Marginalia: Suspended until further notice
attempts an answer to a question posed by the British press during last month's London Book Fair
"Are the Arabs ready for a literary revolution?" the cover of the Extra section of the British daily The Independent asked on 15 April, the day following the opening of the London Book Fair (14-16 April), an event which this year designated the Arab publishing industry as "market focus".
Highlighting the meaning of this "revolution," the section carried a large picture of the cover of Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novel The Kite Runner, extolling its many market virtues. "Published in 38 countries, translated into 42 languages, turned into an Oscar- nominated movie and selling more than 10 million copies," it read, before concluding that "Now the search is on for the next big thing to come from the East. But is the Arab world ready for a literary revolution?"
Inside, the main article discussing the readiness -- or lack thereof -- for such a revolution among the Arabs was written by The Independent 's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, under the title "The Writing on the Wall". While the tone of Tonkin's article was less sensational than the cover promoting it, the overarching question was: "why can't Arab culture engage in a new global experiment rather than enclosing itself and living on history?"
Tonkin's title was inspired by a visit to the Alhambra in Spain to attend the first Hay Alhambra Festival, in which many Arab writers participated. In the company of Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, Tonkin visited the Moorish Alhambra citadel in Granada and was thrilled by Barghouti's ability to read the Arabic poetry carved in stucco on its walls.
This metaphor of the "writing on the wall," used by Tonkin as an introduction, tied in with the concluding part of the article, in which Egyptian novelist and author of a three-part historical novel, Granada, set in Moorish Spain, Radwa Ashour, was quoted as telling him that the characters in her novel "are still living with [her]." Tonkin ended by commenting: "So the circle closes, and a very modern Arabic writer from the brash metropolis of Cairo communes with the lyrical legacy of Moorish Spain... Once again, I wish I had the chance to read much more of the writing on the wall."
Introduction and conclusion aside, in the main body of his article, Tonkin set himself the task of investigating the problems which hinder the forging of firm cultural bonds between the Arab world and the West, or stand in the way of "quenching the rhetoric of a 'clash of civilisztions' with the reality of a dialogue between them."
To this end, he cited a litany of ailments long diagnosed by Arabs and westerners alike, including tyranny, repression, illiteracy, cultural deprivation and the Soviet-style dinosaur enterprises that dominate the publishing scene. Finally, in Egypt in particular, there was the Ikhwan (the Society of Muslim Brothers), Tonkin wrote, whose "prominence and prestige has made it a kind of shadow Establishment, stealing the thunder of the secularists who also clamour for true democracy in Egypt."
Granted that these ailments exist, though the inclusion of the Ikhwan is rather bewildering, but there are also other questions relevant to the cross-cultural encounter between the Arabs and the West which commentators would rather ignore or give scant attention to. Those are the long-standing questions grounded in the history of what the late Aimé Césaire once described as the "shock of colonialism" and the unequal nature of any cross-cultural encounter between the colonising West and the colonised East.
Today any educated and literate easterner knows much more about modern -- sometime even classical -- western culture than the other way round. In the Arab world, for example, any person with literary interests will have read a great number of the canonical works produced in the West from Dante and Shakespeare to Dickens, Balzac, Thomas Mann, Chekhov and Tolstoy, sometimes in foreign languages, but more often in the high-quality Arabic translations produced over more than a century of efficient and energetic translation.
The number of Arabic works existing in western languages -- let alone the possibility of their being read in Arabic -- is dismal by comparison.
Another manifestation of this disparity in the relationship is what Mourid Barghouti, in an interview published with Arab writers and critics in the London newspaper The Guardian on the eve of the London Book Fair, described as the apparent monopoly of the West over the notion of universality to the exclusion of other cultures.
"We'll reach nowhere," Barghouti told the paper, "if the concept of universality is not re-examined. No western writer questions his or her universality; it's the Arabs, the Africans and the Asians who should aspire to reach it, through translation. Translation being a chance, a favour, a medal, a stamp of recognition and a password to open the space for the lucky newcomers."
Finally, there is the politics of translation in today's globalised marketplace and the search for works that confirm stereotypes already in place rather than necessarily works of literary merit. This brings us back full circle to The Independent 's headline promoting Tonkin's article and the example of Khaled Hosseini.
In his article Tonkin says that "Although he comes from far beyond the Arab world (and writes in English), the Afghan author Khaled Hosseini's double coup in topping the UK charts...has helped to put a spring in the step of every one who wants to widen the readership for literature from the Middle East and North Africa."
This might be the case, but praising works such as The Kite Runner for topping the sales charts in western markets is one thing and "quenching the rhetoric of a 'clash of civilisations' with the reality of a dialogue between them" is quite another.
For such meaningful dialogue between cultures to take place, it has to be conducted outside institutions such as those described by Tonkin as "an Arabic version of Russia's Potemkin villages: an ornate façade that hides enduring truths of tyranny." Equally importantly, it has to be conducted in liberal fashion, seeking to redress the imbalance in the relationship rather than feeding the same old prejudices that have polluted the relationship for so long.
In the final analysis, the job of disseminating knowledge about what is best in Arab culture falls primarily on the Arabs. Judging by what institutions from both countries with long-established publishing traditions, such as Egypt, and new rich institutions from the Gulf region tried to market at the recent London Book Fair, the Arabs are not yet ready for this task.
Caught between the rock of what Tonkin described as "Soviet-style dinosaurs," on the one hand, and the hard place of an Arabic version of "Russia's Potemkin villages," on the other, the Arabs have to come up with alternative institutions that are capable of presenting the best of what they produce to the outside world.
Until this happens, let market forces take their course. This is not necessarily a bad thing since among the translated books that enhance existing stereotypes there are bound to be one or two that are worthwhile.
As for a "revolution" of the type created by Hosseini, this is a job that can be left to Arab writers living in the West and writing in English. It is not the main concern of the majority of those writing in Arabic.