And Now, the ‘Breakthrough’ in Sharing Arabic Lit with English Speakers?

I have heard and read a lot about the West’s sudden interest in Arabic literature: it’s The Yacoubian Building, it’s 9/11, it’s the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and now it’s Beirut39 members smashing barriers between English readers and the Arabic-writing world.

It’s a lot of happy talk—these (Arab) authors are just as good as (non-Arab) X, and now they’re gonna be appreciated!—with few details. Exactly 1) how are we going to improve translation? Isn’t that a large barrier to appreciation? And 2) the selection of which books to translate? And can we also, please, 3) talk about the ways in which Arabic fiction is not flourishing as it could: How are we going to improve reading and writing in the Arabic-writing world?

Hay Festival director Peter Florence talks, in John O’Connell’s National piece, as though it’s all a question of familiarity. Just stick a copy of the Beirut39 collection in every Western hand, get the Beirut39 authors out on the international talk circuit, and your job is done. Says Florence:

My hope would be that over the next 10 years, this group become as familiar to us as the Bogota 39 group. We need to get more of these people out into our festivals around the world – to internationalise the whole process.

O’Connell’s piece also inexplicably calls Yacoubian and Girls of Riyadh “the opposite sides of the literary spectrum,” when they certainly titillate the same part of the funny bone.

In any case, while I’m certainly buying (begging, borrowing) a copy of the Beirut39 anthology, I doubt this is what will convince U.S. readers—literary or otherwise—that Arabic fiction is on par with Japanese fiction or Latin American lit. What this will take is a cadre of incredible writers, incredibly translated.

On an unrelated note, the article obfuscates (a bit) what happened with Israeli Arab author Ala Hlehel’s festival attendance. Yes, the Israelis blocked his attendance. But then what? According to Ha’aretz, which has been the one paper consistently following Hlehel’s twists and turns, the Israeli government granted Hlehel last-minute permission, but then the Lebanese government dragged their feet, and finally volcanic ash came to put the final kibosh on Hlehel’s trip.