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.