You’re Not Consuming More Arabic Literature, Just ‘More of Mahfouz’?

A piece in the Harvard Political Review, “The Head and the Body,” looks at the pigeonholing of non-Western writers, asserting that, “One of the biggest offenders in the creation and promulgation of these cultural stereotypes may be the Nobel Prize in Literature”:

eeb33-naguibmahfouz-feliv20145dThis brings the piece around to the sole Arabophone winner, Naguib Mahfouz. After his win, the author asserts, “a curious phenomenon soon appeared: much of the fiction coming out of Mahfouz’s native Egypt began to look just like his. Western readers who thought they were consuming more of Arabic literature were really just consuming more of Mahfouz.”

It continues:

In an interview with the HPR, professional translator and Temple University professor Lawrence Venuti observed, “Prize-giving is important because it creates patterns.” The official recognition the Nobel Prize committee granted Mahfouz led publishers to look for other Egyptian writers like him because they knew that that style was guaranteed to sell. In turn, more Egyptian writers began to mimic Mahfouz’s style, and the market for Egyptian literature in Western countries became saturated with these imitations. This created a limited view of Egyptian literature; readers who were only exposed to Egyptian novels like those of Mahfouz understandably came to associate his style with all of Egyptian literature. A stereotype of Egyptian literature was eventually born, beginning with a prize that affected publishers’ expectations of the general public’s taste in literature.

I’m willing to believe that prize-giving establishes patterns — Arab publishers are keen, for instance, to find one in the International Prize for Arabic Fiction — but I can’t see this one. Yes, Mahfouz undoubtedly had an influence on his contemporaries and on later Egyptian writers. But Mahfouz’s style is so varied that we’d first have to know which Mahfouz the author means. If we assume a Cairo Trilogy style, fine: but translation of Arabic literature into English has hardly seen major publishers on the lookout for writers who mimic Mahfouz’s style. The Nobel led to a boost in Mahfouz-buying, but not of other Arab writers.

Also, Anglophone publishers — then as now — had other more important cultural markers they were reflecting when they searched for the “right” Arabic literature to translate, post-Mahfouz-Nobel.

The most popular Egyptian author in translation, after Mahfouz, was surely Nawal al-Saadawi. This is not because she shares any stylistic traits with the Nobel Prize winner, but because her writing unwittingly feeds into some of the “saving Muslim women” tropes of bestsellers like Not Without My Daughter. The next top-selling Egyptian writers to emerge were more recent ones, like Alaa al-Aswany and Khaled al-Khamissi, neither of whom looks much like Mahfouz.

Would the world be different if Tawfiq al-Hakim had won the “Arab Nobel” instead of Mahfouz? Sure, maybe. How exactly? Other than there being fewer Mahfouz novels in translation, it’s difficult to say.

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Categories: translation

4 replies

  1. I have a theory. The Nobel Prize commitee awarded Mahfouz the prize because his Cairo Trilogy most resembled the European bildungroman, the coming of age of snotty middle class young men who over verbalize, are pretty much spoiled brats, and have crummy fantasy based relationships with women ( although Mahfouz portrays women more complexly than most European writers). Non Arab readers could really relate to the trilogy because they had already read it in Mann,Trollope, Dickens, Balzac, some of the Russians, etc ad nauseum.
    Had Mahfouz never written the Cairo Trilogy but offered the Nobel Commitee Akanahten, Arabian Nights, and his collections of short stories, he never would have receieved the Prize because the commitee would have been too startled to even begin to understand it. It would have been like plopping them down in the middle of Darwish or the short stories of Zakaria Tamer.

    • Yes, there is definitely the question of “which Mahfouz” (and most people who cite a singular Mahfouz seem to mean the Trilogy Mahfouz) although I think the Nobel committee also cited Children of Gabalawi.

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