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Anthology features bold and impressive mix of young Arabic writers

By Caley Moore

Beirut39: New Writing
from the Arab World
Edited by Samuel Shimon

(Bloomsbury) $20

The political aspirations of young Arabs have been capturing headlines ever since regimes began falling across the Middle East in late December. Published less than a year before the convulsions started, Beirut39 offers an intriguing glimpse into the imaginative lives of this history-making generation.

The book brings together the work of 39 Arab writers under age 40 hailing from Morocco to Oman to the Netherlands and beyond. A panel of prominent Arab authors and critics selected the group as part of a competition sponsored by the Hay Festival, an annual literary and arts gathering that originated in Wales but has spread to cities around the world. While many of the chosen 39 are already well-known names in the Arab writing scene, virtually all will be new to English audiences.

Arranged alphabetically by author, the anthology features an impressively diverse mix of short fiction, poetry and extracts from novels. The book darts around in style and subject, from realism to the fantastic, free verse to suspense tale. We meet storytellers, mistresses, students and midwives, as well as a postal worker sunk in monotony, awaiting “the eternal journey of boredom,” marriage.

I was surprised by the candour of the writers’ voices, their willingness to break taboos. In one story, a young man discovers his same-sex desire while watching a banned French film as his mother sleeps a few feet away. With similar openness, the Lebanese poet Joumana Haddad proclaims a song of herself: “I am my sins and oh how I love them.”

Some of the poetry feels lost in translation and a number of the fiction selections fall flat, but there is much to admire and many authors I hope to encounter again in longer works. Standouts include Mohammad Hassan Alwan’s “Haneef from Glasgow,” a sensitive story of a young Saudi man’s waning relationship with his family’s longtime Kashmiri chauffeur.

A welcome and wide-ranging portrait of contemporary Arab culture, Beirut39 is an exciting book published at a critical time. Several authors from the anthology, including Haddad and Alwan, will be appearing at Toronto’s Luminato festival this month as part of a spotlight on Arab writers.

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