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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 3 Jamal Mahjoub and Tony Hanania: Unravelling Anglo-Arab Hybridity


Jamal Mahjoub His subject was extraterritoriality – the state of being neither here nor there. Edward Said (2001, p.99) ‘You’re British?’… ‘Yes…no.’ Jamal Mahjoub (1989, p.178) Jamal Mahjoub was born in 1960 of a Sudanese father and a British mother. After a period in Liverpool the family moved to Khartoum where Jamal received his education at Comboni College, an institution run by Italian priests. He later went to Atlantic College in Wales on a scholarship, then Sheffield University where he obtained a degree in Geology. After returning briefly to Sudan, he has gone on to live in London, then Aarhus in Denmark, and latterly Barcelona. Mahjoub has worked as a freelance journalist and translator from Arabic, Dan- ish and Catalan, and has won a number of literary prizes, including the Heinemann/Guardian African Short Story Prize. Of the writers dis- cussed in this study, Mahjoub’s shifting of location and his own statements on the craft of writing probably make him personally the least well disposed toward being categorised according to ethnicity. However, I include him under an Anglo-Arab rubric for the main reason that he starts out by writing the hybrid elements of his own Anglo-Arab/African self, and from this beginning moves toward the confrontation of nations and cultures. Eventually he extends this meeting of opposites as far as to describe two intersecting circles: the 88 civilisations of Northern Christendom and the Islamic South. Of all the authors I discuss, Mahjoub’s vision is potentially the most all embracing even as...

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