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The Anglo-Arab Encounter

Fiction and Autobiography by Arab Writers in English

Geoffrey Nash

According to the late Edward Said, ‘Why English and not Arabic is the question an Egyptian, Palestinian, Iraqi or Jordanian writer has to ask him or herself right now.’ This concise study argues there is a qualitative difference between Arabic literature, Arabic literature translated into English, and a literature conceived and executed in English by writers of Arab background. It examines for the first time the corpus of a group of contemporary Arab writers who have taken the decision to incorporate Arab subjects and themes into the English language. Though variegated and distinct, the work of each writer contributes to a nexus of ideas, the central link of which is the notion of Anglo-Arab encounter. The fiction of Ahdaf Soueif, Jamal Mahjoub, Tony Hanania, Fadia Faqir and Leila Aboulela engages with the West – primarily England – and in the process blurs and hybridises discrete identities of both Arabs and English. Memoirs by accomplished academics, Leila Ahmed, Ghada Karmi and Jean Said Makdisi, are shown to expand definitions of postcolonial autobiography.

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Introduction The Anglo-Arab Encounter

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In this book I will be examining the corpus of a group of writers from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Sudan who have taken the decision to incorporate Arab subjects and themes into the English language. There is a qualitative difference between Arabic literature, Arabic literature translated into English, and a literature conceived and executed in English by writers of Arab background.1 To explicate these differences and set out the parameters of my study I shall take Edward Said’s term the ‘Anglo-Arab encounter’ as embodied in Anglophone fiction and autobiography by writers of Arab ethnicity. Overarching this category must be considered the formative influences on contemporary international literatures: the postcolonial, with its theorisation of inter-cultural relations by reference to the impact of colonialism and imperialism on non-Western literatures; the inter- nationalisation of literatures, which is where the cutting-edge effects of globalisation impact today upon the production of writing for trans- national markets; and feminism, in this case the issue of the trans- position of specific Arab/Islamic feminisms (and the Western influ- ences that went into their construction) into a literature composed for a non-Arab/Islamic audience. As far as Arab Anglophone writing is concerned, these conditions operate within the spaces first opened by the later twentieth century creation of international audiences and markets for non-Anglo-Saxon literatures in English (placing fiction by Arab writers in English in a similar context to that of African, Indian and other non Anglo-Saxon writers in English.) 1 Here it may be relevant to note the profile...

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