The Magical, Mystical Bridge Between Arabic Literature and English

Yesterday at the Shubbak Festival, I was asked by moderator Robin Yassin-Kassab: “Why read Arabic literature in English?” It called to mind a common answer: that we’re building a cultural bridge. 

I don’t disblieve in cultural bridges. But too often, these bridges seem to grow magical, mystical properties.

Good translators do bridge language and language, book and book. Yet, when we discuss the pairing of Arabic and English, I often hear about a bridge that connects not just languages, but Arab authors with Anglo consciences such that all Syrian refugees will be provided food and homes (thanks to Samar Yazbek); Gazan citizens will be universal sisters and brothers (The Drone Eats With Me, Atef Abu Saif); and no one will ever have to die in a small, shitty boat on the Mediterranean ever again (African Titanics, Abu Bakr Khaal).


All these issues need urgent and practical socio-political solutions. The Arabic-literature bridge feels, instead, like a too-easy way out. If only we understood each other, the bridge-reasoning goes, then there would be a mystical shift in our collective moral compasses. And this understanding is meant to come through the “content” of our literatures, shaken loose from their forms.

I have little doubt that an Anglophone reader will be gripped by Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats With Me, which the author read from yesterday: Throughout, the book keeps her locked in the claustrophobic daily life of a father and writer living through contemporary long-distance warfare. The reader walks along with Atef, breathing dense cement dust from blown-apart buildings; arguing with his wife; retching from the smell of people’s severed limbs. The reader crowds into his in-laws’ house because it’s probably safer than Atef’s apartment; she grows annoyed with his mother-in-law’s obsession with her plants; she’s frustrated by and sympathetic with the kids who want to go outside and play. She’s exhausted by the drones’ invasive, mechanical gaze.

This is not to mention how she’s awed by the author’s deft stylistic decisions, surprises, and elevations of phrase.

But the reader “bridged” to the content of The Drone Eats With Me may also hold forth about Israeli security and Hamas rockets. Another reader could be gripped by Yazbek’s accounts of Syria but meanwhile want to build a wall around his country that goes as far as the moon. We story-consumers compartmentalize, as Lila Abu-Lughod discussed in her work with women in the Egyptian countryside watching The Bold and the Beautiful.

So, if we cast aside any magical-bridging effects, the question “Why read Arabic literature?” depends on your answer to the question “Why read?”

I answer: Great literature can change our individual landscapes; it is an act of travel, of freedom, a slight re-writing of our cramped and determined interior spaces. Getting out from underneath the elephantine weight of the usual creates a sudden, dizzying lightness. It gives us the impossible power of stepping outside ourselves for just a moment.

Yassin-Kassab asked why not limit ourselves to Arab novelists who write in English: Aren’t they more “accessible”? When we read them, he said, nothing is “lost” in translation. But accessible is only an echo of what we’re already hearing and thinking. If we’re exercising our freedom to see the world afresh, then it’s all about the reverse: what can be gained in translation.

Magic aside, Arabic literature in translation might indeed make an important bridge — particularly if we’re translating important books and give ourselves the tools to read them. But, as I said yesterday, we are misunderstanding if we think the ones who benefit are the Arabs. The Arabs translated the Greeks, but the effect was not a change in Abbasid attitudes toward the Greek street. It brought new bouyancy of vision into Arabic. It brought thrills to translators and readers.

It’s this that Arabic literature can bring into English.