An Increasingly Popular Cultural Lens: Arabic Literature

Two decades ago, scarcely enough material existed to teach a course on Arabic literature in translation. Most comparative literature departments lacked a focus on Arabic, and most Arabists focused on teaching literature in the original. Perhaps most importantly, far fewer students in the United States were enrolled in Arabic-language programs.

This changed after the al-Qaeda attacks of September 2001: The Modern Language Association reported a doubling in Arabic enrollments between 1998 and 2002, although that steep rise did not continue. And although Arabic enrollments fell slightly between 2013 and 2016, according to MLA’s 2018 report, Arabic was still on an upward trend in the previous decade over all, and has maintained its spot as the eighth-most taught language in the United States.

No numbers exist for courses in Arabic literature in translation. However, the swelling base of students with some Arabic seems to have been followed by a surge in courses on Arabic culture. The traffic reports of the website ArabLit: Arabic Literature and Translation (which I help to run) show a growing number of educational institutions regularly using the site. During the spring 2018 semester, at least sixteen different university systems linked to the site from course software.

This growing interest has been followed by more discussion of how to teach Arabic literature in the English-language classroom. In 2017 Routledge published Arabic Literature for the Classroom: Teaching Methods, Theories, Themes and Texts, edited by Muhsin al-Musawi. And this spring, the MLA brought out Teaching Modern Arabic Literature in Translationedited by Michelle Hartman.

Arabic literature in translation courses are also enabled by a new, fast-growing body of Arabic literature in English translation that can trace its rapid upswing to September 2001. Over the last six months, I’ve been conducting a series of twenty-one interviews with twenty-four professors in the United States, United Kingdom, Lebanon and Egypt who teach with Arabic literature in translation. The works they teach range from classical Arabic texts published in facing-page bilingual editions by the New York University Press’s Library of Arabic Literature series to contemporary graphic novels. The interviews highlight the extent to which professors in English, Arabic, and comparative literature departments are engaged in teaching literary translations in novel, intriguing ways.

Using Both Languages

Many courses are “translation only.” But a number of Arabic-facing or bilingual courses also use literature in both Arabic and English. Bilal Orfali, at the American University of Beirut, said that he’s asked students to translate difficult passages of Abu al-Maari’s Epistle of Forgiveness and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg. “Then we compared the translation to Library of Arabic Literature translations. The main focus was how to translate linguistic debates or rhymed ornate prose into English and still make sense of the text. We often discuss what is lost in translation and what is gained.”

The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 (Photo: Wikimedia).

Margaret Litvin, associate professor of Arabic and comparative literature at Boston University, teaches the other way around. In her bilingual “Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature” course, they start with the English and works backwards to the Arabic. This, she says, “lets students play to their strengths, work on their weaknesses, see each other in more than one light, and start to knit together their liberal-arts-student and language-learner selves.” She teaches “translation-first,” noting that the “overwhelming majority of my students will graduate without achieving fluency in Arabic. Most will die without achieving it. So what?”

Litvin feels that complete fluency is not the educational holy grail. Instead, in her course, she focuses on what students can do with the skills they currently have. “People fetishize fluency,” she said. “but it is not the biggest step in language learning. The biggest step is going from understanding nothing to understanding something.”

A Focus on the Literary Levant

Egyptian novels are the segment of Arabic literature most extensively represented in English. This is due, in part, to the prolific output of Nawal El Saadawi and Naguib Mahfouz, the two literary authors who probably have the most works translated into English. Egyptians also publish more prolifically in Arabic than any other nationality. In the years since 2016, when the International Prize for Arabic Fiction began reporting country-by-country submissions data, between 18 and 27 percent of submissions have come from Egyptians. (See a related article, “University Press Thrives on New Arabic Fiction.”)

However, I have yet to come across a course that focuses entirely on Egyptian literature. Nearly all of the country-specific courses I’ve come across are centered on Lebanon, such as Ghenwa Hayek’s “Literary Legacies of War in Lebanon” or the many that focus on Palestinian literature.

Courses on Palestinian literature tend to include a political aspect. For example, the course that Philip Metres teaches at John Carroll University in Ohio considers Palestinian and Israeli literature side by side. Joseph Farag, who teaches a course on “Palestinian Literature and Film” at the University of Minnesota, talked about ways in which a course on Palestinian art has to move carefully between politics and aesthetics. “When studying ‘western’ literature, students are encouraged to examine and appreciate its formal aspects and artistry, often to the exclusion of its political context. How often do instructors situate Shakespeare within his political moment when teaching Richard III for instance? (This is not a rhetorical question—I would be genuinely interested to know.) I try to counter this tendency by focusing on literary aesthetics, innovations and transitions in Palestinian literature.”

For many other countries where Arabic is the main literary language—Tunisia, Kuwait, Libya—too little literature has been translated for a whole course. But Alex Elinson, a professor at Hunter College whom I interviewed about a hypothetical Moroccan literature course, said things are changing. “I feel like I’m now ready to start thinking about such a course,” he said.

At Arab Universities

Arabic Literature in English translation is also taught at a number of universities in Arab-majority countries. During the Spring 2018 semester, the American University of Kuwait sent more university traffic to ArabLit than did any other university. For the series “Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation,” I spoke with Rana Issa, Bilal Orfali and Rula Baalbaki at the American University of Beirut, as well as Tahia Abdel Nasser, May Hawas, and Mounira Soliman at the American University in Cairo. All used Arabic literature in English translation in their courses.

Teaching translated Arabic literature in Cairo is different from teaching it in Kansas, Hawas said, in part because she assumes her students are fluent neither in Arabic nor in English. “Perhaps it’s better to think that we are all foreigners to a text,” Hawas said. Issa, meanwhile, made use of her students’ bilingual abilities, having them translate favorite texts.

But most emphasized the different tools and skills that different students bring to the literature classroom, from native speakers to language learners to those who come without having heard of falafel. The syllabi in use covered a range of topics that were, even as I looked through them, in the process of expanding. Shir Alon at Washington and Lee University talked about a course that centered around djinn stories (djinn are supernatural beings that can take human or animal form); Katie Logan at Virginia Commonwealth University gave a course around Arab travel narratives in translation; and Amal Eqeiq at Williams College has built a course around Arab women’s memoirs. The latter course in turn helped Shadi Rohana, at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City, create a course around Arab women’s writing. The next step is surely to make these syllabi and other teaching resources available to a wider range of instructors around the world.

M. Lynx Qualey is the founding editor of the website ArabLit and co-host of the Bulaq podcast. She is a contributor to Teaching Modern Arabic Literature in Translation, published this year by the Modern Language Association.


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