Boyd Tonkin: The 'Arabic Booker' lets us hear the real voices of change – loud and soft

The Week in Books

Change in the Arab world can come in many sizes, guises - and volumes. Take, at one end of the dial, the fearless mockery of Ibrahim Eissa, Egyptian editor, satirist and novelist, a persistent thorn in the side of the Mubarak regime and even more of an affront to the Islamists currently in power.

Arrests, trials, prison stretches, lawsuits by the score, death threats galore - Eissa, a big personality in every way, has faced them all down over 20 years. "Some people say I demean religion, others that I disrespect the judges," he merrily said at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair last week. "If I focused on such things, I couldn't continue working."

But he does, heroically. He came to Abu Dhabi because his novel Our Master reached the shortlist for this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the "Arabic Booker". Typically for Eissa, it sends up the ambitions of a TV sheikh - the kind of rent-a-fatwa preacher so popular in Egypt - to depict him not as a zealous dogmatist but as a celebrity-hungry opportunist. Much like Sinclair Lewis's smarmy evangelist Elmer Gantry, Sheikh Hatim hitches a ride on religion as a vehicle for career success. And Eissa grasps that mass-media Islamism belongs not to anchored tradition but rudderless modernity.

However, the prize - which rewards the winner with English-language publication as well as $60,000 - went to a quieter but no less courageous sort of book. The Bamboo Stalk by young Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi is, by all accounts, the first novel by a writer from the Gulf to address the lives of poor migrant workers in the region.

Written in the first-person voice of half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino José, it recounts the family history of a torn young man who hears "the muezzin's call in one ear and the church bells in the other", and whose servant mother Josephine fell in love with her employer's son, Rachid. Alsanousi talked with the Asian contract workers who do (in all senses) so much of the heavy lifting in the Gulf, as well as travelling widely in the Philippines. He came across "an extremely negative picture" of his native land. "I tried to understand the reasons for that picture," as he told me the morning after his victory. "I said, 'Who are we? Are we who we think we are?' And I didn't like the answer."

"During the whole year of writing the novel, I was José" he recalled. "I was observing everything from the outside." Such cool detachment seldom makes a writer popular. After the novel's Kuwaiti publication, "Some people totally refused it. They said, 'How can you criticise your own society so strongly?' But others said, 'You hurt us, but you made us think about how we treat the servant in our house'."

Critics in the West justifiably wag disapproving fingers at the dependence of the Gulf's breakneck growth on the sweat, toil, tears and (not infrequently) blood of cheap imported labour with little in the way of security or rights. Since cases of gross exploitation persist, so must this outside scrutiny. Yet I suspect that home-grown critiques will shift far more moral sand than a hundred faraway sermons. Alsanousi says he found "the younger generation" receptive to The Bamboo Stalk. "The problem is, we don't have that many readers. We're getting there. Book clubs have started. But how many will change their behaviour as a result?"

True, a wider ideal of citizenship may take longer to build in the Gulf than the giant towers and slabs that still rise, seemingly overnight, along its endless boulevards. But local voices of conscience such as Alsanousi will surely have a part to play in laying those foundations. Besides, we can also meet that lost and lonely migrant on any European or American city street. "José is searching for a homeland and a faith," his creator says. "These are human questions for any person, in any place."

Pynchon: on the cutting edge for half a century

Has there ever been a more public recluse than Thomas Pynchon? For months, we've known that Bleeding Edge, his eighth novel, would be set in New York during the lull between the first dotcom bust and 9/11. A quick web search will reveal the book's first page. Jonathan Cape has now fixed its UK release date: 17 September. One more suggestion for this most visible of disappearing acts. 2013 marks 50 years since his debut, the miraculous V. Many readers would love a uniform Pynchon edition in good, old-fashioned print.

Knox, Murdoch and a supine BBC

In a year's time, will BBC News still be as proud as it sounded on Tuesday of its nauseating PR job on behalf of Rupert Murdoch's Harper publishers, amazon.com, Washington celebrity lawyer-agent Robert Barnett, and all the showbiz spinners swarming over the big pile of cash that surrounds Amanda Knox's $4m. memoir, Waiting to be Heard? Knox, acquitted on appeal, now faces a second trial in Italy for the murder of Meredith Kercher.

The courts will, again, decide her fate. What we saw beyond reasonable doubt this week was a UK public broadcaster buying into a grotesque stunt by the heavyweights of the US "entertainment" industry - if entertainment means making a packet out of a savagely murdered British student. As the BBC knows, you can't yet buy Waiting to be Heard here because of libel fears. So its drooling puff also helped flog books for Amazon's US site.

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