On the 4th of July: Portraits of Americans in Arabic Literature

On the U.S.’s Independence Day, a few glimpses of Americans in Arabic literature:

fireworksJust as Arabs appear in North American literature, so Americans pop up in the pages of Arab and Arabic works. Certainly, the two situations are not analogous — the “terrorist” character in Updike’s Terrorist exists in an entirely different network of meanings. Yet there is a similar range of portrayals, with American characters in Arab literatures running the gamut from strange to ho-hum to startling and perceptive.

Tawfiq al-Hakim (1889-1987), one of Egypt’s greatest twentieth-century authors, was both compelled and repelled by Americans. In his 1938 novel, Sparrow from the East, he relied on a somewhat rote anti-American imagery, as Tasnim Qutait notes over at the Arab Hyphen, with two characters — Andre and Muhsin — concluding Americans are “creatures of reinforced concrete, without soul or taste or past…if you opened their chest you would find a dollar instead of a heart…they come to this old world thinking that they can but taste for themselves and a past for their country.”

Nearly a half-century later, in 1984, the final story in al-Hakim’s generally perceptive collection The Revolt of the Young features Americans. These characters are more nuanced than the ones in the 1938 novel, but not really more favorable or realistic. At the story’s center are four educated young people who put a detonator on the Statue of Liberty in order to gain attention for their causes, which include gay marriage and an opposition to the war machine. In the end, al-Hakim is eager to escape this bizarre America, and we can hardly blame him.

Among Egyptian writers, America has often been used to stand in for corruption, and particularly a corrupt view of sex and intimacy. In Yusuf Idris’s New York 80trans. Rasheed El-Enany, an unnamed Egyptian HE is talking to a New York prostitute SHE, who late in the novella is named as Pamela Graham. They have a long fight over the meaning of her work, and certainly both of them have extreme views. Here, Pamela Graham:

What can I say to you? People grow up and yet continue to think like children. You disapprove of my job as prostitute, as if I was your mother caught sinning. My dear, sexual relations between man and woman have been a business deal since the beginning of history. It could be nothing else.

Americans also display an outrageous, on-display sexuality in Egyptian novelist Bahaa Abdelmeguid’s Sleeping with Strangers, translated by Chip Rossetti, who noted in an interview with Three Percent that he didn’t find the portrayal of sexual politics in Boston always quite believable, “Although my hometown has plenty of local color, I’m almost certain that Boston has no co-ed naked saunas.” There’s also an outrageously greedy and violent American named Marcia in Egyptian novelist Mekkawi Said’s Swan Song, which was published in 2007 and shortlisted for the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Certainly, there has been satire of Americans that has been hilariously pointed, such as in Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, written in English. Ghali’s novel satirizes Egyptians, the English, and everyone else, but he also takes the time to spare a thought for an American named Jack, seen here by the protagonist, Ram:

‘Well,’ he said, ‘we are a team of people going from one country to another, living with the people, the same way the people are living, sharing their everyday lives, and finding out what they truly think of the States, and finding out how we can foster and encourage friendship between us and you.’ He pulled up a chair and sat, his face near mine, his hand on the back of my chair; every sentence emphasized neatly and concisely. I remember a pair of American young men belonging to the Mormon sect, who rang at my door in London one day. In the same neat and earnest way, they recited the fact that God is divided into three distinct entities . . . or is it the other way around, I forget which.

Certainly, since many Arab novelists have made the US their home, characters have been multiplied: Sonallah Ibrahim’s time in San Francisco in Amrikanli, Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights, Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge.

But beyond individual Americans, there is still the importance laid on portrayals of US military might, as in the appearance of Philip Anderson, the CIA operative in Khaled al-Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred (trans. Leri Price). Or the Sufi American officer and pilot John Parker in Ibrahim al-Koni’s Bleeding of the Stone, trans. May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley, who we find shooting at gazelles from the air.

Also, unavoidably, we find American characters in Iraqi creative works. These portraits are often less about creating nuanced characters than about showing the role the US has played and is playing in Iraq and in the lives of Iraqis. Although the military personnel in Mahmoud Saeed’s “Lizards’ Colony” are sometimes over-the-top cruel, they are not unbelievable.

And Iraqi novelist-poet Sinan Antoon, who lives and teaches in NYC, certainly knows many Americans. But the Americans as portrayed in The Corpse Washer, translated here by the author, are nameless extensions of the US’s military might: “The driver turned the flasher on and a man wearing khaki came out of the passenger side. He approached the group which had been exchanging good wishes and congratulations and asked who had used the camera — ‘Photography is not allowed here.’ He snatched the camera away from one of the female students, took the film out and warned everyone not to do it again. He went outside, got into the car and took off. Most of us were surprised, but we later realized that the presidential palace was just across the river. Now the Americans have occupied it and surrounded it with walls and checkpoints; our new rulers can live far away from us.”

These faceless Americans have almost nothing in common with the ones of al-Hakim’s imagination. What’s inside their hearts is not dollar bills. Nah, we all have the same bloody, beating muscle in there. They aren’t nuanced, but they aren’t supposed to be. They are important because of the power they have wielded as an extension of empire, and it is a critically important view, not least because as it’s a way in which Americans rarely portray themselves.