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The Politics of Getting Published: The Continuing Struggle of Arab-American Writers
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
The highest honors in modern Arab literature rightly fall on icons like Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz, both authors of irrefutable genius. But while these figures deserve their place in Arab letters, the publishers behind them – who, often amid difficult circumstances, have the courage and vision to bring their work to readers – sometimes fail to receive their due.
Suheil Idriss, an important literary figure in his own right, might lack the recognition shared by Hussein and Mahfouz, but his accomplishments as a publisher rivaled those of the canon’s most esteemed authors. It was Suheil Idriss who, through his publishing house Dar Al Adab, managed to accomplish what no other Arab was able to do for decades.
Of the hundreds of universities both inside and outside the Arab world that teach Arab literature, how many have produced major intellectuals of the caliber of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nazik al-Malaika, and Samihe al-Qassem? Only Idriss could have shed such a broad light on these individuals; not many publishers possessed the power, courage and talent, or the willingness to make the sacrifices he did. Idriss had the literary taste to publish a distinguished magazine, a piece of excellence that he distributed throughout the Arab world, attracting attention and influencing those who read it everywhere. He continued presenting the creative authors he discovered to an ignited readership.
In this sense, Suheil Idriss’s Al Adab magazine can be considered one of the Arab world’s most important academic institutions.
Idriss was undeniably a courageous and persistent man. The Arab world knew few literary magazines; they came and went, rose and fell. Few flourished before disappearing. Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and others have long lists of the departed. Amid such stagnant conditions, how did Idriss succeed? Even his detractors will admit that he was able to move the waters of Arab literature in a creative and consistent way upon founding Al Adab. And he continued to do so until few years before his departure.
Al Adab went on flourishing regardless of the rise and demise of other important magazines like Shir and Mawaqaf, as well as those marked by chauvinistic parochialism and sectarian identities that were becoming popular throughout the Arab world.
Idriss did not confine himself to publishing a magazine or writing novels, but opened new doors as well. When we Iraqis were being misled by the Stalinist left, Idriss introduced us to purposeful, consciousness-expanding works – what can be called the electric shock of new ideas and trends: Jean Paul Sartre and existentialism, Simone de Bouvier and Francois Sagan, among others. None of these contributions – rare and often singular translations – could have been made without Suheil Idriss and the publishing house he founded, Dar Al Adab.
Idriss began his relationship with writing at Al Makshouf magazine, owned by Fouad Hbeish. He wrote his first essay at Al Makshouf in 1939. Later, he began publishing in Al Risala al-Misriyya, Al Adeeb and Al Amali (the latter two Lebanese). In 1952, he earned his doctorate in literature with his thesis, “The Modern Arab Novel and the Effects of Foreign Influence from 1900 to 1950.” He then became editor-in-chief for Al Adab magazine, serving from 1953 to 1992.
In addition to his editorial tasks, Idriss worked in several other related fields, including teaching and translating foreign texts into Arabic. He translated several books from French into Arabic, the most important of which were works of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In collaboration with Jabour Abd al-Nour, he authored “Al Manhal,” a French-Arabic dictionary, as well as an Arabic-French version with the late Subhi al Saleh.
Idriss also served as the secretary general of the Union of Arab Authors, as well as of the Lebanese Committee of African and Asian Authors. Founding the Union of Lebanese Writers, he became secretary general for four terms and an important participant at the Center of Arab Union.
Throughout his career – the authors and works he published, his translations and his own writing – Idriss demonstrated his deep understanding and appreciation of the Arab creative spirit.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)