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BILA HUDOOD Festival - Arabic Literature

Updated: Jul 15, 2021


9 – 11 July 2021

It’s the summer and it’s definitely festival season!

A new kid on the literary festival block this year is BILA HUDOOD: Arabic Literature Everywhere. Organizers Marcia Lynx Qualey and Sawad Hussain took guests on a whistle-stop tour of the Arabic literature scene today. The three-day festival hosted panels on Arabic Literature in Berlin, African Narratives in Arabic Literature, Memoir, a magazine launch, short translator pitches about new and exciting books and last but by no means least a session on Young Adult Literature.

After hearing Reham Almutairi talk about the need for more YA in Arabic at the YASA Conference last year, I was excited to see an entire session dedicated to YA writers. The World Kid Lit fan in me simply couldn’t miss it!

Young Adult Lit – Fantastic Worlds & Where to Find Them

Arabic YA expert Susanne Abou Ghaida was joined by Palestinian-Jordanian novelist Taghreed Najjar, Syrian novelist Maria Dadouch and Egyptian novelist and translator Ahmed al-Mahdi.

The scene was set with readings as each writer was introduced. Najjar opened with a passage from her latest novel, the 2019 Etisalat Children’s Literature Award winner Whose Dolly Is This? Inspired by an old family photograph of her mother as a girl in the 1930s, the story follows the lives of three Palestinian women in the Chicago diaspora. Whilst her books are not biographical, Najjar often writes about true things that happened, using them like seeds to build a story around. Dadouch transported us into the world of Syrian science fiction as she read from I Want Golden Eyes (tr. Marcia Lynx Qualey and Sawad Hussain, forthcoming), a story that explores what happens when the power of science ends up in the wrong hands. She explained that coming up with a new world in speculative fiction can be challenging in Arabic literature. Dadouch localises her SF stories by including geographical details, old tribe names, verses by famous poets or romantic relationships that comply with the Arab mentality and customs. Finally, Al-Mahdi introduced us to one of his horror stories, Reem Into the Unknown. Is it a good idea to buy a lonely looking black cat? Most definitely not in this case! Al-Mahdi had always been fascinated by the folk tales his grandmother had told, feeling both terrified and excited as he listened to stories about jinns and other horrors.

All three readers agreed on the importance of writing about something they themselves found fascinating, which they would enjoy reading themselves and could have imagined enjoying when they were children themselves. Dadouch added that she tries to depict human experience and the universal in all of her writing, whether it’s a topic she has chosen or one which she has been asked to write about, such as social justice or schizophrenia. Her writing had also been formed by her experience in Syria. The fact she has been a witness to the war has influenced at least one of her novels. Al-Mahdi had been inspired by Egyptian pocket novels about espionage and by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s books in particular. For his own SF novel Malaz he had worked hard, even drawing his own map of the world he had created. Najjar also researches her novels carefully and is often wary when deciding what to write about, especially if there is a political element. She has discovered that her YA books about displacement in the Arab world in general have been very much needed as young people see their own family histories reflected in the stories she tells.

Ghaida neatly concluded the panel by asking the guests what Arabic readers want now. Access to the Internet means that kids already know a lot about the world around them, so it can be challenging trying to think up new stories to impress them said Al-Mahdi. He tries to reimagine old ideas in the Internet age. What would little Red Riding Hood do today if a stranger followed her to her grandmother’s house? Would she use her mobile phone? And what about readers of Arabic YA in translation? Dadouch would love to see her books translated so that readers elsehwere would realise that all human experiences and universal feelings apply to Arabs too. Najjir agreed that Arabs are often misunderstood and hopes that readers of Arabic YA in translation will see that Arabs share the same aspirations and fears as everyone else. Al-Mahdi sees literature as a bridge between cultures and hopes that his writing will break down boundaries. There’s much more to Egyptian culture than the pyramids!

I was struck by the breadth and variety in contemporary Arabic YA, impressed by the careful research and considerations that go into each writer’s process, and left feeling excited by the prospect of more new Arabic YA in translation to come. Until then, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the wonderful Arab KidLit Now! blog for interviews, extracts and much more!

Be sure to check out the BILA HUDOOD YouTube channel where all the live talks are now available to watch again here. And if you’re looking for some great new Arabic Literature in translation, don’t forget to grab a issue—or five—of Arab Lit Quarterly here.

Johanna McCalmont is a Northern Irish bookworm and literary translator based in Brussels, Belgium. She translates from French, German, Dutch and Italian and also works as an interpreter.

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