How Arabic Literature is Perceived in the Western World

Posted on July 29, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Image credit: Hishaam Siddiqi/Flickr

Last week, the English edition of the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat ran a four-part interview series by Raba’i Madhoun highlighting how Arabic literature is perceived in the West. In the series, Madhoun interviews Lebanese novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh, Moroccan writer Mohammed El-Mezdioui, Georgetown professor Elliott Colla, and British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh. Focusing largely on the United States and Europe, the series examines how Arabic literature holds up against literature published in English, French, and other Western languages, and how non-Arabic readers perceive Arabic literature.

Tadween has highlighted key parts of the interviews, with links to the original pieces below.

The Arabic Novel in the West
Interview with Hanan Al-Shaykh

In the first part of the series, Madhoun interviews Lebanese novelist, short story writer, journalist, and playwright Hanan Al-Shaykh, whose work mainly focuses on women in the Arab world. In the interview, Al-Shaykh identifies a hierarchy in the type of Arabic literature that English-speaking readers in the United Kingdom are interested in. Egypt tops this list and Palestine comes second, whereas books from or about Lebanon, Syria, or North Africa fall behind. Al-Shaykh alludes that the authors may have more to do with the audience’s preference than the topic itself. For example, the popularity of Emile Habibi and Edward Said may be reasons for the readers’ greater interest in Palestinian literature. Without giving much context as to why, Al-Shaykh states, “the Arabic novel does not enjoy much readership in the UK.”

The Arabic Novel and La Francophonie
Interview with Mohammed El-Mezdioui

Mohammed El-Mezdioui, a Moroccan writer based in France, reminds us that not all of literature in the West are based in the English language. He notes that France’s colonial legacy in North Africa and the large Diaspora of North Africans residing in France have shaped how French readers interact with Arabic literature. El-Mezdioui also raises the interesting point of whether or not second and third generation immigrants from North Africa writing in French should be considered part of Arab literature or “Francophone” literature, even if the story is set in the Arab world or is based on Arab life.

El-Mezdioui notes that there are many Arab authors whose work is highly regarded in France, such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Amin Maalouf, Naguib Mahfouz, and Alaa Al-Aswany. In addition to these renowned authors, El-Mezdioui claims that there has been a recent surge in the popularity of Algerian writers, and specifically mentions Yasmina Khadra and Boualem Sansal. Yet despite the popularity of the authors he mentioned, El-Mezdioui claims that that readership of Arab literature in France remains low, perhaps for no particular reason. “French readers are not homogenous and the kind of readership depends on the nature of the novel,” says El-Mezdioui.

The American Reader Seeking the Arab “Other”
Interview with Elliott Colla

Elliott Colla, associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, tackled the issues of how American readers interact with Arabic literature. A translator of Arabic novels into English himself Colla claims that Americans tend to bypass the Arab viewpoint in favor of literature that is written from an American perspective of the Arab world. He claims that there is a bias among American readers, who tend to favor literature written in English first, as opposed to translated works. “About two percent of the titles published in the United States are translated from other languages,” says Colla, “and only two percent of this tiny number come from Arabic.”

Colla paints a grim picture of Arabic literature in the American market. While some American readers may be interested in other parts of the world, Colla claims that they do not seek out books by writers from other countries. Instead, they choose to read what Americans have to say about other places. Colla notes that while there are readers in the United States who are interested in Arabic literature, there is even a bias within this market:

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…  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.

As for stories about the “Arab Other,” Colla says this stems from American interest of the “foreignness of Arab culture.”

Colla posits that the relationship between American readers and Arabic literature is unlikely to change, due in part to prejudices against translated fiction (Arabic fiction in particular) and the self-obsession with everything American. Despite this, Colla does recommend that one step towards increasing Western readership of Arabic literature is to revamp the editing process in the Arab world. Arabic literature is often edited for minor grammatical errors, whereas the text itself goes unchallenged. If the process is fine-tuned and new literature is criticized more thoroughly throughout the editing process to make it the best product it can be, more Arabic literature might have a better chance in English translation.

Universal Themes in the Arab Novel
Interview with Selma Dabbagh

In the final part of the interview series, British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh, who claims to have little command of the Arabic language, discusses the challenges that Arabic-language novels face in the West. Dabbagh claims that Arabic novels and works of fiction, whether written by Arabs in Arabic or in another language, are generally viewed as windows into cultural realities or present conditions and ideas. Yet Dabbagh states that “the Arab world is still enemy terrain and voices coming from it are expected to be besieged and unempowered,” which affects the perception of Arab literature. The idea of literature providing a window into the culture or reality of another country is something that Dabbagh herself is uncomfortable with. Arab literature, or any other literature, is not necessarily meant to act in this way.

Dabbagh highlights the difficulty authors with foreign names face in the pressure to write about their culture. Dabbagh says “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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