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Everything you need to know about the world's great writers and emerging voices is being collected and shared on the English PEN Online World Atlas. Head over to the Atlas to create (or edit) a profile for your favourite author or book, leave a comment or contact another user, and discover your next great read. We believe that great writing has the power to change your life and change the world, one book at a time.

The Atlas is proud to be partnering with the Hay Festival's Beirut39 contest, celebrating Beirut's year as UNESCO World Book Capital, to find the hottest authors under 40 of Arabic origin. Nominations are open until August 24th, 2009.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Middle Muddle, or Garlic, Arabic and Definitions

A very funny, pointed blog post from rockslinga, aka novelist Randa Jarrar, about food, geography, conversation, and the limits of definitions, as a great garlic sauce gets her talking to a grocery store clerk about what, exactly, is the Middle East. It's interesting that garlic is the conversational motor, as geographical definitions relating to how and what people eat, cook or trade pre=date, and are perhaps more resonant, than top-down political definitions. Jarrar ends the post on a confident note that it starts in Morocco and ends in Iran - but as Turkish academic Sedat Laciner writes, the term has a difficult, colonial history, having been used internally by the India Office but first seen in print in 1902, in an article by Alfred Thayer Mahan about the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf. Mahan wouldn't have recognised Morocco as the western boundary as his concern was for the defense of the British Empire in India.

The geographical, linguistic and cultural boundaries -- and the usefulness of the idea, both to external commentators and inhabitants -- of the Middle East is something that we've engaged in at PEN as the first stage of the Atlas developed: the countries represented are, inspired by the British Council's 2008 focus on New Arabic Books, delimited as the "Arabic-speaking world," which has slightly different borders from Jarrar's Middle East as it doesn't include Iran (which has a completely different linguistic and literary history). Would Jarrar include Comoros and Djibouti? And, as a Facebook Atlas fan asked, where does that leave writers from those countries who write in English, French, Hebrew, German, Kurdish, Berber, etc., whether living in the Arab world or abroad? Language usage, like cooking, doesn't map out a stable, shared Arab cultural history, whether meeting up with (and often suppressing) indigenous languages as it did from Morocco to Afghanistan, or where Arabic itself was suppressed either explicitly or implicitly under European colonial rule, so that (for example) Ahlam Mosteghanemi is the first Algerian woman writer to publish a novel in Arabic, inspired by the writer Malek Haddad, who wrote in Les Zéroes tournent on rond that:

"Même en s'exprimant en français, les écrivains algériens d'origine arabo-berbère traduise une pensée spécifiquement algérienne, une pensée qui aurait trouvé la plenitude de son expression si elle avait été vehiculée par un langage et une écriture arabes."

As Haddad's work itself shows, French (like English) is "un langage et une écriture arabes." For some writers, it is a case of -- as Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird entitled their anthology of contemporary Native women's writing from North America, Reinventing the Enemy's Language; sometimes it's about nationality or heritage, as for Lebanese-born French writer Andrée Chedid. In the case of Comoros, Arabic is the language of news publications, but Comorian and its local varieties are spoken, while the best-known Comorian writer, Soeuf Elbadawi, writes in French as part of a Francafrique heritage -- one in which French becomes African, as in the verlan, or banlieu backslang, used by young Algerian-French novelist Faïza Guène.

As with the Ali Baba garlic sauce that Jarrar loves, geographical and cultural attribution can be a fantasy; individual writers are shaped differently by different social, economic and cultural pressures to write in certain languages or dialects (for example, the tension between literary and colloquial Arabics in Egypt), to draw on (or repudiate) certain literary canons or models, to adopt or adapt another language in exile... What's exciting for me is how a writer turns any language into an idiolect, a language shaped by one imagination working over and through many histories, texts, conversations, just as every cook will create a slightly different dish from the same recipe.

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