Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: Pairing Arabic Literature and Film

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a conversation between ArabLit’s editor and Spencer Scoville, Assistant Professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University. They discussed Scoville’s “ARAB 361: Modern Arabic Literature in Translation,” with a particular eye to the way literature and film work together:

An abbreviated syllabus can be found at the end.

While the syllabus for ARAB 361 tells us it’s about “Modern Arabic Literature in Translation,” there’s a lot of film and TV here, inspired or adapted or translated from the literature. Can you talk a bit about how these two work together?

Spencer Scoville: Basically, the idea is to put each (translated) text into conversation with some related texts that highlight the processes of interpretation and representation. Every translation interprets its source text and claims to be a representation of that text in a new linguistic context. Where students do not have access to the original text, and where so few texts have multiple translations available, I want to give the students one other data point to connect with their reading of the translated text. My aim in this is to cultivate an awareness of the issues of translation and also facilitate a meaningful discussion of these issues even when my students do not have access to the original text.

The first film-book pairing for the semester is The Days, (which I apparently missed in the ArabLit “Friday Films” series). What parts do you use from the TV version of The Days? How do pairing the TV “translation” and the original open up their understanding of Hussein’s project? How does using a TV series (The Days, Ayza Atgowaz) differ from using a film? 

SS: With the TV series, I usually pick a few scenes that are meaningful and don’t rely too much on dialog, as translated/subtitled versions of these works are pretty much non-existent. With Hussein’s work, I focus on the descriptions in the very beginning of the book, when he talks about his early childhood. We work on the differences in the way that vision and blindness play into the text and the TV program.

I’ve never seen the TV version of The Days. What are the ways in which it can change a reading of Hussein’s memoir? And what do you use from Ayza Atgowaz (by Ghada Abdel Aal, translated as I Want to Get Married! by Noha Tahawy)?

SS: The students taking this class have no framework for imagining the scenes depicted in Hussein’s opening scenes. Using the visuals from the first few episodes of the series allows them to compare what they had imagined as a reader with what the (Egyptian) production crew imagined the scenes to be. It’s a simple thing, but it creates a very different type of connection with the text and a more complete, lasting memory of the reading experience.

In ‘Ayza Atgowaz I cherry pick a few of the more memorable scenes/suitors and have the students watch these scenes after reading the book. Again, the focus is on the difference between the students’ imagination of the scenes and that of the TV producers. Using the TV version makes some of the humor of the original more accessible to the students, though a lot of it is universal enough that they get it the first time through.

Not every week has a screen companion. Ashour’s Granada and al-Muwaylihi’s What ‘Isa ibn Hisham Told Us are texts talking with other (historical) texts. How does this change the discussion, the ways in? The ways students interact with the text itself? If there were a film version of Granada or of….Muwaylihi’s life…would you want to use these? Or is it important to look at the texts through different sorts of lenses?

SS: Since these two books do not have screen adaptations, I wanted another way to get the students to think about the books that they are reading as translations. The events in Granada are so well-documented that we can put the story next to a wide variety of historical and literary texts to help the students to understand how Ashour is using/manipulating the ‘legend’ of Granada. In contrast to the bulk of the works I have chosen, this unit places the spotlight on the relationship between the historical events and the work fiction. Essentially, the novel becomes the adaptation, and we can put it in dialog with some historical source materials (along with other literary treatments, especially in this case). Rather than working to judge the novel as ‘accurate’ or ‘inaccurate,’ the goal is to look at the decisions that the author makes in relating the historical events to her audience. My goal is to lead my students to find opportunities in parallel readings from examples of all three activities (composing historical fiction, translating from one language to another, and adapting a work to a new medium) to get glimpses of alternative readings and interpretations.

What in particular opens up in the pairing of Men in the Sun & al-Makhdu’un? What sorts of politics does the film introduce that helps students re-reflect on the book? What is teaching Men in the Sun without al-Makhdu’un, and what is teaching Men in the Sun with it? (How would it be different if your students had access to the Arabic?) 

SS: Even when I teach this text in Arabic (in my advanced literature courses), I like to pair it with the film because the filmmaker reads the text in such a different way than my students do. In recent years, my students primarily experience this text through the current movements of people through and from the Arab world. They read it as a commentary on broader questions of refugees in the Middle East, even though that is not necessarily central to the political issues that interested Kanafani at the time he was writing the novella. Al-Makhdu’un makes the Palestinian context much more immediate and apparent—students who can sidestep that issue in the original text are forced to confront it in the film—particularly in the treatment of the war in the film, and the other montages inserted into the film.

The other thing that stands out in pairing the film with the novel is the stark difference in message and tone between the period when the novel is published (1962) and the film (1972). As the students worked through the difference in message and audience between the two, it really helped them to understand the impact of 1967 across the Arab world.

Then after Men in the Sun, there’s I Saw Ramallah and In the Presence of Absence. Do you use the two different published translations of In the Presence of Absence / Absent Presence (Sinan Antoon, Mohammad Shaheen?) What do your students gain from looking at these two translations? How do you move them past frameworks like “I prefer this one” or “this one is better” to more productive questions?

SS: Darwish’s text is one of the few opportunities I have to have the students read an alternate translation. I like to take advantage of that fact.

So often, presenting/producing alternate translations is the only time that we get to talk about the decisions that thee translator is making in interpreting the original text through the process of producing the translation. In this particular class, reading an alternate translation is actually the exception—I focus the discussion on our previous considerations of how adaptation necessarily involves decisions about what the text means, and how it communicates this meaning. In the end, the discussions are not so much “Which is better,” but rather, “How are these two translations different?” Since we are not referencing the original works in this setting, we are left to consider the possibilities for interpretation that begin to open up when we put two different translations next to each other.

My primary approach in reading these three texts together with my students is to highlight the profoundly different approaches they take to representing the Palestinian experience. From Kanafani to Barghouti, Darwish to Shibli, you have very different versions of Palestinian life. After Kanafani’s politically charged writing, I look at the other three texts as different ways to write memoir out of the Palestinian experience. Memoir is built on such an intimate connection between the humanity of an individual experience and the historical event.

Are there ways of incorporating history that you think could distract from the texts themselves? (Ways that it could become like one of those literary events where, instead of asking Adania about her stylistic choices, people ask her about one-state v two?)

SS: I am very sensitive to that last point. Drives me crazy. When I teach my advanced literature courses in Arabic, my primary goal is guide to students toward finding pleasure and beauty in the textual artistry of the authors we read. The power of these pieces is the way that they represent pieces of the Palestinian experience and at the same time sidestep the overtly politicized tone of an author like Kanafani. Not to sound overly idealistic, but I am constantly searching for literature that humanizes situations that my students typically only experience through the news. Darwish and Shibli are at the top of my list of people who manage that. I love to put my students in touch with their stories. The literary texts are definitely the focus of this class—it is designed to reinforce the basic outlines of history that they acquire in their survey classes in the history department, while at the same time humanizing some aspects of those histories in ways that complicate the stories that textbooks tell.

Speaking of Adania, is there a reason you put Touch against In the Presence of Absence? To talk about the poetics and prose of both, the absences in both? Now that I see the idea of reading them together, it’s intriguing. 

SS: To be perfectly candid, I read these two together because they are two of my very favorite pieces of literature. I like them at the end of this ‘unit’ on literature of Palestine because of the way that they discuss these issues in much more nuanced and oblique ways than Kanafani or Barghouti.

I also love both of these books. I ask entirely genuinely: Would there be any reason to make it Touch + Journal of an Ordinary Grief, since they both re-imagine childhood? Or is that sort of rhyming unnecessary?

SS: I chose Presence of Absence because of the response to Sabra and Shatila that it contains. One of the questions that often comes up as we read Touch is “Where is the Palestinian conflict in this novel?” The profound way in which Touch’s narrator relates her experience of the massacre stands in stark contrast to the more mature attempt at communicating the event in Darwish’s work. I like the idea of turning the focus on childhood instead—I’m going to have to reread Journal of an Ordinary Grief after this semester to see how that change might play out. Thanks for the suggestion!

Why Miramar, of all the Mahfouz film-book pairings? 

SS: This is one of the decisions in this syllabus that I am least committed to. I have taught it in the past for practical and pedagogical reasons. Practically speaking, it is one of the shorter of Mahfouz’s works that has been adapted to film. I also see it as a good entry point into the peculiar brand of nostalgia that flows out of Cairo—that same nostalgia that makes The Yacoubian Building such a different experience for an Egyptian reader than it is for an American reader.

Which Yusuf Idris stories (in Denys Johnson Davies’ translation, I assume)? 

SS: Primarily “The Dregs of the City.” While we do not watch the entire film, I take some scenes from the film to give the students a sense of how different Cairo in the 1960s was from the Cairo that they see today.

Why “meanwhile, in Morocco”? It’s not possible to get to literature from every country where Arabic is an official language in a semester. What are the…responsibilities of representing the breadth of “Arabdom” in a survey course and what are the limits? 

SS: This is one of the real questions about a ‘survey’ course. I cannot even pretend to choose a selection of texts that somehow represent “Arabdom.” First, because my own expertise and reading is limited. Second, because I’m designing a single-semester undergraduate course. Abouzeid’s novel presents a narrative of emerging Arab independence that works well with the other narratives of independence included in the syllabus.

Interesting that you choose “on the eve of the Arab spring” and Yacoubian / Ayza Atgowaz instead of “Arab spring” texts per se. What do you think are the differences between teaching “on the eve of” and teaching “literature of the 18 days”? And here you have popular texts vs. the critically acclaimed sort. Do you teach them in different ways? (Does it matter that Ayza Atgowaz is in aameya, or not in this context?)

SS: For this class, I chose these texts independently, not thinking I was going to teach the ‘literature of the revolution.’ I would really like to put together a unit like that in the future. There’s always something to improve . . . The question of dialect is an interesting one—I talk about it terms of register. We talk about the fact that the book was originally a blog, and everything that means in terms of audience and expectations. I do not love The Yacoubian Building as a piece of literature, but it has proven itself a fascinating novel to teach. My students hardly ever sympathize with any of the characters, which opens the door to important conversations about life in Egypt in the Mubarak years. These conversations change again when we watch the film adaptation, which is pretty clear in who the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ are. The changes to the end of the narrative also open interesting conversations with the students about censorship and freedom of expression in Egypt.

I also don’t love Yacoubian. What do you think makes a great teachable novel (vs. just a great novel)?

SS: The simplicity of Aswany’s story and his focus on creating and depicting characters in a very cinematic fashion make it a much more accessible read for students. They easily get wrapped up in the interwoven stories of Buthayna, Taha, and Zaki. The novel/film combination works particularly well in this class because of the differences in depicting Taha’s storyline.

Which two stories by Hassan? What types of things do you want students to see, find, explore, question in his stories? Why these stories? 

SS: “The Corpse Exhibition” is the central text that we study here, I tend to rotate through a few of his other stories. Together with Koni’s novella, these texts allow the students to work through some fictional representations of historical events that differs from the traditional ‘realist novel.’ The difference in style between these works and the realist tone that dominates the rest of the semester provides an interesting shift at the end of the semester.

I have seen syllabi for survey courses, courses about Palestinian literature, Lebanese Civil War literature, literature and conflict, Arab women’s literature, etc. But not yet one focusing on Iraqi literature. Does that seem surprising? Of course, obviously, the syllabi I’ve gathered are in no way comprehensive.

SS: I can only speak to my own situation—honestly, it’s a very practical question of finding the balance between my own areas of expertise and my students’ interests (not to mention the demands of the curriculum committee—in this case, a survey course). I wish that I was better versed in Iraqi literature and could present an entire course on it—such a rich tradition, and such a difficult present. Iraq is just one example, but there are so many corners of this thing we call “Arabic Literature” that are worthy of more attention than they get. I hope that we will see more of this literature make its way into university reading lists.

I love Bleeding of the Stone by al-Koni. Is there a reason to end with this novel? Why do you call it “alternative approaches”? 

SS: I wanted to end with Blasim and Koni because they present their historical moments in ways so profoundly different from the realist fiction that dominates so much of 20th century Arabic fiction. I also wanted works from countries still unrepresented in the texts I had chosen to that point.

Also: Your syllabus says you want to choose works that ” represent some of the most beautiful, powerful, and influential pieces of literature produced by modern Arab writers” but also “give you a solid understanding of the general history of the region over the past two centuries” Why the latter in a literature course? The history to better understand the literature, or the literature to access the history, or their relationship to each other? 

SS: The ‘history through fiction’ angle of this class came as a result of two different sets of pressure on the course. First, I wanted to give it a second dose of content to help it get through the General Education committees on campus. Getting GE acceptance for this class does wonders for enrollment, always a concern for faculty members in smaller departments on campus. Second, we were looking for a way to reinforce the material presented in the history classes within our major. By incorporating this material into the literature class, students study the major historical moments of the 20th century through a second lens. Once I started thinking about the idea, it struck me as an opportunity to choose translated texts that have natural ‘parallel’ texts beyond the originals from which they were translated. Where the films are interpretations of the original novels, the historical fiction can be read as an interpretation of historical events.


Spencer Scoville is Assistant Professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University. His research interests focus on Arabic literature during the Nahda, exploring the roles of literary translation, experimentation, and adaptation on Arabic literature during the long 19th century. He is particularly interested in cultural connections between Russia and the Arab world during this period.