The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Arab literature in the New Yorker


Photo from Lehnert and Landrock, 1924

A couple friends have forwarded me this article in the latest New Yorker, about the increasing availability of Arabic literature in translation. This is how it opens:

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? There are, of course, newspapers to keep responsible Americans up to date when trouble looms, and public television or even the History Channel to inform us about the occasional historic battle or archeological discovery or civil war. What else do we need? The ways that people think and work and suffer and fall in love and make enemies and sometimes make revolutions is the stuff of novels, and Arabic novels, while not yet lining the shelves of the local bookstore, have been increasingly available in English translation, offering a marvellous array of answers to questions we did not know we wanted to ask. On such subjects as: the nature of the clientele of the elegantly crumbling pre-Islamist bars in downtown Cairo, straight and gay (“The Yacoubian Building,” by Alaa Al Aswany); what it felt like to live through the massacre in the Shatila refugee camp, in 1982, and how some of the people who still live there have been managing since (“Gate of the Sun,” by Elias Khoury); the optimal tactics that a good Saudi girl should use to avoid being married off, which appear to require that she study either medicine or dentistry (“Girls of Riyadh,” by the twenty-something Rajaa Alsanea, who has herself completed an advanced degree in endodontics).

The article analyzes Mahmoud Saeed's Saddam City, Sinan Antoon's I'jaam, Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun, Ghassan Kanafani's short stories Men in the Sun and Return to Haifa; Emile Habiby's The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, and, briefly, a few others. The discussions of the individual works are interesting; I particularly liked Pierpoint on Kanafani--whose talents ignite her own writing--and on Khoury--whose ambitions and shortcomings she deftly sketches. But as usual trying to discuss the simultaneously broad and sparse category of "Arabic literature in translation" is nearly impossible to do with resorting to some awkward transitions and generalizations.

The books mentioned come from different times (some are several decades old), different countries and authors of varying talent. Hence, the only element by which they can all be linked is their hard-to-define Arabness. In Pierpoint's analysis that seems to be linked to a certain explicit political engagement; George Orwell is mentioned three times. In fact, I wish the piece had focused more explicitly on the both urgent and constricting relationship between politics and literature in the Arab world.

The other element the works seem to have been chosen for is relevance to American foreign policy-the books discussed in depth are all connected to either Iraq or Palestine. As usual Arab literature has to be bracketed by current events, have what Sinan Antoon calls "forensic value." After the introduction, quoted above, Pierpoint writes that:

whether any book will outlast its moment is impossible to say, but what follows is an account of some novels that are worth reading now, and that may prove to be worth reading even when newspapers divert our attention to wars and prisons somewhere else.

Certainly reading novels is a way of learning about the world; and certainly for me reading Arab novels has been one of the most satisfying ways of deepening my understanding of Egypt and other Arab countries. But what one learns from literature is hard to pinpoint. Good literature, while it may provide insights, does not offer explanations; while it raises questions, does not usually give comprehensive answers. Arabic novels give a sense of life in the Arab world, because literature lives alongside society and politics and history, but they are, let's remember, stories, written by individuals. To pick up a book because we are curious about a certain country or society rather than because we are curious about that particular book is to assign the book anthropological, not literary, value.

It’s nice to see Arabic literature featured in the New Yorker, but I wish it would be discussed as literature. My first question—and I suppose it’s an increasingly unfashionable one—is always, regardless of “wars and prisons”: is this a good book? Especially as I believe there is a relationship between the quality of a novel and the quality of what one learns from it—and certainly the pleasure of the instruction.

There are also a few mistakes in the article: Naguib Mahfouz didn't live "two more years" after the 1994 attack on his life--he lived 12 more. Pierpoint writes that The Yacoubian Building was "Published in 2002, by a private Cairo firm—there being no way to get such a manuscript through the state’s official publishing house." Why not mention the well-known and well-loved Merit publishing house by name? And while it's true The Yacoubian Building was turned down by government publishing houses, it was first published as a serial in a government-owned paper, Akhbar Al Adab.