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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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Chapter 1 Connections and Disconnections: From Arabic to English


The pattern of Maghrebi fiction in French in the first half of the twentieth century has already been touched upon in the introduction. Although debate as to its worth is still current, the influence of the colonial context clearly has a bearing on how it is viewed. Joan Phyllis Monego argues for the limitations of native Maghrebi writers of this period in grasping ‘many subtleties of the imported art form and [...] the finer parts of structure and form. Even the Western way of thinking was alien to them. In content too the works of the native writers were restricted.’ Written for a French-reading public as these texts clearly were, they often ‘emphasized the ethnographic and folk- loric aspects of North Africa thereby appealing to the Frenchman’s yearning for the exotic’ (Monego: 1984, p. 17). I would argue that this pitfall is not limited to bilingual writers of the colonial period alone: the temptation to import Orientalist tropes into their fiction has also faced Anglophone novelists working in postcolonial moments and environments. I intend to approach the issue of these Arab writers’ conversancy with the European novel form and the ease with which they were able to compose in a European language from a slightly dif- ferent perspective. In the case of the first Anglophone Arab writers in English, these, in comparison with the Maghrebi writers who had been educated in French rather than Arabic, often possessed a superior grasp of Arabic literary language and forms. To what extent then do...

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