Reading Arabic Novels About Americans

Abdelmeguid led the discussion. He also talked up al-Tahawy's latest novel (which she seems reluctant to do).

There was a moment last night, when Miral al-Tahawy and Bahaa Abdelmeguid were talking about American children, that I wanted to step in and give my opinion on the matter—as though the Kotob Khan event were a chat show and not a discussion of al-Tahawy’s prize-winning 2010 novel, Brooklyn Heights.

Fortunately, I managed to leave the interruptions to other audience members.

Abdelmeguid, who emceed the event, is a novelist and professor of literature. He, like al-Tahawy, has written a creative work set in the U.S. and narrated by a young Egyptian protagonist. If one were to write a PhD thesis on the image of America in contemporary Arabic literature, then al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights and Abdelmeguid’s Sleeping with Strangers would be two places to start.

Sleeping with Strangers is now available in English: It was translated by Chip Rosetti and published in 2010 by AUC Press. Rosetti has written about the process of translating the novella, which was bundled with Abdelmeguid’s excellent St. Theresa. At times, Rosetti said, he corrected minor infelicities in the Massachusetts setting. Other times, he said, he had to step back and resist the urge to correct “facts” about America, because “fictional characters are entitled to their own skewed views of the world.”

Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter is yet another recent exploration of America in Arabic literature. A translation of this novel was published by Bloomsbury-Qatar this fall. It differs from Brooklyn Heights and Sleeping with Strangers in that Paris-based Kachachi is writing from her imagination rather than from personal experience as an Arab woman in Detroit.

Sinan Antoon has pointed out that Kachachi gets the U.S. national anthem wrong (“God Bless America” instead of “The Star Spangled Banner”). But, much more critically, the American characters tend to be one-dimensional. The “American-American” boyfriend is a drunk who loves his remote control; the Egyptian-American is manipulative; the Lebanese-American is a princess. As Antoon says in his review for Jadaliyya:

Her Iraqi characters are believable and distinct. … One of the novel’s many glaring weaknesses, however, is the authors dismal attempts to portray America and Americans who are consistently flat.

But back to Brooklyn Heights and its Egyptian protagonist, Hind. The real Brooklyn, a place where al-Tahawy lived and worked, is a community that perhaps deserves representation by an non-English-writing author. According to Brooklyn.Com, 37.8% of Brooklyn residents were born in a foreign country, and 46.7% speak a language other than English at home.

Still, the book’s translator—Samah Selim, who won the Saif Ghobash Prize for her translation of Yahya al-Taher Abdallah’s The Collar and the Bracelet—acknowledged last night that she’s been thinking about the book’s reception by U.S.-based, English-language readers.

After all, Americans can be a touchy bunch. I’m not sure we’re quite over being talked about by de Tocqueville.

Then, Back to the Event…

For the most part, the Kotob Khan evening was—like many Cairo literary events—more like a press conference than a reading. (Dear general public: Yes! You are invited!) Al-Tahawy managed to escape without reading a single line from her book.

Indeed, one might even forgive me for thinking it was a chat show: A video camera, placed inside the store’s children’s nook, gave the event a TV-show feeling. Digital flashbulbs popped. A group that seemed composed mainly of journalists identified themselves and asked questions about plot, structure, the book’s portrayal of childhood, the book’s title, the thought behind the main character’s name. For those interested: The main character apparently was originally Leila, and then Nawal, and only later Hind.

I am curious about what would get more “average readers” to these events. Perhaps a note to everyone who’s reviewed Brooklyn Heights on GoodReads? Being talked about on TV? Free cookies?