Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: At the American University in Cairo

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a four-way discussion with three literature professors at the American University in Cairo: Dr. May Hawas, Dr. Tahia Abdel Nasser, and Dr. Mounira Soliman, who talk about their courses in world literature, banned books, “third world” literature, and American literature “from within and beyond its borders.”

How do you teach Arabic literature in translation different in Cairo than how you might in New York or Toronto or Melbourne or Manchester? 

May Hawas

May Hawas: By assuming the students speak neither. Which, if you are an old-fashioned pedant like me, seems to be increasingly the case on a global level. Native knowledge of the language doesn’t necessarily make you a more hardworking or intelligent reader. The most serious Arabists I know often learnt Arabic at a later stage. Perhaps it’s better to think that we are all foreigners to a text. You lose the immediate sensuousness of the reading experience if you don’t have the language, of course –so you can’t stop and smell the full or choke on the dust in a Cairo setting, you can’t savour the butter in a brioche, or recognise a bitter gourd let alone chop and cook it, but that’s fine. From this foreignness reading is made new.

You are right, of course. Bilingualism in Arabic/English at the department of English and Comparative Literature at AUC is certainly a distinctive case. The real clincher though is the institutionalization of Arabic-literature-in-translation within the discipline of comparative literature. ECLT is the only department of Comparative Literature in the Arabic-speaking world. Since most undergraduates know the languages, they pick up much more on nuances, and you can get away with insider jokes.

Tahia and Mounira might disagree with me, but I think it’s actually the postgraduate students who get the most benefit from their Arabic/English bilingualism in this pedagogical context. They gain a specific, familiar, ’eshra-like competence in balancing and switching between languages at an advanced level. The career paths of ECLT’s graduate students –as academics, teachers, journalists, booksellers and translators– are a testimony to this. For over forty years, the department has also issued the Alif journal (managed by Ferial Ghazoul), an annual, peer-reviewed academic journal published in Arabic and English, and through which many of the department’s graduate students spend valuable training time as fellows and assistants. Teaching Arabic literature alongside English in Cairo, the heart (or at least one of the vital organs) of the Arabic-speaking world, and training graduates in bilingual academic editing and publishing makes comparative literature immediately relevant to the spoken languages of the community, and encourages the study of Arabic in modern, secular terms.

Too secular and too modern, Arabists proper might say, but that’s a fight for another day.

Tahia Abdel Nasser

Tahia Abdel Nasser:  Comparatively; as though students know little about it; and with a focus on the Arab world. My department at AUC is English and Comparative Literature and it holds a special place in the region. It trains comparatists, and Arabists have a solid background in comparative literature. We teach Arabic literature in translation within comparative literature courses. For me, the idea is to teach Arabic literature within comparative literature, to draw out the interconnections between works from various linguistic traditions. I teach Arabic literature in courses on “Third World Literature” and “Contemporary Literature” and have designed special courses such as “Arab and Latin American Literary Encounters.” I have taught Arabic literature in translation to Arab and study abroad, undergraduate and graduate, students, with varying degrees of competency in Arabic, English, Spanish, and Portuguese, while aware of the rich variety of languages they have and the opportunity that offers. Being in Cairo means we are at a confluence of many cultures and languages.

The Arab and Latin American Literature course includes a lot of Arabic literature in translation. Besides the Arabic, Francophone, and Anglophone literature I teach in other courses, it also provides an opportunity to include Arab literature translated from Spanish, so we read poems by Nathalie Handal.

Mounira Soliman

Mounira Soliman: Since AUC houses the only department of English and Comparative Literature in Egypt and possibly the Arab World, Arabic literature is taught as part of a comparative literature course that includes other literatures in translation. When I teach a course on African literature, I include Anglophone, Francophone, and Arabic literature in translation, and so I use a text like Idris Ali’s Dongola, for example. The assumption that students have an edge because most of them are bilingual in Arabic and English, is not necessarily the case. We end up with a variety of students of different nationalities and from different educational and cultural backgrounds. While many of them would be able to pick up the nuances of an Arabic text in translation, a substantial some would not. They would sometimes find a foreign text culturally more accessible.

May: Why the framing around banned books? In what ways do you re-frame a discussion that is often in the public sphere (“Banned Books Week”) in a fairly shallow way? What ideas do you students come to the class with, about banned books? 

MH: Ha, are you calling my course fairly shallow? The “Banned Books” course is intended for freshmen, and serves as an introduction to world literature. You asked what ideas my students come with. They come with a chip on their shoulders –looking for a fight so to speak, whoever the target is: their parents, the local authorities, anyone not on Facebook, anyone who has told them “don’t do X”. I don’t give them room to vent out in those directions. Instead, the course pushes them to identify the purpose of literature in their world.

For me, articulating the location of literature in Egypt and in Arab societies has a community dimension, not just because of the competition that literature faces from popular media, but because of the high percentages of illiteracy. So if we ask “why ban books?” we should also be asking, “what does the fear of literature’s influence on the public actually mean when half the population can’t read?”

The course is on banned literature from around the world, though, not just on Egypt. So we discuss Naguib Mahfouz and the 1001 Nights, but also Orwell, Maupassant, Chekhov, Satrapi, and so on. All of the texts we work on are currently allowed in Egypt, yet all of them have been banned at one point or another around the world. We ask what happens when the books are finally allowed into circulation. Shockingly, the answer is: nothing. So if books don’t matter, why do we ban them? Which brings us right back to the purpose of literature in the community. So I push the students to go beyond the usual clichés (“knowledge is power”, “reading makes you a better person”, etc.) to try and articulate the use and operation of culture in the public sphere, and the modes of personal freedom and responsibility vis-à-vis culture.

Ha no, of course I’m not saying your class is shallow, only that some of the discussion around “banned / taboo books” can be deployed in a sort of Hallmark Card, listicle-way. Perhaps the discussion is in some ways easier in Egypt vs. in California or Mississippi, where people are more likely to believe there aren’t red lines or that information has been completely open and transparent in the public sphere. Perhaps it’s easier to discuss because people come in knowing there are red lines?

MH:  From shallow to Hallmark: I see the compliments are flying in. But I understand what you mean. Certain cultures have, as you pointed out, an ingrained national ethos, whether mythical or otherwise, of being open societies. Not the case, of course, in Arab societies. So the challenge isn’t to explain that there are red lines. But the purpose of the course isn’t to discuss them or this history either. Instead, the challenge is to explore what we can actually do with culture, and precisely how literary culture operates in its society. Do you have an overarching answer to the role of literary texts in the public spheres of the Arab world? I don’t, although I have some conjectures.

I want these younger readers to tell me the space and method through which literary texts actually operate. I want to win them over to the charms and power of literature. And I want to make sure literature continues to circulate. Because if we don’t make sure these texs operate, we are all dinosaurs.

What about restricting visas of Arab artists so they are unable to visit Europe or the US? What modes of “banning” enter into this context? 

MH: I don’t particularly refer to this, but of course it’s a form of banning, too. It’s a restriction of freedom of movement. Censorship exists everywhere in the world, albeit in (hugely differential) degrees. In the course we speak of Isaiah Berlin and Jürgen Habermas, and dwell on the range of free action across concepts of personal liberty and democratic governance, the fine line between public and private, and so on. But again I push the discussion more to the literary texts, hoping to get freshmen to respond articulately to what they read beyond regurgitating plots and themes. Why does Adham acquiesce to the obnoxious Gabalawi, while Meursault kills the innocuous Arab? When characters in Anton Chekhov’s fiction appreciate in private the artistry of nude statues but refuse to put the statues on public display, this is critiqued as a double moral standard. When Marjane Satrapi’s family listen to music and play card games in their private homes, however, it is applauded as a form of political rebellion. Is the private in Iran the public in Russia…?

I see you’ve got an essay by the brilliant Lina Attalah. Is there room to discuss Metro, Istikhdam al-Hayah, and other contemporary restrictions? 

MH: Happily, the brilliant Lina Attallah has also recently visited AUC in person for a public talk. I have used Metro before in a previous run of this course. You won’t believe this, but the downside is actually the price of its English translation in Egypt which makes it hard for students to buy, and which has made me replace it with Persepolis.

Why end on 1001 Nights? I assume there are many contexts in which it has been seen as threatening, not least contemporary Cairo. 

MH: I include the 1001 Nights because it seems most Egyptian students coming in to us from the Gulf countries know next to nothing about the Nights. Within Egypt, the tales are still looked down upon as popular culture and are rarely read as texts, so they make a nice final shocker to the semester. I don’t start with the Nights because, as you know, they have grandiose magical power: they will overtake the course, overwhelm the teacher, and make every other risqué text seem tepid and Anglosaxon. So I use the frame story, a couple of tales, and the Invitation to World Literature series’ 45-minute video, which is an accessible, vivid entry into the history of the text. Then I drop the mic, and end the course.

That’s a great mic-drop. Also: there are so many things from the Arabic tradition that would shock the bloomers off any Anglophone student, such as Ibn al-Hajjaj’s sukhf poetry. I suppose there’s plenty of room to discuss how changeable cultural standards are on what’s considered acceptable in public, or among children, or in polite company. Today scatalogical poetry is OK, tomorrow it’s not, and so on.

MH: Exactly. It is thus convenient that the Nights give us a facile, familiar idiom with which to drop both mic and bloomers.

What sorts of questions do students tackle in their final essays? Are there things you wish they would tackle, but they haven’t?

MH: The students are prompted to analyse the literary texts, especially by relating them to notions of personal liberty outlined by critical writers like Berlin and Habermas or in more contemporary manifestos on translation and freedom of expression (including those published on the Arab-lit-in-English blog). Because it’s a literature class, the aim is to elicit opinionated academic essays that engage directly with the texts without making ungrounded generalisations.

There are many things I would change about the way people write, rather than what they write, but Marcia, if you encourage me to expound on the general degradation of writing skills worldwide, we will need more space than a blog entry…

Well, then, how about I flip the question: Which of the critical texts do the students seem to find most fruitful? 

MH: For Freshmen, Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ leaves them dazed in a good way; Orwell’s ‘Preface’ to Animal Farm goes down well; the manifesto on translation published on your blog gets good press as we work our way around reading world literature in translation; various interviews with Arab authors on the Paris Review are also useful and accessible discussions of bridging the line between public and private.

About your World Literature course: Why did you decide to pair the books and put them in conversation with each other? (I’m sure Amitav Ghosh would be delighted to be in conversation with al-Biruni.) 

MH: When I teach world literature for an upper level undergraduate class, I pair novels around a core of critical writings on world literature. For postgraduate classes, I increase the pairs of novels into groups. The yardstick is students’ reading stamina: a case of spare the reading spoil the child. The critical texts always form the core reading material, and I take care to bring in non-Anglophone critical writing, although that is harder to find in translation.

I’m glad you approve the Ghosh inclusion. Antique Land is probably one of the most finely-wrought modern travelogues ever written. So whisper my gushing opinion in Ghosh’s ear for me if you meet him…

Why the emphasis on “world literature”? 

MH: Literary study is world literature to me. Because the proper key to a (good) literary text is the mind, and the proper use of the mind is to reflect on the cosmos. All other affiliations and qualifiers–national, regional, religious– are supplementary. The term “world” foregrounds human agency and engagement, affiliation through the imagination, and chronological and geographical representation. If literature is not all that, it is very little, even nothing at all.

Tahia: Why start your Third World Literature course with Hadji Murat? What issues does it open up?

TN: I have designed “Third World Literature” differently to look at a group of works, about and from the Third World, that offer further encounters with the East. These are not the typical East-West encounters. The course is an advanced undergraduate course. It focuses on the ways in which the East is continually reimagined in literature. We read Tolstoy, Camus, Gabriel García Márquez, Neruda, Darwish, Makhzangi. The sub-theme of the course is “images of the East.” We look at Orientalist imagery, but how that changes depending on who is looking at the East, through what prism. Among them is Tolstoy’s encounter with the East in Hadji Murat. The syllabus also includes critical works by Fanon, Said, Jameson. It is framed thematically and somewhat chronologically. We begin with Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat, a novel that students love to read and readily engage with as they sort out the many encounters in the course. It is a great entry point into the course and prepares them for the constellation of encounters that follow: Arab-Latin American in García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold; Egyptian-Soviet in Mohamed Makhzangi’s Memories of a Meltdown, and so on. The first part of the course is focused on European works (Tolstoy, Camus, and Pontecorvo) before we move on to literature from the “Third World.” It opens up issues of imperialism, Orientalism, and East-West encounters. Students come to the novel without any expectations and are taken in by the Russian-Chechen encounters it recounts.

Tolstoy is there because students in the department love Russian literature and routinely request it on our syllabi. Makhzangi’s Memories of a Meltdown is a beautiful memoir and offers students here a fresh perspective on Arabic literature and East-West encounters that are far from traditional fare in courses. It’s a memoir about an Egyptian studying in Kiev during the Chernobyl meltdown. Students are surprised by Makhzangi’s Memories of a Meltdown and delighted by the eloquence of his prose which shines through Samah Selim’s elegant translation. There is much to learn from and much to respond to in these encounters.

They ask: why does Tolstoy write about Hadji Murat? Why doesn’t the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger have a name, and what difference does it make that Santiago Nasar is partly Arab in García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold? Why is an Egyptian bewildered by Moscow queues in the 1990s? How does Neruda remember the East? Why do students from Zaire, Congo, Yemen, Egypt, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Colombia, during Chernobyl, jokingly calculate the average life expectancy in their respective countries to be thirty-six, that they would most likely die anyway from “a number of Third World afflictions”? They work through images, stereotypes, assumptions.

You have Camus and then there’s Battle of Algiers, Fanon, & a series of other texts, and then later The Meursault Investigation. Why not teach them right against one another?

TN: Looking at the syllabus, I feel the first part seems a little French-Algerian heavy but each of the works is important in its own right and contributes importantly to a course on Third World literature. By coincidence, while we were reading Camus and Fanon, along with The Battle of Algiers, this spring, Djamila Bouhired came to Cairo! In the introduction to the course, I tell students about the postcolonial recasting of The Stranger. We read The Stranger and dwell on existentialism and colonialism. By then students are interested to read The Meursault Investigation. It gives them something to look forward to and gives me something to work toward. The Meursault Investigation is paired with another contemporary novel in the last part of the course. It works nicely with Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist because both novels adopt the dramatic monologue of Camus’s The Fall. So they circle back to Camus. Both novels pour out the confessions of a narrator to a mysterious interlocutor in a café in Oran/Lahore. This opens up a rich examination of experimental form and the complex issues it explores: colonialism, imperialism, Orientalism, Francophone/Anglophone.

To what extent does the translated-ness of the text join the conversation?

TN: Translation creeps into the conversation because we deal mostly with translated texts and I have found that I feel freer when I teach works from a variety of linguistic traditions. The syllabus of the Arab and Latin American Literature course is largely limited by the availability of translations. Most students here know Arabic, English, and French. Spanish and Portuguese might be thrown into the mix. I encourage students to read the texts in the original, whenever possible, and we have fruitful conversations about the translation. I often wish I can include a novel by Elias Khoury or a travelogue by Lina Meruane that are not available in English translation, but it is possible to supplement the syllabus when students who know the languages can read the works and report to the class. So it is a collaborative syllabus.

The beauty of the course is that more and more works are being written (and translated) that add to and rework these cultural encounters, so I am constantly adding to it.

Students remark upon translations of Darwish. We enjoy Fady Joudah’s beautiful translation of “In Pablo Neruda’s home, on the Pacific.” This spring, Fady came to AUC in a conference organized by Ferial Ghazoul in memory of Barbara Harlow. It was fitting to read his translation, and the bilingual edition is especially useful.

In what ways do you think the term “Third World” is helpful as a way of framing the discussion? Are there things that it obscures? I taught a “Third World Literature” class at the University of Minnesota and felt somewhat ambivalent about the (inherited) title.

TN: Admittedly, it is tied to a specific context. On the first day of class, I admit to students the inadequacy of the term and we debate the appropriateness of such alternatives as “postcolonial,” “literatures other than English,” and “the global South.” I historicize the term and note its relevance to a specific historical moment. We are aware of its limitations and our own ambivalence; and we constantly gauge how appropriate (or not) the term is in relation to a particular text. Students grow more adept at contextualizing and responding to the term.

I would like to teach a course, a sort of twenty-first century look at “Third World Literature,” with a section on memoirs: Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Search, Radwa Ashour’s The Journey – coming out soon in Michelle Hartman’s English translation – and Lina Meruane’s autobiographical novel Seeing Red, available in a beautiful translation by Megan McDowell. All are works in translation; each later memoir builds on encounters in the other; all are written by women.

The course design and the ways we look at the works help students to understand the cultural and historical specificity of each work. These works also resonate with students here who engage so admirably with the rich array of “Third World Literature.”

Are there other works you’d like to teach if they were translated?

TN: I would love to teach Lina Meruane’s Volverse Palestina in English. It’s a unique text on my syllabus and I assign a translated excerpt. And Elias Khoury’s The Assembly of Secrets (Majma’ al-asrar).

Mounira: How did this class come about? What sorts of students take the course? Have many of the students, themselves, seen the US from outside?

MS: This is the second part of a course on American literature taught over two semesters. The first part covers American literature until 1900, and the second part is on modern and contemporary American literature. This as well as an introductory course on American studies are the only courses on American literature/culture offered by the Department. I have always been sensitive when it comes to the way we teach American literature in Egypt, trying to be careful that I don’t end up teaching American literature the way it is taught in the United States. The manner in which we approach the study of America is very much linked to our geopolitical location and positionality towards the US. This is what I had in mind when I designed this course, that we would try to read the US from within its own borders by examining texts published by American/Ethnic American writers, while also considering how it is perceived transnationally by considering works about the US produced/published beyond the borders of the nation state. This is the first time I include Arabic literature in translation in a course on American literature (while still retaining its title as a course on American literature), I’m aware that this is quite unorthodox but it is part of my interest in exploring different intakes on  transnationality from different geopolitical locations.

I have a variety of students, while most of them are English majors and minors, some are from political science, history, theater, media studies, etc. Many of whom have been to the US before, and have different experiences of cultural encounters to share.

What did Fady discuss in your class? What does he frame/de-center for your students? What sorts of questions do they have for him?

MS: Fady Joudah gave a public lecture at AUC on “Psychology of Fragments: Translating Mahmoud Darwish” organized by the Center for Translation Studies. He also gave another talk on creativity and his own work. Even though he did not address my students directly, they were more interested in his experience as an immigrant to the US, and the kind of cultural negotiations that he underwent. This resonated with other experiences that they were reading about in the course and listening to by other speakers who had similar encounters.

You say you’re asking students to read from both a national & a transnational perspective. How do you help or encourage them to shift their lenses on a text like, for instance, Miral’s Brooklyn Heights? Do they read it both as a US citizen who’d never left Minnesota might, and as an Egyptian-American or Peruvian-American or Egyptian?

MS: In reading a text like Brooklyn Heights, we try to decenter the US. Instead of focusing on the immigration experience as it manifests itself in the US, we are more concerned with understanding the experiences of the protagonist in Egypt, and the context within which these experiences were born, and how far they informed her encounter with the US. The students are conscious that they are reading a text that is as much about Egypt as it is about the US, they are also conscious about their positionality vis a vis the text: they are reading a book written in Arabic by an Egyptian writer who lives in the US, published in Egypt, and translated into English. Theses are factors that a student from Minnesota may not grapple with but it allows a student from Egypt a different perspective on how America means different things as is it becomes clear from studying texts from within the borders of the US and beyond.

You close on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Immigrant’s Fate is Everyone’s” — is that a hopeful choice?

MS: Not really! Although of course it can be read as one. The reason why I chose to end with Nguyen’s text is that it can be used to examine one of the major ideas that we explore in the course, and that is the different meanings of America. By focusing on one experience, immigration, we can explore these different meanings.

Are there other choices you’d consider in this course, when/if teaching it next?

MS: I would like to include more Arabic and other literary works in translation. I would also like to consider the possibility of reading the Arabic literary works in their original language. I’m aware that this might prove to be difficult for some students who either do not speak Arabic or find it hard to read Arabic language; but I also feel that any discussion on transnationalism cannot preclude language, whether it’s the language of instruction, the readings, students’ critical responses. In the end, language informs our positionality vis a vis the US.