Robyn Creswell is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale and the Poetry Editor of The Paris Review.


The First Great Arabic Novel

Théodore Géricault: The Giaour, circa 1822–1823

Leg Over Leg, or the Turtle in the Tree: Concerning the Fariyaq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be

by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, edited and translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies
Published in Paris in 1855, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg is often called the first novel written in Arabic. It does not read at all like Little Dorrit, whose first installment was published the same year, and certainly not like Madame Bovary, published two years later, but “novel” is …


Voices from a Different Syria

The characteristic style of Abounaddara, an anonymous Syrian film collective, took shape during the early days of the Syrian uprising, before it became an armed conflict, and the collective’s work remains close to the ethos of the protest movement. But their politics have more to do with challenging the way we consume images than with taking sides in the conflict.

Syria’s Lost Spring

The Syrian People Knows Its Way: This is civil disobedience. There's no excuse for silence anymore, circa 2012

What happened to the Arab Spring in Syria? Amid a wave of jihadist violence extending from Aleppo to Paris, it is sometimes hard to remember that many of the original participants aspired to something dramatically different. In their courage, humor, defiance, and occasional moments of optimism, these protesters already seem to belong to another era—before sectarian war and waves of refugees made the idea of revolution seem quaint.

Escaping Beirut

Beirut, 1972

In Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, the narrator is a septuagenarian literary translator in Beirut—“the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” as she calls it, “insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart.” But Aaliya does not feel at home in her native city. For most of the novel, she walks through her neighborhood in West Beirut, remembering past lovers and favorite books.

Chasing Beirut’s Ghosts

A graffiti covered image of slain prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Beirut, Lebanon, 2006

Rabee Jaber’s novel, The Mehlis Report, published in Arabic in 2005 and now expertly translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, takes place in the summer and fall following Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. This was an especially anxious time in Beirut. The murder set off a movement demanding an end to Syria’s fifteen-year occupation, as well as a violent countermovement spearheaded by Hezbollah. Jaber’s novel begins on June 2, the day Samir Kassir, a prominent anti-Syrian journalist and historian of Beirut, was killed by a car bomb outside his home in Achrafiya, in the eastern part of the city. Further car bombs were to follow, targeting other anti-Syrian intellectuals and politicians. The Mehlis Report evokes this unsettled period with frightening precision. It reads like a historical novel that happens to be about the very recent past.