Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The American Reader Seeking the Arab “Other” | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page
Media ID: 55310531

Books are displayed at the annual Paris book fair March 14, 2008. (Reuters/Charles Platiau)

Books are displayed at the annual Paris book fair March 14, 2008. (Reuters/Charles Platiau)

Books are displayed at the annual Paris book fair March 14, 2008. (Reuters/Charles Platiau)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—It is hardly a stretch to say that over the last dozen years, Americans have had a tense and complicated relationship with Arabs and the Middle East. This has undoubtedly impacted the availability and popularity of Arabic novels in the United States. But Elliott Colla, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University and translator of Arabic novels including Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron, and Idris Ali’s Poor English, goes further. Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, he explains that Americans generally seek out literature that is written from an American viewpoint and that expresses particular narratives:

“The first thing to know about American readers is that for the most part, they are not looking at Arabic novels. American audiences are famous for their indifference toward literature that was not written in English. About 2 percent of the titles published in the US are translated from other languages. And only 2 percent of this tiny number come from Arabic. Which is to say, for every ten thousand books published in English, about four were translated from Arabic. Unlike so many other literary cultures—like Spanish or French or Arabic—where translated titles routinely make a major impact in terms of sensibility and style, Americans basically read only themselves. So, in this sense, Americans really are exceptional—not that isolation is something to brag about.

“This does not mean that Americans are never curious about other parts of the world. Sometimes they are. But when they want to read about them in literature, they generally prefer to read what an American has to say. There are dozens of works of fiction about the American occupation of Iraq written by Americans with little or no knowledge of the language, culture or history of that country. Compare that to the fact that only a handful of works by Iraqi authors have been translated at all into English, and only one or two have even garnered a review.

“That said, a small fraction of American readers are hungry for Arabic literature in translation—though this hunger raises as many questions as it answers. We could say that there are basically two kinds of stories Americans are looking for in Arabic novels: stories about the Western Self, and stories about the Arab Other.

“We might call the first a ‘narcissistic strand of interest.’ By this, I refer to American readers who go looking for a very particular kind of novel from the Arab world: novels that present an image of Americans (or Westerners or Jews or Israelis), novels that hold up a mirror onto “ourselves,” novels about the Arab experience of immigration to the USA or Europe, or novels that treat the presence of Americans or Westerners in the Arab world. These are interesting to many white American readers because they seem to let us see how we (or people we imagine to be like “us”) are viewed by Arabs. Reading them allows us to imagine that we are eavesdropping in an authentic conversation about us. Any Arab novelist with a decent knowledge of white American audiences knows that the presence of American, European or Israeli characters in a story will spark a fire with this narcissistic segment of the market.

“There is another kind of interest that turns to novels for information about how Arabs live, how they love and how they feel. We might call this the ‘ethnographic strand of interest,’ because it reads novels not as works of fiction, but as works based in reality. This interest is in works that help white Americans understand the foreignness of Arab culture on its own terms.

“In this strange hall of mirrors, Americans pick up novels from the Arab world and hope to find themselves, or hope to find their Other. Of course, they will always be disappointed. And this, I think, is the great missed encounter of Arabic literature in translation. It is part of a cycle of fantasy and animosity, rather than understanding. Arabic novels are not read in English as literature, but as something else—for the information they might contain. Adventuresome American writers do seek out European and Latin American fiction in order to study literary style and form—but that is never why they pick up Arabic novels.

“Can this change? I am pessimistic about the ability of American audiences to change. And most of this problem can be traced back to the isolation of audiences in this country, and the deep prejudices that structure our underdeveloped reception of translated fiction in general, and Arabic fiction in particular. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see American readers ‘connecting’ with Arabic novels in more profound ways.

“But there is another part of this problem of connecting American readers and Arab novels that could be fixed. It has to do with the different cultures of editing in the USA and the Arab world. A commercially published novel in the USA is published so as to make money for the publisher. It represents an investment of a team of people working with the writer to make the novel something that readers in a book market can connect with. A novel usually goes through a number of rounds of editing and revision, cutting, rephrasing and improvement. This takes months, at the very least, sometimes years. There are many people—editors, agents, publishers—who work with the author to make the novel as good as it could be as a commercial product. Then, when it is published, there are a number of supports that are given to the novel—book readings and tours and media promotion—so as to make sure it is read. Marxist literary critics taught us that the novel was the first art form developed an industrial commodity form designed to make profits, and it is useful to remember that. The whole process of novel production in the USA (and Europe) is designed to bridge the gap between the novel and its readers, the commodity and its consumption in a knowable market.

“This process does not happen in the Arab world. In an earlier era, there was a more intensive process of literary editing, and there was more private investment in novel production. But now, for the most part, novels are self-published. By that, I mean that an author submits a manuscript that is published with at most only minor editorial interference. There are editors looking for errors of spelling and grammar, but there is no one helping readers connect with the novelistic text.

“And in this sense, the Arab novelist is operating at a disadvantage from his counterparts in the American and British world. I have often given a great Arabic novel to students or colleagues only to be told, “It was good, but if someone had edited it, it would have been great.” It is hard to argue with them—it picks up on a major difference between how novels are made in English, and how they are made in Arabic. And no translator—no matter how skilled—could bridge this difference. I suspect if there were literary editors in the Arab world, we would see a renaissance in the Arab novel. And we might also see a deep change in how American audiences approach the Arab novel.”

This is the third part in our series on the Arabic novel in Europe and America. The first and second parts can be read here and here respectively.