Arab Literature in Other Languages

Boyd Tonkin writes in The Independent on “the wonders of Moroccan literature,” Koutoubia (the Mosque of the Booksellers) and the La Mamounia award for (Francophone) Moroccan fiction.

Tonkin discusses the winner of the fifth La Mamounia prize, Le Job by Réda Dalil:

Thrown out of work by the sub-prime meltdown of 2008, 30-year-old financial whizz-kid Ghali finds himself on the slide and on the skids in Casablanca – the sprawling metropolis whose stories fuel so much Moroccan fiction. In this teeming city of both “filth” and “brilliance”, Ghali the ejected ex-yuppie plunges fast into the abyss. Pretty soon he finds that “500 dirhams [£36] separated me from social euthanasia”.

We’re close here to the hectic mood, and style, of a Jay McInerney or a Bret Easton Ellis. British readers might catch a whiff of younger Martin Amis. In a series of comic but mortifying misadventures, downwardly-mobile Ghali faces “the extinction of dignity”…Le Job breaks free of sociological reportage to deliver a delirious portrait of a westernised wannabe clinging to the wreckage of his hopes.

The novel has not been translated, as Tonkin notes “Let’s hope it attracts an English version soon: a translator who captured Ghali’s sassy, sardonic voice could really go to town.” Discussing the importance of language in Morocco, the writer makes the point that Arab/ic literature is not necessarily in Arabic.

In multi-lingual Morocco, you grasp that the literature of the Arab world need not always be written in Arabic – although British readers should know that, given their exposure to first-rate novelists such as Hisham Matar (Libya), Robin Yassin-Kassab (Syria) and Ahdaf Soueif (Egypt).

The understanding that Arab literature includes Francophone literature by writers from the Arabic-speaking world  has by now become commonplace. For example, in the Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, edited by Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey, the editors explain that they have included entries for some Francophone writers where “the general cultural context has suggested an exception to the usual principle that “Arabic literature” is literature written in Arabic” (1998:xi). However this understanding of the overlap between literature written in Arabic, and literature in other languages by Arab writers, has not been as widely applied to writers of English expression – perhaps because the numbers have been fewer.

Writing in 1992, Edward Said discusses the fact that writings in English from the regions of Arab world colonized by Britain were minimal compared to the output from India. As he notes, the “explosion of literature in the Arabic language has completely overshadowed it, leaving the tiny number of writers in English even more anomalous.” Given this anomalousness, Said notes, “Why English and not Arabic is the question an Egyptian, Palestinian, Iraqi or Jordanian writer has to ask him or herself right off” (291). Geoffrey Nash makes a similar comment in 1998, noting that “although a trickle of novels by Arabs writing in English is beginning to appear, it can hardly be placed on a par with the established English writings of Africa or India” (1).

In the last couple of decades, this situation has changed somewhat, as Anglophone Arab literature begins to become established in the sense that it is no longer limited to a few texts, with the emergence of a group of hyphenated Arab-American, Arab-British and Arab-Australian writers. However this Anglophone literature remains somewhat marginalized in comparison to the much more established traditions referred to by Arab writers producing works in Arabic and French.

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