by Tess Gerritsen
Me standing in front of the gorgeous Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world. It looks like something out of Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it?
I’ve just returned from the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where I had the chance to meet writers from around the world, including many from the Middle East. During the flight to Dubai, I happened to read an article in the in-flight magazine, “The State of Arab Literature”. That’s where I learned this surprising, and rather depressing fact: Most Arabic publishing houses don’t pay their authors any advance. Instead, they ask the author to pay the publishing costs up-front.
While writers struggle everywhere to make a living, writers in the west have nothing to complain about when we compare our lot with the struggles of Arabic writers. Depending on which country they live in, these writers must contend with censorship, poverty, even threats to their lives. Although Arabic is spoken by 5 percent of the world’s population, that reading audience doesn’t buy enough books to support their local bestselling authors, who must toil away at other jobs while they write.
Part of the reason may be found in a 2008 UN survey, which found that the average Arab in the Middle East reads only four pages of literature a year. Americans read an average of 11 books a year and Britons an average of eight. As one Arabic writer told me resignedly, “it takes one hundred Egyptians to read one book.” According to an article in the Dubai newspaper, The National, teachers there struggle to instill a love of reading in their pupils. Students are addicted to technology, which sucks up their time. 44 percent of pupils in Dubai have fewer than 25 books in their home. And one teacher at a public school observed, “In my class of 60, only one girl reads for pleasure.”
Add to that the issue of low female literacy in countries such as Yemen, and it’s easy to see that the market for Arabic books simply isn’t large enough to support their local authors. Even authors with huge name recognition such as Egyptian writer Ghada Abdel Aal, whose humorous Arabic language blog “I Want to Get Married,” about her struggles to find Mr. Right, must rely on foreign language sales to earn a living. Her blog had a million followers, and the book that followed it was an Arabic language bestseller, yet those book sales were a small fraction of the blog’s audience.
It’s obvious that for Arabic writers to earn a decent living, their work must be translated for readers beyond the Arabic world. Surely there are readers like me who can’t wait to read about an Egyptian Sherlock Holmes or a Saudi Miss Marple. So where are these sleuths? Why are there no Arabic mystery novelists? Or SF or fantasy novelists, for that matter? Where is Arabic genre fiction?
This very question was addressed at the Emirates festival, in a session led by Egyptian scholar Kamal Abdel-Malek and crime writer Matt Rees. They asked the question: “Could an Agatha Christie emerge from the Arab world?” And then they proceeded to give all the possible reasons why it hasn’t happened yet. Matt wondered if it had to do with corrupt police systems and so many dictatorships in the region. When you have no hope for real justice, when you don’t really believe the bad guys will get their comeuppance, then crime stories have an aura of futility, with no promise of retribution for evil acts.
Kamal pointed to other issues. Arabic literature has always emphasized poetry and beautiful language, and genre fiction is disdained as something not quite respectable. Also, while Americans will happily read a mystery or thriller on an airplane, he said, an Arab — if he encounters another Arab sitting beside him — will feel compelled to converse with his seat mate. It’s important to deal with “he who is present,” he said. To read a book in the presence of another person is rude. Even if he’s just a fellow passenger. A budding Arabic Agatha Christie must deal not only with the prejudice against the genre, but also limited readership in the Arabic world.
But the English world? There, it seems, would be a ripe market. I mentioned to both men that I would absolutely love to see a crime novel told from the point of view of an Arabic woman sleuth. A woman who must navigate an obstacle course of challenges, who must use her wits and her powers of observation to solve a mystery. I want to know what that woman thinks, what she sees, what her world is like.
Where is this writer? Why hasn’t he or she emerged?
In a conversation a day later with an Arabic language translator, I gleaned an additional insight. He regularly translates books and articles from Arabic into English, and he observed that Arabic novels, while full of poetic language, don’t have the plot strengths that western novels have. The emphasis is different and far more literary. These Arabic writers use beautiful language, he said, but their plots are secondary to the writing. He itches to edit the books, because he knows they could be improved for the western market, but his role is only to translate. And it frustrates him. For these books to make it in English, they have to be less about poetry and more about accessibility.
Sounds like the same old literary vs. genre debate, doesn’t it? It’s happening everywhere. In the Arab world as well.
(I’m traveling at the moment, and can’t respond to comments. But please do discuss!)