Saudi Arabia Literature

by | May 30, 2022

In the last two decades, the literary production of the Saudi Arabia has overcome a penalizing geographical and cultural isolation, and Saudi authors have become much more visible even in those Arab and international literary circuits on the margins of which they remained until a few years ago. The dawn of the 21st century. coincided with the appointment of Riyāḍ as the capital of Arab culture, representing the culmination of a development that began in the 1970s which saw the expansion of the education system, the increase in investments in culture and an ever greater number of Saudi young people that are formed abroad.

The contrasts that the country experiences, in which there are strong social restrictions and severe censorship, are reflected in the literary production in which a traditionalist soul linked to the Arab-Islamic past and a strong modernist thrust at times even transgressive coexist. Poetry sees the Saudi Arabia as the cradle of Arabic literature already in pre-Islamic times, and it remains the genre in which the influence of tradition is greatest. Exponents of the Saudi poetic scene meet annually at the Jenadriyah heritage and cultural festival, established in 1985, to participate in competitions involving the recitation of verses mostly taken from historical heritage. To this is added a religious poem, which proposes a reading of society based on the principles of Islam. Among the lovers of the genus ῾Abd al-Raḥmān al-῾Ašmāwī (n. 1956) who wrote, in 2014, a poem on the life of the prophet Muḥammad staged by the National Theater of Sharjh, in the United Arab Emirates. A leading figure in an innovative poem was Ġāzī bin ῾Abd al-Raḥmān al-Quṣaybī (1940-2010), often critical ofpolitical elite. Shortly before his death, the authorities decided to lift the censorship of his novel Šaqqat al-ḥurriyyah (The Apartment of Freedom, 1994) which had been banned due to explicit criticism of the government and the irony of the restrictive rules imposed on society. Recently there has been an increasingly evident affirmation of free verse and prose poetry whose protagonists are Ġassān al-Ḫunayzī (b.1960), Muḥammad ῾Ubayd al-Ḥarbī (b.1955), ῾Abdallah al-Safar (1960), considered the pioneers of an avant-garde school of poetry, as well as Aḥmad al-Mullā (b.1961) and Ibrāhīm al-Ḥusayn (b.1960), and the poetesses Fawziyyah Abū Ḫālid (b.1955), Hudà ῾Abd Allāh al-Daġfaq (b. 1967), whose verses express the rebellion against traditional customs.

The genre of the novel has experienced a real explosion from both a quantitative and a qualitative point of view. The novels of Saudi authors are enjoying increasing success with critics and audiences, proving to be able to break taboos such as racism, slavery, marginalization, the difficulties of relationships between men and women, political life in the kingdom, giving voice to the discontent of a whole generation and challenging the limits dictated by censorship. In fact, most of these writers publish in Cairo, Beirut or Europe.

According to HEALTHVV, Saudi fiction rose to the fore on the international scene in 2005 with Raǧā᾿ al-Ṣāni῾’s best seller (Rajaa Alsanea, n. 1981) Banāt al-Riyāḍ (trad. It. Girls of Riyadh, 2008) which it sold, only in the first year, beyond 60,000 copies. Exalted or criticized for its ‘light’ approach, the novel has turned a spotlight on the lives of Saudi girls. In 2010 ῾Abduh Ḫāl (b.1962) received the IPAF (International Prize for Arabic Fiction) for the novel Tarmī bi-šarar (Launching Sparks, 2010), a dark novel that follows the confessions of a hitman employed by a mysterious businessman from Jeddah. The novel lifts a veil on corruption and on three crucial topics for Saudi society: religion, politics, sex.

In 2011, the IPAF was awarded to Raǧā᾿ ῾Ālim (b. 1970) who made a name for himself with Tawq al-ḥamām (trad. It. The collar of the dove, 2014), a thriller that also becomes a spiritual journey through legends and the political and economic reality of the city of Mecca. Another well-known novelist is Yūsuf al-Muḥaymīd (b. 1964), author of Fiḫāḫ al-rā᾿iḥah (2003; trad. It. The traps of perfume, 2011), al-Qarūrah (2004, The bottle), Nuzhat al- dalfīn (2006, The Dolphin Walk), al-Ḥamām lā yaṭīr fī Buraydah (2009, The dove does not fly to Burayda) which talks about immigration, social discrimination, the contradictions between life inside the kingdom and that of Saudi citizens abroad. Slavery, marginalization and sexual abuse are at the center of Šāri ῾ al-῾aṭāyf (2009, Via degli affetti) by ῾Abdullāh Bin Baḫīt (b.1952), while Muḥammad Ḥasan ῾Alwān (b.1979) wrote al-Qundus ( 2011, Il beaver) in which, through the story of an emigrant to the United States, he traces the history of three generations. Among the most successful writers Laylà al-Ǧuhanī (b.1969), whose most recent novels are Ǧāhiliyyah (2007, Ignorance), where she explores the conflict between love and skin color, and 40 fī ma῾nà an akbur (2010, 40, in the sense that I grow up); Badriyyah al-Bišr (b.1967), author of Hind wa al-῾askar (2005, Hind and the soldiers), al-Arǧūḥah (2010, The Swing) and Ġarāmiyyāt Šāri῾ al-A῾šà (2013, Stories of love in via al-A῾šà), set in the seventies, whose protagonists are three women in search of their freedom; Umaymah al-Ḫamīs (b. 1966) has published al-Wārifah (2009, The luxuriant tree), whose protagonist experiences a contrast between her real life and the dreams and aspirations that lead her to a parallel dimension; Zaynab Bint Aḥmad Ḥifnī (b.1965) instead caused a sensation with the novel Malāmiḥ (2006, Lineamenti), a bitter portrait of the discrimination suffered by Saudi women.

Saudi Arabia Literature