The Gaps in the Arab Mosaic

A Plea for more translations of books from Arabic
By Hartmut Fähndrich

It’s long been a truism to claim that reading a novel about a particular society will tell you more about its origins than any amount of scholarly research. And so, how much more could we learn from reading three or even five novels, which would give us three or five views of – or from – that society? So we’re not doing literature an injustice, if we seek to gain from it information about other lands, worlds, peoples. Not as a documentary source, that’s quite another genre, but rather as a written, a writerly, introduction to another world, which is also a part of all our worlds.

Literature, and especially prose fiction, recounts different forms of human experience and social intercourse, it interprets the behaviour of individuals and groups, offers examples for understanding history, describes different expressions of joy and sorrow, hope and despair, enjoyment and abhorrence, love and hate… Every novel, every story, offers one tile in a mosaic, which, when placed next to all the others, creates a full picture. For, just as – to quote the Arabic saying – one hand alone cannot clap, equally one piece of the mosaic alone cannot create a picture. Thus, to perceive, perhaps even to understand, a different society, we need to read many stories both from and about that society. Journalists’ reports and items in the daily news aren’t enough. They’re too narrowly focused, too shortlived, and by and large don’t give us the inside story. The Arab world and its literature offer us an impressive body of support material – but ex negativo: there’s a drawback. The Arab world is broad and diverse. In order to create a reasonable picture of this world, to acquire even a hint of an understanding of it, we need – have always needed – a huge number of mosaic tiles. But glance through what’s on offer in any Western bookshop, especially in the German language, and it’s an alarming and sobering experience: the scant quantity of Arabic literature in translation only masks the danger, that the few will be taken as representative of the whole. But our expectations of literary works must also be appropriate: literature is just not reportage of what is currently happening, it is not to be equated with the countless numbers of diaries and blogs, which have been written about the events, famous now all over the world, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Literature interprets, and that takes time. Literature elaborates concepts, other worlds, and that requires a sense of distance. So when a publisher asks for the revolutionary novel about the Egyptian demonstrations a mere three months after they began, this is just as absurd as asking for the novel about the refugee crisis of September – October 2015 two months after it started. But by now there are countless novels and stories about what led up to these and many other events in the Arab world, but so much that might deepen our understanding of them remains untranslated and therefore out of reach to Western readers. Publishers’ interest here, if it exists at all, is much too short-term. A few examples from many… several of these are available in English, a few in French, but none in German. There’s the story of the Syrian civil servant, who, in order to satisfy a lifetime’s desire to sit next to his Minister just once, throws his morality overboard (Dîma Wannûs: KURSÎY (A Chair), Beirut 2009); or the village schoolteacher from Tunisia, who, quite out of the blue and with no personal involvement, is promoted to Minister and somehow has to cope with his new role (Hussain al-Wâd: SA’ÂDATUHU … AS-SAYYID AL-WAZÎR (His Excellency, the Minister), Tunis 2011). There’s the story of Moroccan parents, who imagine their son is studying in France, only to receive his death notice from Afghanistan (Muhammad al-Asch’ari: AL-QAWS WAL-FARÂSHA (The Arch and the Butterfly), Casablanca 2011); or the young Iraqi, who instead of studying Art, decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and prepare corpses for burial – and gets more and more work to do (Sinân Antûn: WAHDAHÂ SHAJARAT AR-RUMMÂN (The Pomegranate alone / The Corpse Washer), Beirut 2010). There’s also the story of a Saudi family, told by one of their sons, who has emigrated to the USA (Muhammad Hasan Alwân: AL-QUNDUS (The Beaver), Beirut 2011); and several tales of east Asian or African girls working as servants in well-to-do houses in Lebanon or the Gulf (Sa’ûd al-San’ûsi: SÂQ AL-BAMBÛ (The Bamboo Stalk), Beirut 2012 or Rashîd al-Daîf: HIRRAT SÎKÎRÎDÂ (Sikireeda’s Pussy), Beirut 2014). There are also countless historical novels and novels about history, which provide us with information about the region, or its historical perspectives: the whole epic history of Palestine before the founding of the Israeli state, written from the perspective of a Jordanian Palestinian (Ibrahîm Nasrallah: ZAMAN AL-KHUYÛL AL-BAYDÂ’ (Time of White Horses), Beirut / Algier 2007); or a novel about Aleppo, the city laid horribly to waste over the past few years, written by a Syrian (Nihad Sirîs: HÂLAT SHAGHAF (A Case of Passion), Beirut 1998). And there are many other novels that combine the historical with the fantastic, or even the macabre: the man from Bagdad, who constructs a new human being out of other people’s body parts (Ahmad Sa’dâwi: FRÂNKINSHTAYN FÎ BAGHDÂD (Frankenstein in Bagdad), Beirut, 2013); or another, in Cairo, who gets himself declared dead in order to enable his family to live off his life insurance (Muhammad Rabì‘: ´ÂM AT-TINNÎN (The Year of the Dragon), Kairo, 2012). These are many, too many missing pieces in the mosaic, so leaving the whole picture incomplete.

HARTMUT FÄHNDRICH was born in Tübingen, Germany, in 1944. From 1978 to 2014, he taught Arabic and Islamic Cultural History at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. He has also been a lecturer and held guest professorships at universities in Germany, France and Italy. He has been awarded several important prizes for his many translations of Arabic authors. In 2016, he received the Special Award for Translation from the Federal Office of Culture.