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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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Conclusion Translation and the Exotic


In my introduction (and elsewhere above) I proposed that Anglo-Arab writing might be looked at as a form of translation, and that Arab writers who write in English are faced with similar issues as trans- lators. One strand of translation studies theorists ‘use translation as a metaphor to explain processes of colonization and decolonization’; they credit translation with being ‘both at the service of imperialism and a site of resistance’ (Malena: 2001, p.439). Maghrebian Franco- phone writing has been accorded the status of resistance literature because, in the words of Abdelkebir Khatibi, ‘the relationship to the inherited past and its cultural legacy has been rendered problematic by the violent interference of colonial and imperial history’. When the Maghrebian writer uses French, Khatibi explains, s/he has ‘to take his [or her] own distance on the language by inverting it, destroying it and presenting new structures to the point where the French reader would feel a stranger in his own language’ (quoted in Harlow: 1987, p.23). In her excellent essay, ‘Translation and the Postcolonial Experience: The Francophone North African Text’ Samia Mehrez states: By drawing on more than one culture, more than one language, more than one world experience, within the confines of the same text, postcolonial anglophone and francophone literature very often defies our notions of an ‘original’ work and its translation. Hence, in many ways these postcolonial plurilingual texts in their own right resist and ultimately exclude the monolingual and demand of their readers to be like themselves: ‘in between,...

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