The Arabic Novel in the West

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written by  for Ashraq Al-Awsat 

Does the Arabic novel enjoy popularity in the West? What is the proportion of those who read the Arabic novel in the West, in comparison to those who read Turkish, Afghan, or Indian novels? Just who is reading fiction translated from Arabic?

These are just some of the questions that Asharq Al-Awsat put to a number of prominent Arab novelists and writers in an attempt to understand the place that Arab literature holds in the West. In the first of a four-part series, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Hanan Al-Shaykh, a Lebanese novelist, short-story writer, journalist and playwright. Her books seek to challenge the roles of women in the traditional social structures of the Middle East. She is one of the leading contemporary women writers in the Arab world and is known for her forceful books, such as Women of Sand and Myrrh and The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story. Shaykh’s novels have been translated into English, French, Dutch, German, Danish, Italian, Korean, Spanish and Polish.

Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, she said:

“Like many, Westerners in one way or another believe that Egypt is Umm Al-Dunya (the mother of the world) and the most important Arab country.

“I do not think that the English are interested in Lebanese, Syrian or North African novels in general. I think that Palestine comes next in terms of English people’s interest in the Arabic novel, given the political events taking place in Palestine and the Palestinian–Israeli conflict.

“The Palestinian novel received more attention following the visits made by Emile Habibi, the Palestinian novelist, and Edward Saïd, the world-acclaimed academic, to London. In fact, they helped convey the Palestinian viewpoint to the English-speaking public.

“As for myself, I cannot be ignored given that I have been active in the UK for many years. In addition to this, writing plays has increased my readership, particularly given that the theater has traditionally enjoyed a larger audience.

“English speakers are not interested in Arab issues in general; however, they are interested in novels that tell interesting stories. This was obvious with Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men, which tells that story of his father who disappeared in ambiguous circumstances in Egypt. Some Saudi female writers have attracted Western attention as well.

“My book, The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story, achieved enormous popularity in the West. In fact, all of these novels tell interesting stories. Nevertheless, had my book been written by an Indian author, it would have definitely been more popular.

“All in all, translated Arabic books are not so popular in the UK. Besides, concerned about quality, British publishers only sign with writers whose books are expected to make considerable profits; they do not like to make a loss.

“This is why the Arabic novel does not enjoy much readership in the UK. Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love used to be a bestseller, given the English public’s passion for Egypt.

“I once met a culture editor at one of the UK’s major newspapers. When I introduced myself to him as a fiction writer, he responded in wonder: “I never knew that Arab women write.” I jokingly presented to him one of my books and asked him to confirm that the picture on the book is mine and that I am the real author of the book.”

The Arabic Novel and La Francophonie

In considering the role of the Arabic novel in the West, it is important to remember both that not all Western countries are English-speaking; most notably, North Africa has longstanding cultural and linguistic ties with France, as well as a large diaspora in that country. As Mohammed El-Mezdioui, a Moroccan critic and short-story writer based in France, told Asharq Al-Awsat, these links affect both the availability and popularity of Arabic novels in the Francophone parts of Europe and North America.

“First, we have to define the concept of readership in France. In this country, any writer whose novel sells more than 10,000 copies is considered lucky. The number of writers whose books sell more than 10,000 are many, and some of whom are Arabs. But there are two sides to the publishing industry in this country: books written in French, and those translated into it.

“As for Arab novels originally written in French, we have to differentiate between, first, the second and third-generation immigrant writers whose books are viewed as being as French as books written by [ethnically] French authors. Second are the Francophone authors who come from different Arab countries, such as the Maghreb, Lebanon, Egypt and even from Saudi Arabia. These writers’ novels are often labeled as ‘Francophone’ rather than ‘French’ literature, in a gesture that implies negative discrimination.

“As for Arabic novels translated into French, these are labeled as translated world literature.

“On investigation, the two types of Arabic novel suffer from a shortage in readership despite the fact that there are a number of accomplished Arab novelists whose books are popular in France, such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amin Maalouf, Naguib Mahfouz, and Alaa Al-Aswany, among others.

“In fact, both Ben Jelloun and Maalouf write in French and have been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most important literary award, which boosted their book sales and pushed French and Francophone readers to rediscover their bibliographies. As for Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize encouraged the French to discover this giant of Arabic novel. The case of Alaa Al-Aswany remains unique. This widely-read novelist managed to invade the French market, thanks to the movie adaptation of his The Yacoubian Building, which was screened in France. Ironically, Aswany even exceeded his compatriot, the late Albert Cossery, who wrote in French.

“These four novelists are not the only ones who represent Arabic literature in one way or another. In fact, France has recently witnessed an upsurge in the popularity of Algerian writers, represented by Yasmina Khadra and Boualem Sansal, among others. The work of these two writers enjoys widespread popularity in France, and at least two of Khadra’s works have been adapted into movies, such as The Attack and The Swallows of Kabul.

“French readers are not homogenous and the kind of readership depends on the nature of the novel. Perhaps Ben Jelloun’s folklore-like novels appeal to ordinary readers. Amin Maalouf’s informed view of the East appeals to other readers. Novels by Abdellah Taia and Rachid O, which tackle issues of homosexuality, appeal to those who view the East as a sources of temptation, harems, taboos and other hushed-up topics.

“Politics is present in the works of Yasmina Khadra [a pseudonym of the Algerian Mohammed Moulessehoul], who wrote about the Arab–Israeli conflict, Afghanistan and more.

“In fact, the film adaptation of Khadra’s The Attack has sparked debate after the Lebanese director, Zead Dweiri, filmed parts of it in Tel-Aviv, a thing which will play into the hands of the author as far as sales of his books are concerned.”

The American Reader Seeking the Arab “Other”

It is hardly a stretch to say that over the last dozen years, Americans have had a tense and complicated relationship with Arabs and the Middle East. This has undoubtedly impacted the availability and popularity of Arabic novels in the United States. But Elliott Colla, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University and translator of Arabic novels including Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron, and Idris Ali’sPoor English, goes further. Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, he explains that Americans generally seek out literature that is written from an American viewpoint and that expresses particular narratives:

“The first thing to know about American readers is that for the most part, they are not looking at Arabic novels. American audiences are famous for their indifference toward literature that was not written in English. About 2 percent of the titles published in the US are translated from other languages. And only 2 percent of this tiny number come from Arabic. Which is to say, for every ten thousand books published in English, about four were translated from Arabic. Unlike so many other literary cultures—like Spanish or French or Arabic—where translated titles routinely make a major impact in terms of sensibility and style, Americans basically read only themselves. So, in this sense, Americans really are exceptional—not that isolation is something to brag about.

“This does not mean that Americans are never curious about other parts of the world. Sometimes they are. But when they want to read about them in literature, they generally prefer to read what an American has to say. There are dozens of works of fiction about the American occupation of Iraq written by Americans with little or no knowledge of the language, culture or history of that country. Compare that to the fact that only a handful of works by Iraqi authors have been translated at all into English, and only one or two have even garnered a review.

“That said, a small fraction of American readers are hungry for Arabic literature in translation—though this hunger raises as many questions as it answers. We could say that there are basically two kinds of stories Americans are looking for in Arabic novels: stories about the Western Self, and stories about the Arab Other.

“We might call the first a ‘narcissistic strand of interest.’ By this, I refer to American readers who go looking for a very particular kind of novel from the Arab world: novels that present an image of Americans (or Westerners or Jews or Israelis), novels that hold up a mirror onto “ourselves,” novels about the Arab experience of immigration to the USA or Europe, or novels that treat the presence of Americans or Westerners in the Arab world. These are interesting to many white American readers because they seem to let us see how we (or people we imagine to be like “us”) are viewed by Arabs. Reading them allows us to imagine that we are eavesdropping in an authentic conversation about us. Any Arab novelist with a decent knowledge of white American audiences knows that the presence of American, European or Israeli characters in a story will spark a fire with this narcissistic segment of the market.

“There is another kind of interest that turns to novels for information about how Arabs live, how they love and how they feel. We might call this the ‘ethnographic strand of interest,’ because it reads novels not as works of fiction, but as works based in reality. This interest is in works that help white Americans understand the foreignness of Arab culture on its own terms.

“In this strange hall of mirrors, Americans pick up novels from the Arab world and hope to find themselves, or hope to find their Other. Of course, they will always be disappointed. And this, I think, is the great missed encounter of Arabic literature in translation. It is part of a cycle of fantasy and animosity, rather than understanding. Arabic novels are not read in English as literature, but as something else—for the information they might contain. Adventuresome American writers do seek out European and Latin American fiction in order to study literary style and form—but that is never why they pick up Arabic novels.

“Can this change? I am pessimistic about the ability of American audiences to change. And most of this problem can be traced back to the isolation of audiences in this country, and the deep prejudices that structure our underdeveloped reception of translated fiction in general, and Arabic fiction in particular. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see American readers ‘connecting’ with Arabic novels in more profound ways.

“But there is another part of this problem of connecting American readers and Arab novels that could be fixed. It has to do with the different cultures of editing in the USA and the Arab world. A commercially published novel in the USA is published so as to make money for the publisher. It represents an investment of a team of people working with the writer to make the novel something that readers in a book market can connect with. A novel usually goes through a number of rounds of editing and revision, cutting, rephrasing and improvement. This takes months, at the very least, sometimes years. There are many people—editors, agents, publishers—who work with the author to make the novel as good as it could be as a commercial product. Then, when it is published, there are a number of supports that are given to the novel—book readings and tours and media promotion—so as to make sure it is read. Marxist literary critics taught us that the novel was the first art form developed an industrial commodity form designed to make profits, and it is useful to remember that. The whole process of novel production in the USA (and Europe) is designed to bridge the gap between the novel and its readers, the commodity and its consumption in a knowable market.

“This process does not happen in the Arab world. In an earlier era, there was a more intensive process of literary editing, and there was more private investment in novel production. But now, for the most part, novels are self-published. By that, I mean that an author submits a manuscript that is published with at most only minor editorial interference. There are editors looking for errors of spelling and grammar, but there is no one helping readers connect with the novelistic text.

“And in this sense, the Arab novelist is operating at a disadvantage from his counterparts in the American and British world. I have often given a great Arabic novel to students or colleagues only to be told, “It was good, but if someone had edited it, it would have been great.” It is hard to argue with them—it picks up on a major difference between how novels are made in English, and how they are made in Arabic. And no translator—no matter how skilled—could bridge this difference. I suspect if there were literary editors in the Arab world, we would see a renaissance in the Arab novel. And we might also see a deep change in how American audiences approach the Arab novel.”

Universal Themes in the Arabic Novel

In the final part of this four-part series, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Selma Baddagh, a British—Palestinian writer who writes in English and desribes herself as having little command of the Arabic language. Her novels are mainly set in the contemporary Middle East, and she says that recurring themes in her work include idealism, placelessness, political engagement and the impact of social conformity on individuals. She is the author of Out of It.

“I believe that geographical and linguistic labels on literature are less relevant than the way that writers, wherever they are or come from, are able to emotionally communicate a story. A Libyan writer may have more in common with an Argentinian writer than another Libyan in terms of style and approach. It would be hard to find a writer who has not read and been influenced by writers beyond their national boundaries.

“It is also a little contrived to consider that the national awareness of a writer should dominate in his writing over the personal agonies or ecstasies of his soul. The national narrative may inform the concerns of the writer, but it should not necessarily dominate it.

“One of the greatest things about fiction is the ability to capture the reader and to draw them into the multi-sensory intellectual and physical world of a character, wherever they may be. It is the global reach into the interior world that is specific to the power of art, not its national preoccupations or linguistic medium.

“If you define the term ‘Arabic novel’ loosely, so that it includes writers of Arab origin who write in other languages as well as those who write in Arabic, I would say that the readership of these novels is still limited to what could broadly be defined as a ‘foreign interest’ readership, and this is reflected in the way that they are marketed and promoted. Novels are generally presented as books that provide a window in to current realities, i.e. a palatable depiction of everyday realities of foreign worlds. The Arab world is still enemy terrain and voices coming from it are expected to be besieged and unempowered.

“I am not comfortable with these categories, which are still used with regards to Pakistani writers, but less so with Indian or South American writers. These labels equate literature too closely with journalism or human rights reporting. No literary critic worth their salt would view the literature of Gabriel García Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa in this way. Maybe going through a phase of overt magical realism, where characters grew wings and flew up to the ceiling, was the way that South American literature was able to establish itself as a fictive form?

“As an Anglo–Palestinian writer who writes in English and has poor command of the Arabic language, I try to defy being put into a box when it comes to my own writing. Out of It is a novel set between Gaza, London and the Gulf, but it focuses on the issue of political consciousness and engagement. My characters are all under pressure to do something for the cause, even if they are unwilling or unsure as to what exactly they can do that is meaningful. It is a Palestinian setting, but the issue is not specific to Palestine. I have met activists from Europe, South America and Pakistan who can relate to this sense of a need to be engaged in societal change.

“Many writers of non-Anglo-Saxon origins writing in English find it hard to break away from the baggage of their foreign names. They feel an expectation to write about their cultural heritage. There are some exceptions, however. Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, is considered a very British writer, who writes about butlers and stately homes—but possibly if his subject matter was exclusively Samurai warriors and kamikaze pilots, he would be regarded as being more Japanese. He has managed to forge a space for himself and a readership well beyond his national origins. The French playwright Yasmina Reza (of Hungarian–Iranian–Jewish descent) also focuses on very Western, middle class concerns, from art and psychiatry to friendships, adultery and child-rearing in Paris. I can’t think of a single writer of Arab origin who has achieved this. The big commercial, critically acclaimed successes in the English language are novels like Ahdaf Soueif’s Eye of the Sun and Map of Love, as well as Hisham Matar’s Country of Men, all of which have predominantly Arab settings and characters. It seems harder for Arab writers to break into new readerships and new fictive terrains than other European-language writers from ethnic minorities, but there is no reason why this shouldn’t change.”

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One response to “The Arabic Novel in the West

  1. Very interesting, and I’ll definitely be looking for work by some of the novelists mentioned here in future. I don’t have the time to read a huge number of novels, but have been really enjoying the work of Naguib Mahfouz recently – I started reading because I was interested in finding out more about life in Egypt, but kept going because of the quality of the writing and compelling storytelling.

    Maybe some people would consider me to be looking for the Arab Other, I don’t know… I’ve always been interested in fiction that gives a sense of times and places other than my own, whether that’s science fiction, historical, or from other cultures, and I have a particular interest in the Arab world as a performer of Egyptian dance. But anyway, I’m a British person interested in reading Arab fiction 🙂

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