Ever since the Arab world achieved political independence, its great hopes for self-determination and freedom have been built up and razed down several times over. Can this significant region and its many people be imagined beyond carnage, calamity, and ruin? Can this be done without sentimentalizing or wishing away the collective sense of doom permeating Arab everyday life? These questions are posed by contemporary Arab authors who are now receiving more attention and quality translations than ever before on the international literary stage.
Yet a modified version of this question should also be faced by those who approach Arabic literature in translation: How can we resist the temptation of picturing destruction and violence as our ghoulish other and learn about predicaments different from our own? How can we avoid “outsourcing” apocalyptic scenarios and armchair fascination with what’s beyond orderly life to the afflicted Middle East? How can the Arab story in its particularity be incorporated into the broader human story of the 20th century?
The region’s crises are tackled in three Arabic novels recently published in English that situate particular tragedies within thick cultural and human settings. The atrocities committed by Jewish forces in Palestinian Lydda are woven into a web of stories in Elias Khoury’s Children of the Ghetto: My Name is Adam—the sequel to his renowned Gate of the Sun—while, at the same time, Khoury constructs a rhetorical analogy with the horrors of the Second World War. The grievous striving of Iraqi writers is depicted in Sinan Antoon’s Book of Collateral Damage, so as to document their lives in history and save cultural memory from obliteration and anarchy. Both Antoon and Khoury take disaster as an ultimate unbound reality, the subject matter and justification for writing fiction. Their fictional worlds oscillate uneasily between extremities of sensationalism and deceptive ironies, consolations of culture and end-of-world apocalypticism.
By contrast, the Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim writes with deep skepticism about Arab apocalypticism as a form of self-glorification. In his novel Ice, Ibrahim removes his characters to the Soviet Union and plays their dreary existence in Brezhnev-era Moscow off against the breakout of the October War (1973). Arab defeat assumes a homely, refreshingly human proportion in his fiction.
Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun is the preeminent narrative to illuminate and venerate the story of the Palestinian people. So what need is there for a sequel? What grounds are there to cover after a novel that has been championed as the War and Peace of the Palestinian calamity?1
The story of the second novel goes like this. The book manuscript of Children of the Ghetto, according to Khoury, was actually not written by Khoury at all: instead, it was “delivered” to him. That’s what Khoury cleverly details in the novel’s opening frame story, in which he contemplates “stealing” the “found” manuscript to serve as a sequel to Gate of the Sun. Khoury decides in the end to let the manuscript’s fictive “author,” Adam Dannoun, take the credit for the publication, even though “Adam Dannoun” proclaims Khoury’s Gate of the Sun to be inferior to “his” own novel, Children of the Ghetto. With this structural device, Khoury will prevail over his fictive rival Dannoun (and his real-world critics): he will have his own sequel and disown its antecedent at the same time.
Children of the Ghetto enlarges the scope of Khoury’s—and Palestinians’—engagement with Israel. For starters, the identity of its narrator, Adam, is confusing; so confusing, in fact, that he only makes sense if one reads him as an amalgamate of real-life Arab-Israeli authors. For example: Adam ultimately dies in Manhattan, in a fire caused by falling asleep with a lit cigarette; this was exactly the fate of Rashid Hussein, the bilingual Palestinian poet and Arabic translator of H. N. Bialik. The book is full of similar homages, to Emile Habibi and to Anton Shammas, whose manners Adam lovingly imitates. Clearly, we are meant to read this novel as a faithful mirror to some kind of real world in which tragic universalism is embodied in characters that blend Jewish and Arab identities beyond recognition.
Most of the novel consists of Adam’s private notebooks retelling the violent occupation of Lydda. This part of the narrative culminates in a body-collecting operation. Titled “Sonderkommando,” this section laboriously connects the Lydda clean-up operation to the forced laborers in the Nazi concentration camps.
Analogies with the Shoah run through the entire novel. Such an analogy—between Palestinians suffering at the hands of Israelis and European Jews suffering at the hands of Nazis—is inspired from, and constructed by, Khoury’s readings in Hebrew literature: specifically, his long-time interest in S. Yizhar’s novella Khirbet Khizeh (1949), a Hebrew classic of self-reflexive conscientiousness to the events of 1948. In an interview, Khoury remarks that, in this novella, Yizhar shows how “the Jews created Jews of their own. Palestinians are the new Jews.” This remark is based on features of Yizhar’s metaphorical language that evoke, as some claim, Jewish transports in the Second World War. Rewriting Yizhar’s novella thus empowers Khoury’s sequel, as well as the sequel’s claims to independence from the first book.2
Such a comparison between Jews and Palestinians might well be considered scandalous, if not downright dangerous in geopolitical terms. But the real scandal is a literary one: Khoury’s inability to depict the real-life horrors of Palestinians without analogies—as in the “Sonderkommando” passage—that directly equate Palestinians with prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. It is a profound failure of the imagination, the kind of imagination that Khoury once provided in Gate of the Sun.
“Rhetoric,” W. B. Yeats once wrote, “is the will trying to do the work of the imagination,” and this is precisely the impression left by Khoury’s mode of comparison. This novel’s claim to novelty lies not in imagining the Nakba as the symbolic wellspring for all human suffering—as he made triumphantly evident in Gate of the Sun—but in pretending that drawing comparisons between Nazis and Israelis is both scandalous and new.3
As the Palestinian cause falls to an all-time low on the scale of global and regional attention, it is questionable whether rhetorical amplification—that is, moving from simply describing trauma to describing it as akin to the Holocaust—can do much for the debate of Palestine’s future beyond superficial stimulation.
The premise of Sinan Antoon’s Book of Collateral Damage is an encounter between Nameer al-Baghdadi—an Iraqi scholar and translator modelled after Antoon’s biography (and after his irascible temperament as well)—and Wadood Abdulkarim, a Baghdadi bookseller who owns a shop on al-Mutanabbi Street. Wadood is at work on an enormous compilation—fragments of which he presents to Nameer—designed to encompass the entirety of the world from the viewpoint of certain obliteration. During a short visit to Baghdad, Nameer becomes captivated by the project and sees a masterwork coalescing before his eyes. He offers the hesitant Wadood his services as a translator to rescue this work from future oblivion.
Unlike Khoury, Nameer (as Antoon’s avatar) doesn’t extricate himself from the final presentation of his “found” manuscript: he is the main filter of consciousness for Antoon’s novel. His choleric disposition is that of an involved participant conditioning the selection and arrangement of Wadood’s manuscript extracts. To enact this involvement, the novel advances in a bifurcated mode of narration, alternating between, firstly, the self-narration of Nameer’s incipient career in wealthy American universities (and his constant irritation with the callousness toward Iraqis there) and, secondly, passages from Wadood’s Fihris, translated as “catalog,” which is also the original Arabic title of Antoon’s novel.
The fictive Fihris harks back to Kitab al-Fihrist: a monumental bibliographical index—composed by Ibn al-Nadim, a medieval Baghdadi bookseller (d. 998)—that Antoon invokes to suggest Wadood’s depth and breadth of knowledge. At the same time, Antoon situates Wadood in a club of 20th-century melancholic cultural archivists: Walter Benjamin, for example, is predictably cited throughout, and a more covert allusion to Borges’s “Funes the Memorious” is also at play. Antoon, then, is careful to demonstrate how Wadood’s work descends from modern, as well as ancient, precursors. It is defined in line with early modernism’s encyclopedic impulse as a “history of the first minute.” Many of the passages are cast in the form of dramatic monologue, a key genre in the development of modern poetry from the 19th century onward.
The romantic ideal uniting Wadood and Nameer is the holy work of the scribe: in protecting the boundaries of civilization from the increasing volume of barbarism. This barbarism is envisioned as an immeasurable, ubiquitous reality—one that descends directly from ancient history into our own time—and the sullen Nameer indulges in ruminating its menaces everywhere he goes. The sacred guild of writer-archivists is traced back to the deep roots of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia. A remarkable passage in the Fihris cites a translation of a Sumerian hymn dedicated by Shab’ad, an ancient woman scribe, to Nisaba, the Sumerian goddess of writing. It is thoughtfully juxtaposed with Nameer’s insomniac night walks to suggest the soothing effect of the art of writing:
Glory to Nisba, who gave us order
And marked the boundaries
The mistress whose divine powers are unlimited and
The queen of kings.
She who knows everything
And guides our fingers on the clay
She tells them how to press the stylus onto the tablets
And how to embellish them with a golden pen
Dated to the third millennium BCE, this hymn illustrates the primeval interdependence of empire and literacy, which would complicate the notion of scribes divorced from institutions of power.
It also demonstrates that working against disaster in the manner suggested by Antoon is marked by a priestly hostility toward the world of commoners. Clouded by veils of cultured melancholy, Nameer doesn’t so much see common American life around him; he looks at it indignantly, while finding sanctuary in Iraqi manuscripts.
Such literary indulgences—the romanticizing of disaster by referring to history—are decisively avoided by Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim. In his fiction, the grand Arab themes are seen as hollowing out life in the present (as well as setting up authors as simply grand literary bores). Practicing a strict regimen of stylistic austerity (first observed in his novella That Smell), Ibrahim adjusts his picture of reality to the cut-rate everyday existence to which most of the Arab world is reduced by its social and political structures. This collective existence forms the base layer of ordinary individual experience—accruing infinite incremental pains that slowly decimate hope and sap energies. Such everyday struggles are often covered up by the flashy rhetoric of disaster and emergency. Yet the true consequences of defeat—a geopolitical condition that the Middle East “knows” well—will never be rightly understood without detecting how defeat infiltrates the mundane.
The year 1973—a milestone in the region’s almanac of calamities—is chronicled by Ibrahim in Ice (impeccably translated by Margaret Litvin) from the perspective of Shukri: a 35-year-old Egyptian scholar pursuing nondegree graduate studies in Brezhnev-era Moscow. Shukri’s writing pursuits are of minuscule importance to the novel, which proceeds in a sequence of numbered disjunct episodes to convey a sense of stillness in motion, the progressive paralysis of the Soviet era. Ibrahim’s eye for the small detail illuminates how low life in the Brezhnev era has sunk: “I shaved,” Shukri reports, “with the crude Soviet razor, wondering at the Soviets: they build rockets and they haven’t managed or can’t be bothered to build a decent razor blade.”
Filtered through Shukri’s deadpan sensibility, the novel depicts, in granular resolution, the daily routines of a group of both local and international young people. These characters appear to act by inscrutable motives, as they are kneaded in the dough of Russia’s leveled-down misery, as they navigate vast expanses of social desolation. A cold-blooded anti-melodrama of love and heartbreak, Ibrahim’s novel is a negative of the warm-blooded drama of Egyptian films, where men and women are bottomless, unfeeling mysteries working against their own humanity. The unfamiliar ways in which human interaction breaks down in this setting are seized upon as unchronicled life material, transfigured by his fiction to afford new grounds from which to view the big, nagging questions.
For example, when the October War breaks out, Shukri responds by leaving a brief note to his East German friend Hans: “Dear Hans, I’m at Lotfi’s. The war with Israel started today, October 6, at noon.” The reason Shukri reports his location to Hans is that he is in the business of pursuing Zoya, a married woman who had formerly been involved with Hans, a handsome, icy womanizer. Zoya magically appears whenever Hans is around. And so, as the Arab armies try to catch Israel off-guard, and the Arab students in Moscow suddenly turn into mansplaining military experts huddled around the radios, Shukri applies himself to the task of exploiting Zoya’s vulnerability. The attempt fails; and anyhow, it’s futile: due to the cold, Shukri suffers from an inflamed prostate that gravely affects his sexual performance.
“The Arab regimes don’t know how to do anything but lose,” Shukri offhandedly remarks as his friends speculate about military maneuvers with Soviet aid. Yet defeat is strongly imprinted on him as well, as he manages to conquer none of the coldly beautiful women who constantly come in and out of dorm rooms looking for Hans. It is an unjust order, which denies him the enjoyment of beauty, and this injustice is to be more urgently rectified than whatever befalls his country in the October War.
Ibrahim’s anti-literary attitude thus puts disaster into human proportion by providing some counterforce to its strong pull. This austerity not only fits the Soviet reality he depicts, but also refuses to grant generalizations of suffering precedence over the lasting, indestructible human concerns with freedom, beauty, and self-determination that no war can defeat.
This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.
- Claudia Roth Pierpont, “Found in Translation: The Contemporary Arabic Novel,” New Yorker, January 18, 2010. ↩
- Khoury’s reading of Yizhar’s text is in fact highly agenda-driven; it isolates the scenes of the disaster from a much more ambiguous textual fabric. A. B. Yehoshua has convincingly argued this point in a talk given upon the release of the Hebrew translation. ↩
- In fact, comparisons between the Nakba and the Shoah have long moved from provocative to a popular commonplace, however apt or mistaken. And yet, judging by the insistence with which his imagination clings to this analogy, there is much to suggest that Khoury believes himself to be treading untested grounds. ↩