Via Infoshop News
By William Hastings
Industrial Worker / June 2011
In America, where our major book reviewing outlets plaster novels about upper-middle class angst all over their front pages, Arab literature is a welcome middle finger to the dilettantes praised here. What modern mainstream American writer is willing to risk citizenship, imprisonment, or their life to say what should be said? To stop making art for art’s sake, but instead for the broken and lost? Certainly, the American state is slow to strip the citizenship of its writers, but that’s not to say the influence of advertising dollars isn’t helping to decide what the American reading public doesn’t hear about. The Washington Post, owners of the for-profit Kaplan University, needs federal student loan dollars in order to draw students. Does that not affect what is excluded from the Post’s book review pages? In light of the government’s need to justify neverending wars in the region, why would it be beneficial for American readers to find out that the subjects of Arab books have much more in common with them than they are told to believe? A Syrian cab driver working for $60 a month in Kuwait is grinding himself to dust for pennies. That’s not any different than the immigrant cabbies of Baltimore, San Francisco, or New York. To review works such as Alaa Al-Aswany’s masterpiece, “The Yacoubian Building,” or Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s classic, “Midaq Alley,” would be to show the desperate masses in our ghettos that the ghettos of Cairo aren’t much different. There has also been no coverage of Al-Aswany’s latest book, “On the State of Egypt: What Made the Revolution Inevitable.” This is not surprising considering that in it he writes: “Tahrir Square became like the Paris Commune. The authority of the regime collapsed and the authority of the people took its place. Committees were formed everywhere.” The New York Times Book Review wouldn’t go anywhere near that.
Not once since the Arab Spring began has any reviewing outlet in this country given focus to Arab literature. That willful ignorance reflects cooperation with official doctrine and helps to continue the manipulation of understanding and the cutting off of empathy that is required to perpetuate two endless wars. It allows the American public to continue to see Arabs as the enemy: By not reading their literature we close our ears to their voices.
In the Middle East, state censorship or control over the press has led writers, poets and playwrights to be the most forceful group depicting and commenting on the political realities of people’s lives, not to mention the effects of politics on the laboring class. In doing so, these writers find themselves exiled, imprisoned, deported, assassinated or stripped of their citizenship papers. With the continued presence of dictatorships and foreign intervention, it is no wonder then that modern Arab literature is intensely political, in its best cases without being bludgeoning, and focused sharply on the downtrodden. Take for example the first great book of modern Arab literature, Taha Hussein’s “The Days.” In this three-part autobiography, Hussein details his struggle to rise up from poverty and blindness to become one of the first Egyptians to attend the Sorbonne. Truly the blind-seer, Hussein became a giant amongst men of letters. More recently, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s “The Other Place” takes a close look at the vapidness of the petrodollar culture in the Arabian Gulf, focusing heavily on the desolation wrought on the migrant workers there.
While American fiction is just beginning to explore the effects of globalization, and even more recently the interactions between the Muslim world and our own, Arab literature has been exploring these themes for more than 80 years. It appalls one to think what things might be like had we listened earlier.
Arab literature is as diverse as the people writing it. The reflections and preoccupations of Iraqi writers are vastly different than the writers working in Egypt or Lebanon for example, though our media would have us believe Arabs are the same everywhere. But as diverse and locally focused as it can be, modern Arab literature is also marked by universal themes, struggles and outlooks. Tewfik Al- Hakim’s play “The Fate of a Cockroach,” while distinctly Egyptian, is a savage satire of the shallowness of government and organized religion and a meditation on man’s existential isolation. Likewise is Ghassan Kanafani’s novella, an utter masterpiece, “Men in the Sun,” depicting the psychological and moral struggles of men forced to smuggle themselves into Kuwait for work. While offering a hard look at migrant labor, it also examines Israel’s effects on the Palestinians. The book, and Kanafani’s writing in general, was powerful enough to have the Mossad assassinate him.
For obvious reasons, Israel’s creation looms large over the vast diaspora of Palestinian poets and writers scattered all over the world. But this diaspora has led to Palestinian writing absorbing the worldly tones of exile. This year, Mahmoud Darwish’s “Journal of an Ordinary Grief,” was published in the United States by Archipelago Press. The journal, one of three pieces of autobiography the Palestinian poet left behind, is a raw look at the massacres and destruction laid upon the Palestinians by the Israelis in 1948. And yet, for all its blunt force trauma, it reads in a lyrical style that marks Darwish as one of the world’s great writers. Thankfully his poetry is widely available in this country.
The sheer volume and diversity of Arab literature available in translation may seem daunting, but that should be a welcome challenge to American readers. Because there is so much of it (though more needs to be translated), there is that much more to explore, that much more to glean from. Since American coverage of the Middle East is paltry at best and grossly misinformed at worst, it is more important than ever to start reading Arab literature. It is a way to disassociate from the official narrative being forced upon us, and it is a way to begin understanding these events from Arab eyes. A thorough reading of modern Arab literature will provide context for the events the American media fails to cover properly. After all, Tahrir Square, despite what it was made out to be, was not an isolated reaction to the Tunisian uprisings. Instead, it was irrevocably tied into the 2008 general strike launched by textile workers in Mahalla. And what of our continued petroleum use without questioning the cultural effects of this usage? Abdelrahman Munif’s evisceration of this in his “Cities of Salt” trilogy is the long needed emetic. One could also look at Ahlem Mosteghanemi’s “Memories of the Flesh” or Joumana Haddad’s magazine Jasad to utterly destroy our false notions of Arab female timidity. Beyond all of this though, there are works in Arab literature that are hallmarks of world letters, and it is high time that they be admitted into “The Canon.”
In the coming months, these books and others will receive their critical due here and on the Industrial Worker Book Review website, http://www.iwwbookreview. com, as they have been purposefully ignored for too long. Perhaps then, official narratives will be broken down and the major book reviewing outlets in this country can be shown for what they are: mouthpieces of a wealthy few, totally ignorant of the struggles of millions.