From ‘Russian-Arab Literary Worlds,’ A Talk with Khalil Alrez

The new anthology Russian-Arab Worlds, edited by Eileen Kane, Masha Kirasirova, and Margaret Litvin, is out this month from Oxford University Press.

It includes a wide range of essays, interviews, and archival documents in translation, with work by and about literary figures including Kulthum ‘Awda, Mikhail Naimy, Vasili Khitrovo, Zakaria Turki, and Khalil Alrez, and a translation of al-Tantawi’s charming 1840 text, “Gift of the Wise in the Account of the Land of Russia.”

Next week, on Thursday, June 29, featured Syrian author Khalil Alrez will be reading at Khan Aljanub bookstore in Berlin from The Russian Quarter (2019) and also from his newer novel, Strawberry-Spotted Handkerchief (2022), which features Arab students in Moscow. The event will start at 6 p.m. Alrez will answer questions about the books, and Litvin is happy to discuss the translations-in-progress.

Then, on Friday, June 30, there will be a Russian-Arab Worlds launch party at EUME in Berlin, starting at 3 p.m.

Litvin writes:

Conceived in 2017 and finally published this week, the anthology Russian-Arab Worlds: A Documentary History includes over 300 pages of memoirs and archival documents translated from Arabic, Russian, Armenian, Persian, Tatar, and French. Each source carries a specialist introduction, often written by a multilingual pair of scholars. The point is to break down area studies divisions between “Middle Eastern” and “Slavic and Eastern European” studies and make people look at those regions in a new way. (For instance, Baku is closer to Baghdad than to Moscow—of course there were thousands of Iraqi students studying petroleum engineering there! What were their student politics like?) The editors hope this book will help bring vivid human voices into syllabi such as “Russia and the World,” “The Global Middle East,” and even “Pilgrims, Students, and Spies: Travel Writing beyond Europe.”  Best of all, Oxford UP’s companion website makes original sources available to students and researchers who can read the relevant languages.

Below, you’ll find an excerpt from the anthology’s “‘The Intellectual Is a Hybrid Creature’: Khalil Alrez’s The Russian Quarter,” published with permission from Oxford University Press.

From “The Intellectual Is a Hybrid Creature’: Khalil Alrez’s The Russian Quarter

By Margaret Litvin

Was your decision to become a writer related in any way to your experience with Russian literature? Or what else pushed you toward writing?

Khalil Alrez: No, not at all. I was twelve years old, in fifth grade in elementary school. My handwriting was beautiful and easy to read, and the teacher asked me to copy out for him the poetry collection Rain Song (Unshudat al-Matar) by the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964). At that time I did not know enough to realize that book’s importance to modern Arabic poetry. But while copying it, I was enraptured by the Arabic language, so different from the language of the Qur’an that I was learning to read properly during my summer breaks, with a disabled shaykh in Raqqa. My fascination pushed me to go, after that, to the city cultural center to borrow the other collections of poetry by Sayyab. On reading those other collections I was surprised not to feel the same fascination as I had felt while copying Rain Song. Then I found myself searching for this obscure fascination in books by other writers. Maybe I wanted to recapture it with my own hands when, two years later, I wrote myself a letter describing a horse imprisoned in a very narrow stable. I believe that my desire to be a writer began with that letter.

How was the experience of returning to Syria in 1993 after living for nearly a decade in Russia? What struck you? Was there “reverse culture shock”? Did you find yourself gravitating toward Russians, or toward other Syrians who had been in Russia?

KA: When I returned to Syria, I knew that I was coming back to a country ruled by a regime closely resembling the North Korean one. The paradox was that I was moving from the heart of a capital that had shaken the thrones of despotism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe… to the heart of Damascus, which as far as I was concerned meant Pyongyang. In Damascus I missed the places I had loved and frequented in Moscow – the theatres, museums, concerts, and open relations with people. I had no relations with Soviet graduates except two or three people I had known in Moscow. I met a few Russians, and I kept up friendships with a few old friends. But despite everything I did not regret returning to Syria. In Moscow I had written my first novel and my only play and begun work on my second novel, and I needed to develop myself as a novelist in proximity to my likely readers in Damascus.

The whole fictional neighborhood (in The Russian Quarter) with its quirky human and animal characters sounds like something from Russian children’s fiction – perhaps Korney Chukovsky. Why did you invent a Damascus zoo that was Russian, of all things?

KA: The zoo in the Russian quarter is not Russian. Like any zoo in the world, it is a place of estrangement where animals reside far from their natural habitats and countries of origin. The zoo in the Russian Quarter heightens this estrangement by containing humans as well as animals of different nationalities. Maybe what reminded you of children’s literature was the presence of animals. But even though they play leading roles in the novel, the animals in The Russian Quarter do not speak, the way animals do in the books of some other writers. Another quality that may evoke children’s literature is the free-association of images, ideas, and emotions in the character of Nonna – it recalls children’s thirst for discovery and their way of using the imagination to fill in the gaps of the unknown. Of course, I would be delighted if children – at least, adolescents – could read The Russian Quarter.

Also read:

An Excerpt from Khalil Alrez’s ‘The Russian Quarter’

On Asymptote: Margaret Litvin on Khalil Alrez

The companion website for Russian-Arab Worlds