On the Fourth of July: 5 Portraits of Americans in Arabic Literature

Obviously, the focus today is on Egypt, not the US. However, 1) this is what I’d prepared for today, and 2) the relationship between the US and most Arabic-writing nations remains in a tangle. These portraits are of interest, I think, both to Arabs and to North Americans:

Not yet translated into English.

Five of my favorite Americans in Arabic lit:

Philip Anderson, the CIA operative in Khaled al-Khalifa’s award-winning In Praise of Hatred (trans. Leri Price). On Anderson: “One autumn day some years earlier, Abdullah arrived in Peshawar from Islamabad, exhausted from the journey and a long night spent in discussions with his friend Philip Anderson. They had both quickly left off the small-talk and their conversation began to exhibit clear signs of mutual distrust, due to the nature of their mission. This didn’t, however, prevent them from exchanging some small luxury gifts.”

Many of the characters in Miral al-Tahawy’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning Brooklyn Heights (trans. Samah Selim) are American. The most interesting character in the book is her son, who is striving to be American and doesn’t want to visit Arab neighborhoods: “I don’t want to go to that place.” “Why not?” “It’s dirty. And it’s vulgar,” he moans in English. “I don’t want to be one of them.” “We can eat some Egyptian noodles.” “I don’t want to!” he bawls hysterically.

In Yusuf Idris’s New York 80 (trans. Rasheed El-Enany), an unnamed Egyptian HE is talking to a New York prostitute SHE (who late in the novella is named as Pamela Graham). They have a long fight over the meaning of her work. Here, Pamela Graham: “What can I say to you? People grow up and yet continue to think like children. You disapprove of my job as prostitute, as if I was your mother caught sinning. My dear, sexual relations between man and woman have been a business deal since the beginning of history. It could be nothing else.”

In Ibrahim al-Koni’s acclaimed Bleeding of the Stone, (trans. May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley) the Sufi American officer John Parker is out flying above the landscape, here shooting at gazelles: “Again the examined the harsh carpet of stones. John turned to Cain. ‘I don’t know,’ he said jokingly, ‘what Cain’s going to do with that worm in his teeth. It’s the fiercest worm known to man.’ Cain grasped the opening. ‘Well, there’s no sign of gazelles,’ he said. ‘Let’s go back.’ Suddenly the pilot cried out. ‘Look. Look there!’ The mother gazelle’s soft coat shone from afar, then she vanished as quickly as she’d appeared. The pilot flew toward it, hovering in the dark cranny where she was lurking, at the mouth of the opening, trying to protect her small calf with her body. She was trembling.”

There are many soldiers, tanks, and other signs of America in Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer (trans. Antoon): “The driver turned the flasher on and a man wearing khaki came out of the passenger side. He approached the group which had been exchanging good wishes and congratulations and asked who had used the camera — “Photography is not allowed here.” He snatched the camera away from one of the female students, took the film out and warned everyone not to do it again. He went outside, got into the car and took off. Most of us were surprised, but we later realized that the presidential palace was just across the river. Now the Americans have occupied it and surrounded it with walls and checkpoints; our new rulers can live far away from us.

Also an honorable mention of a book written in English, but:

This always deserves a mention — Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club and my favorite has to be Jack: “‘Well,’ he said, ‘we are a team of people going from one country to another, living with the people, the same way the people are living, sharing their everyday lives, and finding out what they truly think of the States, and finding out how we can foster and encourage friendship between us and you.’ He pulled up a chair and sat, his face near mine, his hand on the back of my chair; every sentence emphasized neatly and concisely. I remember a pair of American young men belonging to the Mormon sect, who rang at my door in London one day. In the same neat and earnest way, they recited the fact that God is divided into three distinct entities . . . or is it the other way around, I forget which.”

I would go on typing out the whole book, so I’ll stop there.