‘Who do you write for?’

Selma Dabbagh

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.


  • 25 September 2015 at 12:32pm
    stettiner says:
    What is "sensitive, responsible writing about the Arab world"?

    • 28 September 2015 at 7:42am
      Alan Benfield says: @ stettiner
      Something you wouldn't read, probably.

    • 28 September 2015 at 8:26am
      stettiner says: @ Alan Benfield
      Well, well, well, aren't you a clever clog...

    • 28 September 2015 at 9:18am
      Alan Benfield says: @ stettiner
      No, I just follow your comments slavishly...

    • 28 September 2015 at 8:51pm
      David Gordon says: @ Alan Benfield
      Well, it is certainly something Stettiner wouldn't write.

  • 29 September 2015 at 7:05pm
    stettiner says:
    Glad - and thankful - as I am for having my own fan club, let me nevertheless repeat my question: what is "sensitive, responsible writing about the Arab world"? And while we are at it; who defines what's sensitive and responsible?

    • 29 September 2015 at 8:26pm
      David Gordon says: @ stettiner
      Well, given your usual line, I doubt if you do irony. So you presumably mean "fan" in a positive way - which suggests we do not really need to answer your comments.

      But here we go. “Sensitive, responsible writing about the Arab world”? There are plenty of journalists writing thus, in sensible and responsible newspapers. And books? - let's start with Doughty and "Travels in Arabia Deserta". That's nearly 130 years of "sensitive and responsible".

    • 30 September 2015 at 3:20pm
      stettiner says: @ David Gordon
      And yet you can't help yourself....

  • 2 October 2015 at 3:28am
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Let's see now, illustratively and rhetorically . . . oh, yes, Gabriel Marcia Marquez, whose life and works radically altered Colombians' respect for and understanding of each other so that they no longer were divided into factions that perpetrated a fifty-year long civil war (la Violencia, followed by FARC and right-wing death squads, all leading to hundreds of thousands dead, many killed in gruesome fashion) during which bombing and shooting each other . . . did exactly what? Abate? Cease? Or just go on as usual? (For those dim of wit, the answer is C). Let's not put such a burden on a writer of fiction - he didn't bring about the situation and his books didn't change it a whit. Though, how to prove the foregoing is of course an empirical matter. A high level of "sensible and responsible fiction", or any other institutionalization of any of the arts has never protected a country from being invaded or destroyed, or even destroying itself. Choose a better example next time or think more clearly about the sepration between art and life. None of this has anything to do with Marquez's considerable talent as a novelist, but that talent had nothing to do with the resolution of his nation's very serious political and humanitarian problems.

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