Will ‘Post-9/11 Era’ Go Down as a Good Thing for Arabic Lit (in Translation)?

Surely it's lucrative times for the authors of "jihad-against-the-West" narratives.

The first time I interviewed translator Humphrey Davies, back in the fall of 2009 (as I recall, a long Q&A where my recorder batteries went dead mid-way), Davies spoke of September 2001 as a positive turning point for Arabic literature in translation.

That probably is the biggest thing. It has had an effect. The Middle East is always in our screens, if not in our faces. People do want to understand more, ‘How does that part of the world tick?’ One would like, as any intelligent person, to know what people are thinking. When you learn it through literature, you sometimes get a much more intimate, a way more real sense of what the person’s world is like. There probably was a little time lag—telephones weren’t ringing on the 12th of September.

In 2010, Sinan Antoon also told The National that yes, there was an increased interest in Arabic literature. But:

There is increased interest in the Arab world [from Western readers]. But I call it forensic interest. For the most part it’s bad, because it’s assumed that novels and poems are going to explain September 11 to you.

Antoon was not alone in being wary of this interest. A few years earlier, in 2006, translator and Arabic literature scholar Roger Allen had expressed other worries about the effect of 9/11-ism on the world of Arabic literature in translation. He told Al Ahram Weekly:

Arabic is [now] a major government priority, and so there’s a pressure to produce students to work in the government. I want to make sure that even in this atmosphere we maintain academic standards and priorities. I’m afraid that there will be a reduction in the number of students who study literature in favour of political science to enter government service. It’s too early to say, but I’m watching closely.

And now, in the fall of 2011? Translator and scholar Hosam Aboul-Ela, straddles both positions:

Humphrey Davies and Roger Allen have both pointed to important (if contrastive) realities about the interest in Arabic language and letters in the U.S. post 9/11. There is still way too much superficiality, stereotyping, and politically motivated discourse in America’s view of the Arab Middle East. But it’s undeniable that a spike in interest far beyond the mini spikes i’ve seen after other international incidents during my lifetime—like the Iranian revolution, the Israeli invasion of Beirut, the Palestinian intifada, and the first Iraq war—has changed the semantic field in which we operate.

One thing I have seen in the past ten years working in a large, urban, and very multicultural university is that for the first time students who might be considered alternative or counter-cultural in their lifestyles, ideologies, temperaments, or attitudes have been gravitating in larger numbers to the study of Arabic. This is quite recent, and it feels like a direct reaction against a monologic, unreconstructed condeming view of the region and its culture that threatened to become dominant here in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Our thinking is probably still too burdened by stereotypes, but one sees new potential for a newer vision everywhere.

Meanwhile, translator and scholar Michelle Hartman says she wouldn’t call what happened after September 2001 a boom:

I remember in 2001, 2002 kind of period I would tell people what I worked on, and they would always respond ‘Oh I bet that is hot right now!!’ And you know, it never has been. Arabic literature courses are still small enrollment courses, translations of literary works are considered risky and specialized by publishers, etc.

In the end, Hartman felt that there really was not much of a “post-9/11 interest in Arabic literature.” But she did say, on this hopeful note:

Now let’s see about a post-Jan 25 (or any other recent date….) interest. I will be curious about my students this year compared to last year for example.

Certainly, it will take a good deal to make a serious shift in Anglo literary interest toward Arabic fiction. It will take publishers, booksellers, reviewers, newspaper editors, and more who have not just a newsy interest in “the Arab world” but a fondness for Arabic literature, as many are fond of the French or Russians. It will take English-language authors—more than just Amitav Ghosh—who have been inspired by Arabic literature, and who speak of their inspiration.

And it wouldn’t hurt, of course, if there was a serious up-swell of cultural production from Arabic-writing authors.

From Arab-American poet Phillip Metres: Beyond Grief and Grievance: The poetry of 9/11 and its aftermath