The most outstanding Arabic writer of the 20th century was Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), a prolific Egyptian novelist, playwright, and screenwriter who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. Other prominent 20th century writers from Egypt – which was long regarded as the intellectual centre of the Arab world – include Taha Hussein (1889-1973) and Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987).
Censorship and the lack of an educated readership have restricted literary activity in many of the Arab countries. Although banned in Saudi Arabia and little known in the west, Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif (1933-2004) is considered by many to be one of the greatest modern novels. It deals with the discovery of oil in a remote oasis, and the impact of American business and corrupt Arab rulers on the lives of the poor local community.
Lebanon has produced an outstanding poet, Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), whose mystical poetry is widely read. Among women writers, the Egyptian feminist Nawal al-Saadawi is probably the best known.
A number of modern writers have also emerged in the Maghreb (north Africa), though many of them write in French rather than Arabic.
The following writers are featured on separate pages at al-bab. Inclusion may be a sign of literary merit or a sign that the writer is interesting or significant in some other way.
Literary websites and journals
Banipal is a British-based magazine (in print and online) founded in 1998 by Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon. The associated Banipal Trust aims to "support and celebrate the publication of Arab authors in English translation and the production of live literature events in the UK with Arab authors"
Arabic Literature (in English)
This is a literary blog aimed at non-Arab readers seeking a deeper understanding of Arabic literature and culture. Produced by Marcia Lynx Qualey (interviewed here), it focuses on Arabic literature that has been translated and discusses the translations as well as the literature itself.
Al-Jadid is a magazine of Arab culture which covers art, films, music and theatre as well as literature. Based in the US, it is published in print and online but some of the online content is available only to subscribers.
Littératures du Maghreb (LIMAG)
A website in French covering literature of the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) between 1806 and 2015. The site is no longer updated.
This is a peer-reviewed journal produced in French by Coordination Internationale des Chercheurs sur les Littératures maghrébines (CICLIM). It publishes "new, cutting edge research in French and English on literature and other cultural forms – film, music, etc – rooted in the Maghreb and its diasporas".
The Literary Review devoted its Summer 1998 issue to Maghrebi literature translated from Arabic, Tamazight (Berber) and French. The following are some examples from the archive:
|surreal gibberish". In a foreword to the book, Pierre Salinger, former press secretary to President Kennedy, struggled to sound complimentary. He described it as "fascinating", with "an original mentality", and noted that the book's original Arabic cover design was "art of the naive school". One of the stories can be read here.
In Iraq, early in 2000, Saddam Hussein caused some surprise by announcing that he intended to write a novel. The following year a 160-page paperback, Zabibah wal Malik ("Zabibah and the King") was published in Baghdad and, although no author's name appeared on the cover, it was generally assumed to be the novel Saddam had talked of writing.
Despite its rambling, overblown prose and its gaudy, pre-Raphaelite influenced illustrations, the Iraqi media hailed it as an "innovation in the history of novels" and gave it rave reviews. All public libraries stocked copies and, if Iraqi newspaper reports were to be believed, the book became the talk of the intelligentsia.
Meanwhile, the CIA obtained a copy and spent several months analysing it for clues about Saddam's mentality. "Saddam's style, sentence structure and expressions are clearly present in the novel," the New York Times reported.
Three further novels have been attributed to Saddam Hussein: The Fortified Castle, Men and the City, and Begone Demons.
'It's like they were selling heroin to schoolkids': censorship hits booksellers at Kuwait book fair
Marcia Lynx Qualey, The Guardian, 22 November 2016
Arabic literature in translation
Jessica Holland. The National, 27 November 2011
Reading between the lines
As Frankfurt prepares to celebrate Arab literature, Brian Whitaker deconstructs US claims of a Middle East 'knowledge deficit'. The Guardian, 13 September 2004.
Reluctant publishers, translation difficulties and tired preconceptions have all hampered the progress of Arabic literature in the west, says Brian Whitaker. The Guardian, 23 September 2004.
A discussion of Arabic literature in translation, with Robin Yassin-Kassab, Marcia Lynx Qualey, Sinan Antoon, Daniel Newman and Selma Dabbagh. July, 2015.
The Role of Women in Arabic Literature
What Arabic literature tells us about the status women in Arab society. By Mona Mikhail, Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, New York University.
War on Words
by Tariq Ali
The triumph of the free market after the Cold War doesn't mean a free market in ideas. Literature can still be a crime against the state – especially in the Arab world. (From "Red Pepper", April 1996)