Appearing at the Emirates Literary Festival last week, in a talk about Arabic literature, we caught up with the Palestinian author to get his views on how Arabic culture can be spread through literature and if Arabic literature will ever resonate in other cultures across the world.
What characteristics does an ‘Arab novel’ have?
Three main characteristics: the experience of living in the city and the transformation of the Arab middleclass since the end of World War II. The fatal crises Arab citizens have faced in conflicts, and a kind of autobiographical writing and narrative style, which has rapidly spread in the past 20 years. The ‘Arab novel’ is definitely choosing new forms of writing and content, so I would say it is still in a self-discovery phase.
How do they translate to an international audience and how many people read Arab novels?
The Arab novel is not as popular as the Latin novel which is based on mystic realism and has attracted a European reader. You’ll rarely find a British person in a public place reading an Arabic novel. During my 17 years in London, I saw two or three readers holding an Arab novel on the subway. One lady was reading a novel by Nawal Al Sadawi and another was reading a Naguib Mahfouz novel. Translated Arabic novels are rare but have risen due to the growing Western interest in the Arab world and the Arab/Israeli conflict, the growth of fundamental Islamic movements and the spread of terrorism. Though, you could spot a dozen British readers holding The Alchemist or Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred years of Solitude – perhaps the West is incapable of absorbing the Arab style of novel.
How can we turn the rest of the world on to Arab literature then?
We can’t isolate literature and cultural production. Arabs contribute poorly to global civilization. Also, we should not forget that Arab novels are rarely even read by Arabic speakers because of illiteracy issues, and that the educated do not desire to read, unlike in the West. However, the latest global interest in the Arab Novel has opened the door for cultural meetings and literary festivals which are now introducing Arabic literature.
Tell us about your latest work, what you are writing at the moment?
I am working on a second novel, discussing the same theme as A Woman from Tel Aviv, on the Arab/Israeli conflict and the changes in Palestinian identity. In this new novel, the story is about a young Palestinian man who was forced, like thousands of Palestinians, to migrate. The novel discusses the changes in their personalities, family and their fate.