Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: ‘Arab Literary Travels’

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a conversation between ArabLit’s editor and Katie Logan, Assistant Professor of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University. They discussed Logan’s “E391: Arab Literary Travels”:

An abbreviated syllabus can be found in the images, throughout.

When I saw the course title, I admit I was expecting to be greeted with some Ibn Battutah and Ibn Fadlan and perhaps Akhbar al-Sin wa’l-Hind, as well as more recent travel narratives. What do you think is gained and reframed by calling this “literary travels” vs. exile, immigration, diaspora, and so on? And, in essence: Why this class, why now? 

Katie Logan: With the course’s title, I’ve offered students three huge categories that can be endlessly debated. On our first day of class, I put “Arab,” “Literary,” and “Travel” up on separate sections of the board. Students roamed the room and wrote down their associations and understandings of each term. That activity prompted questions like “what counts as a literary text?”, “what experiences fall under the rubric of travel?”, “Is ‘Arab’ a linguistic, cultural, or geographic distinction (or a combination, and if so, to what extent?)” that we’ll be engaging all semester.

I bring this activity up because travel is in the title purposely to allow students to stretch it, question it, push back against it, and ultimately revise it. As a group, we’ll spend the last day of the semester re-naming the course in light of the work we’ve done. In its current iteration, the course leans heavily on literatures of immigration, exile, and diaspora, but I wanted a term that conveyed a broader range of motivations for and relationships to movement in order for students to explore the possibilities of comparison among very disparate experiences.

Courses on migration are essential right now because of the scale of movement happening around the world and because citizens of the United States and the European Union are watching their governments (and often neighbors) react with strict borders, xenophobia, and nationalist rhetoric. Like many teachers of migration literature, I hope my syllabus encourages students to think about other ways to configure belonging, community, and home, but I also want them to see migration as part of a larger framework of movement. To explore a framework that includes displacement alongside study abroad or sightseeing requires us to think critically about economic status, language backgrounds, gender, ethnicity, and the differences between forced and voluntary movement.

How might bringing in moments classical travel literature change (or not change) the discussion? 

KL: Now I’m thinking about all the reasons for travel we’d start to see in those texts. We spend a lot of time in class talking about economics and education (two things that often motivate, enable, or act as obstacles in much of what we’re reading), and so writing like Ibn Battuta’s that deals with trade routes and exploration could shift once again the multiple prisms through which this class is understanding global movement to work. Even earlier modern writers like Rifa’a al-Tahtawi and al-Shidyaq could be significant additions. When so much of the material we’re looking at from a contemporary context deals with the impossibility of return, I’m wondering how the course would change if I started with or included materials where the purpose of travel was predicated on some sort of necessary return (i.e. to bring back goods, ideas, new political and educational structures, or even just entertaining stories from the places one had adventured).

Yes, and al-Muwaylihi would also be an interesting traveler from that period. I’m not sure there was always a need to return; I thought of al-Shidyaq’s return from England, for instance, more about not finding his happiness? Ibn Battuta also seems to have a certain casual enjoyment to his traveling. He traveled because he liked it. Is that an important component?

KL: Oh, that’s the better point—even in narratives where there is a return or the expectation of a return, those conclusions are not as fixed as they might appear. Thinking comparatively, I’m reminded of Odysseus, whose return to Ithaca should be the ultimate homecoming, but he ends his travels by telling Penelope that of course he will need to depart again. In all these instances, travel is transformative, and I think we’d be remiss if we weren’t thinking about that point of transformation as both a place of loss and pleasure (which becomes even trickier when my students are trying to account for a variety of material conditions, too). I also love the phrase “casual enjoyment,” because it suggests a range of scale. Movement’s transformations don’t always have to be massive to impact the traveler.

What are the points and counterpoints in the opening classes (of Unit One)? What surprised you, among the directions the discussions took? Why Leila Ahmed in the first unit, alongside Darwish and Said and Aciman?  

KL: I structured Unit One for two things: first, I wanted students to begin defining a few key terms like exile, migration, and displacement that, for many of them, were new. I think of the opening of “Reflections on Exile” as one of the major rationales for this class. Said writes, “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience.” I wanted students to confront this moment of contradiction (or contrapuntalism!) as early as possible. What makes exile so compelling to think about, write about, read about? And how can one engage that thinking and writing while also retaining the sense of exile’s pain and material devastation? Because “Reflections on Exile” is a little dense for undergraduates, I was surprised by how quickly and emphatically my students picked up on Said’s caution that exile can become another form of nationalism, another way of establishing exclusionary belonging, a reminder they’ve carried with them into other texts.

Secondly, I wanted my students to begin thinking deeply about memory and travel’s affective components from the beginning of the course, which is where Memory for Forgetfulness and A Border Passage come in. Both texts were also really productive for beginning to question the designation of “Arab” that I’d assigned to the class. Leila Ahmed writes so compellingly about how Nasser’s rise to power in Egypt corresponded with the rise of Arab and pan-Arab identity, terms that hadn’t defined her childhood in the country with Jewish schoolmates and an extended Turkish family. As students began to see Arab identity as one in a series of possible religious, ethnic, or historical affiliations, they drew connections from Ahmed’s work to Aciman (who is not Arab, but whose family lived in Alexandria until Nasser’s regime expelled them from the country) and to Darwish, who gestures to the way Palestinian memory was dictated by pan-Arab politics.

Why Brooklyn Heights? (Fishere’s Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge would also be interesting here.) 

KL: Yes! We’re in the middle of this reading right now, and students are responding so strongly to Hend. This is also the first time I’ve paired Brooklyn Heights with Moustafa Bayoumi’s How does It Feel to be a Problem?, which has been a class favorite. Brooklyn Heights does not just represent an experience of immigration. Instead, Hend’s meandering walks and the novel’s fluid moves between Egypt and Brooklyn reconfigure the relationship between “here” and “there.” Hend brings Egypt with her into Brooklyn and notices neighbors who are doing the same with their former homes. They challenge concepts of assimilation or anti-assimilation by integrating the different places and memories of their lives to create a new kind of place. It was also important to me that students read at least one text about the US initially written in Arabic. Brooklyn Heights has been the book that’s allowed us to talk about translation, prize culture, and how a place or experience can transform through language. I’m bringing in the Arabic original this week to show them how Brooklyn place names are transliterated to defamiliarize both the places and the language.

What do you discuss around prize culture?

KL: The conversation has been a brief but important one as we’ve talked about access to these works in an American classroom. Brooklyn Heights won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2010, which financed the translation. A different iteration of this class could have students exploring the politics of the Mahfouz and the IPAF, among others, but for now, it’s important to me that they understand how many decisions about quality of writing, what kinds of writing and which voices from the Arab world English-speaking audiences will want to see were made before this novel arrived in their hands.

How do you talk about “Arabic writing about the US”? Does the discussion of USAmericans writing Arab countries come into play?

KL: This is a moment where student presentations become enormously useful—as we began this unit on Arab American writing and immigration, a student brought in the trailer for Ishtar (1987), the “comedy” from Warren Beatty set in Morocco. The student used the trailer to locate visual examples of the kinds of stereotyping and assumptions about the Arab world occurring in American popular culture even before September 11th, tracing a lineage from those representations to the increased surveillance and profiling that Arab Americans currently face.

Because students have read Carol Fadda-Conrey’s introduction to Contemporary Arab-American Literature, they are prepared and eager to identify passages in Brooklyn Heights that aren’t just about representing the United States but about Hend’s negotiation of two significant spaces: America and Egypt. Hend’s memories of Egypt, encounters with other immigrants, or visits to local Arab-owned businesses restructure the way she understands herself to belong to both those places.

Soon, Radwa Ashour’s The Journey tr. Michelle Hartman will also be available, which offers another sort of (potentially intersectionalist, even if Radwa wouldn’t have used that term at the time) view.

KL: Oh, it would be so lovely to have some of her work on this syllabus (or even to give students the option of pursuing this text for individual projects)!

Why Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, which is, I understand, about Latin American children facing deportation from the US?

KL: Luiselli is doing something radical in the way she talks about storytelling. She was a volunteer translator for unaccompanied minors entering the US in the summer of 2014. She writes, in part, about a major ethical dilemma: in order to achieve asylum for these children, she has to construct linear, repeatable, easy-to-follow narratives about their harrowing journeys from Central America to the US. But the stories the children offer resist narrative logic—there are impossible gaps and unknown endings. Although the book is the furthest reaching comparative gesture on the syllabus, it felt essential for students to start questioning the ethics of storytelling before we began reading materials about refugee experiences.

This certainly sounds like an important move. But are there any risks—a point of conflation for students?—in bringing in narratives about non-Arab travelers?

KL: There are definitely risks in including narratives about non-Arab travelers on a syllabus that purports to be about Arab migration, exploration, and displacement. I have a group of students this semester, though, who are willing to have deep conversations about the limits of solidarity and the dangers of conflating experiences. Some of our most productive class conversations have emerged from Carol Fadda-Conrey’s description of the debate about Arab Americans and census forms, and from Moustafa Bayoumi’s interview with a young Palestinian American who calls Arabs “the new blacks.” In both instances, my students have raised vital questions about the benefits of drawing comparisons across experiences and the drawbacks of identifying too closely with an experience fundamentally different from one’s own. These dynamic conversations make me confident that the question you’ve asked will be a fundamental part of the discussion we have about Tell Me How It Ends, not just a specter floating around the room.

How to get students to interrogate the frames in which “refugee-ness” are usually placed (pity, problematics, difference)? 

KL: Again, I think Luiselli’s work will be important for us—reading her should help us question the narrative structures we’re encountering in this unit. I’m also teaching readings from the Refugee Hosts project for the first time. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh is the Principal Investigator for a team of researchers, scholars, and artists, who conduct on-the-ground ethnography in refugee communities around the Middle East. Their aim is to offer alternatives to the “humanitarian narrative” that currently structures how refugees are represented in mainstream media outlets. By reading some of the project’s findings, my students should be able to identify dominant refugee narratives and tropes and to discuss why outside groups like humanitarian organizations, political bodies, media outlets have a stake in how refugees are represented.

 What do UNHCR documents bring? 

KL: As a graduate student, I took a number of courses with the indomitable Barbara Harlow. One of my biggest takeaways from working with her is that literature is often more methodology than content. I want my students to understand, as Barbara’s so quickly learned, that they can bring their close reading skills to bear on any kind of document in order to identify what narratives are being constructed about a particular topic and why. The UNHCR documents tell stories about refugee experience and history just as the ethnographies of the Refugee Hosts project do, but they emerge through a different genre—the report—and into a different arena—that of international policy making. I want my students thinking critically about how purpose and genre inform narrative and to look for points of connection and disjunction between international policy and lived experience.

What is the balance—in a literature course—between the playfulness and aesthetic boundary-pushing of creative literature and other forms and frames? 

Or maybe this is something more like why do we have to read UNHCR documents in Arabic literature classes, when American lit classes just read their Roth and Franzen, etc.

KL: Okay: I get and share that frustration, and it brings up so many ongoing questions about ethical and responsible pedagogy that I’m still working through. I’d say first that it’s really important to emphasize (both here and for my students) that we are NOT reading these works of literature as reportage. That is, I don’t want my students approaching these texts as “native informants,” but rather as aesthetic works that stylistically and thematically are pushing us to think critically about displacement, disorientation, loss, and transformation. We’re not reducing these complex texts to human rights reports or non-fiction (even when we’re reading memoir), but we are pulling from those genres to think about the ideological narratives that many of these writers are resisting or reconfiguring.

By engaging the texts in this way, my students often find themselves disoriented, and I’m often wrestling with exactly how disoriented I want them to be. If I know that I want them to approach Memory for Forgetfulness aesthetically, for example, do I need to give them an impossibly brief overview of the Lebanese Civil War? When is their disorientation a productive part of the reading experience, and when does it lead to their missing vital elements of a text? I gave my first ever map quiz in this class because I wanted students to be able to locate various parts of Palestine and to understand the geographical relationships among Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. I don’t want to overload them with context or give them the impression that this course is a history, political science, or geography credit, but I do have to figure out what tools they need to navigate these works. I’m sure instructors wrestle with a version of these questions in an American Lit class, but I don’t imagine they come up quite as intensely. What it does make me wonder, though, is if students miss opportunities to be disoriented by writers like Roth and Franzen because they initially appear more familiar. These aren’t conclusive answers (even though I’ve been playing them out in my head all day), which makes me think this will ultimately be an ongoing conversation.

I do see something playful at work in interpreting the UNHCR documents as literature, but beyond that (and I think this is what Barbara was always interested in), the skills we bring to bear on a text as literary critics—even young, burgeoning ones—help us to see all texts as the product of multiple critical decisions, narrative structures, and cultural and generic expectations. Even a formal, policy-based document is telling a story, making decisions about who the characters are and what their plot will be. Engaging these materials in a literature classroom is both an aesthetic exercise and a political act that allows students to identify and compare competing storylines.

I think this decision is also supported by the fact that we’re reading a lot of materials that don’t fall easily into genre conventions—figuring out what to call Memory for Forgetfulness or Paris, When It’s Naked is a process only partly informed by publishers’ designations of both works as “prose poetry,” and Brooklyn Heights does not read like a novel most students have encountered. I think these choices emerged not only because I’m personally interested in these forms but because the subject matter of the class necessitates it. We keep coming back to this idea that the movements and travels we’re seeing require narrative structures that we might not currently have access to, and so I’m aiming to give my students a broader frame of reference for the kinds of narrative styles they might engage or think about.

Interesting that you’ve got part of Hisham Matar’s The Return. I don’t have the book with me (since I recently moved) — what’s in those sections? Why this (gorgeous) book? 

KL: We’re reading the first chapter of The Return, which sets up Matar’s long standing efforts to find his father, who was abducted by Qaddafi’s regime in 1990, and his decision to return to Libya for the first time in thirty-six year after the fall of Qaddafi’s government. We’re also reading Chapter 12, “Benghazi,” in which Matar meets a few relatives who have spent decades in prison and walks back through the city. For this class, I keep coming back to the idea that travel for these writers necessitates different literary forms and narrative structures. While The Return is Matar’s memoir, a genre that students are likely to think is about organizing and making sense of one’s life, Matar writes that because his father remains missing, “I do not have a grammar for him.” He asks readers to think differently about memoir by letting go expectations for narrative closure, linear chronology, and clear cause and effect. The horrible extremity of Matar’s experience with his father and a return to Libya that feels incomplete and unfinished should encourage students to see incompleteness in most if not all forms of literary return. Again, rather than seeing these texts as representations of particular global experiences, they need to recognize when their reading is directing them toward unknowability, gaps, and contradictions.

Why Etel Adnan? How does Paris, When It’s Naked open up other venues for thought and discussion? 

KL: This will be my first time teaching Paris, When It’s Naked, and I’m curious to see how students will respond to it. The text echoes a lot of our earlier readings in its emphasis on walking in a city that is not one’s home of origin, in its attention to class differences even among migrant communities, and in its efforts to identify ways of belonging in a place that are not immediately national or dichotomous. I’m especially interested in this text right now because Adnan wrote it immediately after the formation of the European Union. Throughout the work, her narrator often muses on what’s in store for Paris—and in particular, non-Europeans living in Paris—now that European identity has been prioritized and solidified. The narrator predicts that the Union will not be able to survive major challenges to its expanded but still insular borders, which is eerily akin to what we’ve seen with the Brexit vote and revisions to Schengen Zone policies over the past few years. I wanted to conclude with a text interested in envisioning futures of belonging in order to get my students thinking about where we go next.

What role do the presentations play?

KL: Because this syllabus suggests so many other avenues of exploration (you’ve mentioned earlier texts, additional kinds of travel that could be significant, and a broader array of routes that could encompass travels to Brazil, Nigeria, or elsewhere), the final presentations are an opportunity for students to expand their thinking and exploration beyond the scope of earlier class assignments. For the presentation, students map and annotate a text or trajectory of their own choosing. They share these maps with their classmates and discuss how this particular project has helped them reconfigure or extend their understanding of Arab Literary Travels.

Katie Logan got her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, where she also taught classes including “The Rhetoric of Mourning” and “Arab Literary Travels.” She is now in the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research focuses on contemporary Arabic and Arab Anglophone literature, memory, migration, and women’s and gender studies.

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