Often, we contemporary English-language readers look to authors as our world’s moral compasses. Sometimes it works, and they lead us true. Great authors speak some sort of truth, at least about their particular obsessions. But mediocre, good, even great authors — Knut Hamsun usually comes to mind — sometimes follow their compass into ugliness:
Mostly, we don’t see great contemporary world authors as bringers of aesthetic pleasure, or as master builders, or as wise word-collectors, but instead as truth-tellers. As our guardians of “free speech.” Authors are meant to take the varnish off things; authors are meant to make taboos fall, to make dictators tremble. (Particularly, most particularly, Arab authors.) And indeed, authors — now and a thousand years ago, in Arab countries as elsewhere — have been sent to prison for their truth-telling, or sued, or marginalized, or tracked by their governments and made miserable.
Indeed, there have been so many excellent Arab authors imprisoned that prison-writing has become its own genre. Most of these are decent documentary work, while a few are among the great works of contemporary Arabic writing. Banipal, for its 50th issue, is focusing on prison literature by a number of celebrated authors: Mustafa Khalife, Fadhil al-Azzawi, Sonallah Ibrahim.
Of course, poets and authors don’t always stand outside their communities or against atrocities being committed, as Fadhil al-Azzawi’s mother well knew. As he said in a 2013 interview:
When my mother knew from my schoolmates that I was writing poetry, and aiming to be a poet, she became angry and scolded me:
“We try to make you a man and work hard to secure your future, but you want to be a beggar.”
I replied: “A poet, not a beggar.”
She laughed at my naiveté: “And what is the real job of the Arab poets? Nothing but selling their praise poems, full of lies, to this sheikh or that governor, to this vizier or that king.”
I said: “I promise you I will not be like these people.”
Indeed, there are many authors who are not like these people, who have not sold their work for social or commercial benefit or to nuzzle up to a regime. But the lines, here, are not impermeable. Writers can work on both sides of them.
The Banipal tagline suggests the authors included in its current issue have always stood on the right side of just about everything: “We are proud that the 50th issue of Banipal is celebrated with thought-provoking testimonies and texts by some of the most renowned and respected of Arab authors from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Palestine and Syria, authors who have never stopped defending the right to free expression, tolerance and social justice.”
Indeed, many of the authors they’ve chosen have taken courageous stands, for which they were imprisoned. But they have done other things, too.
Jordanian author Saud Qubailat, former head of the Jordanian Writers Association and a featured author in Banipal 50, “is in fact one of the most notorious promoters of the Bashar al-Assad murderous regime in Syria,” writes another Jordanian author, Hisham Bustani. Qubailat, Bustani says, “is one [al-Assad’s] staunch supporters, paying him regular visits in Damascus, and writing numerous articles in his defense. [This] is one recent photograph of Qubailat with the murderer from a visit to al-Assad in May 2013, a visit that aroused massive protest in the Jordanian cultural scene.”
This neither invalidates Qubailat’s experience in prison (1979-1983) nor his writing, which you can read in Banipal or a bit more here, translated by
We (English-language readers) are too eager to judge Arab authors by how they compare to our moral judgments, and sometimes leap into bed with the oddest of fellows — for instance, Ali Salem, advocate of extrajudicial killings and darling of a number of US organizations. We are also are sometimes so eager to see Arab authors as heroes that we use this prism instead of their work.
I have not yet seen a copy of Banipal 50, but I would like to judge it not on whether the authors haven’t stopped defending social justice and on whether their work illuminates new ways in which we can understand these concepts.