Two Arab novelists on the frontline in English
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 31 August 2009
Among the Arab writers who have had novels published in the UK in English translation this year, two names in particular stand out: Bahaa Taher of Egypt and Elias Khoury of Lebanon. Both are major literary figures in the Arab world, and thanks to the magic of translation, they are becoming increasingly known to the English-reading public.
The English version of Taher’s novel “Sunset Oasis”, published by the Hodder & Stoughton imprint Sceptre, hits UK bookstores this week. The Arabic original was in 2008 the first-ever winner of the $60,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), so the publication of the English translation has been eagerly awaited.
Khoury’s novel “Yalo” was published in English translation in June by the MacLehose Press imprint of London publisher Quercus and has already garnered some highly favorable reviews.
Like “Sunset Oasis”, “Yalo” was translated by Humphrey Davies, one of the most eminent translators of Arabic literature. Davies’s translation of an earlier Khoury novel, “Gate of the Sun”, won the inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2006. (This is not the first English translation of “Yalo”. Last year Archipelago Books of New York published a translation by Peter Theroux which was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book 2008 Award.)
Taher and Khoury were in London last Thursday evening en route to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, to participate in a session of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Aficionados of Arab literature had the chance to meet them when they appeared at the Frontline Club, West London, in an event billed as “an Edinburgh taster”. They discussed their work with the prominent cultural journalist Maya Jaggi [pictured] of the Guardian newspaper before the floor was thrown open for questions.
The writers spoke eloquently, and with a generous sprinkling of humor, about their own work and on wider issues of Arab literature and politics. The subjects ranged from narrative techniques, to portrayals of victim and victimizer, women in novels, Arab prison literature and torture methods, and the impact of invasion and occupation on fiction writing.
Taher, born in 1935, is the author of six novels and five short story collections. “Sunset Oasis” is the fourth of his novels to be translated into English.
The novel is set in late 19th century Egypt under British colonial rule, and depicts Police officer Mahmoud Abd El-Zahir, who is sent to the rebellious Berber-speaking oasis town of Siwa in the remote west of Egypt as district commissioner and tax collector. His posting is a punishment for his having sympathized with the Urabi revolt, the failed nationalist uprising that led to the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian war and to British colonial rule. Two of Mahmoud’s predecessors in the Siwa posting have been murdered.
Mahmoud’s wife Catherine insists on accompanying him on the hazardous journey to the oasis. She is determined to try to salvage her shaky marriage and to find the tomb of Alexander the Great. Things turn out disastrously, and the novel culminates in a spectacular act of destruction by Mahmoud, who is based on a real-life character.
Khoury, 61, is the author of 12 novels, six of which have appeared in English translation. He is particularly known for his 1998 novel “Gate of the Sun”, an epic narrative of the Palestinian 1948 naqba (catastrophe). Possessor of a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, he is editor in chief of the cultural supplement of the daily newspaper An-Nahar and Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.
“Yalo” is set in the early 1990s in a prison outside Beirut. The protagonist Yalo is repeatedly tortured, interrogated and forced to write accounts of his life. He relates how he joined a barracks during the civil war, deserted to Paris, was picked by a Lebanese arms dealer to become a security guard, had an affair with his boss’s wife and became a robber, voyeur and rapist. He falls in love with one of his victims, who denounces him and precipitates his arrest
Khoury [pictured] said that forcing a prisoner to write his life story “is a bizarre technique, but it is, unfortunately, used in Arab prisons.” The technique is designed to destroy the psyche of the prisoner at the hands of his torturers.
Yalo is both a victim and a victimizer. He is “an outcome of the civil war, and fought with the fascists. He is pushed through torture to confess things he didn’t do, and discovers that through the writing which is destroying him he can reconstruct his personality.” He is of Assyrian background and Khoury links his story in modern Lebanon with the thread of blood stretching from the massacres of Assyrians, along with Armenians, in Turkey in 1915.
Taher said the idea of victim and victimizer is also reflected in the themes of “Sunset Oasis”, whether in relation to Mahmoud, or to Alexander the Great who “while victimizing others was at the same time defeating himself.”
Khoury remarked his generation of writers is indebted to people like Taher who brought about a new wave in Arab literature. The 1960s generation in Egypt was important in “liberating fiction from imitating the naturalistic and realistic European novel”.
Taher expressed some caution over experimentation. He has read “Yalo” twice and discovered that it has “a form of its own; you cannot categorize it”. He warned that this kind of development “in the hands of a novelist less experienced than Elias Khoury or others of his generation is very dangerous, because a writer would not know where to stop.
“I find that in our modern literature there are some writers who are writing experimental things just for the sake of experiment – not because they have really something new to add, or because they believe that they should modernize Arabic literature, but just because they want to be unusual and do not want to be conventional writers, And in cases where the writer is not very experienced or very talented this could be a very dangerous development in the history of the novel,” he concluded.
PS: Despite Taher's warnings over experimentation for experimentation's sake, he was warmly positive about some of the new generation of novelists. But he and Khoury expressed divergent views on the use of slang in novels.
A young woman in the audience asked Taher what he thinks of new Arab fiction writers. During a recent visit to Egypt she had picked up examples of a novels by young Egyptian writers produced by a small publishing house. Such writers are, for example, "really experimenting and improvising in fusha [modern standard Arabic] and dialect." When Taher asked her for an example, she mentioned Ahmed Alaidy's "Being Abbas el Abd" [which happens to be yet another novel translated by Humphrey Davies].
"That's a very good novel" he responded. "There is a very promising new generation of writers in Egypt in their early twenties: they are presenting a new wave in Egyptian writing which is very welcome. And I can say I have very good relations with all of them including Alaidy."
But he added: "They face a problem in a way. They are very talented, they are trying to do things, they are trying to be new blood in Arabic literature especially in Egypt, but they are facing a problem which you have spoken about now - this writing in slang sometimes, and not mastering their own language. Writing in slang they are defeating themselves. Why? I know writers who write in slang and they were very popular like Yusuf Idris [1927-1991] for example, he wrote in slang and he was read all over the Arab world. At that time Egyptian slang was understood everywhere because of Egyptian films, because of Umm Kulthum, because of Abdel-Halim Hafez - the famous Egyptian singers Egyptian slang was common in all the Arab world and could be understood.
"Now the situation has changed. I don't think that Egyptian slang can be understood in Morocco, Tunisia, as it was before. So they are restricting their readership, this generation of young writers. They wouldn't have the possibility to address themselves to Arab readers everywhere, they are addressing themselves only to Arab readers in Egypt - or if they are writing in slang in Syria, they are addressing themselves to Syrian readers."
He does not use slang in his novels "but I can read slang ... Moroccan slang is very different from Egyptian slang - I can appreciate and I can understand, but I am asking myself the question - are you defeating yourself writing this way, are you restricting your own readership? But they are very good writers."
Elias Khoury said "I write colloquial, what my friend calls slang. I use colloquial, and I don't agree with him - I think we have to use colloquial. And when I read any novel in any language there are some parts which I don't understand - you make an effort, if I am reading an English novel I make an effort. So if you are reading an Arabic novel why not make some effort to understand that the Tunisians say nejim [?] to mean I can? It seems very bizarre to us in the Levant." (To laughter to he said that 'ma nejimish' means "I cannot" and that he knows Tunsian very well). So I don't agree about this point.I think the only way a language will be alive and renew itself is through the spoken , we cannot write without the spoken. I think one of the merits of what we can learn from the Egyptian novel actually, from writers like Sonallah Ibrahim and others is the use of colloquial."