Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: ‘Narrating Conflict’ and ‘Literary Legacies of War in Lebanon’

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a conversation between ArabLit’s editor and Ghenwa Hayek, Assistant Professor of Modern Arabic Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the College at the University of Chicago, mostly around her courses “Narrating Conflict in Modern Arabic Literature” and “Readings in Modern Arabic Literature: The Literary Legacies of War in Lebanon.” Course descriptions and lists of texts are at the bottom:

Arab literature and conflict — in many different permutations — seems to be, from my brief interrogations, one of the more common lenses through which to approach teaching Arabic literature in US and UK universities. Certainly, there is much great recent Arabic literature that can illuminate and be illuminated by conflict. 

Ghenwa Hayek: One of the issues I’m most interested about as a literary scholar who often teaches at the intersection of art, politics, and history is the formal conundrum that arises in moments of conflict or crisis. Basically, the fact that crises always seem to bring with them ruptures in the ways authors, poets, painters, filmmakers, etc. think about and represent their worlds. In the Narrating Conflicts course, we think a lot about address, including calls to empathy and how different experiments with form are trying to engage their readers / viewers / players (we play a video game in that class too).

What video game, and how does it work? How does it expand the way they see and read the literature, narrative, character, conflict?

GH: The video game is called This War of Mine. It was inspired by the siege of Sarajevo. You play the role of a citizen in war, who has to make everyday decisions “do I open this door to a stranger, even if it could be a soldier?”, “do I barter my last piece of firewood for medicine to help my housemate who has a fever?” as well as more “typical” videogame scenarios, like shooting someone or robbing an old couple. It is very difficult to “game” the game, though, because it also has depression and despondency built into the characters’ choices – so if they do something morally reprehensible, they can feel so bad that they commit suicide. The point of the game is to stay alive, and you play as three different characters to complete it. I assign two different kinds of responses to the game: one is a reflection on its form (the color palette, the story line, the soundtrack, etc), and the other is to write a journal from the point of view of one of the characters. I thought the second would be a way to have students think about how they would narrate conflict – it came later in the quarter, after we’d seen all sorts of different attempts to describe war. And the former would be a reflection on a relatively new medium in which to convey the “lived experience” of war. Since the last time I taught the course, Rashid Abueideh’s Lyla and the Shadows of War has been released, about a little girl in Gaza. I might use that in the next iteration of this course (inshallah) – although sometimes these things are complicated by only being released on one platform (like Android or IOS; the ease of using This War of Mine was also that it is available on all platforms).

I love that you’re bringing in gaming narratives as another way to think about storycraft. Certainly many people teach the forms we classically think of as “literature” against film, blogs, comix, and you make a very compelling argument for literary gaming. For myself, I’d like to make an argument for including children’s literature, as a different way of structuring narrative (emotion and character, as well as culture and history). Are there other forms, genres, or products you have brought in, or might in the future? 

GH: I’d love to add a more formalized component on performance: plays, songs, etc. Right now (in the double sense of for the moment and, at present, the reasons most on my mind) the obstacles to this are that 1. not many relevant plays are in print, let alone translated ; 2. dialect. So, for example, some of Ziad Rahbani’s plays from the 80s, as well as the radio show he did with Jean Chamoun are available online, but it would be hard for students who have come out of MSA or classrooms where the dialect they have learned is Egyptian/darija to get them, and would probably take all the fun out of them to explain them. Plus of course, there are only eight “real” teaching weeks in a quarter.

What sorts of discussions do you have around empathy, and its relationship to any literary project, but particularly the calls to an active or activist empathy?

GH: To use the videogame as an example, several of my students were hardcore gamers. But they had never played a war game that wasn’t a shoot-em-up (like Call of Duty or whatnot). All of them got deeply enmeshed in the fates of their characters, and felt upset when the characters got depressed or suicidal. And that became a way to think about that specific video game as a genre that was actively attempting to get its audience to reflect about how texts create and manipulate our emotions. I used empathy in the class as a theoretical lens because of the relationship war texts create with their audiences, pulling them in with claims of direct witness and the transferability of this experience and/or pushing readers away by highlighting the inability of language to adequately represent and convey the lived experience of conflict. One of our anchoring theoretical texts was Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, with its notion of grievability and its open questioning of what makes lives grievable, including the way it forces us to think about categories like “us” and “them”, and the way these categories are produced and complicated in fiction, poetry, cinema, and new media.

Because at the same time, there is always the problem that we (as readers or cultural consumers) demand of these texts and their authors to be straightforward witnesses or spokespeople for their causes and their worlds (this is sometimes a claim that authors themselves make, such as in Samar Yazbek’s The Crossing, which is a text that works well as the first text of the quarter precisely because it makes this claim to be the voice of the Syrian people). Of course, assumptions of cultural representation are an issue always present in the lit in translation classroom, and the problem becomes even more relevant when these texts are called upon to “explain” conflicts. In the classroom, I spend a lot of time debunking this idea by presenting some theoretical texts that try to nuance the issue of witness; I also do a lot of background work to think about different contexts for these conflicts (an occupation is not the same as a civil war is not the same as…)

Are there things that get moved over too quickly? 

GH: One of the things that does get moved over too quickly, I think – especially because we are on the quarter system – is something that fascinates me and theoretically engages me (probably because of where I’m from and when I grew up) which is the everydayness of protracted war. Most of these texts that I use are about exceptionalism, of struggling to find the adequate form to describe and explain conflict in its crisis moments. I wish we had more time to talk and think about the everyday. And these places as ordinary places where people have ordinary lives, and not only/always as sites of exception. It’s something I keep trying to do – in a perhaps overly simplistic way – in my Lebanese civil war class by giving students a song of the week that we talk about briefly. Sometimes the very ridiculousness of these pop songs works to remind them that people were out there trying to live their lives.

Certainly “Literary Legacies of the Lebanese Civil War,” as well as being appealingly alliterative, is a tremendously rich vein of discussion, and surely the war changed the literary landscape. Do you grapple with why the Lebanese civil war was so transformative for literature, and why it has proved such a rich vein of artistic and philosophical exploration? What keeps it alive? Or: At what point will writers stop being interested in the Lebanese Civil War?

GH: Yes. constantly. In the classroom, and in my research. In fact, I started my course this quarter with Elias Khoury’s article on the topic, in which he claims that the Lebanese civil war was the most transformative thing to have happened to the Arabic novel since the nahda. In addition to being an unresolved trauma (which is difficult to unpack here), I think the war novel is kept alive by market demand, in many ways. Meaning the fact that the war sells to a particular audience, and that there’s a lot of demand for “trauma” fiction, especially from the Middle East. But also that, as Fritz Lang points out in his sociological analysis of the literary scene in Lebanon, it’s the way to earn your literary bona fides. Conversely, I think (and have argued in a few articles as well as in my book), that for the new generation, the legacy of a certain kind of war writing is often something that they deliberately call into question. To me, this new generation of postwar writers and artists who are attempting to move Lebanese literature beyond the war without denying it or its transformative effects includes authors like Sahar Mandour; Hilal Chouman; Alexandra Chreiteh, Renée Hayek, and in many of his contemporary novels, Rabee Jaber.

As I understand it, when Elias Khoury teaches Lebanese literature, he talks about the politics and political alignments of each author, their histories, and anecdotes about their lives. When does an author’s biography illuminate their work, and when might it get in the way? 

GH: I never use biographical information – I think it always gets in the way, tbh. I think so many of these texts are also autobiographical or political enough that it becomes obvious really quickly to students where these writers position themselves. I do talk about how the left won (in many ways, and for good reason) the struggle over high art in Lebanon and in (English) translation, in the sense that most of these texts are written by people with more-or-less leftist tendencies whose politics can be gleaned from the writing.

I’m not familiar with the book Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon. How does it help students situate themselves amongst the literature and concerns of 1975-1990 and beyond? 

GH: I find it to be one of the most thorough accounts of the war, especially past 1982-83, where so many of the other good accounts of the civil war end. It takes students up to the 1990s. Hanf’s details are sometimes overwhelming, and his politics are a bit too centrist-rightist for my comfort, but it’s still a great resource for students and people who want economic, social, and political details of that period. It helps students, I think, to have a less abstract understanding of what conflict is and how entirely conflict affects a society.

There are a number of other recent war-related literary phenomena, such as Civil War graphic novels (by Zeina Abirached, Lamia Ziade, Lena Merhej, Mazen Kerbaj). Or books that put us back before the war, a sort of post-pre Civil War novel (Jabbour Douaihy’s June Rain and Hoda Barakat’s Kingdom of this Earth) or novels about 2006, with tentacles back to the civil war. If you were going to add a module of books and discussion, what would it be about?

GH: To my Lebanon course, I would add a module about the landscape after 2005, and especially after 2006 that took into account the comics AND some of the novels about that moment, such as Limbo Beirut. I think there’s a lot to gain from thinking about postmemory across generations and the way these texts acknowledge and yet mark their distinction from earlier generations of writing about the country and the war.

Limbo Beirut also backgrounds conflict in the way you talk about “everydayness.” Violence is not central to the story, but only one fact among many.

GH: Exactly! I wrote an article about this.

How do the books and films pair together? What do the films illuminate that the books don’t, or about the books, or how do they expand the discussion? 

GH: The films help to expand the discussion by bringing the visual into it. We think about what symbols films rely on / relay versus the novels. For example, the films of the civil war are much more fascinated with the ruined downtown than the novels of that time period are – it is only after the war that Beirut’s downtown becomes a recurrent trope of literature. And, in a film like Saab’s Once Upon a Time Beirut, the retrieval of and engagement with a prewar visual archive is a nice parallel to the attempts by authors to think about the country’s past and present.

So the films do things the books cannot? Or things the books weren’t interested in in the moment? Do they change the way students are able to access the novels?

GH: I think one thing that the films do is that they enrich and expand the conversation and introduce different formal questions. For example, a lot of the books that we read deal with the breakdown of language and meaning textually. But most of the films we watch are more or less committed to plot-driven narratives; they are not trying to formally disrupt visual coherence in the same way. One of the other things the films shot during the war do is give a sense of the urban landscape and the way people navigated the city. It also helps us to have a discussion about the documentary versus fiction film as a way to imagine and represent/convey conflict.

Can you talk about the translation reflection? How do you guide students to think about what to look for in a translation, how to talk about a translator’s choices?

GH: In my graduate seminars, our readings always include an excerpt from the original, and we often discuss the excerpt alongside the translated text. In that way, we have conversations about what goes into a translation, what may have led the translator to make these choices; how translation can sometimes foreclose or obscure certain things. So, by the time students write these translation reflections, I’ve modeled what I think about when I think about translations and originals. This year, one of my students who had taken a translation theory course also provided us with some of the material she had found helpful from that syllabus. But mostly, it’s a short exercise just to get students to not take translations (and translators!) for granted, and to encourage them to always seek out the primary source material to enrich their own understanding of these texts and their afterlives.

Is part of that discussion reception in the different languages? What a book might mean to a Lebanese audience, a wider Arab audience, a non-Arab/Arabophone audience?

GH: Yes, although this conversation happens more obliquely throughout the quarter, and not just as a result of the translation reflection.

Narrating Conflict in Modern Arabic Literature

Course Description:

This course is an exploration of conflict in the Arab world through literature, film and new media. In this course, we will discuss the influence of independence movements, wars, and revolts on Arabic literature: how do writers write about, or film, conflict? How does conflict affect language itself? How do these texts engage with issues of trauma and bearing witness? To answer these questions, we will look at a number of key moments of conflict in the Arab world, including the Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Algerian war of independence, the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the Lebanese and Iraq wars, and the ongoing war in Syria. Rather than follow a historical chronology of these events, we will read these texts thematically, beginning with texts that seek to present themselves as direct, sometimes eye- witness, accounts and then moving on to narratives that complicate the relationship between conflict and its narration.


Samar Yazbek, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria
Mona Prince, Revolution is my Name: An Egyptian Woman’s Diary from Eighteen Days in Tahrir
Zeina Abirached, A Game for Swallows
Halim Barakat, Days of Dust
Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition
Rawi Hage, DeNiro’s Game


The Square, dir. Jehane Noujaim, (2013)
The Battle of Algiers, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo (1967)
War Generation Beirut, dir. Mai Masri (1989)
The Time that Remains,
dir. Elia Suleiman (2009)
Je Veux Voir, dir. Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (2008)
Selected films from the Abu Naddara collective
The Amina Profile: a Gay Girl in Damascus, dir. Sophie Deraspe (2015)


This War of Mine, 11-bit studios, multiple platforms

Readings in Modern Arabic Literature: The Literary Legacies of War in Lebanon

In this course, we will investigate the historical, theoretical, and literary (broadly construed) contexts and aftermaths of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). We will explore an array of texts from the war period, then a selection of texts written in the immediate post-war period, and in the post-post war moment. We will interrogate the manner in which these texts deal with complex issues of violence, trauma, memory and post-memory while framing them within local and global debates around these themes.


Hanf, Theodor, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon, trans. John Richardson, London: I.B. Tauris, 2015 (paperback ed.)
Samman, Ghada, Beirut Nightmares, trans. Nancy Roberts, London: Quartet, 2010
Adnan, Etel, Sitt Marie Rose, trans. Georgina Keege, California: The Post-Apollo Press, 1982
Khoury, Elias, White Masks, trans. Maia Tabet, New York: Archipelago, 2010
Darwish, Mahmoud, Memory for Forgetfulness, trans. Adnan Haydar, California: UC Press, 2013 (2nd ed.)
Daif, Rashid, Dear Mr. Kawabata, trans. Paul Starkey, London: Quartet, 1999
Barakat, Hoda, The Tiller of Waters, trans. Marilyn Booth, Cairo: AUC Press, 2001 (paperback ed.)
Alameddine, Rabih, Koolaids, New York: Grove Press, 2015 (2nd ed.)
Jaber, Rabee, al-Iʿtirafāt, Beirut: Dar al-Ādāb, 2009


Petites Guerres, dir. Maroun Baghdadi (1982)
Beirut, la Rencontre, dir. Borhane Alaouie (1981)
Ici et Ailleurs, dir. Jean-Luc Godard (1976)
Under the Rubble, dir. Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri (1983)
The Tornado, dir. Samir Habchi (1992)
Once Upon a Time Beirut, dir. Jocelyne Saab (1995)
Incendies, dir. Denis Villeneuve (2010)

Ghenwa Hayek is an Assistant Professor of Modern Arabic Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the College at the University of Chicago. She studies the literary and cultural formations of identity in the modern Arab Middle East (19thC – present), with a focus on Lebanon. Her research is situated at the intersection of literary and cultural studies, critical geography and urban studies, history, and gender studies. Her first book was Beirut, Imagining the City: Space and Place in Lebanese Literature, and her current research explores the transnational spaces of the Lebanese diaspora and the particular problem that emigration poses to the national imaginary and self-fashioning in Lebanon. Hayek is also a literary translator.

You can follow the whole series at arablit.org/category/teaching-with-arabic-literature-in-translation.

(Visited 321 times, 1 visits today)

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *