One of my reading goals this year was to read more Arabic books. As I delved further into the world of translation, I realized that I’m going to have to start pleasure–reading in Arabic as well as English. I wanted to be able to translate novels from English into Arabic, and I hoped that maybe, one day, Arabic novels would be interesting enough to be translated into English.
Of course, at this point all my exposure to Arabic novels was the ones on display all over Jarir Bookstore back when we used to frequent it. I doubt any of the popular Arabic books in Jarir at that time were cool original Arabic novels — most were trashy romances by Ahlam Mostaganemi or translated books. As a bilingual kid, I preferred to read in English rather than read a translation, because well, most translations weren’t really good. Yeah, I’m very picky and I have very high standards, especially when it comes to books I spend money on. Ebooks, on the other hand, are mostly cheap so I don’t mind the occasional disappointment.
So at the beginning of this year, I wrote down ‘read 20 Arabic books,’ while being very skeptical about reaching that goal, without heavily reading religious books. Then I started looking around for books that will fit my standards. The rules were, as usual, quite simple:
1. No trashy, whiny romances.
2. No translations.
3. About something cool. (Please, please, just
some elements of coolness, maybe an
interesting new fact about something IRL?)
4. Definitely no people–bashing/hating.
5. Did I mention no trashy romances?
I found some books that fit my criteria, but I craved for more. I couldn’t stop at The Bamboo Stalk, a social commentary of sorts by Saud Al–Sanoosi in which he discussed the prejudice encountered by a Kuwaiti–Filipino, who looked more Filipino than Kuwaiti and whose father’s family rejected him because they refused to recognize his parents’ marriage.
I looked further. I finally found this amazing blog on Arabic Literature by M. Lynx Qualey. In there, I read about Ajwan, a book written by Emirati YA writer Noura Al–Noman. It is also the name of the main character in the book, a water–breathing human young girl who finds herself without a home or family after narrowly escaping a meteorite strike that hit her home planet. (Yes, yes, yes! This is sci–fi! In ARABIC!!!! :D)
I wasn’t happy. I was ecstatic. I had never expected to encounter an Arabic sci–fi novel, but here it was, staring me right in my face. I’d never seen anything of the sort in Jarir, so I connected with Noura on Twitter — she’s an awesome person, BTW! We talked a bit and then I got an exclusive copy of Ajwan in return for reviewing it and a translated writing guide she’s publishing through her ebook platform (I’m still reading it.).
I read Ajwan. Fast at the beginning, but then I slowed down due to work obligations. I savored every minute of it. This wasn’t a normal sci–fi book for me. It was a whole new level of sci–fi. I loved the book, but it was weird. Not the bad kind of weird, but the weird when you’re trying out something new and are still adjusting to it. Sorta like dyeing your hair a color shades away from the original, or the first few days when you travel abroad.
Ajwan herself is a very cool person. She goes through ordeal after ordeal, yet she stays strong. Repeating the following mantra taught by her martial arts teacher, she pushes through life:
أراك أيُّها الخوف، لست سيَدي، ولن تهزمني.
أنت ضعفٌ وأنا لستُ بالضعيفة.
ستكون سلاحي الذي أشحذ به ذهني وأستقي منه قوتي.
قوة تُحرِّرني وتصنع انتصاراتي.
انتصار يذيب الخوف ويلقيه ذكرى بعيدة لن تعود أبداً.
O Fear, I see you. You’re not my Master, and you will not Defeat me.
You’re a weakness, and I’m not a weakling.
You will be the weapon I will use to focus my mind and derive my strength from.
A Strength that will free me and Create my Victories.
A Victory that will melt the Fear and throw it in the depths of my memory, so it may not come back again.
This mantra is so poetic and beautiful I’m thinking of writing it down in my journal. Perhaps I would also come back to it once in a while, and derive some strength from it 🙂
Anyway, back to what the book is about. Ajwan, the young Haviki woman who loses not only her entire family but also her planet, is one of the few remaining people of her race. The Haviki were a race of peace–loving, water–breathing humans who lived in large, overpopulated cities underwater. They co–habited Ajwan’s home planet along with a non–water–breathing human race, called the Okamo. Ajwan defied common Haviki customs and married one of them, eventually settling in an above–land city, until the fateful day in which she barely escaped annihilation in a trading shuttle. Landing in a space station, she soon attracts the attention of the station commander, Rohani, who is fascinated by her biology as well as her personality.
A few days into her stay on the space station, she discovers that she is pregnant. Having lost everything in her life, she sees a glimmer of hope in this news. She adjusts to station life while her status as a refugee is being approved, but then tragedy strikes in the form of the kidnapping of her unborn child and being left behind for dead.
A few days later, she leaves the station for Rohani’s home planet, on which they learn of a dark conspiracy brewing in the galaxy. Some high–ranking military officers are killed, and the crimes are found to have some link to the kidnapping. This leads Ajwan to make a decision to join the Special Forces.
Throughout her journey, she would break down to the point of crying and beyond, but she would always stand back on her feet. This is the sort of young woman whom we all should aspire to be self–reliant and strong. I was really happy to read a book in Arabic with such a strong female lead character. Hopefully, this will be the beginning that leads to more cool discoveries!
Do you know of any cool Arabic books that might fit my rules above? Or have you read Ajwan as well? Feel free to share your suggestions/comments below!