There are a number of events that focus on Arab and Arabic literatures at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. Contributor Raphael Cormack attended two, and found that, “Where political analysis falls apart, literature and fiction can say something.”
By Raphael Cormack
This year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival features several Arab writers. There was a series of talks curated by Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh (now finished) and an event to promote a collection of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland with readings and discussion from Palestinian authors and their translators is coming soon (August 18).
On August 14, scholar and translator Marilyn Booth chaired a discussion with Kuwaiti short-story writer Mai al-Nakib and Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh on “Living and Writing in the Middle East.” Egyptian novelist Khaled al-Khamissi was supposed to have appeared alongside them but he, in what is now a depressingly common turn of events, was denied a visa by the UK government. The blurb on the event listing posed the questions “What is life like for writers living and working [in the Middle East]? How do writers use their imagination to give voice to what is taking place around them?”
As Mai al-Nakib said as she began her talk, these are simple questions to ask, but ones that are difficult to answer. Al-Nakib, who has recently published a collection of short stories entitled The Hidden Life of Objects, focused her discussion on what it is like to write in Kuwait.
“Living in Kuwait,” she said, “I feel that the world around me [Syria, Palestine, Iraq, etc.] is on fire.” Many people feel that the Gulf countries are insulated – an “air-conditioned bubble in the middle of hell” — yet even there many problems below the surface there as well. So between a wider Middle East that feels in crisis and the problems of Gulf society there is a lot of material to write about.
What role does writing fiction have for a Kuwaiti author? Beyond the normal arguments that, for instance, fiction reminds us of our shared humanity and allows us to inhabit and understand others, al-Nakib’s writing helps her to reclaim the cosmopolitan Kuwait of the past.
“…fiction is the unique place where it is possible to flee the confines of determining factors like nation, language, and history.”
After 1991, the country’s historical cosmopolitanism, which had been with it for hundreds of years due to its role as a port town, began to recede. Cosmopolitanism was seen as part of the nation’s downfall, al-Nakib lamented, and policy began to favour “expulsion, restriction, and purity.” Turning to fiction was a way to open a window and let some air in to this stuffy atmosphere; “fiction is the unique place where it is possible to flee the confines of determining factors like nation, language, and history.” Al-Nakib’s writing is a way for her to reclaim the Kuwait that she remembered growing up in the 1980s before it became increasingly inward-looking.
Dabbagh often worries that people praise her just because they agree with her politics or criticise her just because they disagree.
British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh, who recently published her first novel Out of It and is currently working on a new one, also stressed the need for the novelist to reclaim history, but this time in relation to Palestine, a place where history is constantly being erased. Writing about Palestine also raised other issues for Dabbagh. As a novelist, it can be a difficult place to write about. Not only is there the Pablo Neruda problem (How can I write about flowers and volcanoes when there is blood in the streets?), but it is often hard feel one’s engagement can ever be simply literary. Dabbagh often worries that people praise her just because they agree with her politics or criticise her just because they disagree.
As a child of a British mother and a Palestinian father, born in Scotland as she was pleased to note, she sometimes struggles to call herself either a strictly Palestinian or a strictly British author. “I place myself firmly,” she explained, “as a writer in the middle ground.”
She does not see herself as a Palestinian insider reporting back to the UK but as a mediator between the two. And she is very keen that she does get a message across to a wide audience, though. In her talk she talked with an air of depression about the “anticipation of dullness” that people feel when they pick up a book about “The Middle East.” Here, again, fiction can play an important role. One is not dragged along, kicking and screaming by “issues” in a novel, rather one is led along gracefully, by a love story or an exciting character.
For both writers their use of history is more forward-looking than backward-looking.
For both writers their use of history is more forward-looking than backward-looking. They both want to use history to “imagine,” as al-Nakib urged, “a future that is different to the one being prepared for us.” As Marilyn Booth noted, both authors have a strong focus on youth in their recent books which helps orient them towards the future. Yet, this is a future that has a different focus to most discussions of the “Future of the Middle East.”
The novelist’s future is one of many possibilities, different viewpoints, and aesthetics. One key mantra that Selma Dabbagh repeated was “Beware the Message.” Don’t simply say that this is how the future should be and hit people over the head with it for the rest of the novel. Positively visualise the future, if you will, but address it from several sides. This is what literature and fiction can do.
We might compare their approach with the final event in Raja Shehadeh’s series on the “Future of the Middle East.” When asked to predict what the Middle East would be like in 15 years, Palestinian poet and political scientist Tamim al-Barghouti responded. His answer came in two parts, the first a macro-political assessment of the region and the second a poem.
The first was a division of the Middle East in to three rival factions all fighting for power, which failed to entirely convince. The second was a poem that powerfully expressed al-Barghouti’s hopes for a Palestinian future without occupation. Where political analysis falls apart, literature and fiction can say something. It might not be able to tell you whether there is going to be an independent, united Kurdistan in 15 years, but it is to its great credit that it does not try.
Raphael Cormack is a PhD student at Edinburgh University working on 19th and 20th Century Egyptian Literature. His blog is http://ergamegala.wordpress.com/