Novelists and poets who supported liberation movements soon found themselves censored, imprisoned or even killed when they began to criticise the native despots who had come to rule them. To survive you either had to censor yourself or go into exile.
But the uprisings that began last December, when a Tunisian fruit seller called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after being slapped by a government inspector, have in three months transformed the political landscape, with what the protesters have called “Days of Rage” spreading to Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and Libya. Dictators are falling at high speed and the nullifying censorship that has plagued the region cannot hold.
Morocco: The Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun (2002)
Winner of the Impac Prize, this gripping novel is based on the testimony of a former inmate of a Moroccan prison.
Libya: In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (2006)
A boy’s childhood in Tripoli is disturbed when he realises that his father is a dissident and Gaddafi’s men are after him.
Egypt: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (2002)
A bestseller in Egypt when it was published in Arabic, this soap-opera-style novel catalogues the corruptions of Mubarak’s Egypt.
Sudan: In the Hour of Signs by Jamal Mahjoub (1994)
Late 19th-century Sudan is the setting for a conflict between the British, the Turks and a Sudanese man claiming to be the messiah.
Lebanon: Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury (2005)
The great Lebanese novelist forged his masterpiece from true-life stories of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Syria: The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami (2004)
Part murder mystery, part hymn to Damascus, this epic story has been hailed as Syria’s first great novel.
Saudi Arabia: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea (2007)
Saudi chick-lit: not a great work of art but reveals something of the Gucci scarf-wearing middle classes desperate to escape their gilded cages.
Iran: My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad (1973)
Set during the country’s wartime occupation by the Allies, this hilarious satire is the Iranian Catch-22.
March 9, 2011