Will Reading Arabic Literature (in Translation) Make Me a Better Person?

At the prodding of Claire Armitstead of The Guardian, I went over to the newspaper’s website and read the extract of Steven Pinker’s new The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s basic thesis is that reading—because it requires perspective-taking—makes us better, more empathetic, less violent people.

More literate nations, we might therefore imagine, are less violent ones. By a rough sketch, the United States should be less violent than Nepal; Russia should be more pacific than the Comoros.

Even if these cases don’t work out, there might be an overall correlation. Yet, as Pinker well knows, this doesn’t mean causation: Literacy might just as well be riding along with wealth, and wealth might give us the ability to move our violence, and our dirty work, outside national borders.

In the extract, Pinker gives a particular hat-tip to certain novels that ostensibly made us better people: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Alex Haley’s Roots, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. The idea is not drawn out, but I imagine that those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird should be less racist and those who have engaged with Reading Lolita in Tehran should be less eager to wage war against Iran.

But the leaders of modern, push-button warfare have often been wide and voracious readers. And while it’s possible that after reading a novel you are less likely to hit your spouse or kick your dog (I would need to see data), literacy—and literate sympathies—can just as easily abet violence. It reminds me again of Juliette O’Keefe’s comment in 2008 in Dissent. She said, of Nawal al-Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve, “For me, as for many other young (white, North American) feminists in the early 1980s, the horror of genital mutilation, of which we had largely been ignorant, overwhelmed us, and – and I say this carefully – fixed to an unfortunate degree our opinions on women’s situation under Islam.”

First, there is an error in these feminists’ reading, as O’Keefe later points out: FGM is an African practice, not an Islamic one. But, even so, this novel should have made young feminists into better people, blunting their desire to commit violence against Arabs. But perhaps, as O’Keefe notes, it instead fixed a particular stereotype. Perhaps it led readers to believe that Arab (males) are violent and Arab (females) are passive, and a war to liberate them might be a good idea.

In the end, I might agree that literacy makes us more sophisticated about explaining and justifying violence. It could help us to keep violence at a remove, out of our immediate frame, clean and justified. But as for having some curative properties, no.

So, dammit, why read Arabic literature in translation, if it’s not going to make me a better person?

Well: Why not for the joy of it? Why not for the same reason I might want to set aside my macaroni and apple pie one night of the week and seek out food from Thailand, India, Morocco, or Japan?

For myself, I could eat Lebanese food until it came out of my pores. And I would dearly love if this made me a better person. But I suppose, to become a better person, I have to do the hard work of being more patient with my children, kinder with my neighbors, and braver in the face of power.

Still, even if I’m not a better person—yum.


  1. “Less than a century ago, Victorian moralism fueled an anti-masturbation frenzy in Europe and the U.S. Young women deemed “oversexed” were excised by their doctors. A 19th century London physician, Isaac Baker Brown, justified cutting off the clitoris as a cure for insomnia, sterility and “unhappy marriages.” Some mental hospitals in the U.S. performed excision as a cure for psychological disorders as late as 1935.”
    Unfortunately this is something we always tend to forget!

    1. A cure for insomnia, oh my!

  2. I think for us voracious readers, we read because we must.

    1. Yes, I imagine…. Although it does go through its cycles, no? Right now, if you tried to pull a book away from my eldest son, I think he might feel as though you were pulling off his skin…

  3. Interesting that ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ was used as a prototype in the argument. Fatemeh Keshavarz’s fantastic book ‘Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran’ makes almost the reverse argument: one-note narratives of unending social oppression (overcome only by reading Austin and Nabokov, vice Rumi or Farrokhzad or Parsipur) written for a Western audience make that audience more prone to othering Iran, much in the manner described by O’Keefe.

    1. Yes, that was exactly my reaction to the naming of RLITehran. Except, since I haven’t read it, I didn’t feel comfortable biting into it too much…

  4. That’s funny, because I have not read RLITehran either. It’s the type of book friends of friends press on me when they find out I live in the Middle East, which makes me stubbornly determined not to read it. I probably should sooner or later, though. I love Keshavarz full-stop, though. I found her first book on Rumi in a used bookstore in Paris and enjoyed it immensely, despite the fact that it took me months to get through. Recite in the Name of the Red Rose is hard to find for a reasonable price, though.

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