For the next week, I’ll be traveling in Luxor and Aswan. Posting again March 19, insha’allah.
I was speaking to a PhD student after the Jonathan Wright talk at the AUC, and—as we talked about translation, and our love of words—I had to ask myself: Why do I read (so much) Arabic literature? Why do I allow a translator to come between me and a text? Why not read in Russian, or English, languages where I can be perfectly alone with the author and her words?
Sometimes, I don’t mind, or even appreciate, the translator’s presence. Hosam Aboul-ela’s Stealth and Humphrey Davies’ voicing of Yalo are two such examples. But I can come up with a number of others—and, sometimes, they do incense me—where I felt the translator jumbled up the experience, translating with expertise, sure, but little or no love of words.
The first Arabic fiction I read was perhaps something of Nawal el-Saadawi’s, at university, and then Naguib Mahfouz and Hanan al-Shaykh, while in my early twenties. I loved al-Shaykh’s books unreasoningly: Women of Sand and Myrrh, The Story of Zahra, Beirut Blues. But I didn’t connect them with Mahfouz, who I also loved, or think of them as “Arabic fiction.” They were just…Hanan al-Shaykh.
Then, in the spring of 2001, I visited my (former) college roommate in Cairo, where she was working as a kindergarten teacher. I must’ve had Cairo Trilogy alive in my memory: While the pyramids didn’t much strike me, the Khan al-Khalili made me dizzy with joy. I remember looking up at a minaret against the sky and telling my friend, I want to move here.
A few months later, I did.
Even then, as I began to learn Arabic, I didn’t think of “Arabic fiction.” At some point, I visited the U.S. and got my M.F.A. And came back. I read more and more Arab authors, but it was only as a response to a response to 9/11 that it all collected together, in a category, in my head.
Now, I read Arabic fiction in part from love, in part from habit, and in part from an insufferable sort of hometown pride.
And you? What brings you to Arabic lit?