© Florence Aigner
‘Words cross borders without passports and visas.’ - Elif Shafak in interview

On the anniversary of the military invasion of winter 2008-2009, Transcript highlights new writing from Gaza, a place known for news images of devastation, rather than for its literary and artistic production.

A small strip of land, Gaza nevertheless looms large in our consciousness, having acquired an iconic significance in our perception of the Middle East conflict. A synonym for the loss of hope for peaceful co-existence in the region, Gaza is associated with images of destruction: wrecked buildings and vehicles, funerals turned into demonstrations. In the grip of a humanitarian crisis brought about by the on-going blockade of the territory by its neighbours, Gaza suffers shortages of everything we take for granted in our daily lives: from building materials to food, medicines to power supply. Yet, amidst the devastation and suffering, life goes on, and with it continues the human need to make sense of that life against the background of an irrational cycle of violence, devoid of logic and purpose.

The fiction and poetry by seven young writers from Gaza presented here offers an insight into lives and imaginations hemmed in by all the physical restrictions imposed on Gaza’s inhabitants. Their lack of freedom of movement and limited contact with the outside world informs the sense of “hopeless hope” as it is described by Atef Abu Saif in an interview with his translator Alice Guthrie.

Contemporary Arabic literature is slowly becoming better known to European readers, thanks to the efforts of publishers such as the American University in Cairo Press and magazines like the London-based Banipal and German-language Lisan.

In contrast to the limited opportunties that Gaza writers have to develop their work in the context today’s Arabic writing, reach a wider readership and become known outside the walls surrounding them, we take a look at two young Arab writers who have gained recognition at home and abroad with their novels reflecting the concerns and preoccupations of their generation and of the Arab middle class. Both are pop novels immersed in the world of consumer gadgets and electronic communication, both have been became bestsellers: Rajaa Alsanea’s Saudi take on chick lit, The Girls of Riyadh, a novel about a group of girlfriends whose stories are revealed in emails, was banned in several Arab countries, while Ahmed El-Aidi’s Being Abbas al-Abd, a meandering narrative written in colloquial Arabic interspersed with English phrases, sms messages and graffiti scribbled in lipstick on public toilet doors, was described by his fellow writer Youssef Rakha as ‘the first truly popular novel since the 1950s … the Arab world’s answer to a millennial cult classic – something that highbrow authors, who have written without the benefit of a viable readership for half a century, would not have thought to produce’.

We also visit the Beirut39 project initiated by the Hay Festival of Literature to highlight the work of the young generation of Arab writers by selecting 39 authors under 39 to conclude the celebrations of Beirut World Book Capital.

Completing our focus on Gaza are photographs by the Belgian artist Florence Aigner, taken during her trip to Gaza in the summer of 2007 as part of a cross border art project.

Alexandra Büchler

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