November 12, 2012KR BlogBlog

Where I Come From: A Tour of ArabLit

I’ve spent large and wonderful swaths of my adult life in Egypt, so it’s natural that, when I think about literature, what springs most easily to mind is Arabic literature. And, as my Arabic writing is a half-sensible mishmash of colloquial Egyptian and proper MSA, it’s for the best that I write about Arabic literature “(in English).”

My blogging practice began in 2009, and it continues to shift and grow as the readers attuned to Arabic literature shift and grow. When I spoke about the blog to an audience at the American University in Cairo this past March, I called it a “literary salon.” I felt, and feel, that I am organizing entertainments and discussions for an ever-shifting group of friends and colleagues. I have my core members — my Odettes, my Dr. Cottards — as well as those who come and go.

Over time, the group of us, working together, has put together a number of resources, a “salon library,” that probably should be more widely accessible.

A few of these:

The Top 105 Arabic Books of the 20th Century – This list was voted on by the Arab Writers Union. Here, the titles in English, news of their translations (you will see many corrections and additions in the comments), and other information about the authors and books. Many of these authors are not translated into English — Mohamed Zafzaf, for instance — perhaps because they lacked translator-friends, as Arabic literature scholar Roger Allen has noted that most of the translations from Arabic to English are “the result of individual interest, of translators connected by a personal acquaintance with the author.”

The Rules (for Translators) – I have run across so many rules for writers, but so few for translators. I don’t have a single page to organize these — for shame — nor a resource that puts them together by topic — for double shame. But, over the course of many “Translation Thursdays,” eminent translators from various language pairs (here Scandinavian languages to English translator Tiina Nunnally and Arabic to English translator Ibrahim Muhawi; here Bengali to English translator Arunava Sinha and French to English translator Alison Anderson; here German to English translator Susan Bernofsky and English to Arabic translator Hala Salah Eldin Hussein; wonderful rules from the Popescu poetry-translation prize shortlist; a great riff from French-English translator Pierre Joris) have tossed in their thoughts. There are many more; insha’allah I’ll get around to categorizing and cataloging them.

Speaking of Insha’allah – One of the most popular topics of discussion over at ArabLit is the translation of religious or religious-ized terms, such as insha’allah, Islam, and martyr. Transliteration — Qur’an (Quran, Koran, Alkoran), Muslim (Moslem) — is also a chat-worthy topic.

Five Arabic Books to Read Before You Die – Which will be no time soon, of course, so you have plenty of time to read all of them. Titles suggested by eminent writers, like Sinan Antoon, Laila Lalami, and Youssef Rakha, translators, like Shakir Mustafa, Hosam Aboul-ela and Maia Tabet, scholars like Elias Muhanna and Nouri Gana, and publishers like R. Neil Hewison. Sure, Neil chose all AUC Press titles, but they’re nonetheless good ones. The (bucket) list.

What About That Prize…What’s It Called…The “Arabic Booker”? – No, they don’t like to call it that, even though it is indeed affiliated with the Man Booker in the UK. They like to call it the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and — although I could rattle off a number of gossipy bumps and potholes that have rattled the prize during its first five years — I can also say that I bothered last year’s judges quite extensively, and found them to be working transparently and independently, which cannot be said about every literary prize. I have not liked, indeed I have disliked, some of the winners. But they’ve also turned up a number of very good books on the shortlists and longlists: Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, Rabee Jaber’s shortlisted and winning novels, Amir Tag Elsir’s The Grub Hunter, Miral’s Brooklyn Heights, Habib Selmi’s two shortlisted novels, and more. So, my IPAF section, including a long Q&A with the prize admin.

Things With Numbers in Them –  Everyone likes things with numbers in them: 25+ (Arab) Authors Who Tweet; 20 Questions: How Do I Become a Literary Translator; Six Arab Novelists on Why They Write; Naguib Mahfouz @ 100.

Things With Sex in Them – Hm, I guess I don’t write about sex as much as I thought I did. Lebanese author Alawiyya Sobh and Egyptian novelists Sonallah Ibrahim and Alaa el-Aswany have talked about sex. There is the perennial complaint that Saudi women writers talk too much about sex. There are the “Books about Sex for Bernard Lewis.”

There are probably many more gems at which ArabLit’s dozens of contributors toiled — what about that cool three-way conversation between author Hisham Bustani, me, and translator Thorayya El-Rayyes? — but such is working on a blog. Unfortunately, much of it gets lost. Fortunately, much of it gets lost.