Embargoed Literature

Article excerpt

Embargoed Literature

Eight years before Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a major New York commercial publisher known for his liberal and unprovincial views asked me to suggest some Third World novels for translation and inclusion in a series be was planning. The list I gave him was headed by two or these of Mahfouz's works, none of which was then in circulation in the United States. True, there were a few novels by the Egyptian master available in England, but these has never gained entry into the United States, and even in Europe were principally known only by a few students of Arabic. Several weeks after I submitted my list I inquired which novels has been chosen, only to be informed that the Mahfouz translations would not be undertaken. When I asked why, I was given an answer that has haunted me ever since. "The problem," I was told, "is that Arabic is a controversial language."

What, exactly, the publisher meant is still a little vague to me--but that Arabs and their language were somehow not respectable, and consequently dangerous, louche, unapproachable, was perfectly evident to me then and, alas, now. For of all the major world literatures, Arabic remains relatively unknown and unread in the West, for reasons that are unique, even remarkable, at a time when tastes here for the non-European are more developed than ever before and, even more compelling, contemporary Arabic literature is at a particularly interesting juncture.

An amusing sign of the disparity between the interest taken in Arabic literature and that in other literatures outside the Atlantic world can be seen in the treatment afforded Mahfouz and his work in English after he won the Nobel in 1988. Doubleday acquired the rights to much of his work and a few months ago began to introduce a handful of his stories and novels, including the first volume of his major work, the Cairo Trilogy, in what appeared to be new editions. In fact, with one exception the translations were exactly the ones that had been available all along in England, some quite good but most either indifferent or poor. Clearly the idea was to capitalize on and market his new fame, but not at the cost of a retranslation.

Second, and more comically symptomatic, half a dozen profiles of Mahfouz appeared in American magazines, including Vanity, Fair, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. In effect, they were the same article rewritten over and over. Each talked about his favorite cafe, his modesty, his position on Israel (in the second sentence of its story on his Nobel Prize, The New York Times thoughtfully expressed the opinion of the Israel consul in New York), his orderly and extremely uninteresting life. All of the authors, some of them reasonably accomplished essayists, were innocent of both Arabic and Arabic literature. (In The New Yorker, Milton Viorst delivered himself of the thought that "Arabic, an imprecise language, requires most writers to choose between poetry and clarity.") All regarded Mahfouz as a hybrid of cultural oddity and political symbol. Little was said about his formal achievements, for instance, or about his place in modern literature as a whole.

Third, now that the act has worn thin, Mahfouz has more or less been dropped from discussion--without having provoked even the more venturesome literati into finding out which other writers in Arabic might be worth looking into. Where, after all, did Mahfouz come from? It is impossible not to believe that one reason for this odd state of affairs is the longstanding prejudice against Arabs and Islam that remains entrenched in Western, and especially American, culture. Here the "experts" on Islam and the Arabs bear considerable blame. Their socalled doyen, Bernard Lewis, still blathers on in places like The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and The American Scholar about the darkness and strangeness of Muslims, Arabs, their culture, religion, etc. …