From a landfill on the outskirts of Marrakech to the palace of a fictional Egyptian prince, the latest issue of Amherst’s literary magazine, The Common, offers a glimpse into places around the world, both real and imagined.
But what sets the latest issue apart isn’t the settings of the stories; it’s the authors.
Titled Tajdeed (Renewal): Contemporary Arabic Stories in Translation, the issue features stories by26 emerging and established writers from 15 Middle Eastern countries.
“When people think of Arabic writing, they often think of poetry. They often think, ‘It must be political,’” says Jennifer Acker ’00, The Common’s editor-in-chief. “This issue aims to show that neither is always the case, by publishing translated fiction and works by Arabic writers that aren’t necessarily political.”
Fewer than 1 percent of English translations have come from the Middle East since 2012, says Acker, who conceived the issue as a rare avenue for Arabic writers to publish in the United States, and also as a way to bring Middle Eastern contemporary literature to English-speaking audiences.
“There are so few avenues of discovery for Arabic voices,” Acker says. “This volume can make a real difference in raising awareness of the exciting and varied stories being written right now across the Middle East.”
Tajdeed includes short stories from such celebrated authors as Hassan Blasim (from Iraq) and Mohamed Makhzangi (from Egypt), alongside new voices never before published in English. With introductions by Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha and Cairo-based journalist M. Lynx Qualey, Tajdeed offers fresh insight into themes and forms of contemporary Arabic writing.
For instance, Lebanese author Mona Merhi explores the suburbs of Cairo in “Haphazardia,” while Abderrazak Boukebba, an emerging writer from Algeria, reflects on the process of writing in “The Death Shroud: Nine Stories and a Single Set of Characters.”
“With so much uncertainty in our future, today’s new Arabic writing is more related to raising questions than giving answers,” says Jordanian author Hisham Bustani, who co-edited the publication with Acker and contributed a story about a suicidal painter.
The issue earned praise from Arabic media, including the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, which said it “excels in transmitting the voice of Arabic writing to the United States.” Al-Mamarr in Egypt described it as “a volume that breaks the naïve stereotypes about the Arab World.” The Kuwaiti Al-Qabas hailed it as “a quantum leap for Arabic literature available in translation for U.S. audiences.”
“We are immensely proud of the attention Tajdeed has brought to Arabic writing,” Acker says, “and we’re eager to continue publishing work from this underappreciated, yet brilliant, part of the world.”