‘A siege of reading’
Is politics diminishing a burgeoning literature of the Middle East?
Arabic letters are enjoying a well-deserved spotlight in the English-speaking world. Since 2009 at least three publishing houses have turned their focus to the translation of Arabic fiction: the American University in Cairo Press, which launched the imprint Hoopoe; U.K.-based Darf Publishers, formerly devoted to travel books and historical reprints; and Hamad bin Khalifa University Press, formerly Bloomsbury Qatar. Stoking English-reader anticipation for the Next Big Arabic Novel, a growing number of awards—the so-called Arabic Booker prize (the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which is affiliated with the Man Booker Prize), the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, and the Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel—all include translation assistance to bring first-place works into English. A slew of gigantic regional book fairs gather publishers from across the Arab region as well as prospective translation houses.
In parallel with the rise in available Arabic fiction there has been a flourishing of its critics and commentators. It is from within this burgeoning field that two recent works emerge. Both put literature from the Middle East, rather than political events, front and centre, and suggest that a better understanding of texts will lead to a better understanding of the region. Aimed at what both call the “uninitiated,” they propose to give new readers close insight into the Middle East. Putting the books in conversation reveals more about our own readerly position than it does about the texts they describe. Both works are a reminder to pause and think about how we read, to assess the positions we take as readers and the pitfalls of our often-unrecognized assumptions. They remind us to ask, though not always explicitly: What do we ask of Arabic literature, or other translated and international work? Are we becoming better readers?
Refreshingly, Marcello Di Cintio, a long-form journalist and a Calgarian, puts his own preconceptions front and centre in Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense. The Palestine he writes of is cultural, and Di Cintio’s work is an engaging, funny, and easy-to-read exploration of what it means to be a Palestinian writer today. He interviews novelists, essayists, and poets (who are also human rights lawyers, mothers, and alcoholics), and sketches wonderfully evocative scenes of Gaza City culture clubs, solitary studios, and smoky bars—places that nurture creativity and reflection in Palestine. His aim, through literature, is to relate Palestine beyond the headlines.
The headlines, by Di Cintio’s account, have fostered limited expectations for a Palestinian literary scene. The author admits early on that when he first went to Palestine as a writing instructor, he had expected to work with amateurs churning out hackneyed tales of “their grandfather’s lost olive trees,” as he puts it, or penning “narratives of humiliations at the hands of checkpoint soldiers.” His investigation sets out to reveal a more complex story. Most compelling is the life of Di Cintio’s own character within the study. He leaves in and even highlights his naive and at times embarrassing questions. At one point Ramallah-based writer Maya Abu-Alhayyat responds bluntly to one such query: “I don’t know why you ask these kinds of questions, which I really hate and don’t enjoy answering.” The recurrent theme, not so subtle, is that the West may be asking the wrong kinds of questions entirely.
By his own admission Di Cintio goes to Palestine looking for its humanity, to “find beauty.” An unsettling logic lurks behind that lovely sentiment. Read backwards, it suggests that Palestine’s humanity is not evident until he has—and we, through him, have—read the work of Palestinians, met their families, eaten their food. A related, rather dogged theme, near ubiquitous in writing about Palestinians, is the reader’s temptation to understand the Palestinian psyche (as though there were just one) by trying to read Palestinian portrayals of Israelis, particularly soldiers. The Palestinian writer who authors a nuanced and complex checkpoint soldier, for example, is held up as proof that Palestinians are humane, are human. But must Palestinian writers portray a teenage soldier with all her acne and self-doubt to demonstrate their own humanity?
Di Cintio also admits he anticipates finding politics in Palestinian writings. Instead he discovers authors who transcend the expected “nationalistic flag-waving” and “good-versus-evil and us-versus-them” sentiments. One Gaza culture club organizer says members must check their politics at the door: “We talk only about books and about culture. I think culture is more powerful than anything anyway.” Di Cintio relates a conversation he had with one author from Gaza City; both agree that the expectation that Palestinian texts treat “war, occupation, women’s rights, Hamas” is an expectation that “wrest[s] control of a writer’s narrative like hijackers.” To come at a text with this expectation is, Di Cintio argues, quoting Palestine’s national poet, Mahmoud Darwish, “essentially a siege of reading.” In other words, to approach a text through politics is to delimit and diminish possibilities. To lift the siege of reading would be to let the texts speak for themselves. Darwish—crowned the poet of resistance early in his career—insisted on his artistic right not to constantly address “the conflict.” “If I write love poems,” he once said, “I resist the conditions that don’t allow me to write love poems.”
Palestinian literature, like any other, is also constantly changing to reflect new social and political circumstances. The classics of Palestinian literature grappled simultaneously with the political and the existential. The cousin protagonists of Sahar Khalifeh’s Wild Thorns (1976), for example, quarrel about how best to preserve a Palestinian way of life following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967. One has never left his elite family home in Nablus and rails against the old class system; the other, politicized when he sought work in the Gulf, returns to organize workers against the occupation. Their tender discussions reveal the complex intersecting social priorities of class, land, industrialization, exile, family, and politics. Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist: A Palestinian Who Became a Citizen of Israel, meanwhile, is a darkly funny parody of Voltaire’s Candide. It follows the deeply feeling but simple-minded protagonist, Saeed, through his expulsion from Haifa, the subsequent founding of Israel, and Saeed’s eventual “infiltration” or return to his native city. The work’s satire hinges on the paradox of Israel as a new utopia that proves to be anything but ideal for the returned Saeed.
In more recent writing the signposts of Palestinian political history take their place within an increasingly complex spectrum of contemporary life. Consider the work of Ibrahim Nasrallah, who in April 2018 won the Arabic Booker for The Second War of the Dog, a dystopian-style rip-through of despotic governments, set in a not-too-distant future where individuality—marked by the human face—disappears in a world of clones. The futility of old-style resistance, the temptation of corruption, and despair for the future coincide in a work that looks head-on into the worst humanity can offer. Readers in the English-speaking world will have to wait for the 2019 translation from American University in Cairo Press but in the meantime could read Nasrallah’s playful historical fictions, which toy with the conventions of narrating the past in a way that makes the past present (Time of White Horses, The Lanterns of the King of Galilee), or his early experimental works Inside the Night and Prairies of Fever.
None of these recent books make it into Di Cintio’s review of the Palestinian literary landscape, however. Born in Jordan to refugee parents, Nasrallah, like a great many other Palestinian writers, is writing from locations outside the borders of any possible Palestine. The assumption that borders (even Israeli borders) contain all that is Palestinian is one that Di Cintio does not quite dismantle.
Franck Salameh’s newly released anthology of minority literature from the region works to highlight some of what gets left out when we ask questions using current categories; from nationalisms to religious groups. Like Di Cintio, Salameh sees his book as a corrective to common misperceptions of a region. The Other Middle East “treats those works [that] do not fit the prevalent assumptions of the media, the academy, or the public discourse on a Middle East presumed culturally, linguistically, and ethically uniform, unitary, homogeneous.” Its aim is to bring “works that somehow ‘did not make it’ into the accepted corpus” to wider audiences, and to serve as a “repudiation of the exclusivity of nationalism.”
Reading beyond the national, Salameh includes two Anglo-Palestinian authors, one settled in the United States (Fawaz Turki), the other in Britain (Samir el-Youssef), who broaden the scope of this literature. Turki and Youssef are bilingual, bi-national, and internationally mobile. Like many of the eleven authors collected in this anthology, they represent a key feature of the Middle East that Salameh promotes: hybridity. Salameh writes against a media discourse that flattens a Middle East that is in fact “humanist, multifaceted, polyglot, cosmopolitan.” The hybrid authors Salameh translates (and more often re-translates, as many are canonical figures, already widely available in English), rescues from the archives, and gathers for the first time to build a sense of the region’s literary identity, are, he says, “[s]triving to reclaim a certain Levantine hybridity as a legitimate parameter of identity, and attempting to restore their Levant.”
He uses Levant—a largely colonial-era term to refer to the Near East—to consciously rename the southeastern Mediterranean, covering today’s Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel (though he also includes Egypt). Salameh wants his readers to find—as Di Cintio did—that which is human in the Middle East. Where he takes the search for the human, however, reveals the dangers of this brand of humanism. Salameh puts forward his selection of fiction to show that there is humanism in the Middle East, but this humanism is specifically not Arab. The Levant—in its true and human essence—he claims, represents a “non-Arab Mediterranean heritage.” His claim is that contemporary notions of the Middle East as the “Arab World” obliterate the Mediterranean’s ancient heritage; and that despite fifteen centuries of various Arab and Muslim rulers, the Levant is distinctly un-Arab. His aim in presenting the anthology is, by his own description, the “restitution of a Levantine secular polity, where Middle Eastern minorities, who had fallen under the sway of allogeneic Arab-Muslims of the seventh century” reclaim their heritage and excise their false “Arab-ness.”
Salameh claims that the Arabs—a race apart from the peoples of Levant—took over and transformed once “placid” communities with a “nationalist rigidity and cultural authoritarianism that have plagued the Near East of the past century.” He quotes one Lebanese intellectual of the early twentieth century who claimed that “fifteen centuries of Arab domination were scarcely valid justification for one to become ‘oblivious or disrespectful to the fifty centuries’ that preceded the Arabs.” There is little citation or substantiation, however, beyond the anecdotal, of anything beyond an imagined link between this ancient population and the contemporary peoples of the region. The anthology is not an academic study of the texts it collects, though it at times presents itself as such. Rather, it uses the texts to substantiate claims on the meaning and identity of the Middle East.
One of many problems here is that the authors Salameh claims to this vision are far more nuanced than he is. The contemporary Syrian poet Adonis, in an essay on “unfinished identity” that Salameh translates here, reminds readers that “when one speaks of Arabs, a clear differentiation ought to be made between Arabs as individuals and human beings, and Arabs as an institution, as establishments, as regimes, and so on.” In theory, it is with the establishments that Salameh takes issue. In fact, he displays a thinly veiled prejudice. The Levant Salameh imagines appears to be one that specifically excludes Arabs: “the term Levantine may be used to refer exclusively to members of one of the minorities living in Muslim- or Arab-defined countries, or may be limited to intellectuals and writers, and never to an entire society,” he writes—never, that is, the Muslim Arab population at large.
In Egypt this sort of atavistic reimagining is called pharaonism—it constructs Egypt and “true” Egyptians as the descendants of the pharaohs, with the desired implication that any who are not descendants are not real Egyptians; they are invaders, and unwelcome. Salameh correctly explains that this reimagining of national identity emerged in Egypt around the 1920s, “around the same time as Phoenicianism and Syrianism—both emphasizing a non-Arab Mediterranean heritage, and both widespread and popular mainly among Christian communities in Lebanon and Syria.” Salameh merges these trends into what he calls Levantism, and posits this as a corrective to nationalist currents, which at the time were distinctly articulated in pan-Arab sentiments.
The thing is, challenging the dogma of nationalism and pan-Arabism was what most authors of the period were doing, no matter their political or religious beliefs. The big question of the age, which to some extent remains, was: What does it mean to be Arab? When colonialism framed the pre-colonial period as one of backwardness and decline, writers and intellectuals were faced with the complex question of what to make of their long and multifaceted pasts, and how to keep them as part of the imagined future. These complex issues were not restricted to supporters of Phoenicianism or other similar ideologies, nor were they limited to minority groups. This is clear in the work of the authors that Salameh highlights, one third of whom are Muslim (Shia and Sunni), with one Jewish-Israeli, one Druze, and the rest Christian of various denominations.
What Salameh makes of this diversity is something wholly different. Instead of a Middle East grappling with the rapidly shifting realities of colonialism, post-colonialism, and industrialization, he sees minorities pitted against a homogeneous category of “Arabs,” as if minorities were the only thinkers to grapple with the ancient past. Egypt’s foremost writer of the twentieth century, Naguib Mahfouz—the only Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature—wrote extensively about the pharaohs. He even paralleled claims that pan-Arabism was the answer to the region’s woes to the ancient story of Akhenaten, a pharaoh who broke with tradition and claimed the existence of a single god. It is also relatively common knowledge that Arabic dialects absorbed ancient Egyptian or Phoenician words—part of what makes the rainbow of different Arabics, which persist despite the simultaneously unifying force of Modern Standard Arabic, the simplified Quranic Arabic that is mostly used for literary writing and speechmaking, and in news media.
Salameh says he takes issue with the flattening of a diverse and multilingual Middle East into a singular and hegemonic Arab World. This is a fair criticism. However, even the era of what he calls Arab domination was more diverse than he lets on. During those fifteen centuries, half a dozen dynasties ruled over various segments of what we call the Middle East. The seats of these dynasties were in modern-day India, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey—to say nothing of the century of European colonial rule. This is hardly domination by a homogeneous Arab invader. Language at the level of subject was equally complex. Only this year a ground-breaking discovery was made in Jordan: a Bedouin inscription in both early Arabic and Greek—side by side, on the same rock found in the middle of the Hejaz desert and far from the “Levant” that Salameh claims was the only site of a polyglot and cosmopolitan Middle East.
We would do well to recall that the imagination of the Middle East as a pan-Arab entity itself emerged in direct opposition to European colonialism. As the late critic Edward Said reminds us, “Western imperialism and Third World nationalism feed off each other,” and the resulting “fortunes and misfortunes of [Middle East] nationalism, of what can be called separatism and nativism, do not always make up a flattering story.” Salameh has reason to rail against the flattening consequences of Arabism, but forgetting fifteen centuries of history will serve the present now no more than the same exclusionary force of Arabism served the past. And because most literature worth its salt is self-reflective, even the authors Salameh quotes who were staunch supporters of the Anti-Arabism movement were not anti-Arab.
Adonis (featured in the anthology), for example, reminds readers:
The Ottomans used to say: Westerners are backward. After the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, Westerners took the place of the Ottomans, repeating the same clichés: Muslims are backward barbarians, and we the Westerners are civilized; we’re more human!
Salameh’s intimations that Arabs defiled the humanism of the Levant reveals more about his own position than about the people of the Middle East or the writers he translates. If he were to have begun with the texts, rather than his own philosophy—or, perhaps more realistically, if he had allowed the texts to challenge his personal position, as Di Cintio does—the result would surely be different.
What everyone agrees on is that literature can and will expand how we think about the Middle East. Di Cintio, who does not read or speak Arabic, offers an excellent account of a view where “[t]he stories of the books themselves proved as compelling as the stories they contain.” His accounts and reflections of writers and their world are stunning—but he has neglected the texts. Sadly, he incorrectly describes two classics of Palestinian letters by one of the founders of modern Palestinian literature Ghassan Kanafani. The titular protagonists of his foundational work, Men in the Sun, perish in a tanker truck on the way to Kuwait, not Iraq as Di Cintio writes, and the aging couple from Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa are, in the chaos of 1948, separated from their five-month-old son—not their five-year-old, as Di Cintio states. (The infant is raised by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust death camps, and the short but powerful novella is about the encounter of biological and adoptive parents, and it is an excellent read.) In the U.K. edition of Pay No Heed published by London-based Saqi Books, which specializes in Middle Eastern work, many such inaccuracies have been corrected. This is good news.
The book’s intercontinental revisions remind us of a broader truth here: that no work is ever perfect, and that the ideas in books are also not necessarily complete—much like our ideas about the world. The story of Palestine and indeed the Middle East more broadly is, as Di Cintio muses, “an unfinished novel…generations long, and counting, with no denouement. It is a poem that never ends…[It] is something physical that exists in the present tense.” In an essay written in French a decade earlier, Adonis agrees: “identity is a never-ending work in progress, a work in progress that defies death and goes on ever after.”