Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature

Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature

Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature

Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature


Since the work of Edward Said first appeared, countless studies have shown the ways in which Western writers--sometimes unwittingly--participate in the oversimplified East/West dichotomy of Orientalism. Yet no study has considered how writers from the so-called Orient approach this idea. A wide-ranging survey of the vast and diverse world of Anglophone Arab literature,Immigrant Narrativesexamines the complex ways in which Arab émigrés contend with, resist, and participate in the problems of Orientalism.

Hassan's account begins in the early twentieth century, as he considers the pioneering Lebanese American writers, Ameen Rihani and Kahlil Gibran. The former's seminal novel,The Book of Khalidsought to fuse Arabic and European literary traditions in search of a civilizational synthesis, whereas the latter found success by mixing Hindu, Christian, mystical, and English Romantic ideas into a popular spiritualism. Hassan then considers Arab immigrant life-writing, ranging from autobiographies by George Haddad and Abraham Rihbany to memoirs of exile by the Egyptian-born Leila Ahmed and Palestinian refugees like Fawaz Turki and Edward Said. Hassan considers issues of representation in looking to how Arab immigrant writers like Ramzi Salti and Rabih Alameddine use homosexuality to reflect on Arab typecasting. Ahdaf Soueif's fiction reflects her growing awareness of the politics of reception of Anglophone Arab women writers while Leila Aboulela's fiction, inspired by an immigrant Islamic perspective, depicts the predicament of the Muslim minority in Britain.

Drawing upon postcolonial, translation, and minority discourse theory,Immigrant Narrativesinvestigates how key writers have described their immigrant experiences, acting as mediators and interpreters between cultures, and how they have forged new identities in their adopted countries.


The idea of writing a book on Arab American and Arab British literature came to me nearly a decade ago, when, surveying publishers’ catalogues, I came across several new Arab novelists who wrote in English. I was aware of a handful of such writers, but the new names and titles, as well as the variety of themes and authors’ backgrounds, suggested to me that one could teach a whole course on Anglophone Arab writers. One reason for the appeal of that idea was the relative dearth, at that time, of good English translations of Arabic literary texts. the award of the Nobel Prize to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 had generated interest in Arabic literature, but with the exception of the iconic figures of Mahfouz, Nawal el-Saadawi, Tayeb Salih, and a few others, the enormous breadth and variety of one of the world’s great literatures was still woefully under-represented in English translation. the few writers who filtered through were, with few exceptions, subjected to unsatisfactory and sometimes even prejudicial translations that did more to reinforce than to dispel Orientalist stereotypes. the idea of Arab writers who communicated directly in English was, therefore, exhilarating. Another reason for my interest in those works was that I had for some years been working on Tayeb Salih, a Sudanese novelist who had immigrated to England in the early 1950s, where he wrote some of the most important works of modern Arabic fiction, works that were profoundly marked by his immigrant perspective. the question that the increasing number of Anglophone Arab novels suggested to me was, how would Salih’s works have been different had he written in English (and his English was flawless) instead of Arabic? While that question may be impossible to answer, this book examines how other Arab immigrants who have written in English weave their narratives.

As I began to research the field, I was struck by the sheer number of writers and works that have gone unnoticed and passed quietly out of print—an entire tradition of Arab American literature, in fact, stretching back to the early years of the twentieth century. That tradition was rarely mentioned in the by-then thriving fields of ethnic American, minority, and postcolonial studies, and outside the bounds of Arabic studies, which understandably focuses only on the vast field of literature written in the Arabic language. in other words, a whole tradition had simply fallen between the disciplinary cracks. and while the history of Arab immigration to the United States was well documented, the genesis of Arab American literature remained to be adequately charted. a few general overviews, studies of individual authors, and anthologies provided useful entry points into the subject, but no systematic account of the birth and development of a literature that was entering its second century had been attempted on any large scale. Given the . . .

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