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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 6 Arab Women’s Autobiography and Memoir in English


Migration has provided hundreds of […] Arabs with the opportunity to reinvent themselves, to exercise their minds and to practise their creativity away from the familial, social and confessional constraints of the homeland (Clark: 1998). Emphasising the popularity of Arabic autobiography in her introduc- tion to In the House of Silence, a collection of autobiographical essays by thirteen prominent Middle Eastern and North African women writers, Fadia Faqir foregrounds the difficulties presented to women practitioners of the genre in Arabic. Often lacking ‘self-confidence and a sense of empowerment’, Arab women are nevertheless increas- ingly stimulated to try to ‘define their position in history’ by locating themselves ‘vis-à-vis the male master narrative’ as well as formulating their own ‘separate individual identity’ (Faqir: 1998, p.8). In her ar- ticulation of the conditions pertaining to her own personal site of pro- duction, Faqir adopts the persona of Shahrazad in order to allegorise the predicament facing contemporary Arab women writers. In ‘Bagh- dad’ (i.e. the Middle East) she had ‘no social, religious or political freedom – she was in bondage. Returning to the house of obedience before sunset prayers, she was forced to wear the veil and could not criticize the regime’ (p.52). However, the decision to go into exile and adopt English as the language of composition places the issue of Arab women’s autobiography on a wholly new footing. From having to write from a position delimited and circumscribed by their gender, Arab women writers are in certain respect privileged in their attempts to...

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