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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 5 Leila Aboulela: Islam and globalisation


Leila Aboulela was born in 1964 and grew up in Khartoum where she attended two English-medium schools, an American primary and The Sisters’ School, run by Catholics. She studied Economics at the Uni- versity of Khartoum, afterwards moving to Britain in 1990, where she obtained a M.Sc. in Statistics from the London School of Economics. She then went on to tutor the subject briefly at the University of Aberdeen. The author of two novels and a collection of short stories, it wasn’t until Aboulela came to Britain that she discovered a vocation as a writer. But her early exposure to English in her native Sudan and her later stay in Scotland are keys to her choice of which language to write in, and what subjects to write about: throughout school and university, I read English fiction, looking up all the difficult words in the dictionary, discovering for myself which was quality writing and which was pulp. It was books I read as a child in the Khartoum American School, that made me first love reading: Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle In Time, Harriet the Spy, Little Women. And it was American books that helped me when I started to write: Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and the classic Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (Aboulela: 2002, pp.203-4). The list is revealing: that the books are all by women is probably not a surprise; however, they imply an interesting absorption of a specific substratum of...

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