This autumn, the Cairo Book Club will be joining with UK publisher And Other Stories for their first-ever Arabic reading group. For September we’re reading The Epidemic, by Hani al-Rahib, from which Bassam Frangieh has translated an excerpt into English.
From And Other Stories: “The Arabic group is the second in a series of special reading groups in collaboration with the European Society of Authors and kindly funded by the Michalski Foundation. We’re selecting books from the European Society of Authors’ Finnegan’s List, a list of under-translated, under-recognized works recommended by prominent writers from around the world. Lebanese author Hoda Barakat and Syrian author Samar Yazbek have both suggested Arabic titles for the list in the past two years.
The Epidemic is al-Rahib’s fourth novel, and it was listed as one of the best 105 Arabic books of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union.
The Epidemic is a rich epic of a novel, weighty and ambitious. It spans three generations and covers over one hundred years of modern Syrian history, including historical figures as well as actual people from al-Rahib’s village and social circles. Characters in Al-Rahib’s novel are alienated and marginalized, unable to confront the political powers that have stamped out creativity and freedom of expression. The novel poses unanswered questions about the nature of democracy and the role of the intellectual in society, commenting openly on the government at the time, and laying bare Syria’s social and political struggles.
Translator Bassam Frangieh writes that The Epidemic was received by Syrian political prisoners like a bible. Al-Rahib owned a torn copy of the novel that had been sent to him after being passed around a prison, filled with more than a hundred comments and signatures of the inmates.
Hani al-Rahib was born in 1939 in the coastal Syrian city of Lattakia. He published his first novel The Defeated (1961) while still a student at the University of Damascus, launching his career to early acclaim. The novel won a prestigious literary award from the Lebanese magazine Al-Adab, and al-Rahib was lauded as one of Syria’s leading novelists.
Al-Rahib’s writing is rich with themes of protest and rebellion and sharply critical of the problems he saw in Arab society, among them corruption and lack of social justice. His professional life was marked by confrontations over his political views – he was twice expelled from the Union of Arab Writers, and fired from teaching positions at the University of Damascus and the University of Kuwait on the grounds that he incited students to rebel.
Al-Rahib is the author of eight novels and three collections of short stories, and is considered one of the pioneers of the Syrian novel. He died in 2000 of cancer.”
On the And Other Stories author page for Hani al-Rahib, you can download and read Bassam Frangieh’s translation of an extract from The Epidemic, originally published in Banipal 9. You can also read Bassam Frangieh’s profile, ‘Hani al-Rahib and Writing in the Sands,’ also published in Banipal 9.
To get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll meet to discuss on September 29th at 7:30pm at Dar al Tanweer publishing house – 8 Qasr el Nil Street, Downtown Cairo.