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A Compendium of 'Modern Arabic Fiction'

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Until recently, translations of novels from Arabic were few and far between, in 2005, Columbia University Press brought out the thousand page anthology of Arab fiction. Now, translator and writer Denys Johnson-Davies has published a collection of short fiction and novel excerpts from nearly 80 Arab writers. They're all from across the entire Middle East. The collection is called the Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction.

Alan Cheuse has a review.

ALAN CHEUSE: Most of us grow up with the fable of Scheherazade and the tale she told over the course of a thousand and one nights. But as adults, we've read very few, if any at all, modern Arabic stories. Denys Johnson-Davies, who according to the late Edward Said is the leading Arabic-English translator of our time, has set out to remedy that situation.

In his 500-page paperback original, he gives us a cross section of stories and scenes from novels by some of the most talented fiction writers in the language. This sounds like a daunting task. But if you consider that the tradition of modern Arabic fiction writing is only a little more than 100 years old, you realize that it's certainly possible to have worked for the writers who need to know between the covers of one book.

It's difficult in talking about this collection, not to speak in lists. From the greats, such as the late Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, who's represented here by one of the most delightful coming of age stories you'll ever read called The Conjurer Who Made of With a Dish, on through the current reigning generation's best, such as Daisy al-Amir(ph) from Iraq, who's represented here by a devastating short-short about a woman gathering pills for a suicide. And the Libyan Ibrahim al-Koni, he's got an excerpt here from his haunting, symbolic desert novel The Bleeding of the Stone.

From traditional realist like Siruis Waleed Ikhmazi(ph), to Egyptian experimentalist Nabiu Goergi(ph), these writers, mostly men, from Iraq, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, have created so many stories and novels about family, love, sex, myth and politics, about city life and desert life that would take even the most dedicated fiction lover something approaching many dozens of, if not a thousand and one knights, to read them all.

SIEGEL: The book is the anchor book of modern Arabic fiction, edited by Denys Johnson-Davies. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.