Questions of how the Arab world should be depicted, by whom, in what language, and for what purpose, came up in several discussions I took part in over recent months. The debate is fraught, and prone to curtail writers’ freedoms as much as open up new ground. It is best engaged with in what Ahdaf Soueif has described as the ‘mezzaterra’ between East and West which, thankfully, is less of a no man’s land than it used to be.
The model of East-West ‘binary otherisation’ – a term used during a debate at the P21 Gallery (‘Can art help build a better future for Palestinians?’) – no longer works as easily as it once did. At a panel discussion at the Shubbak Festival (‘The Rise of Arabic Literature in English?’), two panellists of non-Arab origin, translators and teachers of Arabic literature, had stronger Arabic language skills than writers of partial Arab origin (myself included). At a workshop at All Souls College, Oxford, on the Library of Arabic Literature (‘A Corpus not a Canon’), English professors challenged the contention that only people with English as a ‘mother tongue’ could translate into it.
The question of who you write for, as an author of fiction, can be as tedious as the one about how autobiographical your stories are, but it’s harder to dismiss – especially if your work is in English about the Arab world. There’s a risk of stepping inadvertently into the role of an orientalising native informant. But novelists aren’t meant to write work of only ‘forensic interest’, as the Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon puts it. The purpose of fiction, he says, is not to explain, but to ‘illuminate’. There are calls for publishers to be more daring, to take English language readers out of their comfort zone and not to underestimate the readership of the Arab world.
The Gulf, never seen as the hub of Arab civilisation, and hardly a bastion of cultural and political freedoms, has since 2011 become the main market for and sponsor of Arabic literature and the arts. I’m one of many writers published in English and Arabic by Bloomsbury Qatar. The Library of Arabic Literature is similarly supported by New York University’s Abu Dhabi Institute: the bilingual edition of Ibn al-Sa’i’s Consorts of the Caliphs and Humphrey Davies’s inventive translation of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s risqué Leg over Leg wouldn’t have been published without Gulf backing.
Art as resistance is an idea that is gaining traction in the post-2011 Arab world. Programmes that promote it – in Palestine especially – can be criticised for diverting funds that are needed elsewhere, turning the occupied territories into destinations for ‘political tourists’, and doing no more than allowing a handful of creative individuals to convert their misery into money. But art can be cathartic and consoling and it can help to build consensus. It can also challenge preconceptions by the way it portrays other lives, especially if the people whose lives are depicted, belong to a population that has been designated as perverse, hostile and ultimately dispensable.
According to Literature Across Frontiers, more books are translated into English from Arabic than from any other non-European language. There has also been an increase in sensitive, responsible writing about the Arab world in English. Deliberate policies have caused most of the problems in the Middle East, not miscommunication and lack of knowledge. Yet I can’t help feeling that Baghdad would have been harder to bomb if a few writers of the stature of, say, Gabriel García Márquez had been living there, though how to prove that empirically is another matter.