Should We Teach Easy, ‘Informative’ Arabic Novels in Translation?

Aaron Bady recently posted the transcript — lightly edited — of a Skype conversation he had with Egyptian author Miral al-Tahawy, author of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal-winning Brooklyn Heights, among other novels:

Miral’s Brooklyn Heights, which, she claims, is not an entirely good fit for classroom teaching.

The part of the conversation that caught my attention, predictably, was when Miral talked about teaching Arabic literature in US universities. She said:

Since I first came and started teaching, I discovered that what I would usually choose the first time was not suitable for my students. Because the American students want to know more about the Middle East, and if you gave them a very artistic piece of literature, they find it very difficult to understand. I was feeling very disappointed, because most of the comments were “Oh, it’s so difficult! I can’t get it!” You feel you have to walk a long way to the station where literature can be a piece of literature, where it’s not something else.

I was torn between sympathy for Miral and cheek-biting disagreement, as very nearly everything I want is in that journey to the station where literature’s a piece of literature. Or if it’s something else — as I recently feltPetra was something else — it’s song and architecture and eerie silence.

Miral talks about the Arabic novel in a way that reminds me of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s 2010 “Found in Translation” (“What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life?”), although Miral’s eyes are open:

So that kind of novel, sometimes I choose to include it. It’s there to inform people about the Middle East, to inform the students about something they care about.

And yet:

But when you speak about literature… I feel it to be something magical, it’s something different, which is really hard to be translated, first, because it’s very connected to the language, the Arabic tradition, the symbols, the smells, the human beings that live.

As I considered, I realize that I go there — to that place of “information” — more times in a week than I’d care to admit. I, too, have written and taught about “current events,” and made literature the handmaiden of hot-button discussion. Because if someone’s going to “learn” about young women’s lives in Beirut, shouldn’t they “learn” from Alexandria Chreiteh’s Always Coca Cola instead of, well, God knows where else.

Yet the interview makes me want to never go there again. It makes me want to teach Miral’s books. Or, I thought, I’d get even further from current events and organize a course around narrative poetry translated from Arabic, such as (1) the beautiful Majnun Layla by Qassim Haddad, translated by Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden, and (2) the breathtaking Petra, by Amjad Nasser, translated by Fady Joudah.

And oho, if students learnt nothing about hijab or ebola or ISIS – and instead discussed language and the act of re-writing received narratives and the nature/s of translation – so much the better.

But it would be disingenous of me to claim that, from now on, I would not talk about Arabic literature except as itself, as if it had an independent “self” that was wholly separate from its readers and their interests. Even I know that literature exists in a conversation not just with language but with the mental chatter of its readers. Literature in translation must coexist with even more chatter, in a loud, tug-of-war space.

So: How do we place ourselves here, on the teeter-totter continuum of using Arabic literature as a prop for discussion of “wider issues” to the engagement of beautiful books on their own terms, or rather on the terms that translation and editing and criticism have set for them?

With dancing shoes, I suppose.

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