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Universal Themes in the Arabic Novel | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Palestinian boy plays soccer as a mural depicts the Dome of the Rock and a map of British Mandate Palestine, on the gate of al-Sadaka club in Gaza City June 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)

A Palestinian boy plays soccer as a mural depicts the Dome of the Rock and a map of British Mandate Palestine, on the gate of al-Sadaka club in Gaza City June 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)

A Palestinian boy plays soccer as a mural depicts the Dome of the Rock and a map of British Mandate Palestine, on the gate of al-Sadaka club in Gaza City June 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In the final part of this four-part series, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Selma Dabbagh, a British—Palestinian writer who writes in English and desribes herself as having little command of the Arabic language. Her novels are mainly set in the contemporary Middle East, and she says that recurring themes in her work include idealism, placelessness, political engagement and the impact of social conformity on individuals. She is the author of Out of It.

“I believe that geographical and linguistic labels on literature are less relevant than the way that writers, wherever they are or come from, are able to emotionally communicate a story. A Libyan writer may have more in common with an Argentinian writer than another Libyan in terms of style and approach. It would be hard to find a writer who has not read and been influenced by writers beyond their national boundaries.

“It is also a little contrived to consider that the national awareness of a writer should dominate in his writing over the personal agonies or ecstasies of his soul. The national narrative may inform the concerns of the writer, but it should not necessarily dominate it.

“One of the greatest things about fiction is the ability to capture the reader and to draw them into the multi-sensory intellectual and physical world of a character, wherever they may be. It is the global reach into the interior world that is specific to the power of art, not its national preoccupations or linguistic medium.

“If you define the term ‘Arabic novel’ loosely, so that it includes writers of Arab origin who write in other languages as well as those who write in Arabic, I would say that the readership of these novels is still limited to what could broadly be defined as a ‘foreign interest’ readership, and this is reflected in the way that they are marketed and promoted. Novels are generally presented as books that provide a window in to current realities, i.e. a palatable depiction of everyday realities of foreign worlds. The Arab world is still enemy terrain and voices coming from it are expected to be besieged and unempowered.

“I am not comfortable with these categories, which are still used with regards to Pakistani writers, but less so with Indian or South American writers. These labels equate literature too closely with journalism or human rights reporting. No literary critic worth their salt would view the literature of Gabriel García Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa in this way. Maybe going through a phase of overt magical realism, where characters grew wings and flew up to the ceiling, was the way that South American literature was able to establish itself as a fictive form?

“As an Anglo–Palestinian writer who writes in English and has poor command of the Arabic language, I try to defy being put into a box when it comes to my own writing. Out of It is a novel set between Gaza, London and the Gulf, but it focuses on the issue of political consciousness and engagement. My characters are all under pressure to do something for the cause, even if they are unwilling or unsure as to what exactly they can do that is meaningful. It is a Palestinian setting, but the issue is not specific to Palestine. I have met activists from Europe, South America and Pakistan who can relate to this sense of a need to be engaged in societal change.

“Many writers of non-Anglo-Saxon origins writing in English find it hard to break away from the baggage of their foreign names. They feel an expectation to write about their cultural heritage. There are some exceptions, however. Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, is considered a very British writer, who writes about butlers and stately homes—but possibly if his subject matter was exclusively Samurai warriors and kamikaze pilots, he would be regarded as being more Japanese. He has managed to forge a space for himself and a readership well beyond his national origins. The French playwright Yasmina Reza (of Hungarian–Iranian–Jewish descent) also focuses on very Western, middle class concerns, from art and psychiatry to friendships, adultery and child-rearing in Paris. I can’t think of a single writer of Arab origin who has achieved this. The big commercial, critically acclaimed successes in the English language are novels like Ahdaf Soueif’s Eye of the Sun and Map of Love, as well as Hisham Matar’s Country of Men, all of which have predominantly Arab settings and characters. It seems harder for Arab writers to break into new readerships and new fictive terrains than other European-language writers from ethnic minorities, but there is no reason why this shouldn’t change.”

This is the final part of our series on the Arabic novel in the West. The first three parts can be read here, here and here.