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Arabic Episodes

By Louis WernerLouis Werner is a free-lance book reviewer. / January 5, 1989

GOOD MORNING! AND OTHER STORIES by Yahya Haqqi, Translated by Miriam Cooke. 117 pp. $10

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by Tayeb Salih, Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. 120 pp. $7


by Naguib Mahfouz Translated by Soad Sobhi, Essam Fattouh, and James Kenneson. 120 pp. $8

All titles published by Three Continents Press, 1636 Connecticut Ave., Washington, D.C.

MOST people wishing to become acquainted with another country may find reading its literature more practical than making the actual journey. But when it comes to the Arab world, a trip to the Middle East may be far less exhausting than trying to find its translated novels and stories in the bookstore.

Modern Arabic literature was slow in getting onto bookshelves even in the Middle East. Caught between a classical heritage that lacked prose fiction genres and the strong influences of Europe, Arab writers had difficulty finding a native voice with contemporary relevance for their readers.

A people with a deep reverence for their religious texts, Arabs were unaccustomed to the idea that what was written could stem purely from man's invention. In some sense, an Arab audience for fiction also needed inventing. The postwar years have seen a great expansion in this audience. Literary magazines and inexpensive paperback novels are sold from street kiosks in every Middle Eastern city. All that remains is for Arab writers to reach more readers in the West.

Donald Herdeck intends to accelerate this process. His small publishing house, Three Continents Press, has expanded from its initial focus on African literature to include fiction and critical studies from the Middle East, Oceania, India, and the Caribbean. Currently, there are 42 titles on its Middle Eastern list.

Modernization and nostalgia are prominent themes. The confrontation of city and country values sets a pervasive mood of melancholy, the forces of change usually overwhelming the forces of tradition.

A recurrent image is urban penetration into rural life, as railroads and river ferries begin to stop in villages wanting to stay untouched. But, however bleak the prospects for retaining one's identity when facing the wrecking ball of modernization, there remains a minority view that the odds against cultural survival are not unbeatable.

In Yahaya Haqqi's novella ``Good Morning!'' a village's residents are painted in chapter-length portraits before and after the building of a new railway station. Before, the narrator had enjoyed their carefree company in the village tavern, as they discussed the ways of the world from the tranquility of their backwater vantage point. A medical problem then forces him to move to the city for a year.

On his return, the train now stops conveniently in the center of town. The carriage driver is out of work, now having to beg in the mosque, and everyone else has been thrown into a new state of mind. The tavern has been closed down by the same newly elected politician who built the station.

The narrator looks on all this with dismay. He knew times would change but never thought his friends could be so transformed. At the end he is left with a greatly shaken certainty in the city itself.