A long-lasting Arabic love

Dr Peter Clark says the Gulf has a rich tradition of literature. However, many prominent Arab writers now live outside the region.

A long-lasting  Arabic love

A "threatened species" was how Arabic books were described by the vice-president of the Arab Publishers Union in the United Nations Arab Human Development Report of 2003.

Fathi Al Biss wrote that censorship, low readership and copyright violations were among the major factors contributing to the "crisis" in Arabic literature.

As the number of Arabic readers continues to dwindle, bestseller lists at Arabic bookstores display voices of dissent and controversy, many of which have been shunned by critics as sensationalist "pulp". while few works of "real literature" receive recognition.

At the same time, those who have tasked themselves with safeguarding the language fight against its corruption as the forces of globalisation and the internet slip foreign words into the vernacular, and increasingly into writing and literature, which Arabic speakers gradually get accustomed to.

But one specialist in Middle Eastern culture is more optimistic about the status and future of Arabic writing. Dr Peter Clark, a Middle Eastern culture specialist who is a consultant for the Booker Prize Foundation and the Emirates Foundation on an upcoming prize for Arab fiction, says there are "hundreds" of Arab writers in the making.

In a recent interview, Clark spoke to Gulf News about the changes and trends in Arabic literature.

What change has Arabic literature witnessed in recent times?

The mood in Arab fiction has seen a change after three decades of polarisation on victimhood. Although it is totally understandable, especially since the Arab world has been pushed aside, it can get a little boring after 30 years.

Arab literature of the Sixties was inward looking and sociological; never in a universal setting. It was a generation whose identity was everything.

Most writers wrote about themselves or their surrounding environment which left the readership restricted to only those who had an interest in the Middle East.

The changing trends in Arab writing over the decades can be demonstrated in the writings of Iraqi poet and writer Nazik Al Mala'ika, who died in Cairo last month. In the 1940s and 1950s, Nazik's writing had a nationalistic and revolutionary message.

She was full of hope and experimentation. Then, as things got sour and she had to leave Iraq, she slowly dried up. The older she got the less optimistic she became. Perhaps she no longer had a message of hope.

In the last ten years however, Arabic writing has seen emancipation from the 1960s generation and moved into universal topics that anyone can relate to — away from the "us and them" perspective. And despite the instability in the region, works of Arab fiction continue to be produced.

Many prominent Arabic writers are expatriate Arabs who are settled in the West. Top class writers such as Tayeb Saleh, Ahdaf Soueif, Fadi Yousef and Amjad Naser all write from London and are highly regarded within the Arab world.

How are the writings of Arabs abroad different from those who are writing in the Arab world and how are they received?

There is an enormous amount of Arab creativity coming from outside the region which has moved away from the trend of conflict and victimhood.

Diasporic Arab writers don't look over their shoulders as much as those writing in their home countries. They don't have to worry about censorship or the local reaction. Although some have faced criticism and resentment in the Arab world for "escaping", others have high reputations and are valued writers.

Some of the diasporic writers do have an audience in their adopted countries, especially those who write in their adopted language or have had their work translated into it. In the United Kingdom, Arabs have made it big writing novels, whereas Arabs in the United States have gained prominence writing poetry.

There is growing interest in translations of Arabic works in the United Kingdom. We are moving beyond a relationship based on the gun and the purse and there is a realisation that the two regions have more in common.

What effect does the flight of the writers have on Arabic literature? Will their identities fade in subsequent generations?

The character and identity of Arab literature does not necessarily have to be associated with a place. There are vibrant Arab communities in European and North American cities whose identities are intact.

Although the talents of Arabic writing will probably not last beyond the first generation, the Arab identity and consciousness can be passed on. Expressions of Arab consciousness do not have to be restricted to a single language either.

Second- or third-generation Arab writers may write in their adopted language but they tend to touch on their roots and identity in their work. This is not a unique process among immigrant communities. It is part of 21st century globalisation.

For example, Arab American poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye and Nathalie Handal write in English, but they often write about Arab-related issues.

It is not uncommon for Arab writers to have lived and written in other countries though. Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani spent his last few years in Lebanon, and Syrian poet Adonis lives in Europe.

How does political or religious extremism in society affect writing in the Arab world?

Extremism hardly stops writers from penning their thoughts. Determined writers will write no matter what the conditions of their surroundings.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, many manuscripts surfaced written by writers who would not have published their work under Saddam. Many would write and just keep their work on the shelves. That work is coming out now.

Extremism is a challenge to writing but it varies from country to country. With the advent of the internet however, it has become easier for many people to express themselves.

How has Gulf-Arab fiction progressed in recent years?

Novel writing is relatively new to the Gulf, but the region is now witnessing a rise in fiction. Storytelling has been a longstanding tradition in the Gulf that is now being put into writing.

Last year for example, Saudi writers published 64 works of fiction, 20 of which were authored by women.

The UAE Writers Union has also been doing a splendid job in preserving Emirati writing.

I believe they have published about 200 titles by Emirati writers, mostly short stories, in the last 20 years.

This is aided by the fact that the leadership in the UAE has been promoting a plurality of views. You shouldn't be frightened by ideas that are not your own.

I believe, however, that it is important to make available translations of the Gulf's Nabati poetry for the outside world to better understand the region since it is such an important part of the Gulf's tradition. Because it is recited in Bedouin Arabic, it is difficult to understand by those unfamiliar with the dialect.

How do you feel about the status of the Arabic language today?

Arabic is on the defensive in environments that are dominated by the English language, such as the UAE. We can try to encourage Arabic reading by publishing more attractive Arabic books or perhaps books that have Arabic on one side and English on the other.

It is also important not to resist change in the language. Arabic is a flexible language that has always been ready to adapt, so one has to accept that there will be changes.

Colloquial dialects are significant too, and have a place in literature. Najeeb Mahfouz, for example, alternated between classical and colloquial Arabic in his books according to the background of his characters. Gulf Nabati poetry too is in a dialect that would not necessarily be understandable to the average Arab.

A strong Arab connection

Having lived and travelled extensively in the UAE for four years while working for the British Council, Dr Peter Clark now visits the country often to advise the Emirates Foundation on their strategy in dealing with literacy and literature in the UAE as well as the upcoming Booker Prize-affiliated award, the International Prize for Arab Fiction.

While in the UAE, he visits literary institutions like the UAE Writers Union as well as libraries and book stores to assist his recommendations to the Foundation.

"For example, I've recommended holding a literature festival in the UAE that would feature Arab, English and Asian literature. We can work to make it a prominent festival," he said.

Clark dismisses the criticism that the prize for Arab fiction would bring to further prominence writers that are already well established in the Arab world, saying that that was not the case with the Commonwealth version of the Booker or the Russian and African versions.

He also maintains that the prize would reward those writers who show a real talent in writing. "It may be that the merit of some popular books in Arabic is that they are controversial but I expect and hope that the judges would have a sense of responsibility in choosing the winner."

Expressing confidence that the prize will find winners every year, he says there is no shortage of Arab writers whose talents can be acknowledged. "Arab literary figures are in the making — hundreds of them. Such prizes will also evoke an interest in Arabic literature and promote good writing and critical reading."

Decline of a literary tradition

Ali Haredi, owner, Dar Al Ma'aref Bookshop, Al Mamzar, Dubai
There just aren't any readers left here anymore. I have over 10,000 titles and I sell an average of two books a month or a maximum of five. Sometimes, I have to sell at 25 per cent below the cost price. My business was thriving in the 1980s when most of my customers were Emirati readers. Today, they have all disappeared. I have a few Sudanese, Iraqi and Lebanese regulars. Everyone else seems more concerned about making money.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to run bookstores now. This is obviously not my primary source of income. The solution is to stop treating bookstores like regular businesses and perhaps subsidise them. We contribute to the cultural landscape here. Restaurants and clothing stores can close and open again but every closing bookstore is a tragic cultural setback for any city.

Muhtab Arabiat, books department manager, Virgin Megastore, Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

Despite carrying just under 10,000 Arabic titles, Arabic books constitute the smallest proportion of our book sales at around 8 per cent., while French books would come close at 8-11 per cent. The rest of our sales are in English books.

Most of our Arab customers buy English books and many prefer to read English translations. The reason for the decline in popularity of Arabic books is probably because the publishers don't market them well or don't send the authors on tours. Besides, the dominance of English in our media as well as that of colloquial Arabic is making classical Arabic, in which most of the books are written, less attractive.

Most of our Arabic book buyers are tourists who are looking for books that are banned in their countries. The Arab reader is often looking for controversial subjects. It seems that some Arabic authors these days seek popularity through controversy.

A long-lasting love for Arabic

Dr Peter Clark translated his first Arabic book in Sudan in 1980, ten years after he started studying the language. Entitled "The Battle of Umm Durman", the book was a Sudanese narrative of the encounter between an Anglo-Egyptian army and Sudanese forces in 1898, better known in Sudan as the Karari battle.
He has worked for the British Council across seven Arab countries in 26 years.
He has translated eight Arabic books into English, based on personal interests, requests and commissioning. Two of them are non-fiction books.
Clark has been asked by the Booker Prize Foundation to look into the feasibility of launching a prize for Arabic fiction and is consulting the Emirates Foundation on it.
He has also written obituaries of Arab writers such as Nizar Qabbani and Mamdouh Adwan for The Guardian in the UK.

Gulf News

Güncelleme Tarihi: 24 Temmuz 2007, 17:37