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Year Ender: Best translated books

“Stealth,” by Sonallah Ibrahim, trans. Hosam Aboul-ela. “Stealth” is perhaps the warmest and most emotionally charged work produced by Ibrahim, who has focused most of his energy on creating innovative forms of sociopolitical critique. “Stealth” takes us back to post-World War II Egypt. The language is mesmerizing and precise. “He turns away from me and takes off his woolen shirt, showing me his bare back. He asks me to scratch it. I put on my glasses. I scratch around the three blue pimples spread across his back.” Ibrahim insists that the book—told from the perspective of a young boy—is not a memoir, but the narrative is clearly enriched by the overlap of memory, research and imagination.

“Touch,” by Adania Shibli, trans. Paula Haydar. “Touch” is a remarkable coming-of-age work by a young up-and-coming Palestinian writer. The novella, set in 1982, is told through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl, and the language is—like Ibrahim’s—both precise and evocative. We follow the narrator as she tries to understand her parents, cultural norms, siblings, language, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The translator, Paula Haydar, produces a very fluid English text.

“Adonis: Selected Poems,” by Adonis, selected and translated by Khaled Mattawa. “Adonis: Selected Poems” is the first volume to make a large breadth of Adonis’s work available in English. The Syrian poet, who is often mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, is arguably the best living poet writing in Arabic. The poems in this collection were selected by Khaled Mattawa, also an award-winning poet. The collection opens with some of Adonis’s earliest published poems, then climbs, era by era, through the poet’s work, allowing the reader to experience shifts in style, new experiments, and dizzying expansions of view.

“Journal of an Ordinary Grief,” by Mahmoud Darwish, trans. Ibrahim Muhawa. “Journal of an Ordinary Grief” is one of three prose works  by the late Palestinian poet, and is probably his most autobiographical work. Although “Journal” has an exceptional stylistic range—moving from the reportorial to the philosophical to the poetic—its predominant mode is dialogue: between the poet and a taxi driver, the poet and a judge, the poet and a lover, the poet and himself. These discussions take us through a number of extraordinary “ordinary” exiles.

“White Masks,” by Elias Khoury, trans. Maia Tabet. “White Masks,” published in Arabic in 1981, isn’t one of Khoury’s more recent novels, but it represents the point at which the Lebanese novelist, according to Khoury himself, changed from a loyal pro-Palestinian fighter to a writer critical of all parties. The book is built around the narrator’s attempt to understand what he describes as the “wonderful, dreadful” murder of civil servant Khalil Ahmed Jaber. Although “White Masks” is not as layered as Khoury’s “Gate of the Sun” or “Yalo,” it is more straightforward.

“The Scents of Marie-Claire,” by Habib Selmi, trans. Fadwa al-Qasem. Tunisian author Habib Selmi is a master of detailed psychological observations, particularly when it concerns family and romance. “The Scents of Marie-Claire,” shortlisted for 2009’s “Arabic Booker,” is filled with Selmi’s observations of a disastrous cross-cultural relationship between the Tunisian narrator, Mahfouth, and his Parisian girlfriend, Marie-Claire. The translation is at times hobbled by stilted prose, but the narrator’s observations of how his love has deformed him make the book worthwhile.

“The Puppet,” by Ibrahim al-Koni, trans. William Hutchins. Libya’s leading contemporary author, Ibrahim al-Koni is attracted to ancient struggles, the desert landscape of his childhood, and the power of commerce. “The Puppet,” first published in Arabic in 1998, is populated by a number of folklore-like characters. Among them are Aghulli, the “sage and leader”; Ahallum, the “warrior hero”; and Chief Merchant, “the man with two veils.” Aghulli is compelled by oasis residents to take over leadership of the tribe. When he tries to enforce the old laws, there are disastrous effects. Al-Koni, who has published more than eighty books, is one of world literature’s truly original writers.

“Specters,” by Radwa Ashour, trans. Barbara Romaine. Specters is not one of Ashour’s most accessible works. The book—which layers fiction and memoir—is full of echoes, tangled threads and impossible choices. The novel features two main characters: the fictional Shagar and the “real” Radwa Ashour, and the two women’s parallel stories. Both are trying to reach an understanding of the 1948 attack on Palestinians at Deir Yassin, but the book doesn’t rest there. It shuttles forward and back, resisting a clear focus just as it resists easy truths.

“Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa 1.” It was the Beirut39 collection, which features 39 up-and-coming Arabic writers under 40, that grabbed world literary attention this year. But “Emerging Arab Voices,” a product of the “Arabic Booker” project, proves the more compelling collection. With fewer authors and longer selections, the collection offers both English translations and the Arabic original. Among the highlights are Lebanese author Lana Abdel Rahman’s lyrical “Letters to Yann Andrea” and gifted Egyptian writer Mohammed Salah al-Azab’s “Temporary Death,” a chapter from his latest novel, “Sidi Barrani.”

“re:viewing egypt: Image and Echo,” photographs by Xavier Roy, text by Gamal al-Ghitani, trans. Humphrey Davies. In some ways, “re:viewing egypt” appears to be a remake of “Cairo from Edge to Edge,” a book by photographer Jean Pierre Ribire and author Sonallah Ibrahim. But Roy’s vision of Egypt is much more evocative and gracefully assembled than that of “Cairo from Edge to Edge.” The book’s layout also encourages its readers to see the photographs in dialogue with one another, as well as with the text. Al-Ghitani’s introduction, while short, is an interesting commentary on the dualities of ancient and modern Egypt, and functions both as a context for Roy’s photographs and as an echo of the author’s novel “The Pyramid Texts,” also translated by Davies.

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