Should We Teach Easy, ‘Informative’ Arabic Novels in Translation?

Aaron Bady recently posted the transcript — lightly edited — of a Skype conversation he had with Egyptian author Miral al-Tahawy, author of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning Brooklyn Heights, among other novels:

Miral's Brooklyn Heights, which, she claims, is not quite right for classroom teaching.
Miral’s Brooklyn Heights, which, she claims, is not an entirely good fit for classroom teaching.

The part of the conversation that caught my attention, predictably, was when Miral talked about teaching Arabic literature in US universities. She said:

Since I first came and started teaching, I discovered that what I would usually choose the first time was not suitable for my students. Because the American students want to know more about the Middle East, and if you gave them a very artistic piece of literature, they find it very difficult to understand. I was feeling very disappointed, because most of the comments were “Oh, it’s so difficult! I can’t get it!” You feel you have to walk a long way to the station where literature can be a piece of literature, where it’s not something else.

I was torn between sympathy for Miral and cheek-biting disagreement, as very nearly everything I want is in that journey to the station where literature’s a piece of literature. Or if it’s something else — as I recently felt Petra was something else — it’s song and architecture and eerie silence.

Miral talks about the Arabic novel in a way that reminds me of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s 2010 “Found in Translation” (“What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life?”), although Miral’s eyes are open:

So that kind of novel, sometimes I choose to include it. It’s there to inform people about the Middle East, to inform the students about something they care about.

And yet:

But when you speak about literature… I feel it to be something magical, it’s something different, which is really hard to be translated, first, because it’s very connected to the language, the Arabic tradition, the symbols, the smells, the human beings that live.

As I considered, I realize that I go there — to that place of “information” — more times in a week than I’d care to admit. I, too, have written and taught about “current events,” and made literature the handmaiden of hot-button discussion. Because if someone’s going to “learn” about young women’s lives in Beirut, shouldn’t they “learn” from Alexandria Chreiteh’s Always Coca Cola instead of, well, God knows where else.

Yet the interview makes me want to never go there again. It makes me want to teach Miral’s books. Or, I thought, I’d get even further from current events and organize a course around narrative poetry translated from Arabic, such as (1) the beautiful Majnun Layla by Qassim Haddad, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden, and (2) the breathtaking Petra, by Amjad Nasser, translated by Fady Joudah.

And oho, if students learnt nothing about hijab or ebola or ISIS — and instead discussed language and the act of re-writing received narratives and the nature/s of translation — so much the better.

But it would be disingenous of me to claim that, from now on, I would not talk about Arabic literature except as itself, as if it had an independent “self” that was wholly separate from its readers and their interests. Even I know that literature exists in a conversation not just with language but with the mental chatter of its readers. Literature in translation must coexist with even more chatter, in a loud, tug-of-war space.

So: How do we place ourselves here, on the teeter-totter continuum of using Arabic literature as a prop for discussion of “wider issues” to the engagement of beautiful books on their own terms, or rather on the terms that translation and editing and criticism have set for them?

With dancing shoes, I suppose.


  1. I wonder how the author might consider the fiction of Ghassan Kanafani or Sahar Khalife’s novels. I consider them both informative and fine literature (not all great literature needs to be magical, as Tolstoi, Chekov, Richard Wright, and countless others have shown). And where would you consider Hanan Al Shayk’s novels and stories? Or Kemal’s classic Mehmed My Hawk? I also think that , if one is teaching Middle East literature, you can have both. Teach Nawal Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero or God Dies On The Nile as a way of showing the treatment of women in the Middle East. Teach Mahfouz’s stunning Arabian Nights if you want a more humorous exploration of the workings of genies (and satire?) in a magical way ( Mahfouz can do both: realism and magic, especially in some of his terrific short stories such as “The Norwegian Rat”. Ive used all of these books in a a month long unit on Middle East literature to high school seniors I can be a resource for secondary school teachers interested in using Middle East literature in their classrooms. My most sucessful lessons revolved around Kanafani’s stupendous short story ” The Slope”, Zakaria Tamer’s absurdist masterpiece “A Summary of What Happened to Mahmoud al Motemadi” (in Tigers On the Tenth Day from Quartet and, with the added long story “The Hedgehog”, AUC’s reprint “The Hedgehog and Other Stories”. Last but not least, the great Samih al Qasim’s poem “Travel Tickets”. This is an all purpose poem. I weaved into lessons on literature and the civil rights movements of the 1960s in the US. Students love the poem and we had great discussions. Date: Mon, 10 Nov 2014 04:25:56 +0000 To:

  2. I think that students must realise that to know more about the middle east means to read, understand, and analyse thoroughly the literature of the middle east. To be introduced to the little hopes, insignificant victories, hidden tears, and suppressed sighs of people inhabiting the words. And l’m sure that they will relate, they will no longer think of the middle east as “the middle east. “

  3. Honestly I think I found this post as cheek bite-inducing as you found the original statements. Why is a solely aesthetic appreciation of literature the only, or most valued, way of looking at literature? It reminds me of the discussions I often hear among Arab literary scholars wishing that people would just apply modern literary methods to Arabic literature, as if that’s the highest form of praise – I’ve personally always been extremely turned off by academic literary analysis and find that it greatly diminishes my appreciation of literature (and of academia, but maybe that’s just me). When I took classes that focused on that approach as a student, I tended to dislike the subject and value the literature less – in contrast, I retained quite a lot of my “civilization of rome through literature” class that I took as an undergrad.

    I think many readers when reading books originally written in their native language have very different goals for what they get out of literature that aren’t just some abstract aesthetic appreciate. Some do want to be informed (I love good historical fiction for that reason), while others want to be distracted, taken to different places, to consider new ideas and how they might play out. This is true of our students too – in my classes (Arabic language classes, where students can either watch 3 movies or read a novel in translation of their choosing) the students are interested in that assignment for a variety of reasons, and get out of it what they will. My list of books that I suggest to them is geared more towards books with clear plots that I think they will be enjoy than towards obtuse aesthetic exercises. If a student is looking for something more out there, they can always ask me. Honestly, I think it can be dangerous for students to be handed a piece of Arabic literature that is ‘high literature’ as the literary critics would have it, and not find a transcendent aesthetic experience at all but a painful slog, and assume that’s all they’ll find behind the covers of other Arabic novels. It helps to have a curated list that skews towards ‘informative’ works because I think that fits with what most of my students are used to and are looking for. To be honest, most of my students DON’T seem to read much for pleasure in any language, so I doubt that they’d be thrilled by obscure, formless books like the ones you mention above. Hell, I DO read for pleasure regularly, and I’m not sure I’d be thrilled by any of the books you mentioned. Indeed, as someone with strong motivation to read Arabic literature, I have a hard time finding books that I am likely to enjoy (the main reason I read this blog honestly, though I skip past a lot of godawfully po-mo sounding stuff, which is fine, to each their own).

    I just get very frustrated that there is this hierarchy of reading, and of books, as if the only value is in those books that are most densely written with the most tie ins to what western (or westernized), elite academics want, the only appropriate aesthetic value being afforded to literary complexity. Why not to imagination, the coin of the realm of sci-fi and fantasy literature (though it was nice to see that more recent post about sci-fi)? Why not value pacing and performance, found in mysteries and in popular epics (and in musalsalaat, which tend only to be the realm of anthropologists, almost never literary scholars)? Indeed, there’re huge sections of the Arabic literary canon from the adab multazim school where the important aspect of a literary work is its contribution to whatever cause its advancing, placing purely aesthetic concerns second – should that be analyzed according to this standard of beauty? It seems silly to do so.

    1. Well, I do value SF higher than just about anything else, and pacing and performance. My question is not at all about avoiding mysteries & popular epics, fairy tales or erotic works. I love all that stuff. It’s about whether — when we are teaching Arabic literature classes in particular — we are putting all literary enjoyment (SF, fantasy, mystery, thriller, literary, whatever) secondary to teaching about Da’ash VIA literature.

      If we’re teaching German literature, OK sure, there might be some German politics in there, I guess, but it comes after all the fun & love of literature. If we’re teaching Arabic literature, we generally begin from a point of “information” and put everything else second.

      I don’t at all value the densely written over the enjoyable, and I’m sure you’d find actually an inordinate attention to SF in particular, vs. its space in the market. Also comics, graphic novels, fast-paced YA novels, and other fun stuff. The question is surely not about “high literature” v. “low literature,” but about “literature in service of teaching a poli sci class” vs. “literature to teach a class about all the humanistic stuff that literature points toward.”

      1. I guess I have encountered few literature classes about literature in any language that are about the fun and love of literature, at least past about 8th grade. I feel like one finds two approaches at the secondary and post-secondary level – one that goes from ‘information’ as you put it, and uses literature to experience things that the reader has not themselves experienced, and one that uses literature to grind the axes of whatever literary theory the teacher is invested in. I would be happy with a class that explores literature for the sake of enjoying literature – while studying in CASA, we tried to have such a class and ended up basically firing a series of teachers since they all wanted to talk about theory and we just wanted to read and enjoy books, but still wanted someone to curate them. But that mostly illustrates to me how hard it is to get someone to teach a class that’s just about literary appreciation, and I imagine faculty in a university setting would shy away from offering a class like that as insufficiently serious and non-thematic – I feel like the response you’d get in suggesting it would be to ‘go start a book club.’ Indeed, in developing a class myself (on the theme of narrative pre-modern Arabic literature, including but not only involving the 1001 nights), I’m not sure how to slot it into the general education requirements, since the main goal of that class is literary appreciation with some ‘informational content,’ but the gen eds aren’t really written in a way that makes that easy.

        And yes, I definitely appreciate all of the posts about fun stuff, and that’s mostly why I keep glancing at the blog, for those posts. It’s nice to see the less ‘high literature’ getting more exposure these days.

        1. “Start a book club,” ouch. Well, I’ll live past that and other indignities, I suppose.

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