Arabic Episodes

By , Louis Werner is a free-lance book reviewer.

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

THE WEDDING OF ZEIN AND OTHER STORIES

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

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FOUNTAIN AND TOMB

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.

But not all Arab writers seek fruitlessly for pockets of strength and happiness. Whether in the country or in the capital, community survival is not always doomed. Tayeb Salih's novella ``The Wedding of Zein,'' for instance, presents a view of rural life so resilient it seems capable of withstanding challenge from any quarter.

Zein is an ugly but lovable buffoon touched mysteriously with God's grace. When his impending marriage to a beautiful girl is announced, the entire village is set astir. Salih weaves the story of Zein's life forward and backward, touching nearly everyone - elders with whom he constantly disputes over money, social outcasts he befriends, young men he rivals, and all the girls he pursues with mock expressions of love.

Notable episodes of local history, the kind recounted by storytellers to keep their village's memory alive, intermingle with personal memories best kept to oneself. All, however, touch one way or another on Zein; only through his odd behavior has the village been able to form and maintain its own identity.

When he disappears at his own wedding, his friends think he is up to his old tricks. Finally they find him weeping in the cemetery and think the festivities are finished. Just then Zein rises up shouting, ``Make known the good news,'' and takes his usual place at the center of attention. In this act of celebration he adds yet more fodder to local lore, making his wedding another epochal moment in village history.

The prolific, Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian, Naguib Mahfouz, often examines the way Cairo's poor neighborhoods maintain their integrity in the face of urban stress. ``Fountain and Tomb,'' his most recent book to appear in English with this theme, won the 1986 Arab League Translation Award. Here Mahfouz uses very short chapters to build discrete scenes from the bustling life of a Cairene slum near a Sufi monastery. The slum is composed of a network of alleyways with only one exit to the main street; walled off on the other side is Cairo's cemetery, known as the City of the Dead.

Mahfouz's narrator is a young, curious boy, as if to embody the crossroads where such fragile communities, poised between insularity and assimilation, stand. He shifts backward and forward in time, all the while watching this neighborhood's village-like charm survive the steamrolling onslaught of modern Cairo.

A loose plot centering on the narrator's coming of age is mixed with vignettes of his good and evil neighbors. The quarter's mysterious visitors, its gangsters and their street punks, loose women, and petty tradesmen all are portrayed in this gallery. Along with the boy, the reader spies on Islamic healing rituals for women, the scheming of underworld gangs, and the political rallies of the Egyptian independence movement.

In the first chapter the boy naps in the monastery's archway and dreams of meeting its reclusive head sheikh, who teaches him a magic phrase. He thinks the invocation has a supernatural power capable of protecting him from harm. This uncertainty between the real and the imagined, the familiarity of his alley versus the mystery of the city and its cemetery, permeates the book.

In the last chapter, the narrator, now a young man, remembers his final, failed attempt to meet the sheikh again. His fascination with the monastery faded long ago. What remains is his neighborhood's vitality.

It is often said that Cairo is a metropolis made up of villages. Mahfouz finds truth in that bit of wisdom.

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