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Saturday, January 10, 2009

What Can Literature Do?

Two answers today, with reference to the current situation in Gaza, from the Guardian: Pankaj Mishra, writing in the Review, argues that we should listen to authors when they speak about politics, if they are speaking from within -- and with deep knowledge -- of the situation that they speak about. His examples are Arundhati Roy (which is a little disingenuous, as Roy was a distinguished campaigner before she was a novelist, and said explicitly after publishing The God of Small Things that she would capitalise on her success not with another novel, but by using her sudden fame to bring attention to the plight of India's poor) and the more curious and compelling example of David Grossman, who has been active in using his influence as one of Israel's most highly regarded novelists to plead for peace and dialogue with political leaders. Mishra could go further, and include writers and artists who have formed, one to one or through organisations, the kind of bonds that Grossman asks his government to seek. He could have mentioned Etgar Keret, who co-authored Gaza Blues with Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef.

Naomi Klein, in an op-ed piece arguing for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, draws attention to such important cross-cultural project in her answer to the counter-charge "Boycotts sever communication; we need more dialogue, not less." She responds with
a personal story. For eight years, my books have been published in Israel by a commercial house called Babel. But when I published The Shock Doctrine, I wanted to respect the boycott. On the advice of BDS activists, including the wonderful writer John Berger, I contacted a small publisher called Andalus. Andalus is an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus's work, and none to me. I am boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis.
The Andalus website offers astonishing facts about Arabic-Hebrew cultural exchange (or lack thereof): Since the 1930's just over 30 Arabic language fiction titles have been translated into Hebrew, most of them authored by E
gyptians and Palestinians (before Andalus Publishing began operating, not a single Syrian, Iraqi, or North African writer was translated to Hebrew from Arabic - the Moroccan Taher Ben Jaloun was translated from French as were a number of others). Of these, only three are women: the Palestinians Sahar Khalife and Fadwa Tuqan, and the Egyptian Nawal al-Sa'adawi.

Contemporary Arabic writers who have been translated into many languages, and, needless to say, are well known to every literate Arab, remain unknown to the Hebrew reader, save for the Egyptian Nobel laureate Nagib Mahfouz. The names of authors such as the Egyptian Sunallah Ibrahim, the Syrian Zakaria Tamer, the Lebanese Hanan al-Sheikh and Elias Khoury, not to mention the Iraqi Jew Samir Naqqash who writes and publishes in Arabic from his home in Petach Tiqva, Israel are not familiar to the Israeli public, nor is their extensive body of literary work.
Naqqash's neglect in Israel - as one of the few Mizrahi writers to continue using Arabic while living in Israel - points to the profound disconnect that Israel has effected from its Arab eighbourhood and citizens, including its according of lower status to Mizrahis (Jews from the Middle East and Maghreb). Initiatives like Andalus - named for the medieval Islamic state in the Iberian peninsula in which both Muslim and Jewish literature flourished and interconnected - are slowly rectifying this, and working to encourage an exchange of views through literary culture, and to integrate Israel into the geographical and historical Arab community in which it is located.
To date Andalus has published six titles (the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish's Why Have You Left the Horse Alone and State of Siege, the Moroccan Muhammad Choukri's For Bread Alone, the Sudanese Al-Tayyeb Saleh's The Wedding of Zein and the Lebanese Elias Khoury's Bab al-Shams), and a catalog of work by nine Palestinian women artists titled Self Portrait; translated five titles (Mahmoud Darwish, Mural, the Lebanese Hoda Barakat's The Stone of Laughter, Hanan al-Shaykh's The Story of Zahra, Al-Tayyeb Saleh's Bandar Sah, and the Palestinian Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's The First Well); and acquired the rights to translate and publish works by the Palestinian Taha Muhammad `Ali (poetry anthology translated by Anton Shammas), Muhammad Choukri's Streetwise, and more.
Klein found a way for her important book to reach Hebrew readers, and in doing so, to support a publisher committed to dialogue, allowing Andalus to publish further voices and bringing attention to them globally.

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