Reading multilingual Arab literatures globally | Daily News

Reading multilingual Arab literatures globally

Can contemporary reading methods catch up with the proliferation of and innovation in multilingual Arab literatures in ways that help combat ossified and misleading labels like “the Middle East” and “the Arab world”? The definition of “reader” should be widened to include anyone invested in reading Arab and Arabic texts.

Arab literatures have diversified to an extent that demands a concomitant evolution, if not revolution, of reading practices. A more nuanced and inclusive approach to studying, translating, anthologizing, publishing, and teaching is needed to help counteract orientalizing tendencies that persist in the marketing of literatures from and about the Arab region as well as in mainstream news media. A collective effort toward an objective, fair, and comparative “representation” of Arab literatures would reveal complex realities not only between but also within so-called Arab versus Western entities.

Reading and Writing Arab Literatures

AS WAÏL HASSAN points out in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Arab Novelistic Traditions (2017), writing by Arab authors is now a global phenomenon on all six continents: outside of the twenty-two Arab League member nations, the Arabic-language novel is also produced in Chad, Eritrea, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal as well as in Western countries (e.g., Lebanese authors Hanan al-Shaykh in London and Hoda Barakat in Paris). Not only are some Arabic-language novelists translated into numerous languages, a problematic topic to which I will return, but many Arab novelists also write in at least eleven languages: Arabic, Catalan, Dutch, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. Some of these authors write in foreign languages while based in Arab countries (e.g., anglophone Lebanese Australian novelist Nada Awar Jarrar, based in Beirut). This expansive multilingual literary field makes Arab novelistic traditions, as Hassan argues, an “inherently and internally comparative field of study.” He concludes that “Arab literary production has outgrown the pedagogical and institutional structures organizing literary studies (single-language departments such as Arabic, English, French, and so on; language families like Semitic, Romance, Germanic; and area studies such as Middle or Near Eastern languages), and it can help us imagine new patterns of comparison and configurations of knowledge.” In short, examinations of Arab literatures should move beyond narrow and at times artificial linguistic, geographical, and disciplinary borders in order to keep pace with these literatures.

In a similar vein, Reuven Snir notes that “whether the Arab Spring is considered to have failed or not, it continues to produce various literary experimental manifestations which will certainly change the face of Arabic literature” (Modern Arabic Literature, 2017). Two possibilities, he opines, would further diversify this corpus. First, if Islam loses its dominant cultural, if not political, role, the development of independent Arabic literatures may accelerate. Second, should local dialects become normalized in literary writings at the expense of modern standard Arabic, the variety would skyrocket. Furthermore, he clarifies that the “internet has become a virtual library for billions of Arabic literary texts housed on millions of websites.” Snir encourages scholars to carry out research on the literatures now available online and in social media, concluding that “Arabic literature is now in another place, but its scholarship needs time to adapt to the dramatic change it has undergone.” Examining online publishing and self-publishing—an underexplored realm—would shed light on fresh voices and styles, thus complementing and enriching our understanding of literatures in print. Claire Gallien also advises that we need “to rethink Anglo-Arab literatures outside the box” in order to combat lingering perceptions of such texts as purveyors of more or less ethnographic information about the Muslim/Arab Other in the wake of 9/11 or as exotic elements to satisfy an unabated desire for exaggerated cultural differences.

Depth notwithstanding, many academic readings have remained shortsighted. According to Hassan, both disciplinary and institutional barriers have created a split between Arabic-language and foreign-tongue Arab writings, for example, between arabo- and francophone novels from Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania. For many, Arabic-language works are still considered part of Arabic studies, while French-language texts continue to be perceived as part of francophone studies. This skewed perception results in works in the two languages “rarely, if ever, studied together.” Worse still, this linguistic split “replicates the binary division of colonial space between colonizer and colonized.” Similarly, he states that studies of early Arab mahjar (immigrant) literature have focused only on those who write in Arabic, disregarding the output of Arab writers in other languages. Arab novelists writing in other languages tend to fall between the “disciplinary cracks.” Fortunately, recent studies have begun to counteract these trends, whether by stressing the Arabness of foreign-language texts geographically, linguistically, thematically, and generationally or by comparing multilingual texts tied to a particular Arab country or to original versus host countries in a diasporic context. Critical of disciplinary blind spots, Jumana Bayeh argues that Middle East scholars have often remained, almost myopically, trained “upon a single spot on the map,” thus marginalizing the histories of Middle East migrations, whether into or out of the region. Fueling this fixation, I would add, is insufficient interdisciplinary and/or interlingual collaboration between Euro-American and Arab or Middle Eastern scholars.

Additionally, three practices in the Western publishing industry still contribute, at least on occasion, to a biased perception of Muslims and Arabs in the West. First, translation of Arabic texts occupies a very small share, with sociopolitical agendas and market forces choosing which Arabic texts get translated. In turn, it has been shown how translators may further subject such texts to a “process of selective appropriation” that manipulates, or “whitewashes,” the content in order to make it palatable to and/or simpler for Anglo-American readers. Regrettably, Arabic texts deemed too complex or experimental remain largely unknown. For example, The Yacoubian Building, translated in the wake of 9/11, “was promoted as providing an interpretation of terrorism: corruption, oppression, injustice and Islamic sensibilities, combined, are finally made to produce a terrorist. . . . Western readers are invited by the translator, reviewers, publishers and by their very preconceptions to receive the book as an ethnographic report on Arab Others.”

- World Literature Today 


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