Why Do You Read Arabic Literature (in Translation)?

Translator-novelist Elliott Colla has suggested that there are a few core reasons why readers pick up Arabic literature (in translation):

images (1)What about you? Are you — as Colla suggests — looking for the image of yourself reflected in the literature of the Other? For an ethnographic report from a different world? Because it’s easier for you than reading in Arabic? Just to see what’s out there?

I’ll start: Habit.

Well, there was a time before habit. In my late teens, I began picking up novels by Hanan al-Shaykh, Yusuf al-Qa’id, Naguib Mahfouz, and Zayd Mutee Dammaj just as I picked up novels from Bengali or French, Icelandic or Russian. I went on to specialize in Russian literature, I suppose because I found the Russian novels first and they hit me in a tender spot.

Why didn’t I just read American novels? I did read a lot of American novels, although they’ve become a progressively smaller part of my diet.


I became a big fan of the Interlink World Fiction series, which bills itself as “The best way to learn about people and places far away,” and I suppose that’s one reason I picked the IWF novels up; I wanted to read outside my immediate frame. So sure, the ethnographic attitude played a part. I probably picked up more Arabic literature because Hanan and Naguib in particular beguiled me. Perhaps, at first, Cairo beguiled me so completely in part because I’d been primed by The Trilogy.