World Literature and the Vernacular

 

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While doing some research on writing in Egyptian ‘ammiya recently,  I came across a satirical cartoon from the 20s featuring a peasant woman (or literally, bint-el-balad, daughter of the land),  and what might be called the Egyptian New Woman, described in the cartoon as al-fata al mustarjila sa’iqat al-automobile — the “mannish” girl who drives an automobile. The peasant woman is turning her back to the other woman, believing her to be a Western man, or a “khawaga.”  Responding to some question from the driver, she speaks in dialect, saying: “By the prophet, I don’t know, oh khawaga, ask my husband.”

There’s a lot going on in the image, from the misrecognition of an Egyptian woman as a Western man and the khawaga complex (which might lead the Cairine audience to identify/sympathise with the peasant), to the racialised, stereotypical representation of the peasant woman which identifies the audience with the “mannish” woman, connecting vulgarity and the vernacular, or ‘ammiya and the ‘amma (the masses), for comedic value.

There’s been much written in recent years about the rise of the Arabic vernacular in popular culture and literature, from the backlash to Disney’s controversial decision to switch to MSA and Al Jazeera’s role in safeguarding the standard, to the popularity of success of “dialect-inflected” works like Khaled Khamissi’s Taxi and the arguments for a more relatable children’s literature in the colloquial (see here, here and here).

The intersections and tensions between the vernacular and the standard, and how the vernacular might travel in translations, were some of the issues taken up in the conference, “Loose Tongues: World Literature and the Vernacular” which took place at Stockholm University this August

Speakers included Eileen Julien, Francesca Orsini, and Daniel Heller-Roazen. Julien’s paper was on vernacular cultures, including a reflection on Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson, while Orsini spoke about what happens when non-Western vernacular literatures travel, identifying several common factors including the denial of coevalness, and the framing of this literature as useful as a tool to learn the language.

Having done some work on mother-tongue lessons in Sweden, I was interested in a paper presented by Elisabeth Friis and Karin Nykvist, which is part of a larger project entitled Multilingual Strategies in Contemporary Scandinavian Literature. The paper situated itself as part of a re-examination of “The Mother Tongue” as “an expression of an assumed link between nation, identity and language,” looking at  Greenlandic Performance artist and poet Jessie Kleeman’s “Eskimothertongue” and Athena Farrokzhads vitsvit (White Blight).

Toral Jatin Gajarawala’s paper on “Mother Russia and Dalit Internationalism” examiningGorky [as] an ur-text” in the work of Hindi writer Ajay Navariya brought to mind similar allusions to Gorky’s The Mother in Arabic literature, as in Samar Attar’s Līnā: Lawḥat fatāh Dimashqīyya (1982).

Markus Huss’ presentation on “Sign Language as Transmedial Vernacular” in Michael Roes’s Die Laute  showed how this novel “about a young Yemenite musical genius who loses his hearing”, sign language is “able to cross cultural boundaries otherwise upheld through verbal language.” Both Roes’ Die Laute as well as his previous novel  Leeres Viertel – Rubʿ al-Khali: Invention über das Spiel (1998) are set in the Middle East and seem to reflect in interesting ways on intercultural communication and translation.  However, since it seems these novels have not been translated into English, I’ve been painstakingly reading through the texts with my high-school German and a dictionary.

My own paper was on how recently some Arab writers have begun to develop a more polyphonic literary language, combining fuṣḥā with ʿammiyya within the narrative itself as well as the dialogue. For example, see Youssef Rakha’s Kitab al-Tughra, Gharib al-Tarikh fi Madinat al-Marikh (The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars), which Rakha describes as an experiment, an effort “to find a language that effectively combined the spoken Egyptian-Arabic dialect and the literary standard-Arabic” and “to create a contemporary version of Jabarti’s conversational, dialect-inflected fusha” — referring to Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, the judge and historian who recorded Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and its aftermath in a mix of literary and dialect Arabic.

Here is a part of the opening passage:

“You don’t like reading Arabic (assuming that this is Arabic in the first place). Sometimes I worry that the few people who read, don’t read in Arabic. I don’t blame them. Even those people who know no other language except Arabic waste all their energy on rotten translations, translations of translations. English rules. Look at how our uncles, the Turks, found peace after they adopted the Latin alphabet!”

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Questions are raised here about the relationship between the vernacular and the standard language, as the protagonist wonders whether the blended language he is using can even be described as Arabic, given the use of colloquial words like  فاكر  (“faaker,” remember) and ساعات (“sa3at,” sometimes).

The claim that even those who read only Arabic mostly read translation reveals how globalisation has facilitated not just the economic but the cultural dominance of the West. According to the protagonist, Arab readers preference translated readers is the ultimate sign that there is a need for inventing a more relatable literary Arabic.

While fusha remains for many “the eloquent langauge,” and the only acceptable language to use in serious prose, , dialect does seem to be moving beyond its use in drama and colloquial poetry as dialect in literary texts is no longer restricted to the “vulgar” speaking of peasant characters. An increasing number of Arab writers are experimenting with fusing dialect and MSA/are interjecting dialect in the narration.

 

Source for the header image here

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