are also forthcoming in translation this spring. The first is Sinan Antoon’s The Baghdad Eucharist (Ya Mariam). This novel, translated by Maia Tabet, takes place in a single day and centers around the conflicts between family members thrown together by conflict: a young woman and her elderly, distant male cousin.

The second Iraqi novel is Muhsin Al Ramli’s The President’s Gardens, translated by Luke Leafgren, set to be published by MacLehose in May. Al Ramli began writing the novel in 2006 “after receiving the news of the murder of nine of my relatives, who were fasting on the third day of Ramadan. The people of the village found only their heads in boxes of bananas, with their identity cards.”

In the novel, the head of one of Iraq’s most wanted men is found among crates. The novel traces this man’s life, and the lives of his friends, through the last half-century of Iraqi history.

Also in May, the University of Texas Press will bring out award-winning Saudi novelist Badriah Albeshr’s compelling Hend and the Soldiers, translated by Sanna Dhahir. This novel, which has been fiercely attacked by Saudi conservatives, chronicles the day-to-day struggles of Saudi women.

Last, for graphic-novel hybrid fans, Ahmed Naji’s The Use of Life and Donia Maher’s The Apartment in Bab El Louk aren’t scheduled until summer or fall.

M Lynx Qualey is an editor and book critic with a focus on Arabic literature and translation issues. She edits the website arablit.org

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