Ara­bic fic­tion in Amer­ica

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Rym Ghazal Rym Ghazal is a fea­ture writer at The Na­tional.

Dis­placed peo­ple flee­ing wars; sto­ries with mis­chievous jinn and beau­ti­ful princesses; fa­bles with sages and fly­ing car­pets. These are typ­i­cal sto­ries as­so­ci­ated with the Arab world, new and old. Any other type of lit­er­a­ture, par­tic­u­larly con­tem­po­rary fic­tion that es­chews these clichés, has a harder time find­ing an au­di­ence.

En­ter two ed­i­tors: one from the United States; and one from Jor­dan, who took on the chal­lenge of in­tro­duc­ing 25 short sto­ries of fic­tion from 15 Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries; sto­ries that re­fute stereo­types about Arab writ­ing.

Trans­lated into English, they were pub­lished in a spe­cial is­sue of US lit­er­ary jour­nal The Com­mon. The ini­tia­tive was dis­cussed at NYUAD on Thurs­day, to­gether with is­sues of trans­la­tion and in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion, at the panel Ta­jdeed: Bring­ing Con­tem­po­rary Ara­bic Sto­ries to Amer­ica.

“It is a chal­lenge to in­tro­duce read­ers to a new lit­er­ary cul­ture,” says Jen­nifer Acker, founder and edi­tor-in-chief of The Com­mon, who also teaches at Amherst Col­lege, Mas­sachusetts.

Work­ing with award-win­ning Jor­da­nian writer, Hisham Bus­tani, the is­sue was pub­lished on April 6, 2016, and ti­tled Ta­jdeed (Re­newal). “It was called Ta­jdeed to be­gin a re­newal of in­ter­est and a re­newal of in­vest­ment in lit­er­ary craft and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, as the style of these pieces is not tra­di­tional,” says Acker.

It fea­tures award-win­ning writ­ers such as Zakaria Tamer (Syria) and Has­san Blasim (Iraq), as well as au­thors pub­lished in English for the first time. There is also a short story, A Bou­quet, by Emi­rati writer Fa­tima Al Mazrouei.

While the is­sue at­tracted in­ter­est from the pub­lish­ing and aca­demic worlds, gen­er­at­ing in­ter­est in trans­lated works re­mains a chal­lenge.

“A lot of read­ers think of read­ing works in trans­la­tion as do­ing some­thing that is ‘good for you’, like eat­ing your veg­eta­bles,” says Acker. “Those of us in­vested in trans­lat­ing and pub­lish­ing and pro­mot­ing Ara­bic works want to change that per­cep­tion, so that peo­ple re­alise that read­ing the short sto­ries like the pieces in Ta­jdeed is more like the plea­sure of eat­ing ice cream.

“Al­though many of the pieces we pub­lished have quite a dark world­view and per­haps should not be read be­fore bed­time.”

An­other hur­dle is find­ing the right trans­la­tor. “The num­ber of trans­la­tors who are both bilin­gual and bi­cul­tural is not huge and these peo­ple have lim­ited time and funds,” she says.

“Ara­bic is a dif­fi­cult lan­guage and there are so many dif­fer­ent reg­is­ters, as well as coun­try-spe­cific id­ioms, of course. You need the right mar­riage of writer and trans­la­tor to ren­der a work into not only di­gestible English but English with its orig­i­nal, in­tended flavours.”

A col­lab­o­ra­tive process that spanned four years, Bus­tani, who chose most of the work, says: “My cri­te­ria was to in­tro­duce what I call ‘new Ara­bic writ­ing,’ and by new, I do not mean ‘young’ or emerg­ing writ­ers, but a new ap­proach to theme and style that de­parts from ‘tra­di­tional’ or ‘classical’.

“In the US, only three per cent of all pub­lished books in a year are trans­la­tions from all the other lan­guages of the world. Within that three per cent, only one per cent are trans­la­tions from Ara­bic; that makes trans­la­tions from Ara­bic so in­fin­i­tes­i­mal that it does not ap­pear on the radar of the English-speak­ing world.”

Bus­tani says a lack of lit­er­ary trans­la­tion ini­tia­tives in the Mid­dle East means that “only the glamorous novel awards get some of the nov­els into English”.

“Those nov­els that re­side out­side the pol­i­tics of awards, the short-story form and po­etry, all those are the or­phans of the con­tem­po­rary Ara­bic lit­er­ary scene.”

There is also bias, where the English-speak­ing world has cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions about Arab lit­er­a­ture.

“So lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion that suc­cumbs to su­per­fi­cial per­cep­tions about the vi­o­lent, abu­sive, ter­ror­ist, fun­da­men­tal­ist, misog­y­nist Arab will find an eas­ier way to get pub­lished than works that dig deep, ex­plore com­plex­i­ties and refuse to make artis­tic short-cuts,” says Bus­tani.

“Also, pub­lish­ers are not in­ter­ested, and when they are, they are in­ter­ested in works that re­flect their own [usu­ally su­per­fi­cial] un­der­stand­ing about our re­gion.”

Youssef Rakha, an ac­claimed Egyp­tian writer with more than eight pub­lished books, wrote the in­tro­duc­tion to Ta­jdeed and was part of the panel discussion on Thurs­day, along with Acker and Bus­tani.

“I thought it was a very rea­son­ably rep­re­sen­ta­tive se­lec­tion, al­though I would se­ri­ously ob­ject to the idea of ‘the best of’, sim­ply be­cause, how­ever ob­jec­tive one tries to be, such a choice inevitably re­mains sub­jec­tive,” he says.

Given US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s at­tempts at im­pos­ing a travel ban on six Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries, could this ac­tu­ally prove beneficial for Ara­bic fic­tion?

“Amer­ica’s an­tag­o­nis­tic en­gage­ment in the Mid­dle East and with Mus­lims of all na­tion­al­i­ties has raised in­ter­est in Ara­bic com­mu­ni­ties,” says Acker. “Our hope is that con­tem­po­rary Ara­bic writ­ers will some­day soon en­ter peo­ple’s con­scious­ness as sim­ply ‘writ­ers’ known for their craft, po­et­i­cism and sto­ry­telling.”

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