Connecting the Dots: Soueif on Arabesque Festival in D.C., Translating Arab Literature, Arabs as Cultural Producers

Andrea Shalal-Esa

Writer Ahdaf Soueif was in Washington for three weeks in March to participate in an unprecedented festival of Arab arts and culture hosted by the Kennedy Center that involved 800 artists from 22 countries. Soueif worked as a consultant on “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World,” introducing curator Alicia Adams to various artists and acting as a sounding board for ideas as the festival took shape.

Soueif spoke at the festival’s opening gala, moderated two literature panels and headlined a third panel, at which she read excerpts of a new novel she is writing. As yet untitled, the novel deals with the parallel stories of two women who have lost their husbands, one a contemporary Egyptian woman, the other the goddess Isis. Soueif said the book was partly inspired by her interest in the 42 principles of the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, which many scholars believe provided the inspiration for the Ten Commandments.
Soueif is the author of two novels, “In the Eye of the Sun” (1992), and “The Map of Love” (1999), which was short listed for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1999. A political and cultural commentator, Soueif writes in Arabic and English for newspapers in both the West and the Arab world. She has also published a collection of essays, “Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground” (2004); two collections of short stories, “Aisha” (1983), “Sandpiper” (1996) later collected into “I Think of You” (2007); and translated Mourid Barghouti's “I Saw Ramallah” from Arabic into English.
Soueif was educated in Egypt and obtained a Ph.D. in linguistics from the U.K. She lives in London and Cairo. She has two sons, aged 24 and 19. Her husband, the writer Ian Hamilton, died of cancer in 2001. Her website is

How would you assess the importance of the Kennedy Center’s Arabesque Festival?

I think it’s tremendously important to have a festival at this most premier cultural center in the (U.S.) capital – a festival that lasts three weeks; that treats the Arab world as a unit; that treats the Arabs as cultural and artistic producers; that actually embodies both the unity and diversity of the Arab world. We’ve already seen how people are responding to it. We’ve seen the attendance; we’ve felt the buzz around it. We’ve registered the press coverage. It’s an enormous and totally positive event.

Previous Kennedy Center festivals have focused on individual countries. What’s the thinking behind having a festival that groups the whole Arab world together instead of highlighting specific countries?

There is an Arab culture. You have a geographic space where everybody speaks Arabic, where everybody has access to the same literature, where everybody is responsive to the same music and the same art, and in which, at the same time, individual locations have their individual genius. It seems to me that is such a dynamic and rich and fruitful structure. It’s brilliant that the organizers at the Kennedy Center saw it that way and presented the festival in a way that showcased that.

Do you think this will be the beginning of greater inclusion of Arab arts and culture in future Kennedy Center programming?

I certainly hope so. People are saying the Kennedy Center should do this every year. Well, of course, they can’t. But it can be the starting point for an ongoing program. It doesn’t have to be a festival of a particular country, but it can be an ongoing program of presenting Arab arts. So you could have a concert one month, an exhibition another month; an ongoing engagement with the art of the region. I think would be an excellent thing to do. It would also be a natural thing to do. I can’t imagine that an event as big and important and well-received as this would just end after three weeks without a continuity of some kind. That would be a wasted opportunity. But it’s really down to us as Arabs and as cultural producers and to the Americans who are thinking the same way, to now do something about the representation of Arab arts in this country. It’s very clear that there is a market, if you like, that there are people who will respond. There’s a lot of work that can be done. Now everyone needs to think about how they can contribute.

Your new novel is trying to connect the dots between the history of ancient Egypt and today. I’ve always been puzzled that people in the West are fascinated with ancient Egypt, but then it stops. They never associate that history with modern Egypt.

It is problematic for me. Of course one would have to be crazy to think that you’re going to write a novel and it’s going to change how people view history and the world and the nature of civilization. But I am interested in those links and those continuities. Also, Egypt was the beginning for everything, for everyone. It’s almost as though I feel as if the soul of the world lives there. If the forces of evil were to triumph and Egypt were to stop being Egypt, then that would be a disaster for the whole world. It sounds mad, but there’s something in me that actually thinks that.

You’ve done some translating yourself, but you have also been critical of the general state of translation from Arabic to English. Your concern is that a lot of the translations are off-putting to a Western reader?

I think that for a book to attract the reader, and get them interested and involved and keep them turning the pages, it’s got to be well-written. I don’t think that everybody who can write a sentence in English is a writer who is going to engage the reader. Also translators seem to fall into this ready-made way of depicting Arabic, which is a sort of semi-modernized version of the 19th century translations of the “Arabian Nights.” So, A – 
it’s just not good writing, and therefore will not engage the reader; B – it is a misrepresentation in that everybody ends up sounding the same; that you don’t get the individual voice of the individual author coming through; and that everybody also sounds somewhat archaic. That people “arise from their slumbers” instead of “waking up.” The effect on the reader in English is not the effect on the reader in Arabic, which is what you want from a translation.

How as a translator do you deal with the frequent references to God in everyday spoken Arabic, for instance, saying Allah yirhamu when referring to someone who has passed away?

If it’s actually doing something in the Arabic text other than just being normal, then you include it. If it doesn’t stick out in the Arabic text at all – in other words, it has no function other than that this is how Arabic is spoken – then I might put it in once and then leave it after that. The overall strategy is to bring the text closer to the reader without neutralizing it, to preserve the strangeness of the text only as far as is necessary for the integrity of the text. I would not include every formulaic stock phrase. If it isn’t fore-grounded in any way, then it’s probably there just because it would be weird for the Arabic not to have it. So if it’s weird for the English to have it, then I would take it out, since the author’s intention was to not be weird in the language they were writing in. I would preserve that intention. I have seen people changing the whole tense of a chapter from the present into the past, and I don’t see why. It also seems to be automatic to change the focus of a sentence and again I don’t know why. For artistic decisions such as tense, or the focus of a sentence, the syntax, the structure of a paragraph, I would stay with the author.

Are you planning to translate any more books yourself?

No, because I’m already having tremendous difficulty finding the time to write my own work. I’m involved in trying to find superlative translators, in trying to establish a team of people who are bilingual and bicultural and have a talent for it. So rather than sit down and translate a book myself, I’m trying to work on creating a group of translators.

Part of what happens when Western readers read books like “In the Eye of the Sun” or “The Yacoubian Building”, is that they generalize and take those books to be representative of all of Egyptian or Arab society. It’s in conversation with people’s stereotypes. Translation can play into that too.

Well, you have the politics of selection for a start. What is it that gets translated? Why do publishers go into hysterics over “Banat el- Riyadh,” for example? If it were the case that everything that was being published in Arabic was being translated into English at varying levels and being published, that would be great. I wouldn’t have a problem with that, because there it all is, a huge selection and the reader of English can pick and choose. But it isn’t like that. So the selection process and the level of translation become tremendously important.


This interview appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

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