Titles written specifically for “young adults” are a relatively new trend in Arabic literature. Today’s young writers, who grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, often say they read popular science fiction, romance, detective stories, or thrillers.
But since the middle of the last decade, starting with books by pioneering Lebanese writer Samah Idriss, tens of innovative novels for tweens and teens have started appearing in Arabic each year.
In 2013, the “Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature” launched a category for young-adult writing. The prize is given every year in November, at the opening of the Sharjah International Book fair in the Emirates,
Many of the prize’s shortlistees and winners should be available in English translation. Among them: Jordanian writer Taghreed Najjar’s compelling, shortlisted Sitt al-Kol, inspired by the story of a teen fisherwoman in Gaza; Ahlam Bsharat’s Trees for Absent People; and Emirati writer Noura Noman’s science-fiction thriller Ajwan. But, thus far, only a handful have made it into translation.
Among the new flowering of Arabic YA, two must-haves for any library collection:
The Servant, by Fatima Sharafeddine, translated by the author.
This moving, lyrical novel — told with a very light touch — was Sharafeddine’s first YA novel. Titled Faten in the Arabic, it follows a teen who is sent by her father to work as a live-in maid in Beirut. The novel was not only successful with teen readers, but also won the 2010 Best Book award at the Beirut International Book Fair.
In a recent email exchange, Sharafeddine said:
When I wrote Faten I was writing what I would like to read about. I put in it raw feelings, honest fears, anxieties, strengths, ambitions. I did not think much about what the readers want. It was my first experience with a YA novel, and I just went with the flow of my pen. At the time I was not sure I was doing the right thing, but now I know. Faten is a required reading in a number of schools Lebanon, and I meet a lot of students in my school visits to discuss Faten. I am always impressed that boys like it as much as girls, something I had doubts about while completing the work.
At the end of 2016, Sharafeddine published a new YA book Cappuccino, that deals with domestic violence, another important issue in Lebanon, as elsewhere.
Code Name: Butterfly, by Ahlam Bsharat, translated by Nancy Roberts.
Palestinian writer Ahlam Bsharat writes for both teens and adults, and two of her novels — Code Name: Butterfly and Trees for Absent People — have made the Etisalat shortlist.
Bsharat has a talent, as seen in the compelling Code Name: Butterfly, for getting at the questions young people ask about the world. The book opens just at the moment when “Butterfly” is questioning her family and her world. Should her father be working for the farms of Israeli settlers? Should her sister have abandoned her beloved, who’s in jail, married and gone off to Saudi Arabia?
There are no easy answers in this close first-person narrative, and Butterfly’s uncertainties induce a vertiginous feeling in the reader. We look out through the eyes of a 14 or 15-year-old girl who doesn’t know what to think about her eyebrows, much less the two-state solution. And we, like her, must start over with new vocabulary.
Other books not specifically for teens, but compelling for young readers:
>I Want to Get Married!, Ghada Abdel Aal, translated by Noha Tahawy
This book — which provides portraits of suitors in contemporary Egypt, and came out of Ghada’s blog of the same name — is very funny.
>Always Coca-Cola, Alexandra Chrieteh, translated by Michelle Hartman
This book moves around young women’s bodies and choices, and choices about their bodies. It discusses rape, sexual assault, pregnancy and menstruation, so it would be for older teen readers.
>The Bamboo Stalk, Saud Alsanoussi, translated by Jonathan Wright
This is a wonderfully straightforward coming-of-age exploration of identity issues in contemporary Kuwait. The central character is confused about religion, belonging, identity, nationality, and family.