“Orphaned of Light”: Graham Liddell on Editing ‘Absinthe 28’ and Translating Arab/ic Migration

In December 2022, literary magazine Absinthe: World Literature in Translation published an issue dedicated to contemporary Arabic and Arabophone migration literature. The issue showcases diverse experiences of migration with prose and poetry contributions from various geographies and periods. Here, editor Graham Liddell talks to ArabLit’s Leonie Rau about the process of conceiving and selecting pieces for this issue, as well as ethical questions in translating texts meant “to provide a secluded venue in which to air raw emotions and express views on controversial subjects”.

Cover of Absinthe 28

Leonie Rau: Congratulations on the release of Absinthe 28, dedicated to Arab and Arabophone texts of migration! Could you tell us how this project came about?

Graham Liddell: Thank you so much! I started working as a managing editor for Absinthe in 2018, in my early days as a graduate student in the University of Michigan’s Comparative Literature Department where the magazine is housed. All the while, my dissertation on narratives of unauthorized migration was taking shape, and I found myself translating numerous passages of recent Arabic literature on the subject. I was surprised that so little contemporary Arabic literature in this vein had been translated into English. The narratives I was encountering in Arabic tended to differ drastically in tone and emphasis from narratives of displacement that were originally written in English. To me, this seemed like an obvious gap that needed to be filled, especially given the great degree of interest that had developed in the English-speaking Global North regarding the dramatic increase of migration to Europe that started in 2014, along with its associated human hardships and political consequences. The language most represented among these people on the move — then if not also now — was Arabic. So much was being said about these individuals, and so little was being heard directly from them beyond stories of tragedy and hope. Meanwhile, in 2021, having put in my time as a managing editor, I was given the opportunity to propose a special issue of my own. Even though Absinthe was established in Metro Detroit, an area known for being home to the largest concentration of Arab residents in the United States, the magazine had not yet devoted an entire issue to Arabic literature. I therefore proposed an issue centered on contemporary migration-focused literature translated from Arabic, and the idea was well received by my colleagues.

The texts included in this issue range from a lesser-known story by Ghassan Kanafani to very recent poetry and include authors from a broad geographical background. How did you choose contributions to this issue? What role did the translators play in this process?

The initial idea for the issue was quite a bit narrower. The plan was to collect Arabic-language works reflecting on migration to Europe, all originally published after the spectacle of the so-called “migrant crisis.” This stemmed from my long-held conviction that among the millions of Arabic speakers traveling to Europe, thousands must be writers whose work deserved to be read, and a wide readership would be interested in it if they only had access to it. However, it soon became clear that there were many advantages to broadening the scope of the collection — geographically, temporally, contextually. This way, we could feature the work of a member of the Arabic-speaking community of Dearborn, where the University of Michigan has a campus. We could also include a couple of works centered on “South-South” displacement and migration, which gets far less media attention than its “South-North” counterpart, even though the former is more common. And finally, I wanted to take the opportunity to publish a work by Ghassan Kanafani that hadn’t yet made it to print. “The Stolen Shirt,” written over sixty years ago, serves as a reminder of the resonances between Palestinian experiences of forced displacement and modern-day “mass migration,” especially when it comes to creative expression of these experiences. As I write in the intro to Absinthe 28, this story’s “depiction of life in a Palestinian refugee camp in the 1950s sets the stage for the more contemporary works that are featured in this issue. The story serves as a chilling reminder of the decades-long genealogy of Arab refugeehood that has continued with renewed vigor in the 21st century.”

Absinthe takes pride in its transnational approach. After all, it is housed in a comparative literature department. In our discipline, we are constantly questioning conventional boundary lines and categories. Thus, I wanted to be sure to include Arabic writing by authors who are not ethnically Arab, and to showcase Arabic as a language in which the phenomenon we call migration is happening, is narrated, and is reflected upon. We ended up featuring writing by two Kurdish authors (Jan Dost and Gulala Nouri), one Eritrean (Haji Jaber) and one Anglo-American (Becky Thompson). In the latter case, we published Arabic translations of two poems by a scholar-activist who had written a poetry collection as a response to her time volunteering with, and leading poetry workshops for, refugees in Greece. The idea of featuring these English-to-Arabic renderings was to highlight the act of translation as a multidirectional and multivalent — not simply extractive — practice, and to make Thompson’s work, inspired by the lived experiences of people on the move, accessible to some of these very people. 

I communicated with translators from the time I started working on the project. I was delighted that veteran translators Marilyn Booth, Nancy Roberts, and Khaled Mattawa agreed to come on board. Each of them had already begun work on translations of pieces focused on issues of migration, displacement, and/or exile, and they were agreeable to the prospect of publishing their work in Absinthe. Booth and Roberts both have hopes of ultimately publishing their translations of the entirety of the novels that are only teased in this issue. I also invited fellow graduate students and other peers of mine, who are newer to the world of literary translation, to contribute. In these cases, I made suggestions for potential works to translate and we collaborated on the process of narrowing down the exact selections that would be featured. 

As I was talking with potential translators, I also reached out to a few mentors and contacts who I thought could make some helpful suggestions. My dissertation advisor Anton Shammas suggested I check out This is Not a Suitcase, which is a collection of migration-focused literature published in Arabic in Belgium. The story “Her, Him, and Gaza” by Nisma Alaklouk came from this book. Khaled Mattawa recommended Dates and Wild Artichokes, a novel by Mohamad Alasfar, who is a Libyan author living in Germany. Dunya Mikhail suggested the poet Gulala Nouri.

In your introduction, you write about literature as being one way for migrants to narrate their experiences “without much fear of playing into the hands of a host country’s nationalist ideologues.” This, then, makes you ask a difficult question: “If one of the purposes of Arabic migration literature is to provide a secluded venue in which to air raw emotions and express views on controversial subjects, what are the ethics of translating this literature into English?” How would you answer this question now, having worked on this collection of texts?

This question will always be one that I have to answer with “on the one hand…” and “on the other…” One problem that I am grappling with in my own research is the way that public perception of irregular migration within host countries — particularly in the case of Arab and Muslim newcomers — is hyper-polorized based on political persuasion, with one side villainizing migrants and the other side valorizing them. Both approaches are problematic in that they tend to reduce humans to political talking points, turning a blind eye to the thorny three-dimensionality of migration. This can be damaging no matter the purity of one’s intentions. My sense is that when writing in English and other European languages, migrant authors are constrained by this fraught discursive landscape in a way that they are not in Arabic. My hope is that these often-revelatory writings, translated into English, can expand readers’ understandings of border policies, and of the diverse range of personalities, aspirations, and experiences that exist among migrants. So I’d like to say that I come down on the side of translating over not translating, with the caveat, of course, of always obtaining full permission from authors and/or rights holders. 

Perhaps I can expand upon what I wrote about this question in my introduction to say this: the Arabic language provides a “home” in which migrant writers may reveal certain uncomfortable truths or personal vulnerabilities. Writing in English, with all of its associations, may create different dialogical scenarios that place the author in a position of guardedness. When the burden of presenting oneself or one’s characters in a foreign language is transferred to the translator, authors are freed of some of the rhetorical binds that they might otherwise find themselves in. Translators specialize in the task of absorbing textual material in one discursive environment and re-presenting it in another. Ethically minded translators will be highly aware of issues like cultural extraction or sensationalism, and will factor these into their approach, based on their encounter with the text and its particular sensitivities. In this issue of Absinthe, we wanted to provide space for translators to contextualize their work and address any potential pitfalls. So I think the more the translator is presented as a co-creator of literary content — one who is acknowledged as a maker of creative decisions in the production of text — the less likely the author is to be pounced upon for something that is taken out of context by a political foe. But perhaps this is an optimistic view. As I note in the introduction, the troubled history of the surveillance of Arab communities in Global North countries will always be looming in the background of the question, “To translate or not to translate?”

Here in Germany, where I live, the theme of (forced) migration has dominated the discourse around Arabic literature in the past decade, and a large part of translations from the Arabic to appear during this time have centered around this theme. Do you ever feel that Arabic literature has been reduced to ‘migration literature’ by and for the non-Arabic speaking public?

Strangely, I haven’t noticed the same trend in English translations of Arabic works, at least in the United States. There is plenty of work written in English on the subject of migration, but as for translations of contemporary literature originally published in Arabic on the subject of irregular migration and refugeehood, I haven’t seen an abundance of it. There are exceptions, of course, notable among them Hoda Barakat’s Barīd al-Layl, translated wonderfully as Voices of the Lost by Absinthe contributor Marilyn Booth. But the trend I do notice is of works originally written in English that emphasize the victimhood of the characters in an appeal for greater societal and legal acceptance of refugees. This, of course, is a worthy mission, but oftentimes, as I say above, it seems to contribute to a flattening of individual refugees’ complex experiences. 

In the issue, poetry is presented in a side-by-side Arabic-English format, to remind readers that “a translation, especially of a poem, is not a ‘faithful copy’ of an ‘original'”—would you say that this is less true for prose, which is presented only in its English version in this issue?

Poetry does strike me as a literary form that is particularly resistant to “faithful” translation. Musicality, rhythm, and experimental figurative language see to that. But faithfulness was not the main concern that led us to a side-by-side presentation of the poetry section of the issue. The idea was actually inspired by a bilingual poetry reading by Iraqi American writer Dunya Mikhail at a translation symposium held at the University of Michigan back in 2021. It became clear that the recitation of her poems in both languages offered a kind of multidimensional sensory and semantic experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. We wanted the bilingual reader to be able to encounter poetry in a similar way on the page. At the Absinthe 28 release event in December, poet Sara Abou Rashed, who also served as Arabic Text and Translation Editor for this issue, read a few of her contributions in a bilingual format. She performed her work in a kind of slam-poetry rendition in which, instead of reading an entire piece in one language and then another, she interspersed lines in both languages in a nonuniform manner, changing languages and crescendoing in intensity. It was a moving rendering of already stunning poetry.

I’m not sure if we ever considered a full side-by-side presentation of the prose in this edition. It’s a good question, though: can it definitively be said that prose is more translatable than poetry? Not necessarily. Generally speaking, though, I think poetry “washes over” a reader or listener in a more intense and immediate manner than prose, and the sensual experience of poetry is enhanced by bilingualism in a unique way.

Do you have a favorite story or poem in this issue?

Right now, my favorite piece is the selection from Mohamad Alasfar’s novel Dates and Wild Artichokes (Tamr wa-Qaʿmūl), translated by James Vizthum. What I find brilliant about this text is the comedic subtlety with which the author parodies the efficiency of German life. Bureaucracy moves so quickly in the narrator’s country of asylum, such that its municipalities have the capacity to implement timely legal rulings about things as seemingly trivial as squirrels, approved species of trees, and the littering of date pits. When a truly dangerous situation strikes, and unexploded ordnance from World War II is discovered underneath a road in a residential area (in an almost magical-realist scene whose details I won’t spoil here), the local government is able to operate with the same calm efficiency. There is no chaos, and the residents are quickly evacuated and accommodated while crews get to work. In Dates and Wild Artichokes, Alasfar is able to deliver a lighthearted and delightfully absurd comparison between differing ways of interacting with one’s environment, alongside the ways states interact with their citizens. I hope the whole book will be translated someday soon.


Where to get it: A free digital version of the issue is available here, and physical copies are for sale here.


Graham Liddell is a writer, translator, and PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. His dissertation is a study of the narration of contemporary Arab and Afghan migration experiences in both published literature and the asylum process. In 2019–2020, he conducted fieldwork and interviews with asylum seekers while volunteering in Greece. His translations of two short stories from Emile Habiby’s collection Sextet of the Six-Day War were published in Banipal in 2022. Prior to graduate school, Graham worked in journalism, focusing on the Arab world and its diasporas. His writing has been published in USA Today, Middle East Eye, and the Detroit News, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @grahamliddell.

Leonie Rau is ArabLit & ArabLit Quarterly’s Assistant Editor. She holds an MA in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and is currently preparing her dissertation proposal on medieval Arabic recipe collections. Leonie is also an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. Her translations have appeared on arablit.org and in ArabLit Quarterly and Guernica. She can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.