Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: ‘World Literature and its Discontents’


ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a discussion with Gretchen Head, Assistant Professor of Literature at Yale-NUS College, Yale University’s Singapore campus, and co-editor of The City in Arabic Literature: Classical and Modern Perspectives. Here, Head discusses her “World Literature and its Discontents.” An abridged syllabus is available at the end:

Relating Arabic literature to “world” literature (both from when it was at the center of its world to now, when Arabic literature often perceives itself at a margins) is certainly a rich vein for interrogation. How did this course come about?

Gretchen Head: I first taught a version of this course in 2012 when I was a postdoctoral fellow in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Even then, the idea of World Literature wasn’t exactly new. When I say this, I’m not referring to Goethe’s famous 19th century proclamation, but rather to the fact that people like Itamar Even-Zohor, Franco Moretti, and David Damrosch had been writing about the themes that preoccupy discussions of World Literature for some time. Even-Zohor’s “The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem” goes back to 1978, Moretti’s “Conjectures on World Literature” to 2000, and even Damrosch’s What is World Literature had come out nearly 10 years earlier in 2003. Nevertheless, World Literature as a way to frame comparative literary conversations seemed to be gaining more traction. This could be, in part, because The Institute for World Literature had just held its inaugural session in 2011. I know many of us have always appreciated the theoretical focus and rigor of Comparative Literature as a discipline while simultaneously often feeling disillusioned by its eurocentrism. Though I think this is improving – the ACLA, for example, makes a conscious effort to push back against the discipline’s tendency to exclude “peripheral” literatures – if we were to do a quick survey of Comparative Literature departments in North America, we would still find a dearth of specialists in Arabic among the faculty. In contrast, World Literature’s focus on the global and its destabilization of how we think about literary canons seemed to offer a potentially more inclusive space for inquiry and I wanted to explore this in a class.

Much of the first four classes are devoted to different ways of reading the Qur’an (and Antara). What grounding does this give them, in which sorts of questions (and which sorts of lenses)?

GH: World Literature tends to focus on questions of circulation and reception, and this is inevitably tied to modes of reading. The difference between the way a text is read in English or French and the way it’s read in Arabic has been at the heart of some of the biggest 20th century literary controversies in the Middle East and North Africa. To understand this, I think we need to begin with the Qur’an. Let me start to explain what I mean by this through an example. While I’ll say more about Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone later, I’d like to consider for a moment the novel’s censor at the American University of Cairo in 1998-9. Samia Mehrez has explained and theorized what has since come to be known as the Al-Khubz al-hafi crisis in her 2008 Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice, so the full story is there for anyone who wants all the details. In short, when teaching Choukri’s novel in Arabic in an Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature course at the AUC, Mehrez was summoned to an administrative office where she was met by a number of high ranking university officials and told that several of her students’ parents had complained about the book. For anyone unfamiliar with For Bread Alone, suffice it to say that Choukri’s novelistic autobiography is a brutal portrait of what it means to be among the most marginalized in Moroccan society, though surely the events he describes aren’t limited to Morocco and have equivalents throughout the Arab world. It’s graphic in its depictions of drug use, violence, and illicit sex. These were the types of scenes that sparked the controversy. In an unsigned letter of complaint written by the parents, one comment in particular is worth mentioning. The letter acknowledges that For Bread Alone was regularly taught at the AUC in English translation without issue and then states that while it might be possible for students to “accept such a thing in English,” anyone would protest if they were forced to read the book in Arabic. Unpacking this statement allows us to cut to the core of the different expectations that many readers continue to hold when it comes to the Arabic text and the tension this often creates in modern Arabic writing.

To understand the terrain being negotiated by contemporary authors writing in Arabic, students first need to understand Arabic’s relationship to the Qur’an, the language’s resultant sacred connotations, and the discomfort some feel when Standard Arabic is used to write experiences that don’t fit into conventional models of propriety. Yet at the same time as I want students to understand the way the Qur’an and the literary heritage built around it sometimes serve to complicate how the modern Arabic novel is received in the Arabic speaking world, I don’t want them to have the impression that the Qur’an as a text is somehow intrinsically repressive. Given that I teach in a Literature department, rather than a Middle Eastern or Near Eastern Studies department, I can’t assume my students will have any prior exposure to the Qur’an at all. Using Michael Sells’ translation of the later surahs that are so rich in metaphor and figurative language, we spend several sessions so that they can begin to develop a sense of the text itself, and just as importantly, a sense of how readers relate to the Qur’an as text. For so many there’s an emotional relationship to the Qur’anic text that’s rarely understood by those outside of the tradition. What I want them to be thinking about is how the act of reading can mean different things depending on the literary community and larger context.

Related to this, we also talk about the Qur’an as a world literary text in and of itself, in the sense that it too is a text that has historically traveled. Since the Qur’an is acutely aware of its status as an Arabic text (see, for example, Q 12: 2), this leads to some extremely productive questions about the limits of translation. It also allows us to approach the idea of literary community from another angle by considering the misunderstandings that have arisen when the Qur’an has been exported to the very different literary communities of Medieval and Enlightenment Europe.

And then the Nights. Can you talk about the texts you use around it (the Malti-Douglas, Reynolds)? And do you use more than one translation in talking about the ways in which the Nights in particular have been translated and trans-dapted into English?

GH: Again, if we want to focus on the issue of reception, there’s hardly a better case study than the Nights since it was their translation and subsequent incredible popularity in Europe that caused the stories to ultimately be taken seriously in their local context. The Reynolds essay is the best recounting I know, not only of the strange process that led the Nights to evolve from a story collection that hadn’t been terribly highly regarded in the Arabic tradition to the status of World Literature, but also of the Medieval Arabic literary tradition in which it was originally situated. He describes the two 10th century texts where we first see the Nights mentioned (Ibn Nadīm’s Fihrist and al-Ma‘sūdī’s Murūj al-dhahab), and this section of his essay pairs wonderfully with chapter 5 of Robert Irwin’s Nights & Horses & the Desert: an Anthology of Classic Arabic Literature. There, Irwin has translated the excerpt of Ibn Nadīm’s Fihrist where the 10th century bookseller gives his own opinion of the Nights, saying, for example: “I have seen it [the Nights] in complete form a number of times and it is truly a coarse book, without warmth in the telling.” This gives students a clear picture of the lack of prestige with which the Nights were initially endowed by the Arabic literary establishment. Once we shift to thinking about the moment of the Nights’ translation into European languages with Galland, one of the useful things that Reynolds does that I haven’t seen commented on as much by others is tie Galland’s interest in the stories to the new genre of fiction – that of the Fairy Tale (contes des fées) – that emerged and gained almost instant popularity in France around 1690. The implication is that it was the resemblance between these French stories and the Nights that both drew Galland to them and appealed to readers in France. This is an excellent starting point for thinking about how a target language and literary context influences not only the way a translator translates a source text, but also the degree to which translators often select the texts they translate based on how well they conform to the reader expectations of their own literary contexts. This only becomes amplified when we turn to Edward Lane’s and especially Richard Burton’s translations. I ask students to choose a section of the Nights and compare translations side by side themselves. We have original editions of Lane and Burton in the library, but they’re encouraged to look at other translations as well, and in other languages if they know them. They then present their findings to the rest of the class. This hands-on work allows them to think through the issue of translation in a direct way.

Malti-Douglas’ work brings another important aspect of the Nights to the forefront. I use Haddawy’s translation of the Nights as a kind of neutral base. Given that it’s a translation of Muhsin Mahdi’s printed edition of the 14th century Syrian manuscript held by the Bibléothèque Nationale, it’s the closest we can get to an original text. Even in Haddawy’s translation, however, the Nights is a very masculine text. Despite the heroism of Shahrazad, the stories are filled with examples of women’s deceit. Malti-Douglas elucidates this representational tension, meaning that we have in the text countless examples of women’s kayd – guile or trickery – evoking the well-known Qur’anic declaration found in Sūrat Yūsuf, “Inna kaydakunna ‘azīm (Indeed, your [feminine plural] guile is great),” yet simultaneously we have Shahrazad, an adība, or littérateure, who takes on the task of healing the king through the art of narration. These two very different representations of women sitting next to each other in the same text raise a number of questions for students, especially when we consider how Shahrazad is taken up by authors in the 20th century, something we see later in the course when we read Gate of the Sun and In the Country of Men. How do we reconcile these two oppositional paradigms of femininity? Given that the stories would have been set down in writing by men rather than women (something we see explicitly in the frame story’s conclusion), might we question the manuscript tradition of the Nights as potentially more masculine than what may have been circulating orally among women? So many contemporary authors note that they grew up with these stories, hearing them from their mothers, grandmothers, or other women of the family (Fatima Mernissi talks about this in detail in Dreams of Trespass, and she’s hardly alone), and I’ve read autobiographical authorial accounts of this as early as the 15th century. Might the women in these stories that were never written down have looked somewhat different?

Why Tangier, Bowles, and Choukri? (What about Jane?) What framing texts, questions, and jumping-off points do you use for this relationship? Any particular texts about the translation of For Bread Alone? Are there other texts you’ve considered? Goytisolo? Zafzaf?

GH: World Literature as an idea inevitably raises the question of the local vs. the global. A text only becomes a work of World Literature, at least in Damrosch’s definition, by circulating beyond its linguistic and cultural origins, often itself transforming from a local object into a global one. Moments of historical cosmopolitanism allow us to see this divide (the global, after all, is in a sense also the cosmopolitan) in an exceptionally clear way. I choose to work with the example of Tangier for a few reasons, though certainly other sites could be substituted for it. The nostalgia for a lost cosmopolitan Alexandria is more frequently discussed and could be used to the same end, pairing Lawrence Durrell, Constantine Cavafy, and André Aciman with writers more confined to their local context like Ibrahim Abdel Meguid. Tangier, however, is a context I know better. I lived there for quite a long time and return often. I was also the lead translator on Choukri’s memoir of Paul Bowles (in English, Paul Bowles: The Recluse of Tangier; in Arabic, Būl Būwilz wa-‘uzlat ṭanjā), published back in 2008. Because Choukri used so many quotes from Bowles, Burroughs, Ginsberg etc. when writing that book, I had to search out his original sources so that the translation would contain these authors’ actual language rather than Choukri’s Arabic translations translated back into English, which wouldn’t have given us anything close to Bowles’ or Burroughs’ et al. idiosyncratic language. This meant that I spent a lot of time reading their work on Tangier in a concentrated way.

Most people associate Bowles with The Sheltering Sky, but if we’re interested in Tangier’s international zone (1923-56, at its height governed by France, Spain, the UK, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the US), Let it Come Down is the best illustration of the period written from the perspective of the foreign elite. Bowles published the book in 1952, when the international zone was already winding down, so even his novel is an act of colonial nostalgia. Choukri’s For Bread Alone is set in precisely the same place and time, though the spaces Bowles’ characters inhabit are essentially absent in the landscape of Choukri’s Tangier. Reading Choukri next to Bowles inevitably makes students question the very nature of cosmopolitanism (the global), since in this case it’s so explicitly at the expense of a local population literally prohibited from entering the spaces reserved for the (mostly foreign) elite. The film Let it Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles shows this brilliantly by juxtaposing interviews with Bowles and Choukri. In the footage, Bowles describes all the ways his life was idyllic during this period, the lavish parties, the luxury, the indulgence in vice etc. how he could have anything he wanted at virtually no cost. Then the film cuts to Choukri describing all the ways he was excluded from everything Bowles has just described, the signs on café doors stating “interdit au marocains” etc. Colonial writing in general also tends to have a very specific kind of affective register. Looking at the way emotions work in Let it Come Down can be very revealing, and brings students back to question of how external politics and socioeconomic structures can affect internal textual form.

And then of course we have the matter of Bowles’ translation of For Bread Alone, something Choukri discusses at length in Paul Bowles: The Recluse of Tangier, and the fact that the English text came out in 1973, circulating for a nearly a decade before the Arabic was finally published in 1982, only to be banned in Morocco a year later, which lasted until 2000. It opens up a concrete way for students to think about the contemporary politics of translation, literary circulation, and reception.

I wouldn’t use Zafzaf here since he wasn’t a part of this specific milieu. Likewise for Goytisolo, who was really rooted in Marrakech. Of course, for a slightly different theme, both of these authors could work. In the first iteration of this class, I did also include Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal in this section, which allowed us to address how certain aesthetic structures might be appropriated in startlingly innovative ways when they travel to new contexts. In general, I read Choukri as borrowing and adapting a number of Genet’s narrative modes to often revolutionary effect in Arabic; I’ve discussed this at some length in an article published in Alif’s 2014 special issue, World Literature: Perspectives and Debates. Only time constraints led me to remove The Thief’s Journal and I may bring it back next time I teach the course, especially since Genet appears again in Gate of the Sun. I’ve never included Jane in this unit, but maybe I should.

I suppose the Zafzaf I was thinking about was The Elusive Fox, where the narrator is an outsider watching these foreigners and half-participating in their revels — the perspective of a Moroccan schoolteacher on vacation attracted to these foreigners’ modes but ever outside.

GH: Of course, you’re right to see a connection there. Let me explain what I mean when I say I could see using Zafzaf for a slightly different theme. The Tangier unit is really tied to a specific time and place: the particular moment of the international zone, when all these American and European writers were there alongside a young Mohamed Choukri (and others, like Mohamed Mrabet, who I’ve considered adding). We look at other material as well, like the actual laws that governed the zone, which are printed in Graham Stuart’s The International City of Tangier (1931). By considering these different materials together, we get a kind of Rashomon effect. We see the same place in the same historical moment from radically different angles and it comes together like a cubist painting. And because the scene was largely defined by its literariness, it lends itself to inquiries into the politics of literary circulation, and also questions of literary form, particularly in regard to some of the shifts occurring in Choukri’s Arabic writing. Most of Zafzaf’s work, on the other hand, is set in the 60s, often in Casablanca, though The Elusive Fox is set in Essaouira (‘The Woman and the Rose’ has similar themes, and is set in Casa). So, our initial context is one of post-independence disillusionment. The influx of Western artists and musicians into Morocco in the 60s (the Rolling Stones probably most famously) would indeed seem to be something of a legacy of the interzone, but the context is different enough so that I would want to have a unit with a revised focus that asked slightly different questions.    

What do the two films bring to the discussion?

GH: I’ve already discussed the film on Paul Bowles above, though I could add that I generally see a value in showing students what places actually look like. This might go against the idea that the literary text should be doing that work, or that it’s for each individual reader to imagine the spaces described within a novel’s pages. But in fact this also becomes an issue of reception, since a Moroccan audience would have a very different store of imaginative images from which to draw when reading Choukri’s text than a foreign reader who had never been to Morocco, or potentially anywhere in the region. I show Nabil Ayouch’s ‘Ali Zaoua in part for this reason. I’ve had several students tell me that they simply hadn’t had the imaginative tools to picture the life Choukri describes until they saw Nabil Ayouch’s (admittedly loose) adaptation. I’ve also had students from Latin America and South or Southeast Asia tell me that with the film they could imagine Choukri’s equivalents in contexts closer to them personally. If the film can help foster that connection, if it prompts students to be moved by the story, then that’s also important. For the same reason, I show clips of Mai Masri’s Children of Shatila when we’re reading Gate of the Sun. For students unfamiliar with the region, they read that the events of the novel’s frame story are set in a refugee camp and they immediately imagine tents. It’s understandable, the name is a misnomer. They don’t imagine that these spaces have become permanent with multistory buildings. In this case, an accurate understanding of the space of the camp is crucial to the narrative and the type of displacement it describes.

Of course, a film adaptation, especially one like ‘Ali Zaoua that was successful internationally, also raises a number of questions relevant to the course’s central themes: how different media carry different possibilities of circulation, which films are made for international consumption and which are made for local audiences, how does this affect the film’s content etc. It became hard not to ask these questions of Nabil Ayouch after Zin Li Fik (Much Loved) came out in 2015.

“Writing Palestine” centers around Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. What are the upsides to this (as a “world literature,” a representative of Palestine/Palestinianness) and the possible pitfalls a student might slip into?

GH: Gate of the Sun is an interesting case. It’s Khoury’s most celebrated novel, and it’s been translated into English, French, Hebrew etc., so it has undoubtedly become an example of World Literature. Yet in so many ways the novel resists this status, which is one of the main reasons I like to think about it in this framework. Earlier, in relation to the Qur’an, I mentioned the idea of literary community, and I think this idea is relevant here as well. Gate of the Sun is so intimately tied to the specificities of Palestinian history – I mean that’s part of the point, to preserve a collective history of a dispossessed people – but this also means that the novel asks a lot of its reader. It’s very easy for students to get lost in the novel’s details. Gate of the Sun presumes that its reader already has a working understanding of key events and concepts: the nakbah, the naksah, the Lebanese civil war and its intersection with Israeli occupation, the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the PLO’s expulsion from Lebanon. And it’s not just the basic facts of contemporary Middle Eastern history and politics that it takes for granted, it expects the reader to understand a very specific representational language, a distinctly Palestinian set of semiotics. There’s a rhetorical code of symbols at work in the novel that an Arabic-speaker would intuitively understand because it’s a part of the cultural landscape: the figure of the fadāī, the olive trees, the keys to the houses that have been lost, the connections the written text retains to oral modes of story-telling triggered by phrases like kān wa mā kān. It participates in a semiotic language shared by a large body of Palestinian literature and film, but most Palestinian novels don’t circulate as widely outside of the Arab world as Gate of the Sun, so we tend not to consider the degree to which this isn’t a transparent code. The way Khoury works with these symbols and disrupts them is where much of the novel’s meaning resides, so in class we think about what it means for a novel that’s quite locally-bound in a number of important ways to be read by audiences who don’t share in this semiotic language, who aren’t a part of the novel’s initial literary community. We also think about how the novel’s success abroad has affected its subsequent reception in the Arab world. The actual village of Bāb al-Shams, inspired by the novel and constructed in the occupied West Bank in 2013, is a wonderful example to consider.    

 Unit 4 focuses around Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men. Why this instead of (for instance) The Return? What questions do you want to raise and consider about the absent intertext(s)?

GH: I chose In the Country of Men over Matar’s other works for a few reasons. First, in terms of genre, I wanted to work with a novel as opposed to a memoir like The Return, where generically the theoretical stakes are different. Beyond this, there’s the particular voice Matar develops with his narrator/protagonist Suleiman. The use of a 9-year old narrator – all of the ambiguities that introduces, especially when we, as the readers, have to start questioning the integrity of Suleiman’s character – this, in and of itself, seems to participate in a narrative strategy more common in European languages, and perhaps English especially, than in Arabic (Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children, Grass’ Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum, or further back, the classic examples of the child narrator in novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and Huckleberry Finn). For the students, this immediately raises the question of form, and to what degree the text’s language influences its structure. There’s also something productively jarring in moving from the extreme specificity of Gate of the Sun to the heavily abstracted quality of In the Country of Men. In an interview in Guernica in 2011, Matar said that writing in English will likely always feel like something of a betrayal, but that it also gives him a distance and restraint in his writing; he’s said that English has “abstracted” the reader for him. So here we have the very opposite conceptualization of the reader than what we find in Gate of the Sun. While Khoury expects his reader to be historically and culturally grounded, Matar doesn’t really expect his reader to have any familiarity with his context at all. The novel is set in Tripoli, but it could be almost anywhere. Qaddafi, who’s never named explicitly, could be any number of authoritarian leaders. For a reader with little context, it could be a work of speculative dystopian fiction along the lines of 1984. 

This quality of abstraction has an effect on how intertextual references work as well, which is why I reference the absent intertext. I ask students to think of the way Shahrazad and the Nights are referenced in Gate of the Sun and In the Country of Men. In Gate of the Sun, the reference isn’t named, it’s assumed the reader will intuit the analogical relationship Khalil shares with Shahrazad as he attempts to rehabilitate Yunus through the act of storytelling. It’s then left to the reader to interpret what that analogical relationship means, how to understand the reversal of gender in the role Khalil inhabits, and even Khalil’s ultimate failure as storyteller etc. Matar is writing in a language where the Nights as intertext doesn’t work the same way. He can’t start with the assumption of reader familiarity. The references need to be spelled out, explained. For reasons like these, I would position Gate of the Sun as a text that happened to become a work of World Literature, while In the Country of Men is a work explicitly designed for global circulation.

What interests students about “Global English(es)”?

GH: I find that the issue of Global English actually needs to be brought to their attention. The particularities of my current institution mean that every student takes what is in essence a year-long class in World Literature their first year. They read texts and authors from across the globe, everything naturally in translation. Despite that the faculty consciously draw attention to the issue of language, I nevertheless think that the translated nature of the texts somehow gets lost, that it’s taken as natural that we would be reading everything in English. At the same time, none of our students are monolingual so they have a point of reference when it comes to questions of language choice, why one might choose one language over another, the different points of access different languages provide at particular historical moments. Their attention can be brought to these issues fairly easily.

What does Kilito bring to the discussion?

GH: In your first question, you referenced the difference between Classical and Modern Arabic literature when we think of its position in the world literary system, how it was once in the center, and certainly perceived itself as such, whereas now it perceives itself to be on the margins. Kilito explains this tension in a way that I think is easily grasped by students. In Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, he argues that in the Classical period, authors writing in Arabic viewed translation as a “one-way operation,” from languages like Persian, Greek, and Syriac into Arabic. They didn’t worry about the reverse because the assumption was anyone who really wanted knowledge would inevitably need to learn Arabic. Al-Ḥarīrī’s maqāmāt that feature alternating dotted and undotted words, for example, demonstrate a complete indifference to, if not disdain for, the possibility of translation. In contrast, many contemporary novelists write with an eye to their work ultimately being translated into English and French. This can change the novel’s composition, causing authors to avoid allusions and expressions that won’t translate easily. Given the discussions we will have already had by that point in the class around Gate of the Sun and In the Country of Men,Kilito’s ideas intersect directly with many of the core themes we’ve been thinking about.  

What other texts might you add in a future iteration of the course? What might you subtract?

GH: Since I’ve divided the class into units, I can always potentially design a new unit and simply switch it with an existing one. This is an easy way to refresh the class without having to completely restructure it. I realize I’ve put together quite a masculine syllabus here so it might not be a bad idea to develop a unit around women’s writing specifically. There are also a few recent theoretical texts around which I’d like to build a unit or units. Michael Allan’s In the Shadow of World Literature, for example, wasn’t out yet the last time I taught this course, nor was Aamir Mufti’s Forget English!: Orientalisms and World Literature. I’d also like to incorporate some of Emily Apter’s work, either from The Translation Zone or Against World Literature. Certainly, the topic of literary prizes would make an excellent unit, especially in light of the new canon currently being created by the Arabic Booker. James English’s The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value could be useful here. I don’t like to repeat material in different classes so the only real limitation is that whatever I choose shouldn’t be a part of another class that I teach. I could see using both Shaden Tageldin’s Disarming Words and Jeffrey Sacks’ Iterations of Loss if I didn’t already draw on those texts in different classes.  

 Following on Mufti’s Forget English!, does “World Literature” (inevitably?) privilege the novel and narrative prose in ways that limit the ways in which we see the Arabic tradition?

GH: Mufti points out that the very concepts and classifications upon which World Literature is founded are themselves European/Western. Of course, one of his central concerns, evident enough in his title, is the hegemony of the English language. This is a far bigger issue in the context of literature in South Asia than it is in the Arab world, where I don’t think any of us believe there’s much danger of Arabic being displaced by another language with greater global reach. So, I think you’re right to ask about genre here, because if there’s a “normative force,” to borrow one of Mufti’s phrases, it’s likely our privileging of not only the novel form, but particular types of novels as well. This is one of the aspects of ‘discontent’ in the course’s title. The texts that will circulate as world literary texts will never be those that are most intimately linked to the Arabic tradition, that resist the critical categories of Western theory or the expectations of global audiences. I don’t think World Literature as a model allows us a way out of this problem, and I don’t imagine that’s likely to change.

[for the abridged syllabus, go to the original post, here].

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