Heads nodded in agreement, but the mood was somber. Halim Barakat had just kicked off a two-day conference on the Arab novel by noting that more than 100 Arabic novels had been translated into English. Alas, he said, they were seldom reviewed in literary journals, nor could you easily find them in your neighborhood bookstore.
Interest had grown, to be sure, after September 11, but mainly in works of non-fiction. When Americans did read Arabic novels in translation, they were seeking answers to burning questions about the Arab culture, rather than appreciating the novels as art for art's sake.
"Arab novels remain unknown, overlooked, undiscovered in America," Barakat told a distinguished group of Arab and Arab-American writers, academics, critics, and students gathered at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies this past April for a conference titled, "The Arab Novel: Visions of Social Reality."
Barakat, who teaches sociology, Arabic literature, and contemporary Arab society at Georgetown University, is the author of several nonfiction books as well as novels such as "Days of Dust" (1974) and "Six Days" (1990), which have been translated into English. A third novel, "The Crane," will be published in spring 2003 by Syracuse University Press, Barakat announced, describing the book as "an odyssey of self-discovery" that traced his roots back to the small Syrian village of his birth.
Throughout many parts of the Arab world, the novel has displaced poetry as the preferred literary form, but in the United States - more so than in Europe - Arabic literature has failed to attract much of a mainstream audience. Moreover, Arab-American writers still face an uphill battle to even get their books published, presenters said.
Of course, noted Roger Allen, a professor of Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania, poetry was still the preferred medium of Arab writers in times of despair. "Yes, the Arab novel is ascending," Allen said on the sidelines of the conference. "But you can't turn away from poetry completely. Poetry still is the voice of the Arab world in crisis."
Aida Bamia, who received her doctorate in Arabic literature from the University of London, agreed, noting that novels were playing an increasingly important role in Arabic culture, partly because they are easier to write, easier to read, and do not require such an exquisite command of the language as writing poetry.
"A weak poem cannot survive, whereas a novel that has areas of weakness can still endure," said Bamia, who teaches Arabic language and literature at the University of Florida.
Barakat also argued that novels were becoming more popular partly because so many Arab writers had been displaced or exiled from their native homes - not only enmeshing them in disjointed, complicated, and multiple identities, but also allowing them to "see things more objectively from a distance."
"The fact is, we are more likely to identify with our culture by criticizing it," Barakat said. "The reality of the Arab novel is one of diverse realities," Barakat added. "Arab writers and novelists are the revealers of those intimate secrets that others keep for themselves."
Elias Khoury, the Lebanese author of 10 novels, including "A Perfume of Paradise," "Bab Al-Shams," and "The Small Mountain," traced the development of the novel in Lebanon, noting that the narrative form had become dominant only late in the 1970s, driven in part by novelists' attempts to make sense of the Lebanese Civil War.
Clearly there had been earlier novels, including "Men in the Sun," published by Ghassan Kanafani in 1963, but Khoury said the novel's ascendancy become possible only after the dominant ideology - which gave poetry a primary role - had been totally destroyed, along with the image of a mythical Lebanon.
Nor was the birth of the novel era without its labor pains, he said, noting that he had received much criticism for daring to put Christians and Muslims in his books - and to name them as such. Until then, he said, writers had chosen only neutral names, preferring not to grapple with the reality of the Lebanese situation.
Miriam Cooke, who has written extensively on Arab women writers and their works on war, noted that such works were often used "as a window on human motivation, either to do harm or to do good."
Bamia compared Algerian and Palestinian war novels, finding some similarities and one critical difference - while the Algerian war of independence was long since won, the Palestinian struggle for sovereignty remained unresolved, leaving literary interpretations of the struggle "in flotation mode."
The Algerian war novel, Bamia argued, was inspired by events that have a beginning and an end. The Palestinian novel is concerned with the battle fought on the ground and in the mind, highlighting themes of endurance, resilience, and, increasingly, the simultaneous struggle of Palestinian women against a highly patriarchal culture.
Barakat argued that the Arab novel already was and would become increasingly distinct from Western novels due to the particularities of Arab history, with a more fluid sense of identity than often seen in Western novels. "The Arab novel sees identity as a being in a state of becoming, as opposed to already being formed and constant," Barakat told a panel titled, "Masked Identity: The Novel as Autobiography."
"Serious writers living in exile often have to search for a new identity," he said. "Some others have become marginal to both their adopted culture and their Arab homeland," though he noted that in Arab countries, writers have often found themselves marginalized as well. Barakat said in his own experience, writing was "about defining my Arab identity," but he noted that 30 years in America had left him neither assimilated nor displaced. His books were highly autobiographical, he said, admitting that in several cases he had tried to change the names of people and places - only to go back and revert to the originals because the deception made him uncomfortable.
Nawal el Saadawi, a last-minute addition to the panel, said she had successfully avoided writing strict autobiography for years, but felt compelled to delve into her own history more explicitly while she was living in the United States after the Gulf War.
Involuntary memories of living under British occupation in her native Egypt started to emerge, spurring her into action. El Saadawi said she might have been compelled to write her autobiography, but there was no doubt that the work was in many ways more difficult than writing pure fiction, even if the fiction was inspired by autobiographical events.
"We need more courage to write about ourselves," said el Saadawi, who is now teaching at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She has come to perceive a certain "hollowness of the novel. Fiction began to seem more and more boring to me," she said. El Saadawi's multi-part autobiography is entitled "A Daughter of Isis" and it was published by Zed Books in 1999 and 2002. (See Al Jadid, Vol. 5, No. 29).
"We have to write anything we want. That's our freedom. That's our only freedom," el Saadawi told the rapt audience.
By far the most controversial speaker, el Saadawi began her remarks by criticizing the "mental masturbation with no heart" of literary critics, as well as the highbrow and often impenetrable language of post-modernity.
"I stopped reading criticism," el Saadawi confessed. "It affects me as a writer. It kills creativity."
She read a paper weaving together her own memories of living as a young girl in British-occupied Egypt with the story of an 18-year-old Palestinian woman who exploded herself at an Israeli checkpoint in April. The girl's photograph, published in newspapers around the world, would not let her go, el Saadawi confessed. "I remember my face in the mirror when I was her age, eyes wide open to the tragedy of life half a century ago."
She remembered how as a young girl she too dreamed of killing the British soldiers who held her native Egypt captive. She too could have destroyed her own life - and theirs - if she had been humiliated and strip-searched at a checkpoint, el Saadawi said.
"There is no pain like the humiliation of a violation of the body," she said, telling how she lay awake at night, thinking of the young suicide bomber. "She is alive in my memory. I dress her again and again and again. I could gather her fragmented parts. I must keep her alive against the will of God."
But el Saadawi acknowledged that writing itself symbolized a certain luxury. "In real life it is the blood and the flesh that count," she said. "We cannot write if we are hungry or cold or threatened by a tank in the occupied land."
Casting Aside Genre
Allen argued against strict categorization of novels and a preoccupation with fixing its genre, saying this was inherently futile since the novel's "primary subject" was change. "Genre is primarily a question of efficiency - an area of interest mainly to booksellers and librarians," Allen quipped. "If we talk about narrative, we can liberate ourselves," he said.
Diana Abu-Jaber, the Arab-American author of "Arabian Jazz," also rejected any effort to focus too closely on genre. She has often found her first novel - which narrates the adventures of a Palestinian/Jordanian immigrant and jazz musician and his two daughters - shelved with music books in bookstores she visited.
Her forthcoming novel, "Crescent," due to be published by Norton in spring 2003, deals extensively with food and may very well find itself shelved in the cooking section. Abu-Jaber is also currently working on a new book that mixes traditional Arabic recipes with memoir, another genre-crossing literary work.
"We should be generous," Barakat responded when asked about whether he would identify certain autobiographical works as novels. "I am opposed to a preconceived notion of what is a novel. It changes from generation to generation," he told the conference. Far more important than the categorization of works of literature was their meaning, he said.
Moreover, the lines are often blurred - even between novels and poetry. "I see some novels as being poetry and a novel as the same time," he said.
And when he read a few lines of his new book, "The Crane," first in Arabic, then English, Barakat's point became clear. While his words came in the form of a narrative, their resonance was clearly poetic.
El Saadawi also argued against a strict separation of fact from fiction or any rigid insistence on the sanctity of fact. "What happened in the past is not important, what is important is the sense of what happened."
Abu-Jaber, whose writing has a strong autobiographical feel, acknowledged that many of her characters had their genesis in her own life, but said that once on paper they often take on a life - and a direction - all their own.
Lack of Arab-American Novels
Abu-Jaber, whose novel "Arabian Jazz" was the first Arab-American novel widely distributed in the United States , raised earnest questions about censorship, discrimination, and racial obstacles to publishing in the United States with a case study about the unsuccessful odyssey of her second novel, "Memories of Birth." While "Arabian Jazz" had adopted a light-hearted, humorous tone, "Memories of Birth" represented a move to a more mature voice as she attempted to narrate the expulsion of Palestinians from what became Israel in 1948.
But Abu-Jaber said she reluctantly removed many references to Israel from the manuscript as questions arose and obstacles to its publication sprang up one by one.
Even an upsurge of interest in all things Arab, Muslim, or Middle Eastern after September 11 had not made much difference, she told a panel on the Arab-American novel.
"It hasn't really been a throwing open of the door. It's a sliver of light," she told the audience.
Elmaz Abinader, the author of "The Children of the Roojme: A Family's Journey from Lebanon ," agreed, noting that she resented being asked to write essays that were intended to "humanize the Arabs. Yani, what does that make us?"
Even when the walls of censorship parted to allow some Arab Americans to publish, those writers faced more criticism and backlash from the Arab-American community - especially the first generation, the presenters agreed.
Humor was particularly difficult for some first-generation immigrants to accept, Abu-Jaber said, adding, "Only people who feel safe can laugh at themselves."
Gregory Orfalea, co-editor of the groundbreaking anthology, "Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry," said his family had arrived in America as early as 1878. "We have as much right to crack a joke as anybody else."
He said it was clear that audiences were far more receptive to Arab culture in Europe and elsewhere overseas, but until now, there had been little carryover to the United States.
Even the rising popularity of multi-ethnic literatures has focused primarily on Asian-American and Hispanic-American cultures, the presenters agreed.
"Perhaps," questioned Ferial Ghazooul, who teaches comparative literature at the American University of Cairo , "people in the Arab-American community don't read as much as they should?"
In an interview (see Al Jadid, Vol. 8, no. 39), Abu-Jaber said she had actually been far better received in the Middle East than in the United States. In Damascus, one reading drew hundreds and hundreds of students - many clutching bootleg copies of her book for signing. Some forward young men even presented her with photographs of themselves with their names and telephone numbers scrawled on the backs.
While audiences in the United States were often critical of the way she portrayed Arab Americans, Arab audiences in the Middle East saw her narrative "as just one more story. It was a real welcoming experience for me. It didn't feel as complicated or as dangerous as the stuff that comes up for me from American or Arab-American critics," she said. "There's just a lot more tolerance for a diverse experience. When you feel like you're part of a mosaic, it seems to me that people can be much more accepting, and there's a lot less pressure put on you to somehow tell the right story, or tell it in the right way."
Orfalea, who is hoping to publish a novel, "A Good Man in Gomorrah," next year, said Arab-American writers needed the freedom to write about other themes - beside the Arab-American experience. "We should be free to explore other things without our ethnic skin," he said.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 8, no. 40, Summer 2002).
Copyright © 2002 by Al Jadid