What Would an Author Do?

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:

pub_20140711124239Mostly, 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. Banipalfor 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 . But his unwavering support for social justice is another story.

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.


  1. Saud Qubailat spent a long time in prison for his communist activities, there is no doubt about that. He also has the full right to write and publish what he wants, wherever he wants, there is no argument there. My argument is concentrated in one very specific point: Qubailat can never be presented as someone who has “never stopped defending the right to free expression, tolerance and social justice,” while at the same he is backing the murderous Assad regime and supporting its bloody violent campaign against the Syrian people who took the streets demanding just that (at least in the first six months of the Syrian Intifada and a some time beyond that, before the break-up of violence from the opposition side). The murderous Assad regime, who Qubailat strongly supports, continues until this very day to target civilians, bombard cities and towns, and sponsor torture (the Assad regime has a long long history of that, talking about prisons!).
    The writer can be whatever he/she wants: a fascist, a racist, a tool of oppressive regimes, etc; but a writer should not be attributed with something that does not apply to him/her.

    1. Certainly not, and I’ve probably jumbled in too many things here. I think too often “third world” authors are put on some sort of “free speech, social justice” pedestal by the west. Like for instance Salman Rushdie, who surely at one point took some principled stands but also recently told an anti-Iraq War protestor to “shut the fuck up” at a PEN center event. http://penlive.tumblr.com/post/49375560110/shut-the-fuck-up-its-opening-night

      The problem is with Salman Rushdie, yes, but the problem is also with our pedestalization of him.

      But more importantly, yes, is using one’s poetic arts to support mass killing — surely disqualifies you from supporting social justice.

      1. Those orientalist, Eurocentric pedestals! They break my heart. And it breaks my heart further how some unworthy writers (unworthy of the “pedestals” I mean) would throw themselves onto them just for the sake of getting an audience in the West. The “hated” West! How else can I understand that a supporter of a mass-murdered and a mouth-piece of a regime well-known for its notorious prisons and torture practices, is portrayed as a relentless defender of liberties and the freedom of speech? And now those who supported the killing of Syrian children will shamelessly weep for the slain children of Gaza, and dare accuse the west of “double standards”! The rift between opportunism and intellectualism (in the Gramscian sense) is wide indeed.

        1. But it breaks my mind how seldom we re-visit who we put on these pedestals. Surely if anyone glanced at Ali Salem’s ramblings about killing street children, they wouldn’t be so excited about his “civil courage” in writing MY DRIVE TO ISRAEL. And ditto, yes, about all those who have cozied up to al-Assad’s regime, whether East, West, North, South, or on another planet entirely.

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