Mahfouz in 2005

March 8 2008


The Westcar Papyrus

I’ve linked to Qunfuzcreation several times recently. Here is a recent discussion of Egyptian novels. I am not quoting Robin Yassin-Kassab in this post unless I say so.

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), the preeminent figure, published his Cairo Trilogy in Arabic in the mid-’50s. It tells the history of a patrician family from 1917 until the Nasserite revolution. I outlined Egyptian history from 1805 to 1970 in 1,000 words here. Mahfouz was prolific. His style developed, as qunfuz says, “from heroic through realist to magical realist or romantic symbolist”.

Mahfouz wrote several novels about ancient Egypt. Raymond Stock, who is writing Mahfouz’s biography, says in an interview at which was given, or published on the site, on January 28 2003:

“These are ‘Abath al-aqdar (literally, The Mockery of the Fates, 1939), Radubis (Rhadopis, 1943), and Kifah Tibah (Thebes at War, 1944). I was chosen to translate the first one, ‘Abath al-aqdar, which we will issue under the title that Mahfouz originally gave it, Khufu’s Wisdom (Hikmat Khufu) – this story was drawn from Hordedef’s Tale in the Papyrus Westcar. The second novel, Rhadopis, which blends the story of the famous Thracian courtesan described by Herodotus and Strabo with that of the tragically short reign of Merenre’ II and his queen Nitocris, is being translated by Anthony Calderbank. The third, Thebes at War, about the liberation of Egypt from the Hyksos during the 17th Dynasty, is being translated by Humphrey Davies. All of these will appear next September [2003], 64 years to the month since the publication of ‘Abath al-aqdar, Mahfouz’s premier novel.”

These editions were first published by the American University in Cairo Press.

The Westcar Papyrus, after the early-nineteenth century British collector Henry Westcar, the first Egyptian novel, is a fragmentary ancient Egyptian text containing a cycle of five tales about marvels performed by priests told at the court of Khufu by various of his sons. Khufu or Cheops was a Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom and Fourth Dynasty who lived in the 26th century BC. The stories appear to have originated in the Middle Kingdom at some time in the Twelfth Dynasty, twentieth and nineteenth centuries BC. The papyrus consists of twelve rolls written in the Hyskos, or Second Intermediate, period between the end of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the New Kingdom, Fifteenth Dynasty and possibly Sixteenth, in the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries BC.

These three early novels were intended to be the beginning of a vast Waverley-like cycle covering all of Egyptian history, but instead of proceeding with it, Mahfouz turned his attention to the present. He returned to ancient history in 1985 with Al-A’ish fi al-Haqiqah, published in English in 1998 in a translation, by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo, with the beautiful title Akhenaton: Dweller in Truth.

Raymond Stock had already translated five short Pharaonic stories by Mahfouz, published in 2002 as Voices from the Other World, Ancient Egyptian Tales. “I first met Naguib Mahfouz on March 4, 1990, my first full day as acquisitions editor at the American University in Cairo Press, when he made his weekly visit to our office to collect his mail.” Soon afterwards, Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York commissioned him to write Mahfouz’s biography. It has not yet been published.

Stock became a sort of Boswell or Craft to Mahfouz. The picture below, taken on October 23 1994, shows Mahfouz in the Police Authority Hospital next to his home in Agouza, Cairo, after being stabbed in the neck and nearly killed by an Islamist militant for something allegedly blasphemous he had written in Awlad Haretna, or Children of Gebelawi or Children of the Alley, published in Arabic in 1959. The blade damaged the nerve that controlled his right arm and hand. He wrote in longhand, not by typing. After years of physiotherapy, he resumed writing new material in 1999.

The American University in Cairo was founded in the turbulent year 1919. Like the American University of Beirut, it is a private university. In September of this year, it will move from its old premises in downtown Cairo to a new campus outside the city, though I believe it will retain part of the old premises for special uses. Many people are sorry about this latest desertion of the pre-1914 downtown – which is part of a worldwide flight from city centres, intermittently corrected by sellers of expensive residential real estate.

The best-selling novel in the Arab world for a long time after its publication in 2002 was ‘Imārat Ya’qūbīān (inconsistent use of diacritics, I know), by Alaa El-Aswany. It looked at the lives of the contemporary inhabitants of an apartment building in old (early twentieth-century) downtown Cairo. The building had seen better days, but all kinds of characters lived in it. On the roof was a small shanty-town, a colony of the poor. Yassin-Kassab: “Mahfouz’s microcosmic alleyway has been replaced by a residential building.” Here is an article in The Guardian about novels built around the varied inhabitants of a single building, starting with Zola’s Pot-Bouille in his Rougon-Macquart series. I hadn’t heard of most of them. I imagine that El-Aswany would acknowledge a debt generally to Zola.

A translation by Humphrey T Davies, The Yacoubian Building, was published in Egypt in 2004, in a beautifully-produced edition from The American University in Cairo Press. It has since gained wider circulation.

The Yacoubian Building was important for Western readers. It gave them an insight into a society they otherwise knew only from tourism and news media. It overturned their assumptions about what an Arab novel might contain. And it gave them a chance to see a good Egyptian film. The film version was very well done and had an all-star cast (don’t watch its inept trailer on YouTube). It ran for weeks in London, which must have been the only time this has happened with a film in Arabic with subtitles.

The book doesn’t have the stature of a novel by Mahfouz, though on occasion it comes close. It is closer to a sort of television soap opera. Most Egyptians found aspects of its portrayal of Egyptian society slightly forced or dated. It gives an impression of a society bound by the chains of sycophancy from the bell-boy up to the chief of police and beyond to the minister. But Egypt is bound in this way. Some Egyptians went to see the film more than once simply to watch the reactions of their compatriots in the audience.

The film, especially, made some Egyptians think about the many realities their society was ignoring, including homosexuality. El-Aswany is an opponent of Hosni Mubarak – and yet in a country with no free press and one in which bloggers can be locked up, his novel sells. Perhaps this indicates a certain Egyptian respect for art. On the other hand, with the partial exceptions of Egypt and Lebanon and perhaps Syria, there are pitifully few bookshops in much of the middle east. There must be many countries where the novel is not allowed to be sold.

El-Aswany supports Kefaya, a coalition of popular groups opposed to the stooge Hosni Mubarak. Kefaya, which was notably active in 2004 and ’05, was particularly concerned with the question of the succession to Mubarak and the likelihood of an automatic transfer of power to his son Gamal (National Democratic Party). The result of Kefaya’s and American pressure was Egypt’s first multi-party presidential election, in September 2005. It meant very little, though it and the protest votes for the Muslim Brotherhood and others in the subsequent parliamentary elections did Gamal short-term harm. The mild opposition leader, Ayman Nour of the El Ghad party, was not allowed to participate in the presidential contest and is still in jail.

Stock says that very little Arabic literature has been translated into English. The same is true, at least for recent literature, the other way round. “Exceptions include the Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh, Syrian-based writer Abdel-Rahman Munif, and a handful of others, such as Egyptian septuagenarian Edwar al-Kharrat, whose novel Rama and the Dragon (Rama wa-al-tinin) won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2000. There is a lot of very good, but apparently very little great, fiction floating untranslated around the Arab world, though we are always hopeful of new talent arising. One such person is Somaya Ramadan, a young Egyptian whose first novel, Leaves of Narcissus (Awraq narjis), won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2001; this book appeared (along with al-Kharrat’s Rama and the Dragon) in English at last December’s ceremony for the same award.

“As far as Arab writers adapting ancient Egyptian themes in fiction, most of this was done in the 1930s and 1940s, later yielding to an emphasis on Islamic-themed works. […] Among the pioneers was ‘Adil Kamel, whose novel about Akhenaten, King of Rays (Malik min shu’ah) was written in the late 1930s, though it appeared in the early 1940s. There were also Muhammad ‘Awad with his 1943 novel Sinuhi, and Abd al-Hamid Judah al-Sahhar [mentioned in my main attachment below] with his novel Ahmus, on the pharaoh who led the final drive against the Hyksos, ditto in 1943. Several plays have also appeared, such as Alfred Farag’s take on Akhenaten, Pharaoh’s Fall (Suqut firawn, 1955), and relatively more recently, Ahmad Suwaylim’s Akhenaten: A Play in Verse (Akhnatun: masrahiyah shi’riyah, 1981).”

Going back to Yassin-Kassab, he does not mention Taha Hussein (1889-1973). I have not read any of his novels, but I have read parts of his fine autobiography, published in Arabic in 1932, and in English in 1943 as The Days. He should surely be mentioned in any list. Taha Hussein was blind from early childhood. (Some Egyptians looked blind from their fondness for wearing very dark glasses! Mahfouz sometimes did this. So did Umm Khulthum.)

He talks about some other Egyptians:

“One star of the ‘Sixties Generation’ is Gamal al-Ghitani [he is mentioned in my main attachment below], whose historical novel ‘Zayni Barakat’ is particularly good. This is set in 1516 when Egypt’s Mamluk dynasty was crumbling before rising Ottoman power, but like all historical novels it has as much to say about the moment of its authorship. Many Western journalists are frustrated novelists; the oft-censored and once imprisoned Ghitani is a frustrated journalist. His fiction refers to the rise of a new Egyptian ruling class, to Israeli conquest and American hegemony, and the experience of living in a police state.

“The Marxist writer Sonallah Ibrahim, in a reaction against social realism and linear narrative, produces kafkaesque and often hilarious criticism of contemporary Egypt. Another frustrated social commentator, Ibrahim blurs borders between literature and reportage. In ‘Zaat’, for instance, chapters describing the sexual, workplace and bureaucratic battles of the eponymous heroine are intercut with headlines culled from the Egyptian press which tell their own story of galloping corruption, loss of national independence, social dislocation and hypocritical Islamism.”

Turning to contemporary fiction, he starts with El-Aswany and goes on:

“Most contemporary of all in its tone is Ahmad al-Aidy’s ‘Being Abbas el Abd’, which is an Egyptian ‘Fight Club’, amongst other things. It contains graphic weirdness and all manner of iconoclasm. Its humour and quickness of thought, and its up-to-the-minute Cairene cynicism, produce devastating lines […].

“I have some problems with the Humphrey Davies translation. When I read ‘Cut to the chase,’ or ‘Don’t act dumb with me! I mean like what’s with the women?’ I have to struggle to place myself back in Cairo. […]

“‘Being Abbas el Abd’ is fast-moving, globalised, irreverent, erotic, and alienated. As such it would surprise Martin Amis, who tells us that a monolithic Islamism has won everywhere in the Muslim world. It would confuse any of the commentators who complacently wrap up the ‘Arab mind’ in a trite image or two.

“The West is hearing a lot about the Arabs, but only within the straitened confines of its corporate media, which inevitably simplifies. ‘Making Sense Of It All,’ sloganises BBC World. Non-fiction written by outsiders can be good (on Egypt, ‘In an Antique Land’ by Amitav Ghosh is to be recommended), but the stuff in the best-seller lists (Bernard Lewis, VS Naipaul) usually has a narrow agenda. Novels provide context and complexity. They offer a more nuanced understanding and a sense of the human texture of a part of the world which is, naturally, every bit as diverse as any other.”

In a series of cabinet changes in Egypt in July 2004, a group of reforming ministers came into power (many of the old guard remaining). As far as I know, the reforming group are all still there. This was done despite the instincts of Mubarak, which are never to change anything. A series of free-market reforms was got under way. The opaque balance sheet of the old Nasserite state was audited and clarified. A series of privatisations began. It was an attempt at the same order of changes that, from different starting points, the UK began in 1979 under Thatcher, China in the ’80s under Deng Xiaoping, Russia in 1985 under Gorbachev, India in 1991, when the Congress Finance Minister was Manmohan Singh, the present Prime Minister, etc. And as in every other case, it is bringing prosperity and perhaps, even, better conditions for the poor, and sweeping away important things.

For the 2005 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in January, I organised a 100-page supplement to the WEF magazine Global Agenda (now defunct) on the first few months of this reform programme. It had some importance at the time as the most detailed portrait which had been done of the political and economic scene in Egypt at that precise moment, a turning-point. It was written by our correspondent in Cairo, Patrick Werr. Patrick lives in a building in the decayed early twentieth-century Cairo downtown behind Tahrir Square. The opening scene of The Yacoubian Building was shot only a few feet away from it. (UNESCO, which has not yet listed the area, had better start talking to Emaar soon, because it is only a matter of time before Gulf money and Gulf lifestyle-purveyors get their hands on it. Most of the Egyptian middle class would love Cairo to be like nothing other than Dubai. On the other hand, UNESCO is only a rearguard defence against Emaar et al, offering regulation in place of real life.)

For the endpiece, I thought that it would be interesting for Davos (but surely impossible) to interview Mahfouz, the Laureate himself. Mahfouz was still writing a column in Al Ahram, which also appeared in the English weekly edition and doubtless also in the French. It was incredible for me to think that in 2004 we could approach a man who had been publishing since 1932. Patrick approached Raymond Stock – and I attach the result below. This interview was done for us, and as far as I know did not appear anywhere else. It took place in December 2004 and early January 2005. It may have been the last interview Mahfouz gave. Mahfouz’s death in 2006 was a curiously muted affair in the Egyptian press.

The piece mentions Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Tawfk Al-Hakim and Sayyid Qutb and explains who they are. Stock even mentions Arnold Toynbee, and Mahfouz makes a very Toynbeean comparison between the period after Akhenaten and contemporary Egypt.

Stock and Mahfouz in 1994; and Mahfouz for Davos (I have used the former without permission, but of course not for profit and I hope within a context which indicates fair use)



6 Responses to “Mahfouz in 2005”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Robin Yassin-Kassab writes, on Arabic novels in English translation (quoted with permission):

    The Arab Human Development Report (1) found that “the number of books translated in the Arab world is one fifth of the number translated in Greece. The aggregate total of translated books from the Al-Ma’moon era (a millennium ago) to the present day amounts to 10, 000 books – equivalent to what Spain translates in a single year.” Put another way, only 330 books are translated into Arabic annually.

    These are dismal statistics, but the failure to translate is mutual. Jessica Papin, International Rights Manager at the American University in Cairo Press, writes that of 50, 000 new titles published globally each year, only 10% are translations, and only 1% of these are from the Arab world, of which only a few dozen are translated into English. Of 10, 000 works published in the US in 1999, only 300 were translations from any language. UNESCO statistics show that 50% of translations worldwide are from English, but only six per cent are into English. (2)

    In this essay I will concentrate on Arabic novels in English translation. I will suggest reasons why so few are translated and then published commercially. I will question the criteria for translation, and briefly describe what kind of novels are translated. Finally, I will ask if Arabic novels are entering a more positive future in the English-speaking world.

    In a 1990 essay in The Nation, Edward Said referred to Arabic literature as “embargoed literature,” and remembered a conversation with an American publisher who described Arabic as a “controversial language.” Translation reflects power relations between cultures. In the case of Arabic to English communication, translation standards are often low. This is particularly marked in the news media. When Western TV channels or newspapers send correspondents to France, they send people who can speak French. Almost none of the Western correspondents in the Arab world speak Arabic. This results in critical inaccuracies in reporting. In the early days of the occupation of Iraq, for instance, Channel Four news showed an American soldier holding an Iraqi army practice target. The target depicted a human form with the words ‘hadha suhyooni’ – ‘this is a Zionist’ – but the American soldier was unchallenged as he told the viewers that the target read ‘this is a Jew,’ recasting Baathist opposition to a political ideology as anti-Semitism. Translation decisions can have obvious political ramifications. (3)

    What, then, are the factors discouraging the translation of Arabic novels into English?

    The insularity of dominant cultures, their (false) sense of self-containment, their (real) cultural wealth may play a role in the English-speaking readership’s relative lack of interest in Arabic novels. Neil Hewison, Associate Director for Editorial Programs at the American University in Cairo Press, writes that Arabic novels in French, German, Italian and Spanish editions sell in much higher numbers than translations into English. (4) Alaa Al Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building,” for example, has sold up to 150, 000 copies in France, as opposed to a total of 25, 000 in English-language sales in Egypt, the UK and the US. Hewison explains, “there is more resistance to reading translations (from any language) in the English reading world than in say France – probably simply because there is so much more fiction written originally in English (from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand) than in French, that there is no ‘need’ to read translations.”

    Why, though, are Arab novels in particular so rare in English translation? Assumptions of exotic foreignness and of the irrelevance of Arab social contexts to English-speaking readerships, reinforced by certain translation styles, play a role. (5) Just as the “Arabian Nights” has often been presented as expressing truths about current Arab social relations rather than as medieval fantasy literature, there is a long history of viewing and teaching Arabic culture in medieval form, and understanding contemporary Arab phenomena through a medieval or otherwise archaic prism and in terms of a decontextualised Arab or Islamic ‘mind.’ Novels provide context, and context has been deemed to be unnecessary.

    A further obstacle is the connotational strangeness of Arabic to English. How, for instance, would one translate the word ‘jihad’? ‘Holy War’ evokes memories of the Crusades and does not preserve the Arabic word’s sense of self-defense. ‘Struggle’ allows for the range of meanings in the Arabic term, but will often be too vague for the context. Translating Arabic ‘jihad’ as English ‘jihad’ is also highly problematic, as the word has overwhelmingly positive connotations in Arabic, but in English is usually synonymous with ‘terrorism.’ (6)

    There are internal Arab reasons why so few works appear in international bookshops, such as the lack of professionalism in Arabic publishing, including the absence of editors and the confused status of copyright law in Arab countries, and the generally very small number of Arabic novels sold at home. (7) Dr. George Rishmawi blames a global “turning to the right, in which people don’t want to know anything new,” in which “there is a politicisation of ideas and cultural interaction becomes less,” as well as harsh economic realities, both for low sales of novels in the Arab world and for what he sees as a declining calibre of Arabic writing. (8) There is also the problem of the lack of official support for Arabic writing. There is no unified Arab cultural organization co-coordinating and supporting translations, no equivalent of the Alliance Francaise to aggressively promote Arabic literature. Translator Roger Allen talks of the “representatives of the Arab world in the capital cities of the world, such as cultural attachés, who are supposed to project Arab culture [abroad] but seem to be totally unqualified and unequipped and unwilling to promote the literatures of their homelands.” (9)

    Indeed, a few institutions and individuals have done more than the 22 culture ministries combined to provide Arabic literature to English-speaking audiences. Foremost among them is the American University in Cairo Press, which has a list of around 100 translated works of fiction by 52 authors. (Over 30 works are by Naguib Mahfouz.) Seven or eight new works are published in each list, and there are two new lists annually. Palestinian poetess Salma Khadra Jayyusi established the Project for the Translation of Arabic (PROTA) which has made many works, especially poetry and anthologies, available. Individuals like Denys Johnson-Davies, translator of Mahfouz and Zakaria Tamer, have done work of great importance.

    What are the criteria used by a publisher deciding whether or not to take a translated Arabic novel? The AUC Press makes decisions based on the quality of the original text and its suitability for the target audience. AUCP’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature is what Neil Hewison calls “the spearhead of our translation program.” It is judged “by an independent committee of scholars and literary critics. We publish not only the winner but other novels that have been highly recommended by the committee. We also listen to advice from other quarters, including experienced translators, but always consider not only what sells well in Arabic but also what is likely to work well for a western audience.” (10)

    Mr. Hewison expands: “Our advisors will often tell us that a book is good and perhaps important in Arabic but would not transfer well to English – perhaps because the language itself is one of the key features of the book, and thus too much would be lost in translation; or because the cultural context is too specific, and the explanation necessary would overwhelm the original work; or simply because the issues being addressed are of concern to … Arabs but of little concern to westerners, either because the issues don’t exist in the west or they have been thoroughly worked out there already and would be old hat.”

    Kirsty Dunseath of Wiedenfeld Fiction, Orion Books, has experience buying translated works, but not from Arabic. She confirms Neil Hewison’s words: “Often books may work in their own country because they pick on key places or questions that relate to that country, but don’t have the same appeal elsewhere. That is true of any country – many books from the US are turned down because they are ‘too American.’” (11)

    Topicality is another criterion. In Neil Hewison’s words, “sometimes, as in the case of “The Yacoubian Building” or Ahmed Alaidy’s “Being Abbas el Abd,” a new novel is so much the talk of the town that the curiosity and demand for a translation is enough incentive for us to take it on.”

    Neil Hewison says, “Our criteria are never political.” If we examine which Arab novels are available in English-language bookshops, however, it becomes clear that there is an imbalance which may well have political causes.

    Salih Altoma’s “Modern Arabic Literature in Translation” identifies three stages in the twentieth century history of translating Arabic literature. (12) In the first stage, in the forties, fifties and sixties, one or two works were translated annually. The second stage, from 1968 to 1988, saw a huge growth in the translation of some women writers. The third stage, since Naguib Mahfouz opened the way with his 1988 Nobel Prize, has seen an average of 15 works translated annually. Doubleday has published Mahfouz’s novels on both sides of the Atlantic. His “Cairo Trilogy” and “Midaq Alley” are the best-known and best-selling Arab novels in the world.

    Altoma’s second stage certainly raises the question of the politics of translation. Increased translation of works by selected Arab women tells us more about cultural developments in the English-speaking world than those in the Arab world, specifically the rise of feminism and the increasing demonisation of the Arabs after Israel’s 1967 victory and then the growth of Islamism. The second ‘big name’, after Mahfouz, was Nawal as-Sa’daawi, a feminist writer whose anti-patriarchal and anti-clerical polemics are seen as more important in the West than in the Arab world.

    It is interesting in this context to see who was not translated. The Generation of the Sixties writers with their reaction against social realism and linear narrative were in tune with the period’s global taste for experiment, but were largely ignored by English-language publishers. Most notably shunned was Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by AUC Press and by European publishers, but not by any mainstream English-language commercial house. Women writers whose work did not fit easily into the oppressed oriental female stereotype, such as Radwa ‘Ashour and Ghada Samman, were also not translated.

    Like the word ‘jihad,’ when an Arabic novel is translated into English, it grows new meanings. To some extent it represents the Arab world, and either reinforces or challenges the assumptions held about the Arabs by the English-speaking audience. The packaging and marketing of ‘eastern’ novels, translated or not, carefully positions them within a narrative accessible to the target audience. The front cover of an early edition of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” declares: “it sounds like a continent finding its voice.” Despite his English education and residence and his ‘cosmopolitan intellectual’ influences, and despite the enormous and ancient subcontinental literary tradition, Rushdie is cast as the articulate native who, at last, speaks a language ‘we’ can understand. (A paper could be written on how the marketing of Rushdie as much as the offensiveness of “The Satanic Verses” fuelled the angry Muslim response to this later novel). (13)

    Nawal as-Sa’daawi is a good and interesting writer, but it seems that the possibility of presenting her in the role of ‘native informant,’ in this case on the plight of the oppressed Arab/ Muslim woman, influenced her ‘translatability.’ (14) As-Sa’daawi is not an isolated case. Professor Mona Baker discusses the example of Huda Sha’rawi’s “Mudhakhirati” – literally, ‘My Memoirs’ – published in Arabic by Dar al Hilal in 1981. Translated by Margot Badran for publication by the New York Feminist Press in 1986, the memoir’s title became “Harem Years: Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist.” Thus the personal narrative of an Egyptian campaigner for women’s rights is transformed to fit into two public narratives in the target culture – that of (Western) feminism, and the orientalist narrative of the ‘harem.’ Baker writes, “Sha’rawi only uses the word ‘harim’ once in 457 pages, whereas the English version uses it 25 times in the Introduction alone.” (15)

    How pervasive narratives of oppressed Arab women are is obvious from a cursory look at the popular fiction, biographies and ‘documentary’ studies of the Arabs available in airport bookshops. The most marketed themes are of violence against women and the kidnapping of their children, and the most common cover imagery is that of the veil. Many readers base their picture of the Arab world on books such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s neo-conservative “The Caged Virgin” (16), Jean Sassoon’s suspect “Princess” series (17), and Norma Khouri’s fraudulent memoir “Forbidden Love.” This last book was published in 15 countries, selling over 200,000 copies in Australia alone. It was edited, but not checked for factual accuracy, by New York agent Christy Fletcher, and then vetted by lawyers for Viacom in the US and Transworld in America. It tells of the honour killing of the author’s best friend in Jordan. Norma Khouri, it has since emerged, left Jordan at the age of three. “Forbidden Love” contains at least 73 serious errors and exaggerations. (18)

    In the context of the ‘War on Terror’ could the translated Arab novel be entering a fourth stage? There are positive signs. Neil Hewison says, “people are looking to read more from the Arab world since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, for both the right and the wrong reasons. We don’t pander in any particular direction to that increased audience, we’re just glad that more people are picking up our books.”

    With the Mahfouz and as-Sa’daawi exceptions, publishers of Arabic fiction in translation have generally been academic or specialist houses, such as Garnet and al-Saqi, and when novels have been published by larger houses they have been marketed in a specialist ethnic category (such as in the Heinemann African Writers series). There is now reason to hope that, in Neil Hewison’s words, Arabic fiction is breaking “out of the academic cupboard that it’s been in for so long,” and that people will be “reading the books for their own sake, not for their curiosity value.”

    Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building,” originally published by the AUC Press, has been published by Fourth Estate in the UK and Harper Collins in the US. It has been widely and well-reviewed in the British press. The cover of the British hardback edition is decorated by a picture of an unveiled woman, the words “the international bestseller,” and the following positively-domesticating quote from Patrick Gale: “An Egyptian ‘Tales of the City’ .. At once a timely celebration of diversity and a warning that we ignore our neighbours at our peril.” AUC Press is currently looking at bids from the US and the UK on Aswany’s latest novel, “Chicago.” Jessica Papin says that Aswany’s success “demonstrates that both the media and readers are willing to read works of Arabic fiction in translation, particularly if they seem to capture something of the zeitgeist of the Arab world.”

    There have been several more successes. In recent years Harville has published Elias Khoury’s “Gate of the Sun.” Bloomsbury (UK) has published Mourid Barghouti’s “I Saw Ramallah,” and Penguin has published Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s “Wolves of the Crescent Moon.” The influential Words Without Borders website has provided literary translations from Arabic since 2004. It seems that Arab novels are finally being liberated from the harem and veil bracket.

    This optimistic conclusion is based on anecdotal evidence, the general sense among publishers that there is an increasing interest in Arabic novels. Serious research needs to be done to confirm this. Sadly, it is much more certain that orientalist ‘scholarship’ of the Bernard Lewis/ neo-conservative school is topping bestseller lists.

    I will finish with these hopeful words from Jessica Papin. “Readers are interested in getting a broader, more nuanced understanding of the Arab world than what the media, or even non-fiction, can supply. Literature can illuminate much that analysis and reportage cannot.”


    1. The Arab Human Development Report is published by the United Nations Development Program. The 2002 report commented on the translation gap.

    2. Jessica Papin’s words are from email correspondence with me of 12/03/2007.

    3. A topical example from a neighbour of the Arabs is Iranian President Ahmedinejad’s statement in Farsi that “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time,” more often translated in the West as “Israel must be wiped off the map.” The first translation expresses the belief that an unjust political dispensation will not last, the second seems like a genocidal threat. See

    4. Neil Hewison’s words are from email correspondence with me of 04/04/2007.

    5. There is fierce debate over translation styles. The translation theorist Venuti has opposed ‘domesticating’ with ‘foreignizing’ translation srategies.

    6. In Ahdaf Soueif’s novel “In the Eye of the Sun” a character meets similar difficulties while translating a song by Sheikh Imam: “…this is taking all these sentences to translate, and it makes it seem ponderous and convoluted while in fact it’s totally direct; it’s language that a completely illiterate, uneducated woman would use to her child. … A page of footnotes for every line.” (p. 496 – 499).

    7. “.. with publication rates of Egyptian editions of Arabic novels running in the low thousands (2,000-5,000 — Mahfouz around 10,000), a rough comparison to the numbers of translated editions (tens of thousands and up) suggests that the market (and perhaps readership) may be larger in places like New York than in Cairo. As one author has told me, translated editions are the only way through which an Egyptian author makes any direct profit.” (Multiplying Mahfouz, a review of Rasheed El-Enany’s Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, Elliott Colla, in SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities.

    8. Interview with Dr. George Rishmawi, Professor of Literary Translation, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. 11/04/2007.

    9. Hala Halim interviews Roger Allen, Between Words: Living Language, al-Ahram Weekly 30 March – 05 April 2006.

    10. The AUCP’s Jessica Papin writes: “Although there is an embarrassment of riches, we attempt to translate the most distinguished, influential, and highly regarded of contemporary writers. Given the breadth of works, genres, and styles, I’d say that the works defy any sort of stereotyping (Nubian writer Idris Ali is not like Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi who is utterly unlike Palestinian writer Sahar Khalifeh). On the contrary, they reflect the richness and variety of the world of Arabic letters.”

    11. Kirsty Dunseath’s words are from email correspondence with me of 07/03/2007.

    12. Salih Altoma. “Modern Arabic Literature in Translation.” London. Saqi. 2005

    13. A further example of questionable ‘framing’ is that of the Palestinian film “Paradise Now,” which was shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. A DVD cover quote from Newsday’s John Anderson describes the film as “the year’s most insightful look at the motivations of terrorism.” The trailer for American release (inaccurately) describes the film as “a call for peace from the most unexpected place.”

    14. ‘When novelist Salwa Bakr questioned German translator Hartmut Fahndrich over whether the interest of Western publishers in women’s writing remained strong he replied that “publishers in Europe continue to welcome writing by women in which they talk about their depression and sufferings.”’ ( The Seminars Unravel. Rania Khallaf. al-Ahram weekly. 26 Jan – 1 Feb 2006) (My objection to the focus on ‘oppressed woman’ narratives does not seek to deny that Arab-Muslim women are in some cases oppressed. I object to the orientalist fetishisation of oppressed Arab-Muslim women, and the selectivity which represents their oppression as the defining issue of the Arab and Muslim worlds. I have witnessed a similar selectivity in Syrian news reports on Britain. From these reports a viewer would conclude that British life is overwhelmingly defined by racial and class strife.)

    15. Mona Baker (Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Manchester) in “Translation and Conflict.” Routledge. 2006. (p.63). Here Baker discusses Mohja Kahf’s 2000 study “Packaging ‘Huda’: Sha’rawi’s Memoirs in the United States Reception Environment” in Amireh and Majaj (eds) “Going Global: The Transnational Reception of Third World Women Writers,” New York and London, Garland Publishing, 148 – 72. I saw Mona Baker speak on this issue at the Sultan Qaboos University Building Bridges conference, 22nd March 2007.

    16. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former MP for a Dutch anti-immigrant party, is sometimes presented in the West as a Muslim reformer, but has no such status among Muslims. She has falsely represented honour killing, forced marriage, female circumcision and wife beating as essential elements of Islamic belief, as well as having lied about her own life circumstances.

    17. Jean Sassoon’s claims to be a mere ghost writer for a string of oppressed Muslim women, from a Saudi princess to a ‘daughter of Iraq,’ have been questioned. An informed reader will find very many errors of fact and tone in these supposed ‘autobiographies.’

    18. See ‘How a ‘Forbidden’ Memoir Twisted the Truth,’ The Age, July 24 2004.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    I made the point about the lack of translations into Arabic to an English friend who is married to an Arab. She replied: “Does it matter? Do we all need to be so desperately interested in everybody else? Why can’t we attend to ourselves?” Cultures were being diluted by a superficial cosmopolitanism. There could be more richness and peace of mind in being oneself.

  3. […] faster in the ratings. Yassin-Kassab emailed me in March to say that he’d read something I’d written on Egyptian writers and I was able to reply that – for the first time in my life – I happened […]

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Solidere from Lebanon would have better taste when it came to restoring Downtown Cairo than Emaar from the UAE, but they would still sterilise it.

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