To Write About Anything in Arabic ‘Would Be Suicidal’

Lately, I have been peering into Islamism and fiction for a forthcoming article in Al Masry Al Youm. I’ve received a good deal of help from Abir Hamdar, one of the organizers of the Islamism in Fiction and Film conference held this past February.

A number of contemporary literary works explore and depict Islamism and Islamists: Several of the titles have been shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. There’s also Ezzedine-Choukri Fishere’s Intensive Care Unit. Books by Khaled al-Berry. More on this later.

But some commentators and critics assert that none of these books really discuss religion, the real discussion of which is a red line. I asked critic Rasheed el-Enany, one of the keynote speakers at Islamism in Fiction and Film, if he has shifted his opinion at all on the possibility of writing about religion in Arabic fiction. Basically, no:

I suppose you mean speaking about religion outside the box. The best and most outstanding example is Naguib Mahfouz. But even he could do that only through metaphor.

Meanwhile, Tahar Ben Jelloun has given an interview to The Paris Review, which talks in large part about why he writes in French instead of Arabic.


If you lived in North Africa and wrote in Arabic, what could you write now in a fundamentalist climate?


It would be impossible to write anything—it would be suicidal. Fundamentalism is against freedom in general, and freedom for a writer is not just to be free to sit down and write, but to think freely, to express oneself freely. So I think that a fundamentalist society can produce nothing but silence or a literature of opposition written in exile.

I am not sure if he means that North Africa is (universally) fundamentalist, or if this is a conditional statement. But, in any case, Ben Jelloun doesn’t see how he could be himself in Arabic:

There are things I could not have dealt with in Arabic, for example, sexuality or criticizing the religious behavior of certain characters. I am not sure how it would have differed in every detail, but I know there would have been more inhibitions.

He says earlier in the interview:

Also, as I said, Arabic is a sacred language, and Arab authors are in awe of it; they can’t use violence against it.

Interestingly, Ben Jelloun will appear with Elias Khoury at this summer’s Edinburgh Book Festival (August 25). If you’ll be there, I would like to hear them prompted to discuss the possibilities of writing in Arabic.

And part of a Twitter discussion of this  article with an author and translation student (yes, I realize that the discussion took place in English):

NouraNoman Noura Al Noman: @saqeram @arablit Perhaps. Mashing language and religion together isn’t helping much either. Even Siamese twins get separated 4 god’s sake.

saqeram Saqer A.: @NouraNoman You just gave me the most evil image there could be about separating twins. An AXE! @arablit

NouraNoman Noura Al Noman: @saqeram @arablit Sadly,it would probably take that kind of brutal force to save Arabic from extinction.

And when I suggested perhaps anesthesia and some nice surgical tools might be better options:

NouraNoman Noura Al Noman: @saqeram @arablit Yes, I’m crestfallen as well. Chainsaw?


  1. I don’t think even An axe or surgical tools would severe the connection between religion and Arabic unfortunately for those people who don’t like that
    I also wonder what type Of extinction Nour speaks of

    1. In the UAE, Arabic seems to be dying out. Lots of chatter about its death/extinction.

      In Egypt, I’ve never heard anyone chatter about this. Although one does hear people complain about younger novelists wrecking (doing violence to) the language.

  2. Thanks Marcia for quoting me – now I’ll probably get stoned 😉

    K, less and less young people read Arabic. The educational system has failed miserably in instilling any love for it – their text books might as well be in Russian. I am not talking about the Arabic we use in our homes; but MSA used only in books and news. It is literally a second language (as @bodour once mentioned in a paper).

    1. 🙂

      Don’t worry, we can be stoned together. And yes, I can’t tell you the number of times my soon-to-be-eight-year-old has come home from school saying, “We did X in English! So fun!” and “We did Y in French! So cool!” and “In Arabic, we copied from the board.”


    2. Why are you talking about getting stoned? You didn’t say anything bad

      I thought that was only the case in north Africa I didn’t realize it was spreading in the middle east as well

      Sad 🙁

      1. Oh, metaphorically stoned, I’m sure. Although metaphorical stones are painful, too.

  3. you haven’t checked out khaled khalifa’s madih al-karahiye?

    1. Khaled Khalifa’s “In Praise of Hatred,” duh, that’s the other IPAF book I was thinking of. Or very-nearly-thinking-of. Not yet…

      And I know Yasmina’s been shopping it around in translation. I think it’s in French, at least?

  4. Yes, I did mean metaphorically hehe

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