The Arab Novel and Mr. Nobel: Challenges in Genre and Translation

By 
Al Jadid Staff

Every year, prior to the Swedish Academy announcing its Nobel Prize in Literature, many Arabs anxiously wait to hear if their own unofficial candidates will win. The last time this happened Naguib Mahfouz won the prize 28 years ago. This year, not only did no Arab poet or novelist receive the award, but many felt additional disappointment with the Academy’s choice to give the prize to noted musician Bob Dylan. The award angered and disappointed many candidates, leading some to join the chorus of critics who insist the prize should have honored a writer because music does not represent a form of literature. The question remains whether Nobel has failed to award any literature prizes to Arabs since 1988 due to “Zionist” influences -- as one novelist implied -- due to prevalent repressive environments, or due to internal factors that influence Arab novel development. In search of answers, I found an article we published in Al Jadid 14 years ago, which sheds some light on the Arab novel's challenges in genre and translation. The article I am referring to is “The Arab Novel: Visions of Social Reality,” concerning a conference held 14 years ago (April, 2002) at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

During the two-day conference led by Halim Barakat, a prominent author who teaches sociology, Arabic literature, and contemporary Arab society at Georgetown, attendees discussed the trials and tribulations associated with the novel as a form, including the issue of publishing Arab novels in Western markets. Addressing a group consisting of both Arab and Arab-American writers, academics, critics and students, Barakat stated, “Arab novels remain unknown, overlooked, undiscovered in America.” In the Arab world, novels, for the most part, have been less prevalent than other forms of writing like poetry, the historically preferred mode of expression. However, the novel has gradually gained an increasing presence and importance, arguably garnering a better share of translations in Western markets. According to Lebanese novelist and critic Elias Khoury, novels as a form of writing became dominant in Lebanon only in the late 70s, in the midst of novelists’ attempts to “make sense of the Lebanese Civil War.”

Despite the preference for translating novels abroad, some continue to emphasize the significant role that poetry plays in the Arab world. Arabic Emeritus professor Roger Allen of the University of Pennsylvania argued that the region cannot completely turn away from poetry, stating poetry still represents “the voice of the Arab world in crisis." Nonetheless, novels play equally important roles and have garnered more popularity for various reasons. Professor Aida Bamia stresses that, compared to poetry, “they are easier to write, easier to read, and do not require such an exquisite command of the language,” which in part increases the likelihood that the West will receive and translate them.

Alternatively, many Arabs, either due to religious crises or wars, have been displaced into populations representing a wide variety of educational levels. This exposure, perhaps in conjunction with the fact that they have been forced to adopt multiple identities, allows them to "see things more objectively from a distance," said Barakat. The declining role of poetry, on the other hand, could be attributed to the retreat from the dominant ideology that had originally designated a “primary role” for poetry, thus paving the way for the novel’s ascendancy, according to Khoury.

While novels have better chances for distribution throughout Western markets, complications with genre still hinder their progress. Autobiographical works, notably, have been viewed as the weakest genre in Arabic novels, compared to stories of war and other socio-politically themed works. Some novelists have argued that staying within the boundaries of fiction-writing unnecessarily limits writers, who should experiment more with writing about the ‘self.’ However, delving into other genres has often led to stores categorizing novels in manners that make them difficult to locate on the shelves. An example would be the case of Diana Abu-Jaber, whose genre-crossing works can lead to unexpected classifications.

Despite this, the panel also urged writers to explore whatever genres they desired, without restrictions. "We have to write anything we want. That's our only freedom," said panel-member Nawal el Saadawi. Andrea Shalal-Esa covered this conference and its deliberations in her substantive article, “The Arab Novel: Visions of Social Reality,” which appeared in Al Jadid Vol. 8, No. 40, Summer 2002. Click on the link below to read the full article:

http://www.aljadid.com/content/arab-novel-visions-social-reality

-- Al Jadid Staff