On Abridging Arabic Novels and Teaching Beyond the ‘National Security’ Paradigm

George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies is starting a book club, they write, “to give students an opportunity to practice their Arabic and be exposed to Arabic literary culture.” They will start by reading the abridged version of Sayyidi wa Habibi by Man Booker International finalist Hoda Barakat:

abridgedThe book was abridged and edited by Laila Familiar, who took a moment to answer questions about the process of abridging, book clubs, and teaching Arabic with contemporary literature.

Why do Sayyidi wa Habibi and Saaq al-Bambu work as abridged editions for Arabic-language learners?

Laila Familiar: They work for three reasons: 1) Because they are simplified at a linguistic level that students of Arabic can handle without feeling frustrated 2) Because the novels deal with universal human issues that can easily engage college-aged learners (love, friendship, identity, discrimination, sex, drugs, religion, etc), 3) Because they offer amazing plots written by two Arab living authors.

What did you learn about the texts by abridging the novels? What did you love/hate about it?

LF: By abridging the novels I got closer to the literary language used by Hoda Barakat and Saud al-Sanousi in these texts. I don’t write literature myself, so what I love about editing literature is that, in a way, I can “own” the stories. The process of rewriting allows me to savor every single sentence and word, whether I decide to keep it in the simplified version or not.

What I hate? The fact that I need to eliminate parts of the novels that are beautifully written. In The Bamboo Stalk it broke my heart every time I had to discard a poetic passage or expression, because I kept thinking: “How can I deprive students of this!” But I had to remind myself that nuances are going to be difficult to understand for them.

What do you think a book club can bring to language learners that a class (perhaps?) can’t?

LF: Book clubs are a great way to apply in real life linguistic knowledge gained inside the classroom. Reading literature is an activity that people perform for pleasure, in their free time, outside of work. And because learning Arabic can become painful at times, literature offers the perfect soothing experience that makes students feel that studying the language pays off.

Why is it important to have literature in the Arabic-language-learning environment?

LF: Our Arabic curricula are full of texts that deal with “serious” topics such as politics, terrorism, feminism, Islamism, etc., which basically target the training of speakers capable of working in the “national security” field.

But most students don’t enroll in Arabic for that purpose. In a Liberal Arts approach to teaching foreign languages, literature can serve to establish and maintain a different type of affective relationship to people and their cultures; one that can contribute to a humane education.

You can learn more about the book club online.