Arabesque and Expat Arab literature

The other event I attended last weekend was the enormous cultural festival at the Kennedy Center in DC celebrating Arab arts and culture. I was simply shocked to see how well-attended the events were--many of them were sold out. The Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad, the Moroccan hip-hop group Hoba Hoba Spirit and the Somalian-Canadian rapper K'naan, among others, performed to full, overflowing houses.

And there were large crowds even for panels on Arab literature! I had the pleasure of attending one particularly good one, on expatriate Arab literature, moderated by my friend Moroccan author Laila Lalami, and featuring the regal Ahdaf Souief, the charming, charming Algerian writer Anouar Benmalek (his work is now on my ever-longer wish-list). Soueif told how she learned to read English at 5 because her mother, working on her PhD dissertation in London, needed to keep her occupied. She also mentioned how when her novel "In the Eye of the Sun" came out a British friend started his review with the words "Hated and reviled in her own country..," thinking he was doing her a favour by suggesting she was a "dissident" writer!

In general, the panel addressed the very difficult position of Arab writers who write in other languages, and find themselves in a treacherous no-man's-land, exoticized by the West and suspected  of traitorous tendencies in their homeland. Soueif mentioned how her efforts  to translate her work and her newspaper articles into Arabic, and to remain engaged with the Egyptian cultural scene, have defused many of these suspicions. Benmalek, who writes in French and left Algeria for France in 1992 after death threats, told of how one Algerian journalist asked him ("comme si c'etait une evidence") how he had accepted to be manipulated by Western publishers? "Even if I chose to be manipulated, I couldn't find anyone interested in manipulating me!" Benmalek joked. 

The panel dealt with complicated issues of identity and of the way post-colonial politics reverberate through cultural debates. The fact of the matter is that literature is often approached, both in literary studies and in publishing, on a national basis--we use geographical boundaries to classify authors and organize canons. So authors who don't fit neatly into these categories are in a very interesting, sometimes challenging, position.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.