Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here and the Politics of Translation

The Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here DC 2016 festival rolls on, with a poetry readings by Hala Alyan and DC-area Arab-American poets forthcoming February 20 and 21. Elizabeth Kelley was at two of the early February events:

By Elizabeth Kelley

1438820357I had the pleasure last week of attending not one but two events on translation from Arabic featuring ArabLit’s M. Lynx Qualey. The events, both part of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here DC 2016 festival, explored the political and literary dimensions of Arabic to English translation.

On Tuesday, February 2, at George Mason University, I attended a panel discussion on The Politics of Translation: Everyday Life in Iraq and the Middle East. The conversation ranged widely, from the translation of the term “terrorism” into Arabic and its political application in the region, to the poet Al-Mutanabbi, his life, esteemed work, and his interdiction on the translation of his own work, to the recent history of the translation of Arabic literature into English. Marcia was joined by Drs. Waleed Mahdi, Heba El-Shazli, and Al Fuertes, and the discussion was moderated by Sarah Browning and Helen Frederick.

Dr. Waleed Mahdi noted that in English, the term “terrorism” is insufficient as it does not account for acts of violence that are not politically motivated (such as the sadly frequent mass shootings in the US). As the term has been translated into Arabic as irhab, he explained, it has been linked with upholding the state policies of current regimes, as dissidents or opposition figures and groups are labeled terrorist. The second major use of the term irhab, he suggested, is in the context of the US-led war on terror and the drone strikes and other violence perpetrated on the region as part of that endeavor. He raised the question of how politically-charged terms can be translated, especially in the context of stark global geopolitical inequalities. His images of bombed buildings and children without homes as the victims of these tactics of terror resonated. The final image he displayed had an image of a wall with graffiti inscribed on it: “imrika al-irhab”. The image remained on the screen for much of the subsequent discussion, fittingly underscoring America’s role in shaping the conflict and violence in the region.

The discussions shifted to the impact of war and violence on the literary scene in the Arab world. Dr. Heba El-Shazli noted that the adage “Books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut, and read in Baghdad” is often surprising, even shocking, to those without a knowledge of Arabic literature. Fittingly at an event devoted to Al-Mutanabbi Street, the panelists mourned the violence in the region that has so reshaped the cultural landscape.

Dr. El-Shazli also spoke about the challenge of translating into English, and the difficulties of losing contextual knowledge, the hashwu (stuffing) contained in the Arabic. She lamented the loss of this hashwu in translation, explaining that in teaching translated texts, she often finds students are unable to access the richness and depth of the original in their encounters with the translation.

Throughout the event, inspired perhaps, by the eponymous Al-Mutanabbi, writing as a political, creative, and even therapeutic act was celebrated. For instance, Dr. Al Fuertes spoke of the experience of trauma, and how in the refugee camps on the border of Thailand and Burma. He shared a poem composed by a refugee, and written on the wall of the camp. The discussion highlighted that words, literature, and art are not only the province of privilege but also sustain those living in war and grappling with trauma. The conversation was a lively contribution to this festival devoted to world letters and to creating a spirit of solidarity with readers and writers across the world.

On Thursday, February 4, M Lynx Qualey gave a talk about her experiences with Arabic literature:Following the books: A Journey Alongside Arabic Literature. She described how she first started reading Arabic literature in translation as a teenager, through the Interlink series “Emerging Voices.” Although she studied Russian and lived in Russia, she explained that she never had the Proustian frisson of recognition of the literary text in the lived world until she went to Cairo for the first time and, standing by Bab Zuweila, recalled the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. From that moment, she decided she would move to Cairo. And she did, in August 2001.

Qualey discussed the increased interest in Arabic literature that exploded almost immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, referring to what Sinan Antoon has called a “forensic” interest in Arab literature, a practice of reading that seeks to discover “why they hate us.”

The genesis of this website, Qualey explained, came in 2009 when she had read a collection of short stories and simply wanted a forum to respond to it. So, she began a blog and started publishing her responses to these stories online. She was delighted to find that the publisher responded to her, as did many (many) others. And now, 7 years later, the blog has evolved into the website/e-magazine it is today, and has, she explained, created a community of readers, writers, translators, and publishers interested in Arabic literature around the world.

Part of her project, she explained, in her writing and in creating the site, has to do with challenging narratives that she feels too often constrain the reception of literature from or about the Arab world. She suggested that historically, Arabic literature that circulated to the West told stories of an East meets West transformation. These stories (which can still be found in memoirs such as Ayyan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel), often privilege western modes of living and being. The West is valorized in these stories as more civilized and more modern than the East. Narratives in the other direction, (from West to East) she explained, often spoke to individual transformation, the story of someone leaving their home, traveling abroad, and finding themselves. Rather than an encounter or grappling with another culture, these stories highlight a personal transformation with the cultural setting of the East as little more than elaborate (and exotic) background. In contrast to these stock narratives, neither of which Qualey found sufficient or satisfying, she highlighted several recent works that depict an East-West encounter that doesn’t unroll in these clichéd terms but rather involve an encounter with difference, including Saleem Haddad’s Guapa and Suzan Abulhawa’s The Blue Between Sky and Water.

The discussion after her talk included questions about genre fiction in the Arab world, the match between translator and author or text, and the challenges of translating humor in graphic (or other) novels. The event occurred before the play I Shall Not Hate, based on the memoir by Izzeldin Abuelaish. After the play, Marcia responded with comments and discussion.

Both events highlighted the dimensions of translation that extend beyond the text into the broader political and social spheres in which translations circulate and dwell.

Elizabeth Kelley is an anthropologist who focuses on translation, circulation, and the representation of the Arab world in the West.

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