The Egyptians Who Write in English

My very own blurry photo of Ahdaf Soueif, speaking in Cairo. No copyright issues here!

Sahar el-Moughi notes, in a review that ran on Al Masry Al Youm earlier this week, that:

A few years ago, I would have looked with suspicion on Egyptian writers choosing a language other than their native tongue as their medium, with the clear exception of Ahdaf Soueif since she has declared that her creative self “cannot” express itself in Arabic as fluently as it does in the language of her education.

This is a question that has troubled me as well. This week, I wrapped up a 10-week short-story workshop (in English) for young, fabulously talented Egyptian writers. So: Am I doing them, or their language, or their nation a disservice?

Ahdaf Soueif noted, at her recent talk at the AUC, that many have asked why she writes in English; she said she’s grown tired of the question. (It seemed kind of her not to say: annoyed, irritated, aggravated, cheesed off.) But perhaps people are growing tired of asking the question, too. Al-Soughi says:

Lately, I changed my mind, since what applies to Soueif applies as well to younger writers in the same difficult position. In the global world of today, one needs to realize the existence of a generation [editor’s note: of the privileged class] who has had a bilingual education and who would rather write in a “foreign” language that has become no longer foreign.

Al-Soughi adds:

[T]he basic criteria one needs to apply is how far this writing expresses an “Egyptian” identity as well as how good the writing is.

I’m not sure I can agree about Egyptian identity, unless we multiply that to Egyptian identities (as numerous as Egyptians), but I can certainly agree about the quality of the writing. If a writer can express herself better in Arabic, then there is no question, in my mind, that she should write in Arabic: for the good of herself, her prose, her country. But if a writer finds herself more flexible, more nimble, and more able to craft excellent prose in English, well….

Of course, this has long been a phenomenon elsewhere: in Morocco, Algeria, and Lebanon, many accomplished authors choose to write in French. A number of Palestinians have chosen to write in Hebrew or English.

Sousan Hammad’s critique of PalFest also applies here, I think. If excellent writers abandon Arabic for English (or French, or Hebrew), then what happens to Arabic language, and Arabic culture? How will those not educated in English access their nation’s literary culture? Is it a sort of linguistic brain drain? Or simply a linguistic shift over space and time?

And let’s not forget that these writers should be allowed to make a little money. And that, without Amin Maalouf (who writes in French) and Assia Djebar (French), Ahdaf Soueif (English) the world would be a poorer place. And that the French-speaking world would know much less about Algeria, and the English-speaking world would know much less about Egypt.

Did the Russians fret this much over the “loss” of Nabokov to English?