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Friday Films: ‘The Open Door,’ Based on a Novel by Latifa Zayyat

Arabic Literature (in English)

Every Friday, ArabLit suggests a new classic film-book combination — for you to watch and read — until we run out of steam about 20 weeks in:This week’s film is The Open Door, based on the 1960 novel by pioneering author-activist Latifa al-Zayyat. The Arab Writers Union listed this coming-of-age novel as one of the Top 105 books of the 20th century. Al-Zayyat was a political prisoner in 1949 and again in 1981, but then won Egypt’s highest state-sponsored literary prize a few months before her death in 1996. She was also co-winner of the inaugural Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for The Open Door.It’s set during al-Zayyat’s first political awakening, in the decade post-WWII, during the last fight against British colonial rule, and it centers aorund Layla and her brother Mahmud. In a retrospective on Al-Jadid, al-Zayyat’s debut novel was remembered by critic Farida al-Naqash as “an expression of a new wave in the Arabic novel, one that combines poetic realism with committed literature.”You can read an excerpt, trans. Marilyn Booth, online.The novel was adapted into a 1964 film by Henry Barakat starring megastar Faten Hamama.

Previous Friday films:

The Mountain, based on a novel by Fathi Ghanem

Miramarbased on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz

A Touch of Fear, based on a novella by Tharwat Abaza

The Impossible, based on a novel by Mostafa Mahmoud

The Sixth Daybased on a novel by Andrée Chedid

The Land, based on a novel by Abdel Rahman Al-Sharqawi, translated as Egyptian Earth

Al-Harambased on a novel by Yusuf Idris

I’m Free, based on a novel by Ihsan Abdel Quddous

A Beginning and an End, based on the novel by Naguib Mahfouz

For Bread Alone, based on the novel by Mohamed Choukri

Gate of the Sun, based on the novel by Elias Khoury

The Dupesbased on Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun

Diary of a Country Prosecutor, based on a novel by Tawfiq al-Hakim

Adrift on the Nile, based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz

A Nightingale’s Prayerbased on a novel by Taha Hussein

 Kit Katbased on the novel The Heron by Ibrahim Aslan, available in translation by Elliott Colla.

The Egyptian Citizen, based on Yusuf al-Qa’id’s award-winning novel War in the Land of Egypt

The Lamp of Umm Hashem, inspired by a novella by Yahia Haqqi

Egyptian Novelist Ahmed Naji and Editor Tarek al-Taher Will Go Back to Court in ‘Public Morals’ Case

Experimental novelist Ahmed Naji and Akhbar al-Adab editor Tarek al-Taher will return to court in February for another trial after their acquittal earlier this month:



Naji announced on Facebook and Twitter yesterday that prosecutors had challenged the January 2 acquittal in the case of whether an excerpt from Naji’s novel The Use of Life had harmed public morals. He and al-Taher, he said, will be retried. The trial is set to resume February 6, and both could face jail time.

The Associated Press reportedthat their lawyer, Mahmoud Othman, said “Naji faces up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,245) if found guilty of violating a law against publishing material deemed contrary to public morals.”


During the first case, the prosecution had asked for the maximum penalty, which is two years in prison.

The case began when an Akhbar al-Adab reader filed a lawsuit, claiming his health was harmed by an excerpt of Naji’s novel. Prosecutors decided to take up the reader’s complaint against the excerpt.

Naji’s experimental novel, which mixes elements of a prose and a graphic novel, was published in 2014 and was approved by Egyptian censors. Novels published in Egypt don’t have to pass through this step, but Naji’s novel was published in Lebanon and imported into Egypt.

The excerpt in question was published in Akhbar al-Adab in August 2014. Throughout the case, the prosecutor has conflated fact and fiction, suggesting that writing fiction about an act was essentially the same as admitting to having done it.

“The prosecutor is dealing with it as if it’s my own confession,” Naji said in a Skype interview last November. The prosecutor has already referred to the characters in the novel as though they were real people, Naji said. Because drug use is discussed, the prosecutor has threatened that he could add charges against Naji for “dealing with hash.”

During the case, the prosecution asserted that “the defendant went too far with his intellectual abnormality by describing sinful sexual relationships using terms that turn humans into animals that chase after their desires,” according to Egypt’s Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. The case was less about the sexual acts themselves and more about the sorts of words that Naji used to describe them.

After the acquittal, Othman told Mada Masr that the testimonies of former Egyptian culture minister Gaber Asfour, head of the Egyptian Writers Union Mohamed Salmawy, and internationally acclaimed novelist Sonallah Ibrahim strengthened his case. Now, this groundwork will have to be laid all over again.

As Naji wrote on Facebook: We’ll start again from scratch and reinvent the wheel in order to explain what’s creative freedom and what’s literature again.

Naji also thanked all who’d supported him and his editor through the first trial, and said he hoped the support would continue through this appeal.


From translator Elisabetta Rossi: What’s the Real Nature of Ahmed Naji’s Novel ‘The Use of Life’?

From author Youssef Rakha: Busted: The Trial of Ahmed Naje

On Ghassan Kanafani’s 79th Birthday

The great Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani was born on this day in 1936:


Kanafani was born in Akka to a prominent lawyer and started his studies at Les Frères, a French missionary school in Jaffa.

His life changed significantly when he was twelve: After his family’s displacement to Beirut and then Syria in 1948, he continued his studies in Syria’s public schools, where he got a UNRWA teaching certificate. He attended Damascus University, where he studied in the Arabic literature department until, according to a profile that ran in As-Safir, he was expelled for political reasons.

Initially, Kanafani worked as a teacher, leaving Damascus to work in Kuwait for five years as an Arts and PE teacher. Then, according to translator and scholar Roger Allen, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)’s George Habash helped persuade Kanafani to move to Beirut, where the author worked on the al-Horria newspaper, and later al-Moharrer and al-Anwar, before becoming the well-known editor-in-chief of the PFLP’s weekly newspaper, al-Hadaf.

Even before he left to teach in Kuwait, Kanafani was writing and publishing stories. According to Kuwaiti writer Mai al-Nakib, Kanafani’s “The Stolen Shirt” won the Kuwait Literary Prize in 1958, when Kanafani was just twenty-two. His Men in the Sun, one of his most popular and acclaimed works, was originally published in 1956, followed by All That’s Left to You, Return to Haifa, and a number of other important works, including four collections of short stories.  

When Kanafani was assassinated in Beirut on July 8, 1972, he was just 36.

“While it is true that his life was brief,” Rasem al-Madhoon wrote in an essay translated by Nehad Khader, “it was also rich in the literature that he offered. A significant landmark of his literary, journalistic, and political journey was his preoccupation with the broader Palestinian national struggle and all of its demands; as was his persistence in penning short texts regularly. Ghassan’s friends remember his regular visits to Farouq Cafe in central Damascus.”

Kanafani’s texts are still read, staged, discussed, debated, and incorporated into new works, as in Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin and the short film Qarar Mujazor A Brief Conclusion.


“The Stolen Shirt,” trans. Michael Fares

Jaffa: Land of Oranges,” trans. Mona Anis and Hala Halim

Excerpts from Return to Haifa,  trans. Barbara Harlow and Karen E. Riley

Letter from Gaza,” translator not listed.

Books in translation

Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Storiestranslated by Kilpatrick

Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa & Other Stories, translated by Harlow and Riley

All That’s Left to You, translated by May Jayyusi and Jeremy Reed

About Kanafani:

“Ghassan Kanafani: The Symbol of the Palestinian Tragedy,” by Rasem al-Madhoon, trans. Khader

“Remembering Ghassan Kanafani,” by Elias Khoury, trans. Maia Tabet

Returning to Haifa,” Arab Arts Blog


Omar Hazek: Prison Letter on Why He’s Dedicating his New Novel to his Nephew


This letter, which ran in Arabic in Al Masry Al Youm, was titled, “I apologize to you from the bottom of my heart”:omar-hazeq-23039I was still in the same prison, in the same cell, in nearly the ninth month of my two-year sentence on one hellish summer night in a terrible August. One new inmate was added to our ranks, making our count 23 men in a cell whose area was 3.5 x 5.5 meters, including a very tiny horrendously dirty toilet, in a space beset by rising violence, beating, and widespread scabies.Such a life has granted me a treasure of humanity and introduced me to people who would be impossible to meet outside the confines of my cell. Some of these prisoners have taught me so much. Some of them granted me great support and true friendship, which has helped me remain a lover of life and of people. I should have mentioned those people and should have dedicated this novel to them. However, I preferred to leave that for my more recent novel, Life in White, all of which is written in prison, as prison has played the leading role in this phase of my life.It was last April when I learned that Ahmad, the son of my eldest brother, a seven-year-old child, knew of my arrest and had seen pictures and footage of my trial hearings. He saw me handcuffed and recognized my family’s pain and sorrow — despite all attempts to conceal this from him. His innocent childhood could not bear this suffering, and he fell prey to psychological illness out of fretting for my sake, and for himself, that I would be tortured or beaten, which he deduced from what he could see on TV and the internet. He started to recover slowly, only after he was told that I was released from prison, had traveled to work abroad, and would soon return, laden with gifts and safe from the hands of the evil people who beat and imprisoned the youth.I have wept a few times here — mostly for my mother, at times for prisoners who faced pains beyond their capacities, and sometimes for Ahmad. Ahmad grew up in a home near ours. He visited us frequently with his father. He would enter my room while I was reading or writing to greet me and then run to play. He would not forget to come and greet me before leaving, smiling with his round, soft cheeks.  He would open his small palms saying, “loos,” which developed into “aloos” with time, meaning filoos, or money — because I used to give him coins every time I would see him to buy some candy.

Why should a child like him pay so dearly for my personal choices in life? My family members were severely affected — especially my father and mother. However, they were all able to appreciate that these costs were paid in defense of a conviction. However, Ahmad alone had to pay the dearest price, which I am not sure he will be able to completely overcome. It is indeed a dear price paid so that the youth of this nation may make small steps towards their freedom, dignity, and their now-wasted rights.

During her last visit, my mother told me that dear Ahmad had a recurrence of the attack after having achieved tangible progress. At night, I put the draft of my novel close to my face to hide my emotions. I cried for my beloved Ahmad — whom I have known as an innocent child full of vitality and joy; fond of wandering in parks and on beaches; a lover of candy, juice and potato chips. I wept for Ahmad who suffered from my imprisonment more than I have.

Ahmad, who had been looking at the family photo album, took away a photo and sat with it in a corner. His mother saw him whispering to a photo, “I miss you … I miss you so hard,” and suddenly she saw it was me in this picture.

My beloved Ahmad, I want to apologize to you from the bottom of my heart, despite the fact that I have not committed a crime deserving imprisonment, for begetting you all that suffering. I want you to know when you grow up and when God blesses you with healing and peace, that you have paid a very high price for our dignity and humanity, and that your noble pain, along with other noble pains and blood, will create a great spirit. This spirit will inspire our struggles until we achieve the goals of our revolution. This is why I implore you not to waver and to pursue the path regardless of the price and my fate. You are a great comrade along the path.

This is why I dedicate to you — and only you — my novel. Out of love and in apology to you, Ahmad Essam Hazek.

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