Faqir discusses the difficulty of being a writer or intellectual in the Arab world (perhaps with somewhat over-broad strokes) and then moves to the other side of the divide:
“Without any valid travel documents or a visa[,] the Arab book travels West.”
Some of the anecdotes she uses are a bit out of date, such as Edward Said’s quote about being unable to shepherd Mahfouz into English-language publication because “Arabic is a controversial language.” (That’s from the mid-1980s, although I admit to also having repeated it recently.)
And Dr. Samia Mehrez, a professor of Arabic Literature who Faqir quotes in the piece, has said elsewhere (to me, for one) that she feels optimistic about how Arabic literature has begun traveling across this divide. Dr. Mehrez particularly cited the Arabic Booker as introducing more English-language readers to quality Arabic-language texts.
But Faqir wants to focus not on translation, but on Arabs who write in English. (I was unclear on whether she was arguing that Arabic an intellectually underdeveloped language? She wasn’t, right?) In any case, she decries the lack of scholarly attention paid to Arabs who write in English:
Geoffery Nash’s book The Arab Writer in English: Arab Themes in a Metropolitan Language, 1908-1958 is the first serious study of what he describes as the ‘internationalisation of literature’ and its impact on Arab writers. Let me fill this gap and coin a new term: ‘Arabs writing in English’ (AWE). This covers the body of work by Arab writers who write in the English language and whose mother tongue is usually Arabic.
My (anecdotal) perception is that a good deal of attention—not scholarly, perhaps—is paid to Arab-American and Arab-British writers. That is, Arabs who write in English.
When pitching a magazine recently on Arabic literature in translation, I was asked—instead—to review the work of an Arab who writes in English. When perusing bookshops in the U.S., I’ve thought it quite difficult to find works translated from Arabic, but not at all hard to find Laila Lalami, Randa Jarrar, or Diane Abu Jaber.
And it’s not just AWE (Ahdaf Soueif, Suad Amiry, Fadia Faqir herself) who are making their mark on world lit, but Arab writers in French (Amin Maalouf, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leila Marouane) and Dutch (Abdelkader Benali and Rachida Lamrabet), Hebrew (Anton Shammas, others), and numerous other European (and non-European) languages.
Still—and I doubt Faqir is really suggesting this—let’s not conflate Arab and Arabic literatures. There is of course a fundamental difference between Arabic literature in translation and the literature of Arabs who write in English, French, Italian, Hebrew or Dutch. Both sets of literatures can be wonderful (or dreadful, depending). But one in no way can replace the other.