AUC Press Launches New Literary Imprint
by Nadine El-Hadi
On December 11 each year the AUC Press celebrates its longstanding relationship with the great writer by awarding the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature to an outstanding Arabic novel. At its beginning in 1996, Mahfouz said of the award, “I hope that this prize will also help to discover new talents in Arabic literature and introduce them to readers around the world.”
Since then, the AUC Press has continued to look for ways to introduce first-time and established writers to a wider global audience, and, today, we are the single largest print and e-book publisher of Arabic literature in translation.
In keeping with this tradition, the AUC Press is currently launching a new literary imprint, with the aim of bringing together the best writing both from and about the Middle East, and distributing it to a broad international audience.
Our first four novels illustrate the diversity of writing that will characterize Hoopoe: from political satire to crime and noir; from modern epic to historical saga.
We open with a book that almost needs no introduction: Ibrahim Essa’s The Televangelist, which was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker. Through his brilliantly observed main character, TV Sheikh Hatem el-Shenawi, Essa takes us into the highly contested world of TV preaching. The story revolves around Sheikh Hatem, who is conflicted by his dual role as celebrity and man of religion. His status has earned him riches and privilege, but they have also put him close to those who would cause his destruction.
Essa certainly does not pull his punches, and this novel is squarely located at that murky point where religion, politics, money and media meet. As the author puts it: “When a Sheikh becomes a televangelist, he first has to please the audience, then the financial backer, the producer, the director, and if he can please God, then even better.” Throughout, Essa uses his sharp wit and vast media experience to create a gripping political thriller. It is both a biting critique of modern society and a jolly good read!
We move next to Moroccan detective novel Whitefly by Abdelilah Hamdouchi, set in Tangier against a backdrop of illegal immigration from North Africa to Europe. The fast-paced plot, full of twists and turns, sees Detective Laafrit under immense pressure to solve the case of four young men whose bodies have washed up on the shores of his city. The investigation takes us on a whirlwind tour of Morocco from Tangier’s seedy underworld to the impoverished south—and across its borders in an international conspiracy. Hamdouchi’s casual yet direct writing style makes this the page-turner you would expect from the genre.
Staying in Morocco, A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me by Youssef Fadel (also shortlisted for the Arabic Booker) sits in stark contrast to Whitefly. It tells of another, far darker, period of history: the Years of Lead under King Hassan II in the 1970s and 1980s, during which time hundreds of political prisoners were locked away in secret prisons. With the keys to their cells all but thrown away, many were abandoned for years in bleak solitary confinement. When the truth about these prisons came out in the 1990s a number of survivors wrote memoirs about their horrific experiences. Fadel draws on this wealth of writing, plus his own time as a political prisoner in the early 1970s, to craft this beautiful and eloquent novel about loss, love, and survival.
Fadel’s writing has a rawness, and a certain looseness, that make it compelling, and in his story, Aziz, an army pilot disappears the day after his wedding. His young bride Zina never loses hope and searches for him for twenty years: crossing cities, forests, and mountains, even throwing herself at the feet of the king himself. We accompany her on her final journey in search of the casbah where Aziz has been held for twenty years, with only the rats and his own increasing insanity for company.
The final book in our opening season is Time of White Horses by acclaimed Palestinian author Ibrahim Nasrallah. The saga unfolds in Palestine over three generations, during the eras of the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate. Through Nasrallah’s lyrical voice and skilled storytelling, we experience Palestine through the lives of Hajj Mahmud and his family; we see the Nakba looming on the horizon, hanging over them like a guillotine blade waiting to fall. This insightful novel has already achieved international success and much praise.
This range of topics and genres will challenge the way Arabic literature in English is seen, having often been pigeonholed into that rather niche category of ‘writing in translation.’ Hoopoe will spread its wings and fly out of this narrow category, through the skies of general fiction and great writing. We hope you will join us on this journey.
Nadine El-Hadi is managing editor, and Nigel Fletcher-Jones is director, of the AUC Press.