Words Without Borders November Issue: ‘The Modern Middle East’

WWB gathers a broad, somewhat odd sweep of “the modern Middle East” in its November issue.

Most WWB readers, I would hazard to guess, associate the “Middle East” with the “Arab world” (countries where Arabic is the primary language), and would think of “Middle Eastern food” as  hummus, baba ganouj, and other things Lebanese people eat.

However, WWB’s Middle Eastern issue has only one piece translated from the Arabic, an essay by Khalil Gibran (yes, the one who died in 1931). The essay is titled “The Future of the Arabic Language.” It’s publication here—without any contemporary Arabic writing to surround it—reads like a strange call to action.

The excerpt begins by asking “What is the future of the Arabic language?” and answers:

Language is but one manifestation of the power of invention in a nation’s totality or public self. But if this power slumbers, language will stop in its tracks, and to stop is to regress, and regression leads to death and extinction.
Is the “Western spirit,” then, a friend or foe of the Arabic language? How can Arabic be revived (if it is, indeed, dying)? Gibran continues:

Again I say the life of the language, its unification, its propagation and all that has any relationship to it have been and will always be the product of the poets’ imaginations. But do we have poets?

Yes we do have poets, and every Easterner can be a poet in his field, in his garden, before his loom, in his temple, on his pulpit, and in his library. Every Easterner can free himself from the prison house of imitation and tradition and come out to meet the sun and walk in the procession of life. Every Easterner can submit to the power of innovation that lies hidden in his soul—that eternal power that transforms rock to God’s children.

This section of Gibran’s call to action (which gets fairly flowery about the “Eastern” soul) ends:

…for it is better for you and for the Arabic language to adopt the simplest events in your surroundings and clothe them with the fabric of your imagination, than to translate the most beautiful and the most respected of what the Westerners have written.

Other poems and fiction excerpts are translated from the Urdu, Persian, Turkish, and French.

If you like, read more about the Khalil Gibran phenomenon in The New Yorker.