Asharq Alawsat runs a somewhat peculiar essay (one of a three-part series) on the Arab novel in the West. This essay focuses on how Americans approach the topic. Part one is pan-European; part two, French.

I say peculiar because it is remarkably simplistic but also misses a very simple factor. The American expert consulted for the piece — Elliott Colla, from Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arabic Studies — argues that American isolationism plays a large role in the lack of appreciation for Arab novels. He throws in a bit of Marxist analysis of the American publishing business, and notes that Americans like to find themselves in foreign novels.

What he appears to miss entirely is the subject of accessibility. Perhaps as a result of isolationism, American readers have a hard time engaging in the utterly strange. When they do want that, there’re a genre, Science Fiction, that fills the void. To be dropped into a strange milieu, one with strange customs and behavior; one with unstated social, religious, and political conventions; one with a particular parsing of history, is to be cast adrift in a stormy sea. Those conventions are understood by the Arabic reader. They are opaque to the American reader. Arabic culture is very different from American culture and it takes some learning of it before one can begin to understand it, never mind enjoy reading about it.

That said, certain Arab writers have found some success in America. Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is accessible for the most part. His stories of the life of simple people in the warrens of Cairo are understandable by all. Tayib Saleh, the Sudanese author, again relied on universal simplicity — though a bit more culturally complex — to make his writing accessible. But when Arab novelists use their writings as roman à clef, disguised writing to implicate current politics, politicians, social and religious issue (as they so often do), they become impenetrable to those outside the culture. Again, Science Fiction is easier to get a handle on, even if the protagonists are alien beings from a different planet.

The American Reader Seeking the Arab “Other”
Raba’i Al-Madhoun

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—It is hardly a stretch to say that over the last dozen years, Americans have had a tense and complicated relationship with Arabs and the Middle East. This has undoubtedly impacted the availability and popularity of Arabic novels in the United States. But Elliott Colla, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University and translator of Arabic novels including Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron, and Idris Ali’s Poor English, goes further. Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, he explains that Americans generally seek out literature that is written from an American viewpoint and that expresses particular narratives:

“The first thing to know about American readers is that for the most part, they are not looking at Arabic novels. American audiences are famous for their indifference toward literature that was not written in English. About 2 percent of the titles published in the US are translated from other languages. And only 2 percent of this tiny number come from Arabic. Which is to say, for every ten thousand books published in English, about four were translated from Arabic. Unlike so many other literary cultures—like Spanish or French or Arabic—where translated titles routinely make a major impact in terms of sensibility and style, Americans basically read only themselves. So, in this sense, Americans really are exceptional—not that isolation is something to brag about.

July:21:2013 - 06:18 | Comments & Trackbacks (10) | Permalink
10 Responses to “Reading about “The Other””
  1. 1
    Lola Said:
    July:21:2013 - 09:25 

    I’m confused. The first part of the essay says: “In the first of a four-part series” and the third part says: “The final part of our series on the Arabic novel in the West…. This is the final part in our series on the Arabic novel in Europe and America. The first and second parts can be read here and here respectively.”

    What happened to the fourth part?

    I loved Girls of Riyadh!

    “Originally released in Arabic in 2005, Girls of Riyadh was immediately banned in Saudi Arabia due to controversial and inflammatory content. Black-market copies of the novel circulated and Girls of Riyadh has been a bestseller across much of the Middle East. As of January 2008, English copies of Girls of Riyadh are openly available at major bookstores in Saudi Arabia. The book, published by Penguin Books, is available in the English translation, but has some changes due to difficulties of re-creating the effect of using different dialects of Arabic.”

    “The book is widely distributed, being sold in stores from U.S. to Europe.”

    “The English translator, Marilyn Booth, expressed dissatisfaction with the end result of the translation project. According to Booth, the publishing house and author interfered with her initial translation to the detriment of the final text.”

    “Note on the translation: In a letter to the editor published in the 28 September issue of the TLS co-translator Marilyn Booth explains:”

    “When I submitted the translation to Penguin, complete except for Saudi vernacular terms with which the author had promised to help me, I was informed that the author intended to rewrite it, and thereafter I was kept entirely out of the process. The resulting text, with its clichéd language, erasures of Arabic idioms I had translated, and unnecessary footnotes, does not reflect the care that I took to produce a lively, idiomatic translation conveying the novel’s tone and language, which are crucial to its critique of (globalized) Saudi society. Of course, my decision to retain my name on the title page (the only decision about the text’s final shape that the publisher allowed me!) means that I remain partly responsible for a work that I was given no authority, ultimately, to craft.”

    “It is unfortunate that a novel which works partly through humour, punning and multilingual wordplay has been “cleaned up” by the Arabic text’s author.”

    “Girls of Riyadh” – The Movie

    American film director Todd Nims has announced that he intends to make a film based on the controversial novel Girls of Riyadh by Saudi author Rajaa Alsanea, and that he was looking for sources of funding among Saudi production companies.

    The book, about four Saudi girls looking for love, sparked an uproar in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab world, and at the time of its publication Saudi citizens filed a lawsuit against the author for harming the good name of Riyadh girls.

    Source:, February 4, 2008

    Ultimately the author declined a movie deal. Too bad.

    Rajaa al-Sanea, Saudi author of the highly debated book Girls of Riyadh, is today a practicing dentist.

    Despite her fame, she does not hide her frustration at the possibilities of a successful literary career in the Arab world. “Even the monetary compensation is absent; I only receive my royalties as a writer from the translations, not from the original Arabic version.”

    Six years since Girls of Riaydh (Dar Al-Saqi, Beirut), now in its seventh edition, al-Sanea says that she has grown past her novel.

    In the meantime, al-Sanea is preparing a new novel for next year, reflecting the changes surrounding her life these days.

    Could be interesting!

  2. 2
    Solomon2 Said:
    July:21:2013 - 12:13 

    “…when Arab novelists use their writings as roman à clef, disguised writing to implicate current politics, politicians, social and religious issue (as they so often do), they become impenetrable to those outside the culture. ”

    The authors, if they wish, could clear things up by publishing the “keys” separately or declaring who-is-who in media interviews.

    Which sci-fi novels or movies do you have in mind as a model for Arab culture, John?

  3. 3
    John Burgess Said:
    July:21:2013 - 15:45 

    @Lola: And of course one of the ‘girls’ of Riyadh is the child of an expat mother and Saudi father. She provides one hook for the foreign reader.

    @Solomon2: I’m not proposing a model. I’m saying that if one wants strange and different cultures in novels, the niche is already taken by SF.

    Of course, Frank Herbert, in his Dune novels, borrowed heavily from Arab culture, but that’s a somewhat different thing. There are a lot of futuristic dystopias that include virulent forms of Islam, though virulent forms of Christianity also make their appearances.

  4. 4
    Jerry M Said:
    July:23:2013 - 10:18 

    When you consider that very few people in the publishing business know Arabic, it is easy to understand why few publishers choose to publish Arab novels in the US.

  5. 5
    Andrew Said:
    July:23:2013 - 16:04 

    I have worked in publishing in the West.

    The middle-literature literature is the most commercially valuable type.

    And romance novels are the largest type of all book sales, followed by mysteries

    One cannot realistically translate any romance novels from our nation into Western language and generate sales. And mysteries are generally also not usable for sales in the West after translation.

    The cultural assumptions that underlie our society would make a Saudi romance translated into English not usable for sales.

    And a Western romance translated into Arabic would be not usable for sales without severe editing or censorship.

  6. 6
    Tom Lippman Said:
    July:23:2013 - 16:58 

    For anyone really interested in this subject, I recommend the Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, a hefty anthology of modern Arabic fiction by authors from most of the Arab countries. A few of the writers are fairly well known in the West, such as Tawfik al-Hakim and Naguib Mahfouz, but most were unknown to me. I was amazed at how many of the selections are about sex and its consequences, physical and social.

  7. 7
    Solomon2 Said:
    July:23:2013 - 21:39 

    The Anchor Book is pretty much all that’s available in my local library. My suspicion – maybe Andrew can confirm this – is that it is so skewed towards being “usable for sales” that it isn’t very representative of the culture it’s supposed to depict.

  8. 8
    Andrew Said:
    July:24:2013 - 16:56 


    I agree that works that are popular amongst our population are not translated into Western languages, and would not be commercially viable if translated.

    Translations tend to be of high-brow culture for specialised audiences.

    Our populace, like all others, is not filled with those who read high-brow literature.

  9. 9
    Solomon2 Said:
    July:24:2013 - 18:33 


    Are you sure about the “commercially viable” bit? Why are there so many English authors whose works are translated into a hundred languages? Don’t you know that J.K. Rowling was rejected by a dozen publishers before one was willing to take her on? And even then, only because the person assigned to read it told her boss she’d resign if he didn’t publish it. Could it just be lack of nerve on the part of the publisher?

  10. 10
    John Burgess Said:
    July:24:2013 - 20:55 

    @Solomon@: I think it’s more market assessment than a matter of courage. How many books of translated Lithuanian, Burmese, and Ashanti poetry do you read every year? Were I a publisher, I wouldn’t risk a penny on Arabic literature, high- or low-brow.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

antalya escortizmir escort
  • Advertising Info

    Interested in sponsoring Crossroads Arabia? Contact me for more information.

  • Copyright Notice

    All original materials copyright, 2004-2014. Other materials copyrighted by their respective owners.

    The fact that this blog permits one to use RSS to read content does not constitute permission to republish content. All requests for republication must be submitted through the Contact form on the menu above. Violations of copyright will be dealt with through applicable law.